Excellence Orbits

March 17, 2022
Confidence: highly likely

Thailand is known as a place that has Figured Out Tourism. Not only is it a great place for a week holiday, it’s also a widely touted as a fantastic choice for first-time backpackers. These things are all true, and Thailand is in fact a blast. But it’s mostly a blast if you’re 18 and looking to get drunk and party. Which I am not.

And so, for me, Thailand was this nice tropical place, full of first-time traveling teenagers looking to get drunk and party. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but I’ve been there and done that, and don’t need to do more of it. Thus, when I ran off to Thailand after my breakdown, I was underwhelmed. I was looking for young, driven, idealists, who had identified Thailand as a great place to escape from societal norms while they worked on building something cool. What I got instead was a lot of nights at the bar with whomever I happened to meet, talking mainly about nothing. But there sure was a lot of partying!!!!

A guy I had met once on a fateful night a few years back had mentioned he was heading to Koh Lanta, a nice quiet island to go hang out and do diving. It Sounded better than getting drunk and partying, so I hopped on a boat and arrived later that afternoon. I ended up staying for three months.

Koh Lanta is an island nestled-in between three giant party spots in Thailand — Koh Phi Phi, Ao Nang, and Phuket. As a result, anyone in the area who wanted to get drunk and party ended up at one of those spots, and meant the only travelers on Koh Lanta were the ones who were looking for something else. By virtue of being in the orbit of big party spots, Koh Lanta filtered out the big party people.

Does this idea generalize? Can we find the other Koh Lantas in spirit? What notable features should we be searching for?

Andrew McKnight helped me come up with some other examples. Continuing on with the travel example, the Baltics are a lovely place, but aren’t known for their tourism. As a result, the only people who travel to the Baltics are the experienced backpackers; the ones who have been everywhere else, and who want to continue exploring. Travelers who successfully escape Southeast Asia’s gravity field are almost immediately filtered for being interesting and well-traveled.

It’s a poorly-kept secret that at any tech conference, the “real conference” goes on in the hallway while most people are listening to scheduled talks. The people who aren’t going to talks are the ones who don’t want to go there, either because they aren’t interested, already know the material, or have something better to do. In any case, those are the people you should be hanging out with — they either have better taste than the mainstream, more knowledge than the mainstream, or have also identified that the hallway track is the place to be. People who escape the (focused) mass appeal of the talks are immediately filtered for being knowledgeable.

Or consider wine bars. Wine bars are notoriously more classy than sports bars. One way this plays out is that they don’t have TVs on the wall, which means if you’re going to the wine bar, you’re not there to mindlessly drink. You’re probably out with some friends, deliberately going to an environment where you can interact with one another. People who escape the attractor basin of sports bars are immediately filtered for interpersonal interactions.

Something like 99% of AI funding is going into deep learning. Though they don’t get much publicity, there are tons of other subfields. Things like robotics, expert systems, fuzzy logic, decision algorithms, search methods. What’s keeping people in those subfields, when they could easily switch to deep learning and make bank? Presumably they know something the rest of us don’t; it’s hard to believe that the people working on AI are all idiots. People who escape the attractor basin of money are immediately filtered for having some principles.

What do all of these examples have in common? The defining characteristic seems to be that within some special interest group (vacationers, travelers, conference attendees, drinkers, researchers), there exist strong attractors in the field which capture most of the interest-mass. The worthwhile things we’ve identified exist in the same space, but are robust enough to avoid being captured by the bigger attractor.

This makes a lot of sense. Someone loosely interested in a field will immediately discover its strongest attractors, and will likely be pulled in. That means the population around a strong attractor will be disproportionately newbies, weak affiliates, and “lifers” — people who were pulled in, and have never explored the space other than around the first attractor they found.

Gravity makes an excellent metaphor here, thus the term “attractor.” Imagine you’re traveling through space and accidentally end up in our solar system. If you end up sticking around, it’s probably because you got caught in the sun’s gravity well; everything else is too small to have any likelihood of grabbing you. Circling around the sun is better than careening through space — at least it’s warm. But, all things considered, the sun is the least interesting thing you could be orbiting in the whole solar system. Left to chance, you will probably stay orbiting the sun for the rest of your life, being warm but lacking any deep sense of purpose or belonging.

Now consider how much better it would be to be in Earth’s orbit. You would have to dodge the neverending launch of cube sats. You’d see all sorts of interesting developments happening on the surface. You’d probably be curious enough to put some brain cycles towards figuring out how get out of orbit and onto the planet. All of a sudden you’d have purpose, intrigue, direction. So many cool things — much better than just going around the sun every 30 years or whatever — but you’d be completely unaware of all of it if you just stayed around the big attractor in the system. The one that catches things by default.

The more I think about this, the more it seems obviously true. A central tenet of mine for a long time was “the best things in life are outside your comfort zone,” but reality seems even weirder. In fact, if all this stuff about attractors is true, the best things in life are outside our awareness entirely. But, this gives us an algorithm for finding them: look for proximate attractors that haven’t yet pulled in. That’s where the interesting stuff is going on.