Maintaining Niche Interests

Hi everyone,

(By the way, I’m not late, I just forgot to tell you last week that for scheduling reasons I’m moving these to Tuesday mornings. So, now you know)

In the spirit of complaining about things as a way of creating a shared understanding, I thought I’d complain about a problem that I’m pretty sure many of you share: I have (at least briefly) a lot of really niche interests, and I often don’t find people to share them with, and this makes it difficult to maintain those interests for an extended period of time.

To some extent, this ties in to the problems I’m having with my PhD (although right now that’s going reasonably well). I’ve, perhaps foolishly, picked an incredibly niche subject for my PhD, and it’s one where I really don’t have too many people to talk about it with.

As per the preamble to Sunday’s notebook post:

A question I get asked a lot by friends is why I don't talk about my PhD much. The answer is generally very simple: It's because almost nobody actually wants to know about my PhD, and it's not worth the half hour of bringing them up to speed while they politely pretend that they do.

“Nobody actually wants to know” is a bit unfair. It’s more like… there are people who are interested, but they are both less interested than I am in the subject, and also I don’t talk to them much. The people who I talk to on a regular basis are not interested, because this is mostly not their field.

One of the reasons I started this PhD was to have better contact with people in computer science to bounce ideas off. For a variety of reasons, this hasn’t really worked out that way, and mostly it’s just my supervisor who I end up talking to about my work. Some of those reasons are my fault, some of those reasons are circumstance, but either way it’s ended up a bit of a problem. I was planning to try to fix it this year but then, well, this year turned out to be 2020.

This isn’t restricted to my PhD either. If anything it seems to be a recurring theme in my life - when I learn a new area of knowledge, the bit that I decide is the most interesting thing about it is rarely the bit that anyone else thinks is the most interesting thing about it.

Why is this a problem?

Well, for starters it’s just intrinsically a little unpleasant to have all sorts of things that you’d like to discuss with somebody and can’t. It creates a gap between yourself and others, where you’re constantly holding yourself back from them because you’re worried that you’ll bore the other person.

It’s also a problem for the interest itself.

When the interest is something technical (as with my PhD), it’s hugely helpful to be able to talk through your thought processes with others in order to improve your understanding of them - people offer a fresh perspective, and even if they don’t the basic process of learning to explain a concept is often helpful.

To some extent you can replace this with explaining your problem to a rubber duck, or just writing it up and not caring about whether anyone reads it, but there does seem to be something qualitatively different about explaining it to an actual specific human being who can ask you intelligent questions about it.

I think though, beyond this, it’s actually just very difficult to stay interested in things without other people to be interested in them with. Some people manage, but and possibly some people don’t even find it hard, but for me at least it’s not at all straightforward, because a crucial tool for maintaining interest is missing.

At its core, interest is a personal orientation towards some body of information. It is a feeling that this information is worth exploring, because it will result in new thoughts that you will find enjoyable or otherwise valuable to have.

Generally interest will either grow (or stay stable once the area of interest becomes large enough to saturate the amount of work you’re willing to put into it) when exploring the subject proves worthwhile, and shrink when it does not. If everything you pursue about a subject leads to powerful insights, or fun and fascinating novel realisations and things to enjoy, it will continue to be interesting. If a subject is fully explored, and thus there’s not much new to learn about it, it will gradually cease to be interesting. If a subject is unknown, but exploring it proves frustrating and does not tend to lead to much in the way of insight or other positive outcomes, that too is likely to damp down interest.

(Note that this doesn’t mean success is required to find a subject interesting. I have a few problems I keep coming back to despite never making meaningful progress on them because each time I try to make progress on them I learn something new about the subject or about the techniques I’m using)

As a result of this, maintaining interest in something is intrinsically tied to your emotional experience of thinking more about that thing. If it is positive, you will tend to maintain interest. If it is negative, you will tend to lose interest.

Your interactions with the people around you are, I think, one of the easiest ways to manipulate this feedback loop to create interest: If you have people you like to talk about your subject of interest, that will result in a positive outcome to thinking more about the subject, because you have someone who you know will enjoy sharing it. This allows you to (partially) ground the interest in your relationship with that person: Learning new things about the subject will be positive because you have someone you can talk excitedly about the new thing with.

I think, in general, extrinsic rewards for interest don’t particularly work well this way. Some people manage to find something interesting purely for financial rewards, but I think it’s more common that people instead overcome their lack of interest in the subject through brute force when that happens. There’s something special about the social dimension - I think it’s that the social interaction around the subject of interest is in some sense intrinsic - it’s part of the process of exploring the interest itself, but the relationship adds a positive aspect to that.

