Why Idiosyncratic Applications Are Great

I was recently applying to a fellowship, and did not filter my application at all. When I sent it to a friend later, he said I definitely wouldn’t get it. I haven’t gotten the response back so who knows!

When fellowships are choosing applicants, I think it’s in their interest to choose more idiosyncratic applicants. They should accept the Alexander Hamilton’s over the Aaron Burr’s. The reason why is that it increases the chance of hugely asymmetric upside. But unfortunately they often don’t.

I think that being idiosyncratic is very positive generally. It’s linked to higher variance, because idiosyncratic people are novel and have new ideas, which means they have a higher probability of disrupting things. You can’t expect to have a massive impact if you do the same thing as everyone else.

At this point, I’ve come to learn that for most fellowship opportunities, there is a certain amount of filtering that is needed to be considered a serious applicant. But I think this is a big mistake on the part of the fellowships.

There is an asymmetry in outcomes for fellowships that works in a similar way to how returns in venture capital work. It’s a power law. A few fellows have outsized impact compared to others.

Consider Vitalik Buterin from the Thiel Fellowship. Ethereum now has a market cap of over $200 billion. The old Thiel Fellowship is a beautiful example of a program that will probably go on to have incredibly asymmetric impact. It inspired thousands of students to drop out and start building, one of whom will probably build the next SpaceX.

I can’t say the same thing for the Thiel Fellowship today: they tend to back founders that are already successful and are on a positive trajectory. Which is fine for them since it proves their thesis. But sorry if I think it’s wasteful.

I know at least 2 friends that applied over many years, and only received the fellowship when they had already raised millions for their startup. Why couldn’t they have backed these people a few years earlier, when the grant really would have made a huge difference?

This is why I don’t really believe in non-profits: the incentives are just not aligned. I’m a much bigger fan of 1517 fund. They found an arbitrage opportunity, and now they exploit it. Good job and I hope they make tons of money.

Anyways, another hilarious example is from Wittgenstein. Moore and Russel thought that an early work of Wittgenstein’s could be treated as a thesis so Wittgenstein could be granted a degree. Moore wrote to Wittgenstein explaining that, according to the regulations of the University of Cambridge, he would have to include a preface and bibliography. Wittgenstein replied:

When I wrote Logik I didn’t consult the Regulations and therefore I think it would be only fair if you gave me my degree without consulting them so much either!…If I am not worth your making an exception for me even in some STUPID details then I may as well go to HELL directly; and if I am worth it and you don’t do it then – by God – you might go there.

This is peak idiosyncrasy. He went on the be possibly the single most influential 20th century philosopher.

I sent this funny explanation to a friend about why I make all of my applications highly idiosyncratic, even if it reduces my chances of getting in:

It’s like when you play mafia, and you’re a civilian, so you troll so that people know that you’re civilian, cause only a civilian would troll, while the mafias are too scared to do it and act normal.

Except every time I do that in a game I always get voted out… wait

Anyways the point is that being idiosyncratic is good, and I think fellowships should more often accept idiosyncratic candidates, not reject them.

I know that there’s a Fellowship summit happening soon in San Francisco, organized by Danielle Strachman from 1517fund. I won’t be going because I don’t run a fellowship (yet??).

But I would be really curious to hear what the people there think about accepting idiosyncratic applications. If they agree that it’s a positive signal in applicants.

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