Discover more from Uncorrelated Interests
The Opsimath Principle
Incentivizing the most talented non-youth with time (and money).
Last week we briefly dipped our toes into a few basic characteristics of grants, one of the older forms of financial incentive that until relatively recently was less common within the tech industry. This is not at all to say that it is now absolutely common, but relative to past usage, grants like the Thiel Fellowship and Emergent Ventures1 have put grants more squarely on the map.
Grants in tech are often viewed as a mechanism for the young, especially given the relatively paltry sums they typically represent. The Thiel Fellowship itself falls squarely in this camp, given its focus on incentivizing hyper-talented teens to either drop out of college or eschew these studies altogether. And we’ll cover this corpus of youthful recipients next week, but I’d like us to instead turn our attention first to an under-served market for grants — that of the “mid-career” employee; an experienced craft purveyor with 10 to 30 years experience under her belt.
I won’t feign to say that I was aware of the “opsimath” prior to this research excursion, aspulled me around to the concept with his piece “The Case for Opsimaths”.
“Rather than thinking of people as late bloomers, people who were in some way held back or prevented from success, we would be better off seeing them as opsimaths: smart people who carried on learning and achieved things when the timing and circumstances were right.”
An opsimath simply:
“means someone who learns throughout their life, or who begins learning later on. Rather than a Romantic idea of genius, the inward lamp that burns intently from a young age, this is a gentler, more perpetual idea of development.”
We can see why “older” cohorts may be ripe for greater granting in knowledge work when we see the spreads of peak performance by age across different domains:
It’s not altogether surprising that especially in intellectual pursuits, opsimaths can and do flourish, given the very traits required seemingly peak well into our adulthoods. The question of course is how to better take advantage of these folks, and these specific types of talent peaks, since so many of our systems (and our thinking) is focused on the genius of youth.
Further work has demonstrated that opsimaths are more normative than we think; that one’s best work is not, in fact, at the earliest phases of one’s career:
“We find that the highest-impact work in a scientist’s career is randomly distributed within her body of work. That is, the highest-impact work can be, with the same probability, anywhere in the sequence of papers published by a scientist—it could be the first publication, could appear mid-career, or could be a scientist’s last publication. This random-impact rule holds for scientists in different disciplines, with different career lengths, working in different decades, and publishing solo or with teams and whether credit is assigned uniformly or unevenly among collaborators.”
Now, this is a study of scientists and researchers, not Innovation Economy participants, but I don’t see any reason to think that this doesn’t hold for this cohort as well (I’ll tackle this head on a bit later).
“What we see here is that lifelong learning is essential. Late bloomers in this model are really opsimaths who got a break.”
This is, I think, a keen observation. We too readily ascribe credit (especially success) to the individual without truly appreciating just how much “luck” plays a role. This is not to downplay one’s skill — when opportunity presents one must be willing and able to capitalize — but happenstance is a key contributor both to this success and to why others of equal or better ability do not necessarily achieve that level of success. If our goal, as I’ve stated many times, is to maximize the total capacity of our Innovation Economy, then we should seek to enable greater happenstance; by attempting to create more opportunities that grab and catalyze our most productive to fully realize their talents.
We might identify such talent using what Oliver calls “The Fitzgerald Rule”:
“You spot talent by looking at what people persist at, not what persistently happens to them.”
Thus far we’ve established that the non-youth can, in fact, accomplish great things, and that those who are most likely to potentially do their best work deep into a career are those who have persisted at that very work. This persistence effectively builds out their personal surface area with the world, and this surface area is a necessary precondition to engage with luck when her hand reaches out.
With such individuals (really all individuals), we should actively encourage and incentivize long breaks from the grind.wrote recently about the need for Rest, and this need is not just for recuperation but for what I’ll call “inspiration from less” — the absence of daily obligations, of bureaucracy, of goals, of anything but pure intellectual exploration.
And this inspiration via absence should, in my estimation, better encourage innovation from each individual, and at scale should we be able to incentivize a larger corpus of non-youth opsimaths to sabbatical. There’s precedence for this approach, in the form of annus mirabilis — the “miracle year”. Aswrites,
“An interesting pattern recurs across the careers of great scientists: an annus mirabilis (miracle year) in which they make multiple, seemingly independent breakthroughs in the span of a single year or two. Given how many of the great scientific discoveries have come about during miracle years, we should do everything we can to help smart Twentysomethings have an annus mirabilis. We should free them from rote menial work, prevent them from being overexposed to the current paradigm, and give them the freedom to explore far-fetched ideas without arbitrary deadlines or time-draining obligations.”