Another advantage of sharing an interest with a group is that groups are just more stable. If your mood crashes due to a depressive episode (or even just life gets busy and you have to focus on other things) and you lose all interest in everything, it can be hard to reacquire it after. If, on the other hand you have a group of people operating on different cycles, you can reattach to the group when that’s over and they will rekindle your interest for you.

As a result of these things, a group acts as a tool for maintaining interest: It validates the interest as valuable, it gives you new interesting things to think about in the subject, and it stabilises the natural waxing and waning of interest you would otherwise experience.

Contrast, instead, what happens if you are interested in a subject that nobody else is. As well as lacking all of these advantages, you are in effect outright punished for it.

There is the isolation of not being able to talk about it, or the visible boredom (and possible people explicitly telling you it’s boring) when you do. If you talk about a subject people find boring too much, they will start to treat you as boring, and more likely than not you will start to believe it.

Because of the way we tend to construct our emotions based on the responses of those around us, it’s hard to not let this persuade you that the subject isn’t interesting. Indeed, if interest is the sense that it’s worth thinking more about the subject, unless we have something else to ground that sense of worth in the subject is actually not interesting - thinking about it more will just get us punished.

As a result of this, there is a problem with the scenario I started out by describing: When the interest is a niche one you will, more or less by definition of the word niche, struggle to find other people who are interested in it, and thus you will struggle to maintain interest in it.

What do we do then?

Well I think the first thing to do is this: Admit that maintaining interest is an active process, and that it’s not a personal failing if you lose interest in a subject.

I know a lot of people, myself very much included, who tend to go through phases where they find something intensely interesting and then lose all or most of their interest in it.

Often we feel bad about that, but actually I think this is good and normal: Things are not, in fact, intrinsically interesting or boring. They are interesting as long as they are worth thinking about more, and not all subjects that are worth thinking about are worth thinking about indefinitely.

One way this happens is that often you spend some time picking low hanging fruit, where you’re making large gains early on, and the subject is worth thinking about as long as that’s the case but and it turns out not to be worth the effort of improving further. This isn’t failure, it’s success: You’ve learned enough of the subject as will improve your life, but you don’t need to learn more.

An easy example of this sort of interest for me is cocktail making: I got very into it for a few years. Now I’m not very into it. I still make cocktails, and I do so using the information I learned then, but I no longer spend so much time thinking, learning, or talking about it. Cocktails are still delicious, but they are no longer interesting, but the period in which they were interesting was necessary for my current level of skill.

Some things we will be able to maintain a lifelong interest in. These will tend to be things that constitute our “work” in Green’s sense (I talked about this in “What do you do?”) - part of the ongoing project of our lives. Most things will, however have a significantly shorter lifespan. Eventually that interest will fade, and become part of our own personal foundations (cf. Unusual Foundations) that we can build the next generation of interests on.

What determines how long an interest lasts will, in large part, be about how long it remains worth thinking about. This is going to be driven partly by the subject itself (some subjects really can only be interesting for so long), some is going to be driven by the intrinsic attraction you have towards the subject matter (I don’t personally care about vampires much but some people are really into them. Similarly I don’t think many other people find randomised algorithms nearly as appealing as I do), but a lot of it is going to depend on the difficulty level of thinking about it and the reward structure associated with doing so.

That means our niche interests are just intrinsically going to have a shorter lifespan than our non-niche ones unless we come up with other maintenance structures for them, and it’s probably worth doing that while the subject is still interesting.

One way to do this is to actively recruit: If your subject is niche, and maintaining niche subject is hard, you could just do an active marketing campaign to your niche.

This is a bit of a double or nothing strategy unfortunately, because marketing is hard, and often subjects are niche for a reason, and I think you can end up being more depressed about whether your subject is actually interesting if you fail to recruit. It can also be a bit of a long game - the time to build a community may be longer than the time you can sustain interest for.

Another thing you can do is to ground this interest out in things that you can talk to other people about. For example, I don’t talk to people about test-case reduction much because people aren’t that interested in test-case reduction details, but I do at least tell them that it’s what I work on and this sometimes leads to interesting discussions, because it’s a fundamentally practical and useful problem. I get to talk even more about Hypothesis, because people actually know and like Hypothesis (even if they don’t necessarily know or care about the implementation details), and that too grounds out my interest in test-case reduction.

This doesn’t necessarily work great - I find it helps me come back to interest when it’s lapsed, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent it from lapsing in the first place, and it certainly doesn’t help amplify it.

Another thing I think likely helps is writing about the area of interest, ideally somewhere in public, with no expectation that people will read it. This helps maintain the interest because it means that thinking results in something practical and rewarding (and writing is rewarding). This is probably particularly good in the context of a daily writing practice.

Beyond that… I don’t know. I suspect this is going to be a question that I keep returning to over the coming months, as it feels fairly foundational. In the meantime, if you have any ideas I’d love to hear about them.