Finding a niche is the key to maximising your impact in the world. But the fact it is a niche is also the biggest barrier to creating that impact. It may be that, as Peter Thiel says about start-ups in Zero to One, fields that would make the world better are not distributed in the way we would expect, from small scale smoothly through to large scale.
It may be that what we actually see are some problems with a very high “charisma” factor that create high publicity enabling high impact, and effectively pulling in a lot of resources that could deliver more impact to other areas, which instead get neglected. Something like this is the worry of many of those who work with nature and natural ecosystems. Charismatic large mammals often pull attention and resources away from other less “sex” areas. Likewise in health, a small number of very serious conditions such as heart disease and cancer can pull disproportionate attention and resources, effectively acting like “tall trees” in a forest and blocking light to other areas. The result is that these other areas are caught in a cycle of high negative impact on the world yet low resource-pull and attention, creating worse impact without additional attention.
What this means is that finding neglected problems and putting resources into solving them are key to making the world as good as it could be. But it is harder for individuals to contribute to this process, because there is no infrastructure to enable them to do so. Without an infrastructure of publicity, research equipment, public engagement and citizen science, careers, prototyping and seed funding, and lobbying pathways, individuals with limited resources are faced with a similar zero or one choice – of going all-in or finding another field.
How do we square this circle?
First, some interesting points about the importance of finding a niche from the effective altruism careers organisation 80,000 hours. They define the most important career paths for making impact as ones that find an intersection of being:
ii. Important, and
This is an excellent definition of a niche. The first problem we face is actually finding our niche. Rather like the problem of evil, most problems satisfy two but not three of the above criteria. Most pertinent here, it would seem, many tractable and important problems are not neglected. But if we are right about the uneven distribution of resources among problems, this might not quite be true. It may be that the perception that important ad tractable problems are all taken is a function of this resource misallocation – part of the publicity and public engagement infrastructure that makes problems that are not high profile feel as though they are low profile because they won’t really make a difference (“if it were that important, everyone would be doing it”) or are intractable (“if you think it were possible, don’t you think someone would have done it by now?”).
This suggests that there may be more problems than we think that fit the niche bill – if only we can find them. And what that suggests is that creativity, and especially creative critical research, might actually be a first order impact accelerator, providing a gearing mechanism for impact. Giving people the ability to find these neglected, tractable, important problems might be the most important niche to occupy of all. Indeed, that is precisely why we have chosen the path we have here at Rogue Interrobang – doing exactly this kind of skill training.
But what of the lack of infrastructure? Someone with moderate interest and limited capacity can make a disproportionately large contribution to areas that least need them to do so – by signing up to do a sponsored run for a cause everyone agrees is excellent, for example, or by volunteering for studies, or interning at a research institute, or acting as a citizen scientist working on a large body of data.
That same person couldn’t work on neglected problems. Those require fundraising from scratch to set up a research institute, finding seed funding to run a first trial, compiling a dataset.
So a second key impact-accelerating skill is building an infrastructure that will make participation in neglected problems easier to undertake, both because it is easier to find those problems, and because the obstacles of equipment, team-building, and initial funding are broken down. In theory, fundraising towards that kind of goal, building more organizations like XPrize, for example, creating funding pools that are not dependent on the criteria that drove resources to the un-neglected problems in the first place – that order of campaigning and fundraising should be a fruitful path. Again, pursuing that is one reason I started Rogue Interrobang.
It is only by diverting attention and resources proportionately to all neglected, important, and tractable problems that we can truly maximise our beneficial impact on the world.
In short, finding a niche is the essential first step in building a better future. But if it is the only step we take, we may find that pursuing that niche leads not to the solving of key problems, but to effort being thrown into a black hole, and eventually the burnout that results from this.