Monday, May 04, 2009

Other Worlds and Wasted Talents

Over the course of my life, I've spent a good deal of time in what I think of as "other worlds"--The Society for Creative Anachronism, World of Warcraft, interacting online in Usenet news groups, and the like. One thing that strikes me about such worlds is the presence of competent, energetic, talented people whose life in the ordinary world reflects little or none of that.

I was reminded of this recently when someone I know in WoW as an unusually competent and charismatic leader, organizer, and player, mentioned the problem of "parental agro." He is apparently a college student, possibly a graduate student, living with his parents. Older examples are friends in the SCA of whose abilities and energy I think highly, who made their living as school teachers or secretaries or the like—respectable jobs, but not particularly high status or high paying ones.

The pattern is not entirely surprising. It makes sense that an energetic individual who doesn't find much outlet for his energies in his current career will direct them towards his hobbies. Adam Smith long ago observed that, in the British universities of the time, a professor got no benefit by doing a good job of teaching, since the professors were on salary rather than, as in at least some of the Scottish universities, paid by the students. He concluded that if the professor were naturally energetic, he would spend his energies doing something that might be of some benefit to him rather than doing his job, which would not. Nowadays we call it "consulting."

At the same time, it seems a terrible waste. Starting a business, running a restaurant, doing scientific research, any of a myriad of "real world" activities, have the same potential for employing human talents as organizing a guild in WoW or an event in the SCA. They also produce other benefits, most obviously the opportunity to combine fun and profit in a way rarely possible with one's hobbies. I am glad that these people spend the time and talents they do in worlds we share, since I benefit from their doing so. But I wonder what keeps them from employing the same talents more successfully in the part of the world where they spend forty hours a week making a living.

Is it that they prefer for that part of their life to make fewer demands on them? Or is it rather a case of wasted talents, a failure of current institutions to do as good a job as they might of letting potentially productive individuals find suitable employment for their abilities?


Anonymous said...

Easy: employment contracts. Most employment contracts provide very poor incentives. As an employee, you take something from A to B not because it is bought cheap at A and profitably sold at B, but because your boss orders you to do so.

Actually, I would go as far as stating that capitalism (a society where most of productive work is done in joint-stock corporations by employees) is very much at odds with the free market.

Anonymous said...

In my view, only "protectors" should be paid salaries: security guards, system administrators, legal advisors, doctors, etc.

Because they are in a unique position to create work for themselves, while the interest of the protected is that they have as little work as possible. If your doctor gets more money when you are sick and your sysadmin gets more money when your computer network is acting up, neither you nor your computers will be healthy.

losing loser said...

risk may be an important factor when considering the wastes of great talents by themselves, of which the "wastes" was just the price for stability they were willing to pay.

Sciencebzzt said...

David Pearce explains it in a roundabout way on his site,

It's essentially social anxiety. We're hardwired to be fearful, depressed creatures. It was beneficial to us early in our evolutionary history to be jittery, frightened, and averse to speaking up if we felt that we weren't the dominant member of the group.

Online, or playing in as character during a weekend with the SCA buffers that person from reality just enough that they can express their talents without being bogged down by the fear of other peoples "real world" reactions.

Eventually, hopefully, we'll develop ways to alter our neural hardware so that we can all live to our potential.

Albert A Rasch said...

In WoW you get a do over. In real life you don't.

I experimented once in WoW. I created a character that was a one lifer. If he died, I would cease playing. Now I'm not a particularly talented player, but I found it to be a chore. I had to play too cautiously, practice risk avoidance, leveled up very slowly, always fighting lower lvl monsters to avoid death, taking delivery assignments where risk free...

Much like real life for many.

We are raising and under-educating generations of risk adverse people with great potential, while simultaneously creating another group of risk takers with no potential for future growth.

I made a conscious effort to guide my kids along paths of their choosing, using the contacts, skills, and knowledge I possess to allow them to venture in directions that fulfill them.

Let's see how well I do.

Great topic Dave.

The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles.
The Range Reviews: Tactical.
Proud Member of Outdoor Bloggers Summit.

bjdouble said...

Isn't that why people get law professor jobs, so they can do something else? Like publish novels or blogs or hang out at WOW? I don't see how this doesn't apply to David Friedman, schoolteacher.

Granite26 said...

Don't underestimate the freedom from competition or commitment.

Competition: People who are successful in real life don't put a lot of effort into succeeding at escapist hobbies. That means that people who aren't quite as talented (Not quite charismatic enough or a good enough leader to be successful in management, for instance) have a secondary market that they can succeed in.

Commitment: It's a big time commitment to lead a guild or whatnot, but there are very few social consequences to just disapearing, and not coincidentally, more opportunities to rise or shine.


Fun: Tasks in WoW are designed to be fun...

Training: For all the reasons mentioned above, alt-societies serve as good training grounds for the skills you're talking about. Your college student Guild Leader is learning important skills that may well be the deciding factor in his next real life test to determine advancement... As long as he doesn't value the ephemoral satisfaction of the game over real-world accomplishments of lesser peer esteem.

William H. Stoddard said...

Mixed reasons.

In an ideal world, I would like to be engaged in scholarly activity of some sort. But I was never attracted to the sort of narrow focused apprenticeship that is the gateway to professional scholarship in our society. I've worked all my adult life in the support structure of scholarship, as an abstractor, copy editor, and proofreader, and I take scholarly ethics seriously; but there isn't the kind of demand for my work on anything scholarly to support my engaging in a large or long-term project.

