the hard thing about choosing hard things

alchemy, chemistry, and how to prioritize

How do you decide where your work will have the greatest effect?

If your goal is to maximize personal impact, look for fields where alchemy is becoming chemistry. Let me explain what I mean, because I've found this to be critical in prioritizing my own work over the past few years.

As we build knowledge around a field, there are three typical phases:

  1. Early stumbling to understand what a project to map the territory would look like. We can call this alchemy phase, where the science is new and anything seems possible. Most of the theories formed in this phase will fall away over time.

  2. The actual mapping of the territory. Here the dream of alchemy gives way to chemistry, to the heavy lifting of practical reality. This is where a single individual can do huge amounts of meaningful work in areas that will form the basis of the field for years to come.

  3. Risky expeditions to the edges of the territory, trying to find its exact bounds. Many fields are now stuck in this phase; it's the classic terrain of the modern PhD.

Phases 1 and 3 seem like the sexiest endeavors, which is why so many smart young people get pulled into them.

Phase 3 is quite attractive in particular. It offers clear status hierarchies, certified experts, and a sense of actual ground truth. Most of modern medicine comes from these kinds of expeditions, so of course they can be very useful. Yet if your goal is to maximize your personal impact, the odds of your expedition being valuable are low.

Phase 1 means working on something that has never been done before. Exciting! Yet, again, the odds are low that any of those grand new theories will stick. You have a much greater chance of being Ptolemaeus than Copernicus.

From this everything else seems to fall into place.