Don’t neglect the fundamentals

My sports coaches always emphasized “the fundamentals.” For example at basketball practice they spent no time whatsoever teaching us “advanced” moves like behind-the-back passes and alley-oops. They knew that even if advanced moves were memorable, and could allow the team to score 5-15 extra points per game, this effect would be dominated by whether we made our free throws, grabbed our rebounds, and kept our turnovers to a minimum.

When I began my internship at what was then called SIAI, I thought, “Wow. SIAI has implemented few business/non-profit fundamentals, and is surviving almost entirely via advanced moves.” So, Louie Helm and I spent much of our first two years at MIRI mastering the (kinda boring) fundamentals, and my impression is that doing so paid off handsomely in organizational robustness and productivity.

On Less Wrong, some kinds of “advanced moves” are sometimes called “Munchkin ideas”:

A Munchkin is the sort of person who, faced with a role-playing game, reads through the rulebooks over and over until he finds a way to combine three innocuous-seeming magical items into a cycle of infinite wish spells. Or who, in real life, composes a surprisingly effective diet out of drinking a quarter-cup of extra-light olive oil at least one hour before and after tasting anything else. Or combines liquid nitrogen and antifreeze and life-insurance policies into a ridiculously cheap method of defeating the invincible specter of unavoidable Death.

Munchkin ideas are more valuable in life than advanced moves are in a basketball game because the upsides in life are much greater. The outcome of a basketball game is binary (win/lose), and advanced moves can’t increase your odds of winning by that much. But in life in general, a good Munchkin idea might find your life partner or make you a billion dollars or maybe even optimize literally everything.

But Munchkin ideas work best when you’ve mastered the fundamentals first. Behind-the-back passes won’t save you if you make lots of turnovers due to poor dribbling skills. Your innovative startup idea won’t do you much good if you sign unusual contracts that make your startup grossly unattractive to investors. And a Munchkin-ish nonprofit can only grow so much without bookkeeping, financial controls, and a donor database.

My guess is that when you’re launching a new startup or organization, the fundamentals can wait. “Do things that don’t scale,” as Paul Graham says. But after you’ve got some momentum then yes, get your shit together, master the fundamentals, and do things in ways that can scale.

This advice is audience-specific. To an audience of Protestant Midwesterners, I would emphasize the importance of Munchkinism. To my actual audience of high-IQ entrepreneurial world-changers, who want to signal their intelligence and Munchkinism to each other, I say “Don’t neglect the fundamentals.” Executing the fundamentals competently doesn’t particularly signal high intelligence, but it’s worth doing anyway.


  1. says

    > SIAI… is surviving almost entirely via advanced moves.”

    My impression is that they *wanted* to survive and thrive by advanced Munchkin moves, but I didn’t see they actually doing that. What advanced moves did they implement?

  2. Ben Pace says

    Luke, could you give some examples of both fundamental skills and munchkin skills in a specific practical domain? You only gave examples of fundamentals in non-profits… and the sport one doesn’t connect with me very well 😉

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