Apr 16, 2019

Framework: complex value & situational awareness

Cross-posted to the EA Forum and LessWrong.

Epistemic status: theorizing.

Here are two types of activity that (a) I genuinely enjoy and (b) seem quite useful:

  1. Adding complex value
  2. Maintaining situational awareness

Complex value

What does "adding complex value" mean?

It means all the efforts (often small, often done at the margin) that are difficult to automate / formalize, and are (in aggregate) crucial for pulling a project together.

Complex value is the grease that helps all the machine's cogs run together.


  • Establishing new linkages in the social graph by making introductions
  • Reviewing & giving feedback on drafts of writing, pre-publication
  • Reading & commenting on writing, post-publication
  • Having new ideas about things that would be good to do (especially things that would be good to do on the margin; big new ideas can be turned into standalone projects or companies)
  • Helping refine the pitch for a new idea; understanding and articulating the bear & bull cases for the idea
  • Pitching good new ideas to relevant people that are plausibly interested

Situational awareness

What does "maintaining situational awareness" mean?

It's all the reading & conversations that are undertaken to learn what's happening in the world, to keep your world-model up to date with both social reality & objective, physical reality.

Maintaining situational awareness dovetails nicely with adding complex value – the better your situational awareness, the more opportunities for adding complex value you'll see.


  • Lurking on twitter (especially with a well-curated feed)
  • Using various other social media (though the signal:noise ratio of other social media tends to be far worse than that of well-curated twitter)
  • Reading company & project slacks
  • Semi-formal "update" conversations with other actors in project domains you care about
  • Informal conversations with friends who happen to work in project domains you care about
  • Attending conferences
  • Gossip

Note that very different information sets flow through formal & informal networks. These sets tend to be complementary, so it seems important to be tapped into both.

Note also that situational awareness seems distinct from "learning about a subject." Probably the distinction cleaves on where most of the learning occurs – situational awareness focuses its learning on social reality ("who thinks what about who/what?"), whereas the locus of learning about subjects tends to be in physical reality ("how does this part of physical reality work?").

Stereotypical city for situational awareness: DC
Stereotypical city for learning about subjects: SF

Unfortunately, though both adding complex value & maintaining situational awareness are high-value, it's hard to earn a living by making them your main focus.

It is possible to do this, e.g. one way of understanding the original pitch for GiveWell is "create an institution in philanthropy that will aggregate explicit & implicit information sets, remain at the frontier of situational awareness, and identify leveraged opportunities for adding complex value in the philanthropic sector."

80,000 Hours is another example of this, aimed at the domain of "policy & research careers" rather than at philanthropy.

I'm still learning about how to successfully establish something like this. My current take is that (a) it's generally hard to do, (b) the base rate of success is very low, and (c) successful attempts leaned heavily on leveraging pre-existing reputation & social relationships.