Seek Ideas At The Right Level of Abstraction

One of the more intriguing qualities of the most effective people I know is that they tend have an ability to think ‘at the right level of abstraction’. Not too high; not too low. Just right for the problem they’re solving.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

I know you said you went through several drafts of this post but I found it fantastic. I was subconsciously chewing on this idea for the last year but couldn’t put my finger on why remote level abstractions felt so wrong even though they sounded intelligent and it seems like they are necessary in social/business conversations to appear urbane. I have fallen into the fallacy of imagining negative career effect of remote causes several times (but thankfully thought better of switching industries simply because of predicted macro level changes, many of which never materialized). It is similar to the phenomenon of reading x number of books per year you have written about. If reading x number of books isn’t directly impacting how someone works or thinks, then reading in such large amounts is just a hobby and at times is just an attempt to show intelligence by proxy.
I have been pushed at work to show more “strategic” thinking in regards to our industry and the macro economy. I try to stay up to date the best I can and I have my opinions. But this post makes me think this is more of a test for potential ability because the macro conditions of the oil industry has little direct impact on my work on a +- 1 level. Other than lunch conversations or chats with the boss, having analytical comments on the broad view of the world won’t help me with effectively modeling a new project. This good to keep in mind in case I get promoted a few levels because then my +-1 environment changes.

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Thank you! (breathes a sigh of relief)

It’s always a little worrying when I publish a blog post and then don’t get feedback till much later — especially when it’s about something as meta and as abstract as this. You understood everything I was trying to say, which makes it somewhat of a relief — and you even caught on to the implications of needing to sound intelligent (urbane, as you put it) in conversation, in order to pass off as someone who is ‘strategic’ and ‘thoughtful’ and possibly ‘insightful about the world’.

There’s another application of this idea that I put in one of my earlier drafts but then tossed out, because I wasn’t sure that it would be broadly appreciated. But I suspect this is something you might enjoy.

I spend a lot of time listening to finance podcasts. And one way to evaluate what the investors are saying — because they are subjected to the same pressures of needing to sound smart and urbane and all that — is to keep asking: “are they voicing opinions about things that are within ± of their level?” If they are, good, then you can take them at face value — because it’s likely they have skin in the game there. But if they’re not, then you can just downweight the opinion and treat it as ‘some opinion that they happen to hold.’

I’ve found this to be incredibly valuable in separating ‘useful, believable opinion that I should investigate further’ from ‘belief that smart person holds that they don’t have privileged insight about.’

A concrete example:

In the Invest Like The Best episode with Modest Proposal, Modest says that “given enough time, every consumer-facing app eventually makes money with ads”. This is a pretty controversial statement, but Modest makes the bulk of his money investing in public consumer tech companies, so he likely has privileged insight here that I don’t. I’m willing to assign a credibility rating of above .5 to this idea, and mark it up for further investigation later.

In the Invest Like The Best episode with Matt Clifford, on the other hand, Clifford asserts that “I feel like the broad economic compact between mega-cities and their hinterland is breaking, because of increasing returns to extreme talent. In a world of increasing returns to talent, and increasing talent aggregation in cities, it’s actually really tough to make that work as a political economy” and so he concludes “you’ll get more cities seceding from countries.”

This falls into the category of ‘opinion smart person has on something he has no privileged insight about’. Clifford runs Entrepreneur First, which is a ~100M-ish ‘talent investor’ — that is, it pays talented people to come together to start companies. You would think that this would give him some level of privileged insight on the ‘returns to talent’, but really EF is a tiny player, many levels removed from the macro-forces he talks about. The factors that Clifford would have privileged insight about are:

  1. The factors that directly influence EF’s recruiting pipeline in academia, corporate research, and in the broad industries that they recruit from.
  2. The early stage investing landscape in whatever country EF operates in (and they do operate in more cities than most funds their size).
  3. etc — extrapolate as needed.

So I feel pretty safe just discarding this opinion as ‘thing Clifford says, or writes about, in his newsletter so that he can appear smart and urbane, but really he has no privileged insight into’.

Happy to give feedback. This blog post was excellent enough to get saved to my Instapaper and I’ve only done that with 7-8 Commoncog posts (the posts that have had a significant impact on my way of thinking).

I actually think the phenomena of social signals (appearing sophisticated) is more important to the takeaways of this blog post than the first pass may imply. It gives a different emphasis on where knowledge workers should spend their time. I used to feel a burden to keep up with Harvard Business Review, Bloomberg, Economist etc. because I thought that my possessing the information from those publications was valuable for me in my career or social life. But now I’m thinking it’s smarter to devote some time to the macro picture (it’s not good to be completely uninformed) with a filter applied of “Will this help me with my current work?” If it doesn’t, then I can keep it in the back of my mind for the conversations where it matters to show that I do pay attention to the macro but beyond that I’m free to devote the bulk of my attention to areas that will help me be effective in my current area.

The examples you gave are good. It’s a good filter to apply to the deluge of advice available on the internet. It’s a slightly different way of asking if the advice giver has “skin in the game” like you said. I’m going to spend some time today pondering what other domains in my life this ±1 concept is applicable to because I feel that this could unlock some value for me in areas where I have inefficiently used resources because of a felt need to be more mentally aggressive than is actually needed.

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Thinking about this in a map vs territory framework. Usually the analogy is negative, “The map is not the territory” - the abstraction does not reflect reality. Using your post reframes it positively, “What map is useful for this territory?” - what abstraction best helps you navigate this situation?

Also, (I think you implied this but didn’t say this explicitly), the wrong level now could be the right level later, or vice versa.

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Something else that came up over a discussion on Twitter: apparently in cognitive science “the right level of abstraction” is an commonly understood aspect of analogical reasoning, and which level is ‘right’ for the situation is determined by expertise.

Probably an explanation for Dunning-Kruger in here.
You might be an expert at a certain level but not know how that level fits into the larger picture and therefore not realize that it’s not an appropriate level of abstraction. Therefore you are correct that you are an expert (at one level) yet simultaneously still overestimate your ability.

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