A careful reader will note Dwarkesh’s focus on “twentysomethings” here, a bit of casual ageism that’s forgivable both because the thinkers he specifically cites (Einstein, Copernicus, Newton, Darwin, Torvalds) and Dwarkesh himself fall in this very twentysomething class2. It should also be noted that one of these youngsters in particular - Charles Darwin - was very much an opsimath, not simply a twentysomething when inspiration best manifested. He wrote some of his best work deep into life, which is exactly the type of person we’re looking to seek out and encourage here.
Since this is part of a series on Grants, it should come as no surprise that a mechanism I think we should deploy to encourage such sabbaticals — to hopefully catalyze many annus mirabilis’s — is the grant; effectively, a large-scale granting program specifically targeting opsimaths to rest for a period and just follow their natural curiosities and proclivities.
Rohit again calls this approach (effectively) tenure.
“The whole reason tenure is interesting is because it’s one of the only creative professions where job security is assured first as a way to encourage higher risk seeking. Does it still work as intended? The jury is most definitely out on that question, but it did work in the past. Instead of a lifetime appointment, which might very well be prohibitive, we should have, say, five-year appointments available by the hundreds for smart people to spend their time..”
Rohit here is talking about scientists doing fundamental research, so longer time horizons are necessary. In our applied world of industry, we should be able to shorten this “tenure” considerably and yield significant results — let’s say 12-18 months per grant.
Another way to think about tenure in the corporate world is stars (whether acqui-hires or non-founder talent) that are stuck in the mega-corp machine. Because of their talent and mega-corps’ financials, they are effectively “tenured” in that they have long-term job security whether they actually create anything novel. But are they fulfilled by this work? I would argue that we should be able to peel off a not-insignificant number of these superstars to do something better.
Some may argue that financial incentivization of such innovation actually signals that these are not the right folks to be incentivized in the first place; that great innovation should flow freely regardless of financial circumstance. I’m unmoved by such a perspective, and I’m not alone. Aspoints out in “Why We Stopped Making Einsteins”:
“The traditional line for why essentially all intellectuals used to be aristocrats is that they were the only people with the leisure time to pursue the life of the mind.”
I am myself in the midst of a self-funded sabbatical, and though I cannot say whether it will necessarily trigger my own annus mirabilis, I can certainly attest to the freedom that it enables. This newsletter is one output of the time off (however valuable that may be), but so too are the many many advisory conversations I’ve had with my entrepreneurial network, and of course the numerous business concepts the Studio I founded in this period is developing.
Lest I end this section on a more self-serving note, we return once again to Rohit’s perspective:
“what we’ve lost in the post Manhattan Project world is little science, the actual home of the thinker. Little science is science as practiced by pretty much every major scientist a child studies in school - Einstein, Newton, Maxwell, even Tesla and Edison. Little science is the science of artisanal tinkering, of interdisciplinary exploration with no agenda, of following your curiosity without needing to get permission, of small experiments done in a garage.”
Fund People Not Projects
It should be fairly obvious thus far that I’m advocating for a broader incentivization scheme, to encourage more of our top minds to take time off and explore; to hopefully trigger a few annus mirabilis’s. This approach very much mirrors the “Fund People Not Projects” philosophy we discussed last week. This is relatively atypical for the commercial context.
Y Combinator is arguably the most prolific funder of zero stage founders in the world. As Cedric Chin points out, one thing YC doesn’t do is fund founders without ideas. The reason for this, as Sam Altman points out, is that great founders (really, great thinkers) have many great ideas, so someone who doesn’t have a single great idea is a serious red flag.
We’ve covered this relationship previously — most (probably all) of the best thinkers in history were also prolific; ideas simply pour out of them. This article demonstrates the relationship explicitly — idea quantity and quality are fairly well-correlated:
With this series I’m hypothesizing that high volume grants would help incentivize non-founders to become founders. This is effectively a step before what is now called “pre-seed” would kick in; when a founding team has a basic idea and needs some capital to get it off the ground. We’re leveraging grants to push these “reluctant founders”3 to take the leap — not by asking them to immediately start a company (when most do not have that obvious company to start yet) — but by providing them time, capital, and encouragement to explore their talent, unencumbered.
I should clarify that in this process I’m not advocating at all that ideas don’t matter — it simply means we are committing capital independent of a singular idea that they will immediately start building. Part of our funding process would of course target the potential recipients ideas (plural); we should specifically use an ever-flowing idea fountain as one indicator that this is a person for whom time to explore would be highly beneficial.
Paul Graham is famous for his youth bias, quipping at times that “when evaluating entrepreneurs, the cut-off is 32. After that age, they [YC] start to become a little skeptical”, for two reasons:
“younger people might be more capable of disruptive ideas because they’re less beholden to existing paradigms or ways of doing things.
“young people just have more time and energy.”
Byrne Hobart offers an interesting counterpoint in “are there any cheap options on talent?”
“Reimagine what Y Combinator would look like if its target founder was a 55 year old rather than a 25 year old, or finding people who are undervalued because of a single explainable mistake they made.”
