[Letter] You're the smartest kid in your high school. Now what? #2

July 18, 2021


If you are smarter than the adults around you then the adults around you won't be able to offer you good guidance. The less self-aware among them will try anyway. When I was a young adult, I had two adult mentors recommend I go into the Navy's officer corps. It was horrendous advice. Had I followed it, I would have wasted five of the most valuable years of my life.

One solution is to read smart authors like Paul Graham and Eliezer Yudkowsky. Graham and Yudkowsy are the smartest people I know of who write practical life advice. Unfortunately, neither of them are quite at the top of the intelligence curve[1]. If you're above them in raw intellect then their writings will only get you so far. Sam Altman might be a rung above both of them. Altman's blog is absolutely worth reading but it doesn't contain much in the way of general life advice.

In my previous letter, I recommended you start educating yourself by learning software. Software does give you a lever with which to move the world. It doesn't teach you where to put it for maximum effect. As a prerequisite to figuring out where to pur your lever, you should understand how history works.

There are two kinds of history you need to know: macro and micro.

Macro History

The purpose of macro history is to get a broad framework of world events. You should have a general idea of what happened where and in what order. This is scaffolding. It provides context for individual events.

Try to figure out why things happened the way things did. But be careful. History is often random. Also, history books are written by historians e.g. people who have never led a country or invented a world-changing machine. The causes historians attribute to things often differ from the causes Great Men and Women attribute them to. The difference becomes stark when you compare autobiographies (written by Great Men and Women) to biographies (written by historians).

Micro History

Whenever possible, read autobiographies, memoirs and other firsthand accounts. Autobiographies include practical, technical minutae. Biographers write about mustaches. Autobiographies are manuals. Biographies are fanmail.

It is easy to feel like everything important has already happened. It is easy to mistake the Great Men and Women of history for gods. We live in an era of greater leverage than ever before. Learn from history so you can find opportunities to have your way with it.



[1] Both of them know this. Yudkowsky acknowledges so here. Graham seems to acknowledge something similar here.