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How can Cognito Mentoring do the most good?

11 Post author: JonahSinick 23 March 2014 06:06PM

In late December 2013, I announced that Vipul Naik and I had launched Cognito Mentoring, an advising service for intellectually curious young people.

Vipul Naik and I are aspiring effective altruists, and we started Cognito with a view toward doing the most good. We've learned a lot over the past 3 months, and are working on planning what to do next. We'd be very grateful for any feedback on current thinking, which I've described below.

Our Mission

Human capital is one of society's most valuable resources, and school years (ages 5 through 22) are a crucial time period for building human capital. Education is a ~$1 trillion dollar sector, but schools are often dysfunctional institutions, and very little effort goes into helping young people develop as much as possible and to allocate their human capital as well as possible. We want to help optimize young people's life trajectories. For the time being, we've chosen to focus on helping highly intellectually capable young people. Some reasons for this are:

  • Intellectually capable people contribute disproportionate social value (e.g. Bill Gates solved an unsolved mathematics research problem as a sophomore in college; the Google co-founders were computer science graduate students at Stanford), and helping them develop is correspondingly more leveraged.
  • We have deep knowledge of the population.
  • The educational infrastructure is designed for the average student, and the gap between how things are and what would be optimal is greatest for the outliers.
  • By focusing on a subpopulation, we can offer more targeted recommendations.

Some ways in which we aim to help them improve their life trajectories are:

  • Encouraging reflective decision making and meta-cognition: we get them thinking about what they want out of life, and how best to attain it. In this respect, we overlap with CFAR
  • Highlighting the advantages of learning different subjects to help them decide which ones are most important to learn.
  • Pointing them to the best learning resources available.
  • Helping them find high value extracurricular activities to engage in.
  • Informing them of the advantages and disadvantages of different career choice. In this respect, we overlap with 80,000 Hours (while differing in that our focus is on people who won't be entering the job market for several years).
  • Connecting them with people who have subject matter knowledge in their academic or professional areas of interest.

Demographics

We're primarily targeting high school and college students within the range of intellectual ability of Less Wrongers.

About 75% of respondents to the 2013 Less Wrong Survey who reported SAT scores out of 2400 gave a score of 2130+: this is at the 98th percentile of SAT takers. There are ~40,000 people per grade in that score range in the United States nationwide, so ~320,000 Americans. When one accounts for people at lower percentiles who would benefit, as well as students from other countries, the relevant population is ~1 million.

We're also well equipped to serve people of younger ages who are highly gifted, and are at a developmental stage where they're capable of engaging in metacognition and learning high school and college level material. There are perhaps ~200,000 such people worldwide.

Our activities

At the time when we posted in December 2013, we were thinking of focusing on personalized advising, perhaps with a view toward becoming a franchise. Since then, we've shifted in the direction of focusing on producing written content. There are two reasons for this:

  • Our advisees have derived most of the value from our generic written content.
  • While some of our advisees have benefited very substantially, the average benefits per person don't seem to be outsized.

Based on the first point and the size of the target population, if we can produce high quality written content and disseminate it widely, in principle 100k+ people could get a large fraction of the benefit of personalized advising for free.

So far ~70 people have contacted us, including ~40 from Less Wrong (c.f. What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising). We corresponded at length with a substantial fraction of them. We've taken the advice that we've generated and converted it into dozens of articles on our advice wiki, at our Quora blogon Less Wrong and at the Davidson Institute Gifted Issues Discussion Forum. (We'll be consolidating everything into the wiki eventually: the reason that we're posting to multiple forums is for outreach purposes and to get feedback.)

Dissemination

Our front page has been getting ~400 page views per week, and our wiki has been getting ~400 page views a week. Our Quora blog has 27 followers. We would like our visibility to increase by 1000x.

We've struggled to find avenues by which to disseminate our advice. There seem to be few forums where smart high school students congregate. Those forums and mailing lists that do exist often have strict guidelines against posters promoting their own blogs. We're grateful that Less Wrong has been welcoming.

We'd appreciate any suggestions for how we might be able to reach more people.

Where will the social value come from?

The main avenues through which people generate social value and disvalue are

  1. Career
  2. Side projects / volunteering
  3. Donating to charity
  4. Enjoying recreational activity, health and wealth
  5. Relations with family and friends
  6. Having children

We have to offer our advisees advice that improves their lives for them to find it worthwhile, but we think that our social impact will be mediated primarily through the impacts of #1 and #2 on others.

It may be surprising that we highlight #2. One reason that we highlight it is that high school and college students tend to have free time outside of school, that they can spend more productively on side projects than on the relatively low-skilled part time jobs that are available to them without the credential of a college degree. Another is that it can be hard to find funding to work on something of high social value full time. Some examples of successful side projects created by members of the effective altruist / Less Wrong communities are:

Why don't we expect our impact to be through #3 (donating to charity)?

  • A lot of the people well-suited to making money already do it by default: while there are individuals who would do more good taking a higher paying job and earning to give, we wouldn't expect to be able to boost people's salaries a lot on average, given the constraints that they operate under, both with respect to skills and with respect to the sorts of work they'd be willing to do.
  • Our advisees won't be making a lot of money for a long time — by the time they do, they may have had a lot of exposure to the ideas of effective altruism through other channels (whether through existing organizations such as GiveWell and 80,000 Hours, or through future organizations). 
  • For effective altruist types, 80,000 Hours Executive Director Benjamin Todd has said that he doesn't think that it's plausible that earning to give is likely to be the path toward doing the most good. I gave more points against earning to give as optimal effective altruism in Earning to Give vs. Altruistic Career Choice Revisited.
  • We're in a different cultural sphere from people in finance and business / consulting, and better suited to help people who are engaged in more intellectual endeavors.

