A couple weeks ago I was blogging away on The MacArthur Fellowship program and the general problem of finding talent. I was going full steam ahead in the direction of an abstract characterization of the problem when I got side-tracked. The next post was supposed to be that abstract characterization, to be followed by one on the role of culture in the mix. I figured that would be my last post on the subject.
We’re not there yet.
So let’s cut to the chase: What’s the key difference between the MacArthur Fellow’s Program and the Emergent Ventures program out of the Mercatus Center at George Mason?
The dialog begins
Well, for one thing, the MacFellows program has a lot of money and has been around while EV is just new and not so heavily funded.
MacFellows has this complicated system of nominators and review and all that while EV is mostly Tyler Cowen & friends.
OK. Keep going.
MacFellows gives you five years of money, no strings attached, no taxes to pay. EV...not sure what they give, but...
OK on MacFellows. The payouts not clear on EV, but they don’t have as much money at their disposal. Don’t know about the tax thing, but I doubt it. And, yes, minimal reporting.
But what are these folks after?
Well, MacFellows is looking for the best, unconventional creatives, those with GREAT potential...
Yeah, yeah, we know that. And we also know that they mostly pick the same good people everybody else picks. Sure, there are exceptions, Steven Wolfram for example, and that juggler, what’s his name, Moschen, Michael Moschen. What’s Cowen after?
Same thing, no? It says it right here on the web page, “talented individuals with unique ideas for changing the world.”
Well, yes, that’s what says. But he’s after moonshots.
Yeah, but that’s must a metaphor for the same folks the MacFellows are looking for, no?
Well, you see, I don’t think so. Cowen has said they expect a high rate of failure. In fact, he’s said they’d be doing something wrong if they didn’t get a high rate of failure. [About two minutes into this podcast.]
Sounds like he’s serious about taking risks.
Right. Whereas the MacFellows track record makes it pretty clear they’re not into taking risks. It’s pretty hard to imagine that they'd say that expect most of their fellowships to fail or that they'd even secretly think it.
So here’s the thing. Cowen clearly has venture capital as his model, seed or angel investment at that. Those guys expect most of their investments to fail. But if 10% succeed, and one or two them does go to the moon, they’re doing good. MacFellows is the standard philanthropic model with a few bells and whistles: five years, health insurance if you need it, no taxes and you can do whatever you want, including building a swimming pool or blowing it at the craps table in a 3rd rate Atlantic City casino. Plus all the secrecy and intrigue, which makes for great PR.
Yeah, that’s really different.
And there’s something else. Like I’d asked before, what are they after? Sure, Mercatus has that boilerplate about talented individuals bla bla bla. Same as MacFellows boilerplate. But as far as I can see, that’s all the MacFellows has, their boilerplate and, of course, their gang of secret nominators. Tyler’s got something else.
Tell us, Batman, tell us?
No, Robin, I won’t. I want you to dig for it. Read a bit. Actually, read a lot.
Looking for holes
Yeah, I’m afraid so. He’s been blogging for years and written a lot of books. That’s what he’s looking for. Well, not exactly. Rather, what he’s looking for is holes in all that stuff, gaps that need filling.
Gaps that need filling?
Yeah, I know. It’s tough. Lotta gaps out there. Some need filling, some don’t.
Man, you’re out of it? You been smoking some of that Cheech and Chong?
No no hold on hold on. We’re getting there. Some gaps you pour water in them and the water just drains away. No matter how much water, it disappears. But other gaps, a little water, a little eye of newt, and Shazam! Everthing’s coming up roses.
You’re loosing me.
See, it’s like Lotus 1-2-3. Personal computers had been around since the early 70s, all kinds of personal computers, Apple, Atari, Amiga, North Star, IBM PC, Cromenco, Compaq, Commodore, Osborne, a jillion kinds and most of them never went anywhere except down the toilet, all water into one of those infinite gaps. The adults in the room dismissed it as a toy, a thing for hobbyists.
But then along comes Mitchell Kapor and he launches 1-2-3 in 1983. All of a sudden...
The adults realize, “Hey! we need this!” I get it, it filled one of those fertile gaps.
You see Cowen’s been reading all these books, listening to all this music, watching all these movies, and traveling all over the world hunting for food and culture and whatever else, and it’s all this gigantic mesh of ideas, impressions, but also hopes. And he’s hanging it over the world, looking through it...
Looking for gaps! Fertile gaps.
Right. It’s like those old Christmas tree lights. One goes out and you’ve got to search the whole string, one by one, looking for the bad one. But, when you find it and replace it...
Bingo! They all light up!
No, they don’t.
Turns out that two or three lights went bad at the same time.
So you’ve got to replace them all. And when you get that last one...
KABOOM! Now they all light up.
Tyler’s lookin’ for live wires that will light up a whole network if it gets a little juice from the EV fund.
Light me up! A vision for the future
And it’s time to stop this dialog. Otherwise it will take forever to get there, wherever there is.
The point is that Cowen has some kind of vision for the future, some sense of what he wants to see happening. Sure, he’s got some of this boilerplate language that everyone else has, “ideas that advance social change, prosperity, and wellbeing.” But those platitudes are backed up by a rich and complex view of the world, one that Cowen can’t really summarize because he’s in the middle of it.
