Buttons!


In a previous post, I claimed that "the returns to disparate interests show up too late." My thought process in that post was quite fuzzy so let's delve deeper. I believe that the returns to most disparate interests, i.e., being interested in things that are essentially different in significant ways, are non-zero but are not obvious and (or) show up too late. The clearest exception to this claim is sports where research shows that allowing children to vary their interests might produce better athletes. Evidence of this is in the NFL, where about 70% of them were multi-sport athletes as kids. This fact hints at possible positive benefits to having varying interests. Sometimes, the wilder, the better. Some interests have returns that are only evident through their second-order effects. For example, growing up, I was pretty flexible and was interested in contortionism. As a result, I stretched myself (literally) and gained a level of flexibility that serves me to this day in the activities in which I indulge. However, many others are plainly hard to spot. When they are not, they show up too late.

I think there are two reasons for this. The first is that we don’t have good metrics for what these "returns" are, and the second is that we are blinded by the short term. The former is a natural consequence of the nature of the question. The interests are disparate, different individuals have different interests, and they manifest themselves in different ways. As a result, it is almost impossible to find large-scale randomized control trials trying to understand the gains to a fascination with buttons as a child (yes, I was fascinated with buttons as a child), for instance. It is also, in some sense, tricky to know what these gains could be, as there is essentially no counterfactual. In other words, I can't compare myself to a version of myself that never had a fascination with buttons. It is also a problem of measurement. We measure things in monetary terms or as traits that help you make more money in the future because they are easy to observe. For example, I also used to be a dancer in a dance crew. It is easy to spot the more unambiguous gains to this. It teaches teamwork, discipline, and other soft skills like knowing what will appeal to a crowd. These have self-evident monetary and life applications. Do you see where this is going? What marketable skills does a fascination with buttons possess? Working in the "button" industry takes more than mere fascination. Again I ask, what are the benefits in their own right? How do we quantify the returns if we don't even know where to look? This point segues into the second reason for the non-obvious or late returns to disparate interests: we are blinded by the short term.

It is hard to notice the long-term gains if we view and incentivize things with clear short-term benefits. For example, I can see the application of a love of learning quite clearly, but a love of birds? If my child expressed an interest in gears, I am likely to support this interest because of the relatively clear returns. The same goes for any sport or endeavor. If that same child was interested in collecting rocks, I'll be less likely to express my support as there are better things to do. In other words, I am more likely to favor things with immediate and clear short to medium-term returns. There might be specific skills or life lessons that the child gets from their rock collection, but I am more likely to discourage or underrate their effects because they are not apparent to me. When they do show up for the child, it will either be too late to begin another rock collection, or too costly to do so.

Overall, the lesson here is to be more open to weird interests in young ones and maybe pick some up yourself. Do realize that these interests might not pan out, but they might make you a more interesting person. Or, at the very least, you get to write a blog post about it later.


Certainty Rating: 71%



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