Arnold Kling  

Diminishing Returns and Life

Two New Fun Lectures... I Still Hate Monetary Theory...

Tyler Cowen recently solicited topics, and I peeked. Here was one:

More "meta" stuff -- how to read, how to think, how to write, etc. Tyler's tricks on being a prolific, successful academic.

My tip is to pay attention to the law of diminishing returns. For example, the number of authors who write two books that are worth reading is at least two orders of magnitude less than the number who write one book worth reading. Most of the time, you should assume that if you've read one book by a given author then you do not need to read another. Too many people follow the opposite strategy--reading more books by authors they like.

Staying in the same organization for more than few years also puts you on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns. Working in an organization is a learning experience. But, as with going to college, there comes a time when you need to stop taking their courses and proceed to graduate.

The law of diminishing returns probably applies to blogging and to reading blogs, but I'd rather not think about that.

My tip on becoming a successful academic is to be careful how you define success. Any tenured professor has a great life by most standards. However, the default sentiment in academia is bitter jealousy. The folks at lower-tier schools think they belong at top-20 schools, the folks at other top-20 schools think they belong at Harvard, and the folks at Harvard think that they deserve more recognition than the other folks at Harvard.

Once you get on the ego treadmill, not only do you become bitter, but you have to start viewing others not for their intrinsic qualities but for their usefulness as stepping stones. If you can stay off of the ego treadmill, then success becomes more a matter of being near friends and living in an area with the type of amenities you prefer.

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The author at Remains of the Day in a related article titled Applying diminishing returns writes:
    Arnold Kling offers some life advice based on broader application of the law of diminishing returns. My tip is to pay attention to the law of diminishing returns. For example, the number of authors who write two books that are... [Tracked on April 24, 2008 3:14 AM]
COMMENTS (11 to date)
Blackadder writes:

I think Sturgeon's Law is applicable here. If 90% of authors write nothing but crap (a conservative estimate), then even if most authors who do write something valuable only write one valuable book, you'd still have better odds reading an author you've found valuable in the past than one you haven't so long as more than 10% of authors who write one valuable book also write a second one. Based on my own experience, I'd say that's the case.

Andy writes:

I posted that question. Thanks for responding! You and Blackadder both make good points.

How about shifting the advice to avoid becoming overread in any one niche area? Read lots of work by really smart people in a wide variety of disciplines and skip the followers (the "normal" scientists in a Kuhnian sense). You seem to encourage interdisciplinary thinking...

You didn't ask for requests, but I'll put in one for more on why you hate macro. I am learning a lot about macro--and its flaws--from those posts!

eric writes:

I disagree. Anyone who has written one really good book, has probably another good book in him. I mean, if you have a colleague you find very insightful, do you, after a year, say, he has nothing left of interest? No, you infer his insight's quality is autocorrelated, and so, if he wrote a good book on WW2, his book on WW1 will probably be a good read.

Isn't that why you check out the same blogs, day after day?

David Tufte writes:

I'd change "The folks at lower-tier schools think they belong at top-20 schools" to the folks at lower tiered schools want blinder editing at the top journals, and a better set of referees for their papers at those journals.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Congratulations! Tyler Cowen has declared you to be "wise," even though you are not a lunch regular like Bryan.

hanmeng writes:

If you become bitter once you get on the ego treadmill, do you get a gun and a bible and start hating foreigners?

Travis Walker writes:

Would you also apply the law of diminishing returns and life to sports and other forms of entertainment? How much weekly TV shows that seem to get better each week (i.e. if I watch the first episode of the Soprano's, then it follows that I will want to watch the next one even more so than the previous one).

John Fast writes:

From one hard-core bleeding-heart libertarian to another:

I think that fiction -- or at least genre fiction -- provides a clear counterexample to your assertion about lightning not striking twice. If I like something by Heinlein, or Stross, or Westlake, then I should keep reading more of their books.

I believe this also applies to non-fiction.

To be frank, your assertion sounds an awful lot like saying "That restaurant served a good meal the last time we went, so it probably will not be able to repeat the performance."

Am I overlooking or misunderstanding something here?

Ralph Hitchens writes:

I think an exception to the "one book worth reading" rule can be made for writers in certain clearly-identified genres -- mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, historical fiction, for example. Within the oeuvre the quality may vary, but later books often approach or even match the quality of the first one.

rvman writes:

I think the proposed book rule works if modified for writers who are of 'historical' note. (I.e., dead for years.) If you read their 'famous' books, you probably needn't read their obscure ones unless you really like the famous stuff - the 'market' of fame generally retains the good stuff and sheds the bad.

In general, though, author quality has a random element with mean 0 and variance q and an element F (which can be considered a kind of fixed effect in our panel data analysis of literature), so the quality of a book by a given author is drawn from a variable mean F, variance q. Arnold is saying the variance swamps the mean, and so book quality is primarily a crapshoot. I disagree, for two reasons.

One - it is apparent that people have different objective writing abilities - bad shakespeare generally exceeds good most everyone else. F may be drawn from a distribution, as well - Shakespeare would be an outlier draw, but it retains its value within an author's output. Some authors 'get lucky' and get a big, positive q but then don't replicate it, but others have good F. Expected value of the second book of an author with a good first book is less than the first book, but better than average.

Two - writing STYLE is correlated across books for most authors, so your first resort for finding books of a style you favor would be authors whose style you like.

In reality, "Quality" isn't an objectively measurable thing, it is a, well, subjective and qualitative variable. And "style" is a separate, also qualitative variable. Beauty in the eye of the beholder and all that.

StefanoC writes:

I think the problem in the model is in taking account of individual differences. Even with diminishing returns, there are "talented" writers who start at a better chance to produce a good book (say, 25% for the first , 20% for the second, and so on diminishing, while the average for all writers are e.g. 5% for the first, 4% for the second, etc.). These differences don't even out in the average, because once you got a good book, it's disproportionately more probable that it comes from a "talented" writer, than from an average one. So it pays to stick to book of the same writer (at least for a while).

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