Can't see the forest for the trees.
Right. And it’s a feature, not a bug. He has no way of helicoptering up to get a view from above. So he tosses out examples:
Imagine you are the next Satoshi, trying to invent “the next Bitcoin.” Or say you are a budding public intellectual, seeking the reach and influence of Jordan Peterson, by building your social media presence. Or an 18-year-old social science prodigy, hoping to fly to Boston to meet a potential mentor. What about moving to Sacramento to write a quality blog covering California state government? I very much hope you will apply for a grant at Emergent Ventures. Most of all, I hope you are applying with ideas that we haven’t thought of yet.
That kind of thing. Examples.
Though, to be blunt, that last bit is a little, shall we say, ripe, “ideas that we haven’t thought of yet” – as though they’re just sitting there cranking out idea after idea and they have so many of them that it’s hard to imagine that they haven’t thought of everything. But I’m being uncharitable. He certainly didn’t mean that. I figure it's his way of saying, don’t try to guess what I’m looking for, don’t try to impress me, surprise me! And, you know, more likely than not he’s going to get some surprises that he’s not equipped to recognize as live wires. His mesh isn’t THAT extensive, or that tight. But he’ll pick up a few.
More than the MacArthur folks?
Remember the drunk who lost his keys?
It’s like the old old story of the drunk who’s lost the keys to his house. He’s at the front door, fumbles through his pockets, and realizes must have lost them on the way home. So he goes out to the street and starts looking underneath the street lamp. Is that where he lost the keys? No, he lost them when he tripped and fell in the park, but there’s no light there.
Ah, the MacArthur folks are looking in the light.
But Cowen’s knows that what he’s after is somewhere else. He’s willing to fumble around in the dark, certain that sooner or later he’s going to find a match...or a firefly, a million fireflies.
OK, OK, I got it. Very poetic.
OK, OK, I got it. Very poetic.
OK, OK, I got it. Very poetic. But I’m still not clear on this. You asked what’s the KEY difference between the two programs. KEY. Singular. You’re telling me it’s that Cowen’s fumbling around in the dark because he knows that whatever it is, it must be there somewhere, while the Big Mac folks are looking in the light even though whatever it is, it ain’t there? That’s the key? Seems awfully muddled to me.
Hmmm... I see I kinda’ got carried away in metaphor, didn’t I.
Yeah, you did.
Let’s give it one my try. The Big Mac folks think they’re looking for talent, something that inheres in individual. Cowen may think that as well. But that’s not what he’s doing. He’s doing something more sophisticated.
If you’re looking for something like the best sprinter, or point guard, gymnast, or goalie (in whatever sports that have them), maybe even the best athlete – though that’s getting pretty dicey – you’re looking for talent. Something individuals have. But when you’re looking for moonshot breakthroughs you’re looking for something else. You’re looking for the FIT between a person’s talent and the situation in which they operate – something I discuss in The Genius Chronicles, pp. 22-27.
That’s what that whole business about the gaps is about. That’s what Lotus 1-2-3 is about. Was it a brilliant piece of programming? I don’t know, but likely not. But it filled a need that lots of people had, they knew it when the saw the program, but not quite before.
Cowen’s looking for a FIT between talent and his vision of the future. That vision gives him a context, it gives him a way of making judgments. That’s more sophisticated and hence more precise than just some general idea of breakthrough excellence. The MacArthur Foundation’s tried that one for four decades and haven’t made it work. It’ll never work. No matter what they try they’re just going to collapse back into looking for the same old same old.
You have to have a vision. Cowen does. They don’t. That’s the key difference: VISION.
Cowen is interviewed by physicist Sean Carroll about his new book, Stubborn Attachments. They also talk about the universe and quantum mechanics. At the very end Cowen tells us what he's going to do with the royalties from the book:
57:28 TC: There’s a fellow I met in Ethiopia, I call him Yonas. He was my travel guide in Lalibela which is a famous Ethiopian city with old stone churches, and of all the people I met in Ethiopia, he struck me as maybe the smartest and the most stable. He had good English. He supports a family of… His income is really quite low. I visited his house and I pledged to send him all of the royalties I receive from this book. So I will get nothing and he will get all of it. So, if you buy my book, you are helping to support Yonas and his family of 10 people, including his children, his parents. And to me, that’s a very worthy cause. I argue in the book, we should be more altruistic at the margin, and think more about like other people. And that’s my chance to do something for him. But also for the future at least the future of Ethiopia. So I think I said it at the beginning, I very much believe people should live what they write, and that’s part of my highly imperfect attempt to do that.
58:28 SC: I mean, I can’t help but be the curmudgeonly one who asks, this is not really in the tradition of Effective Altruism where you should spread your wealth a little bit more widely? So in some sense are you setting an example, just as much as you’re actually trying to help the world with this gesture?
58:48 TC: Well, I’m directly helping 10 people. I wouldn’t say that’s widely but it’s more than just one person, but I view it as myself as venture capitalist, you know who will steward the funds most effectively? And I’m making a bet on Yonas because of the time I spent with him.