Assumptions and big decisions

Patrick McKenzie says to Tyler Cowen:

I had gone to university at Washington University in St Louis to study computer science. I was worried because the Wall Street Journal said the dot com bust means that engineering employment will cease in the United States of America. All future engineers will be hired in China or India, at a fraction of the U.S. prevailing wages. 

I thought, “Oh shucks, the Wall Street Journal is never wrong, but I really wanted to be an engineer. Clearly, the successful engineers in the future will be playing a venn diagram game, where they do one hard thing that is engineering and one hard thing that is speaking a foreign language.

I thought speaking foreign languages was hard because it’s the only class in high school that I did not get an A in for showing up, Spanish, but I thought, “Well, there’s very little advantage for an American in my position to speak Spanish, because there are many Americans who speak Spanish better than I ever will, and the amount of trade in software between the United States and Spanish speaking countries is presumably lower than it is with other countries.” So I made a spreadsheet trying to quantify things like, what’s the population of a country, what percentage of their professional adults are capable of doing business English, what’s the size of their software industry, how much software does Microsoft sell there, etc., etc., etc.

Sort by column H descending, and Japan was at the top of the list, so I thought, “Okay, I’m going to learn Japanese, and then I’m going to go to Japan after university for just a few years to get better at business Japanese, then I’m going to come back to America to get a job at Microsoft in a Japan facing role, and I will have a nice safe job in the tech industry despite what the Wall Street Journal says about the tech industry ceasing to hire Americans for the positions that I actually want to do.” 

It turns out that there was a great deal of rigor there chasing a conclusion that had actually absolutely no basis in fact. It is not the case that the tech industry stopped hiring Americans in the last 20 years, but it also led to what was ultimately one of the most important decisions in my life. I went over to Japan, I lived there for 20 happy* years, I met my wife over there, etc., etc.

I often mention this to people as an example of [how] you can have great reasons for doing something, and have that utterly not matter. 

Also, I try to tell sophisticated people that other people who they have a high degree of regard for (like some sophisticated people, for whatever reason, have a high degree of regard for me)—even people you have a high degree of regard for sometimes make very large decisions based on very small amounts of data, or very small amounts of consideration with regards to that decision.

Therefore, you should update your world model about that and be very careful about saying things like, “Oh, the tech industry is so over, ha ha,” as a joke…. It is quite possible that someone would listen to that and just perceive the surface level meaning of it, and then the tech industry would lose the services of someone who in expectation it might very much want to have had the services of in 20 years. 

On the venn diagram note (Patrick wanted to pair computer science with Japanese), see also Scott Adams’s career advice on building your talent stack by becoming very good (top 25%) at two or more things.

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