Uniqueness and Leverage

In Silicon Valley, it is common to hear people deliberating making life and career decisions through the framework of leverage. People decide to found company X or work at company Y because "it's the highest leverage choice." That is to say, it's the position from which they can exert the biggest raw impact on the world from their current place in life. High leverage choices have many multipliers between actors and the effects of their actions. Being the engineering lead for Google's search team is high leverage work, being a lone engineer on that team of 100 engineers is not. Leverage is purely about the scale of impact a single person can exert as a result of intentful choices that multiply the effects of their actions (thereby acting as a "lever" on those actions).

One thing that I've found disturbing about this philosophy is that it completely omits the notion of uniqueness in one's work. Let's caveat this with the fact that everyone share's different worldviews, and this is merely my own, etc etc. When thinking about what you could do that has a highest leverage, you forget to think about what only you could do. To see how different uniqueness and leverage can be, consider being an engineering lead at Facebook. Your team manages ad placement, which is business critical on the order of billions of dollars. This is enormous leverage. However, if you weren't doing it, some other commodotized MIT-CS-PhD type (call them Dr Nurd) would be doing it instead of you. Now consider the scope of work for an engineering lead: choosing a technology stack, architecturing an app or feature, recruiting new engineers onto the team, amongst other things. At most times there exists a clear state of the art and standard practise on doing the first two things, and individual junior engineers you recruit onto the team are unlikely to utterly transform its direction and atmosphere. That is to say, Dr Nurd and yourself have significant decision overlap -- the ad placements on Facebook would look mostly the same under both of you, especially since the major product decisions are made by executives.

And so on some level, there is very little fundamentally new (where new means doing things very differently to how someone similar to you would do them) you add to the world by being in it. Conversely, a mediocre writer with an audience of even a few thousand people is doing something that could not have existed without them. The books pumped out by two similar writers can be vastly different. A good heuristic: would the world have lost something, subtle but fundamental and substantive, if you, in particular, hadn't existed?

And so we must consider both uniqueness and leverage: the number of "forks in the road" -- that is, opportunities to make a unique decision very different to what someone else would have made in your position -- presented to you per unit time (say, per day), and how different the product/service you provide looks to the end consumer as a consequences of those decisions. For instance, if you have an eclectic taste in coffee, and use your clout at work to get an obscure brand of coffee maker brought into work, you've contributed something new to the world, but it has no meaningful impact for the consumer of the end product of the company (uniqueness but not leverage). In contrast, if you're choosing between two recently published sublinear network routing algorithms for the streaming service on Netflix as an engineering lead there and you choose the one that is more amenable to systems optimizations, you're not making any decisions unique to you (Dr Nurd would have done the same) but that choice (the packet transmission speed induced by the resulting systems optimizations) is having a huge effect on the user experience (lag, loading times) for the consumer (thus, leverage but not uniqueness).

In general, work that has high uniqueness is that which presents many forks, as described above. And so intensely creative work -- from theoretical physics to playwriting to architecture -- has high uniqueness because it represents the will and vision of its creator, manifest in the flesh. And two otherwise similar people can produce vastly different pieces of prose, since the possibility space for different types of prose or plays is much, much bigger than the possible decisions two engineering leads could make about choosing a technology stack (where there exists best practices for the most part). But there are other types of work that have high uniquness, work that you think is important but that almost everyone else doesn't. For a pedestrian example, consider a YouTube channel on Russian stamp collection. Because nothing like this exists, if you were to start one and get even a few thousand subscribers, you would have brought into the universe something fundamentally fresh and new, something that wouldn't exist without you. The universe would be a little worse off without you. The same cannot be said for, say, college admission reaction videos that go viral on YouTube (if it wasn't yours, it'd be someone else's). For something a little grander, consider entrepreneurship; because starting a company involves thousands of little decisions that two similar people may disagree on (eg. product features), two similar founders can create two enormously different companies. Consider Brian Chesky and AirBnB -- one of the few examples of a truly contrarian bet. Everybody thought the idea was moronic, as well as hundreds of investors they first pitched to, and, importantly, no-one else was working on anything like it. Therefore, AirBnB (or anything like it) would likely not exist if Brian Chesky didn't, and we'd all be worse off because of it.

Before people accuse me of criticising "conventional" jobs, I should note that the thing that matters in the end is not just uniqueness or just leverage, but the product of the two. And so if I had to choose between an obscure stamp collecting channel and being an engineering lead at a big tech company, I'd probably choose the latter (begrudgingly). But if I had to choose between being a niche writer with a few thousand (dedicated) readers, barely making a frugal living but getting by, and an engineering lead, I'd choose the former in a heartbeat. As caveated at the beginning, this is predicated on the fact that something resembling uniqueness matters to you at all. I think it intuitively does to most people, but I hadn't seen anyone quite articulate it in the way that made sense to me.