On the other hand, there is demand for my work in writing roleplaying games; it's a hobby that more than pays for itself, in cash terms. So I have worked on a dozen or so books for Steve Jackson Games. Some of those have involved substantial research . . . for example, my sections of the new edition of GURPS Low-Tech have meant reading scholarly studies of boat construction, catapults, early gunpowder weapons, Chinese printing, and multiple other topics, consulting several sources whenever possible. The hourly rate of pay is a pittance compared to copy editing, but the personal satisfaction is much higher.

But I don't have the entrepreneurial impulse that led Steve Jackson to become a major game publisher. Nor did I ever feel I had the capital to invest in such activities.

And as far as personal satisfaction goes, an equal share comes from actually running games, which makes me no money at all and indeed costs money. By doing that, I am in effect the Big Man of my own little tribe, with a dozen or more intensely loyal followers. And that's the real human reward mechanism of which entrepreneurship is one form.

Besides, there are the creative personal satisfactions. I mean, do you think that Einstein was wasting the time he spent playing the violin?

Finally, I could work harder . . . but I am in a long-term personal relationship that makes demands on me. Working seventy hours a week, as some careers demand, would not have allowed that to survive, because I would not have been able to provide care to the other person involved when she needed it. If you look at the literature on career paths, you will find that "I want a career that leaves me free to prioritize commitments outside of work" is a recognized career motivation.

perlhaqr said...

Obama can't tax a knighthood. Yet.

Let's say one is a teacher. One has basically no incentive to do an above average job, because the teacher's union has ensured that pay raises are strictly time served, as opposed to merit based.

You could get out of teaching, start a business, take a huge financial risk, be subject to innumerable regulations, and, on the 1 in 10 chance you actually succeed, roughly half your profit will go to feed the gaping maw of government.

Or, you could join the SCA, make a suit of armor, learn to fight, battle your way up through the ranks, earn the accolades of your peers, and it's all yours. And if you don't win the Baron's Championship, well, you're out the cost of a suit of armor, you're likely in fairly fantastic shape, you hopefully had a lot of fun, and you still have your job as a teacher.

DerekL said...

One must also consider that in WoW and the SCA the 'infrastructure' for absorbing those energies is pre existing. To run a business, you have to build that 'infrastructure' from the ground up.

It's also easier to take simulated risks than real ones.

Jonathan said...

Unfortunately I have yet to discover a way of making money from doing any of the things that interest me, so I'm obliged to earn my living doing something that doesn't really interest me. I suppose many others are in the same situation.

Anonymous said...

Is this post self-reflection?

Anyway, I tend to agree with hodja somewhat; David is confusing a free market with "actually existing captialism". In a free society you could indeed stop playing video games and go do biomolecular research or become a taxi driver or doctor or whatnot. Not only do you get just one life in reality, but in this world education is expensive, licensing requirements are burdensome, most small businesses fail and leave the owners with miserable debt, and laws are so ambiguous that you can basically be charged with a crime at anytime and be sent to jail if police or authority figures decide it's necessary. And if you become employed, you have to suffer under totalitarian boss rule with often little or no outlet for your creative impulses, and this is still true in the high-paying jobs although obviously bosses have less room to mistreat employees there (it's like comparing the enlisted ranks to officers school, both are still totalitarian and not very fun). Small wonder then that people would prefer virtual worlds to the one we have now.

Anonymous said...

What is the meaning of “parental agro”?

David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks the meaning of "parental agro."

In WoW, getting agro means getting one of the monsters your group is fighting to attack you instead of someone else in the group. This is important in group fights because you want the monsters to attack the tank--a player who is very tough, very hard to kill, and who your healers are focusing their efforts largely on--while more vulnerable players attack them. Getting agro is good if you are the tank, bad if you aren't.

So getting parental agro means getting one's parents to attack one, metaphorically speaking--perhaps by pointing out that you should be studying for your finals, not playing WoW.

John said...

Bah! Why bring up World of Warcraft when you can mention the far more obvious and socially wasteful practice of sport! So many people spend so much time and energy and money - not playing, which is at least exercise - but watching and thinking about the sweaty activities of groups of complete strangers. It is such a shame. So much time lost that could be spent studying high energy particle physics, rocket science, home economics...

matt said...

I'm probably going to repeat what others have said a bit. But this is the kind of thing I have been thinking about recently in regards to my own life.

Video games give you constant rewards and gratification. Play for 30 minutes and you probably level up, or get a new item or whatever, or at least that's how games start out. However in the real world if you want to be good at something like scientific research you need to study for years. At the end if you're naturally talented and work very hard you might publish something that makes an important contribution. It's so very tempting spend your time on the easy quick guaranteed rewards of a video game, instead of studying, or working harder to get ahead.

Another perk of the life of gaming is that new games come out all the time. Old games die out and new ones become popular, so gamers have many chances to start their virtual lives over. Starting out again in the real world is much harder. If you switch careers you will be years behind all your peers. But when a new games comes out every player is at the same level. I think for many people who find their career going nowhere it's easier to try to just lose yourself in a virtual world then to try to reinvent yourself in the real one.

Alex Perrone said...

Is it that they prefer for that part of their life to make fewer demands on them? Or is it rather a case of wasted talents, a failure of current institutions to do as good a job as they might of letting potentially productive individuals find suitable employment for their abilities?

Both of these seem plausible, and it seems to be two sides of the same coin. People don't want a lot of demands at work precisely because of the way institutions are organized, especially with set hours and higher expectations. Hobbies are of course not like that. One also does not need to depend on hobbies as some people need to depend on a job. So it is not surprising that, after years off unfettered hobby searching, people find outlets to realize their talents more in hobbies than in paid work.

Assigning people to work they are most productive at (either through natural skill, passion, interest, or the like) strikes me as a fundamentally important problem for society.