Again from Byrne:
“When markets are in the process of getting efficient, and overshoot by putting too many resources behind a narrow set of indicators, the upside from a reflexive contrarian goes up. So the next crop of extraordinary winners will start out looking like universally bad and irresponsible investments”.
We’ll spend more time on these approaches from an investor’s perspective in a couple weeks, but let’s evaluate Graham’s claim in greater detail. Pierre Azoulay and his contributors investigated the non-narrative-driven factual relationship between founding age and success and found that
“In software startups, the average age is 40, and younger founders aren’t uncommon. Among the top 0.1% of startups based on growth in their first five years, we find that the founders started their companies, on average, when they were 45 years old.”
Not only are “older” founders more likely to drive extreme returns, but
“Among those who have started a firm, older entrepreneurs have a substantially higher success rate.”
“Below age 25, founders appear to do badly (or rather, do well extremely rarely), but there is a sharp increase in performance at age 25. Between ages 25 and 35, performance seems fairly flat. However, starting after age 35 we see increased success probabilities, now outpacing the 25-year-olds. Another large surge in performance comes at age 46 and is sustained toward age 60.”
Given these eminently available data, why do VCs often bet on youth? The authors offer two potential explanations:
“First, many VCs may operate under a mistaken belief that youth is the elixir of successful entrepreneurship — in other words, VCs are simply wrong.”
The venture and startup landscape is dominated by narratives, so it shouldn’t be altogether surprising that an incorrect narrative has at least some influence over capital allocation. But VCs are quite intelligent on the whole, and so it’s unsatisfying that “they are simply wrong” accounts for a huge proportion of the variance.
“They may seek investments that will yield the highest returns, and it is possible that young founders are more financially constrained than more experienced ones, leading them to cede upside to investors at a lower price. In other words, younger entrepreneurs may be a better “deal” for investors than more experienced founders”
This potential explanation is a bit more interesting. Despite narratives to the contrary, prices do matter, and young founders not only cost less but may be more likely to accept poorer deal terms. I don’t want to put too much emphasis on this point using this specific study, since they don’t investigate price and ownership stakes by age (perhaps a future piece). But it’s interesting nonetheless to ponder why such a “youth wins” narrative has persisted for so long.
How much would this cost?
If you’re at least conceptually swayed by this approach, the logical next question is how much it might semi-realistically cost to compel someone to take an explorative sabbatical. For that, we can return the study from Azoulay et al:
We see that Top 1% founders are HIGHLY more likely to have been in the top 5-20% of earnings prior to their founding the company. This provides a bit of a double-edged sword here. On the one hand, the very people we’re targeting, especially those currently implanted within the Apple et al top-of-the-Nasdaq ecosystem, are highly likely to have significant net worth from which to pull4. On the other, our personal lifestyles tend to scale linearly-ish with our earnings, which of course means that grants for this cohort are inevitably more expensive than those for youth, even with a significant earnings discount.
Complicating this further is the reality that the greater chunk of compensation for mid-career workers (in tech, at least) comes from equity vesting, not from salary. That is, a grant recipient can more easily justify the hit to cash compensation; less so the equity, especially if this sojourn requires forfeiture.
My first blush thinking here looks something like:
Anchor the grant to somewhere in the 50-75% range of current salary.
Set a cap of something like $250,0005.
Work with the recipient’s current employer6 to formally structure this sabbatical within their operating structure, if such a program doesn’t already exist.
These are certainly not cheap grants! But if we consider that most pre-seed financing rounds come with an expectation of cofounders salaries ~$150,000, we’re not totally out of the realm of normal here. Also consider that this is just a pilot program, and such programs are always more expensive than the scaled structures that emerge from program learnings.
I’d be remiss in not offering that the MacArthur Fellowship has for decades rewarded many mid-career opsimaths (though not explicitly focused on Innovation Economy practitioners). These grants tend to occupy the $100k range, but with just 20-30 recipients annually, the MacArthur has funded less than 1000 total innovators in its 40 year history. We need far greater scale!
Our goal here is not to pinch pennies, but to build larger incentive structures that would consistently compel our most innovative to spend more time innovating; to create the environments in which our Opsimath population may experience their own annus mirabilis.
Unbeknownst to me when I started my grant research, Thiel actually contributed capital to the initial tranche of Emergent awards. I’m not sure if that relationship persists.
To provide appropriate symmetry to this soft “criticism”, it’s not at all surprising that I’m more drawn to Opsimaths as I now fall firmly within this camp 😬.
The assumption here of course is that this net worth is liquid enough for a slight drawdown.
Given that many of our targets will fall into the top 5% earners range, this cap would likely be hit for most of them.
This is a pithy suggestion that is obviously more complex. I’ll spend more time exploring how this might look in a future piece.