Play Like an Athlete?

Tyler Cowen has an excellent blogpost which should be read by everybody, titled “Learn like an athlete, knowledge workers should train“:

“Recently, one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you are doing something wrong or not doing enough. Or maybe you are (optimally?) not very ambitious?

He followed up on that post a few days later with some examples of how he trains on a daily basis. That post is difficult to excerpt from, and so I won’t, but I urge you to read the entire thing. As an aside, I think the most underrated word in his post is “partial“. So very tantalizing, no?

I teach economics for a living, so I am very much a knowledge worker. What do I do to train like an athlete?

  1. As with Tyler, I teach, and the returns from engaging with students have been, are and very likely will continue to be stratospheric. Educational institutes seem to go out of their way to make this the least important activity for knowledge workers, more’s the pity. In my opinion, teaching is the single most important thing that a knowledge worker can do. And that applies to students as well! Teach. Write blogs, create videos, record podcasts, argue with your batchmates, argue with your professors – all of these are forms of teaching, and you can never do too much teaching.
  2. I try and write everyday, here on EFE. Over the past two years or so, there have been extended periods of time where I haven’t felt like writing, and I haven’t beaten myself up over it. If you don’t feel like it, you shouldn’t do it. (On a somewhat tangential note, read this. I have found it to be useful advice.)

But, I am sorry to report, I do not read anywhere near as much as I should, and this sorry trend has only exacerbated during the pandemic. Podcast listening is very much a thing I like to do when I drive, so that has also taken a hit during the pandemic. And I would like to figure out how to create videos as a way to teach at scale, but I just find writing to be easier, faster and something I’m better at right now. So if at all I train like an athlete, it is at a very mediocre level, at best.

But what am I training for?

To be a better athlete knowledge worker, sure, but to what end? Athletes train like athletes in order to win matches or competitions. Knowledge workers should train like athletes to win too, but the knowledge worker sport is a very different one, because knowledge workers play non-zero sum games.

Athletes win by defeating other athletes. That’s the nature of sport. Although athletes, when they’re not actually engaged in competition with each other, seem to be very willing to share tips and tricks, and the best ones go out of their way to mentor their fellow athletes. RIP, Shane Warne!

Knowledge workers win by helping others (not just knowledge workers!) win. Well, they should, at any rate.

Hold on to that thought for a second…

This sentence stood out for me in a recent Sidharth Monga piece:

So here we had a strange instance of the side ahead in the game playing lower percentages and the side needing to make all the play sticking with percentages.

And here’s what I’ve been playing around with – if us knowledge workers are training like athletes, it is for a game called life. As I explained above, I train like a mediocre athlete at best. How then should I play the percentages in a non-zero sum game?

Here are my current answers:

  1. If the winning strategy is to help myself by helping others as much as possible, I should, at the margin, read more, write more and teach more. Anything that distracts me from this should be avoided or discarded. That’s the (counter-intuitive) low-risk percentage play, assuming I’m correct about the winning strategy.
  2. But there is (always) a non-zero possibility that this may not be the winning strategy, so I should try and help myself a little bit for my own sake. And this in fact gives me the freedom to double down on pt. 1 regardless!
  3. I really should be training harder, dammit. This is self-evident, but also a little nuanced. I should be training harder in any case, because it is A Good Thing, but also to prepare myself for any opportunity that may come up to help others. Teaching economics to non-economists, teaching statistics to lawyers, teaching econometrics to grad students in econ, teaching people how to use technology to make themselves more productive, teaching project management to students so that they can become more productive – all are examples of teaching and all are non-zero sum games. And I should be doing more besides. And more urgently than I am right now.

Train like an athlete, and be as clear as possible about the answer to that irritating question that just won’t go away: what are you optimizing for?

But I suppose trying to answer that eternal question is itself a form of training, so there’s that. No?