Concerning #4, the benefits would not be leveraged; concerning #5, one would expect the benefits would be ~1x the benefits to the individual, which isn't a large multiplier; concerning #6, we wouldn't expect to have much impact on people's decision to have children, the sign of the effect would be ambiguous, and our advisees are far from the point of actually raising children.

Here are some examples of channels through which we expect to have a positive impact on #1 and #2: 

  • There's a widespread misconception amongst high school students that they have to engage in particular extracurricular activities (or many extracurricular activities) to get into good colleges. By raising awareness that this is not the case, we can free students up to engage in substantive side projects such as contributing to open source software projects and writing Wikipedia articles on important topics — things that both have direct social benefit and that build skills that are useful for future activities.
  • We're disseminating information about the benefits of computer programming, pointing people to programming learning resources, and pointing people to information about how to learn programming. By reaching high school students, we can help people get a head start, preparing them for the option of becoming software engineers, which will (in expectation) move people into the tech sector, which has unusually great positive externalities.
  • A moderately large fraction of intellectually capable people go to graduate school and end up not using their degrees (e.g. because they're unable to get jobs in the academic market), or end up doing research of little practical relevance. By disseminating information on academia as a career option and promoting an unbiased view of the value of theoretical research, we can divert people into careers where they can make a difference.
  • By educating people about the unconventional path of entrepreneurship as a career option (for example, by pointing them to entrepreneurship learning resources and connecting them with entrepreneurs who we know) we can enable more people to innovate more than they otherwise would. 
We're very interested in further ideas along these lines, as well as suggestions for how we can realize them.

Finances

We originally thought in terms of supporting the operation by charging for personalized advising. This could still be an option, but:

  • High school and college students generally don't have much money.
  • Most of the students who we advised said that knowing what they know now, they would have sought advising from us only if it were free. This is true even of those who reported to benefiting substantially, suggesting that we can't resolve the issue by improving the quality of our advice.
  • Students only need ~5 hours of advising from us at a given time, so even to the extent that people are willing to pay, there's substantial overhead involved per paid hour.
  • While personalized advising does feed into our public content at the current margin, if we had to focus on it heavily, it would distract from producing the more valuable public content.

At this point, we're seeking philanthropic funding, and would appreciate any ideas as to how to secure it.

Comments (53)

Comment author: ChristianKl 23 March 2014 09:02:01PM *  14 points [-]

We've struggled to find avenues by which to disseminate our advice. There seem to be few forums where smart high school students congregate. Those forums and mailing lists that do exist often have strict guidelines against posters promoting their own blogs. We're grateful that Less Wrong has been welcoming.

I think you are likely making a strategic mistake by focusing on outreach instead of focusing on building a place where people want to go.

A wordpress page that doesn't have an RSS feed but points me to a list of blog post written on another forum and a link to a Quora blog doesn't give the impression of a highly reputable venue.

You wrote a bunch of high value post but didn't published them on your own website but on Lesswrong and Quora. That's nice for Lesswrong but doesn't provide you yourself with a website that get's good traffic from google.

Given that you already have a strategy of writing high value posts have you thought about asking a place like Business Insider or Forbes whether they would pay you to write posts on a blog on their platform?

At this point, we're seeking philanthropic funding, and would appreciate any ideas as to how to secure it.

In the effective altruistic community there are people thinking about spending money where it has the highest impact, what's your exact case, that they should give you that money instead of giving it to malaria prevention?

When it comes to having a public reputation I would also recommend to give speeches. There might be plenty of venues in San Francisco that like quality speeches on education. It might be a better way to build relationships with people who are willing to give you money than seeking money online, where you don't meet the people who make the decisions face to face.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 12:15:34AM 7 points [-]

A wordpress page that doesn't have an RSS feed but points me to a list of blog post written on another forum and a link to a Quora blog doesn't give the impression of a highly reputable venue.

We had been meaning to add a blog for a while; upon reading your comment, we decided to do it today: http://cognitomentoring.org/blog. Thanks.

Comment author: InquilineKea 23 March 2014 10:46:01PM 1 point [-]

"I think you are likely making a strategic mistake by focusing on outreach instead of focusing on building a place where people want to go."

I agree - I think it would be nice to create a Facebook group (at least). Forums/subreddits could also work, although I'm not sure if they would gain much traction at this stage.

Comment author: JonahSinick 23 March 2014 10:00:24PM *  -1 points [-]

Thanks for the feedback.

A wordpress page that doesn't have an RSS feed but points me to a list of blog post written on another forum and a link to a Quora blog doesn't give the impression of a highly reputable venue.

We'll be putting a blog on our website soon.

Given that you already have a strategy of writing high value posts have you thought about asking a place like Business Insider or Forbes whether they would pay you to write posts on a blog on their platform?

We've been looking into platforms that would be interested in publishing articles. We hadn't considered Business Insider or Forbes. Why do you mention them specifically?

In the effective altruistic community there are people thinking about spending money where it has the highest impact, what's your exact case, that they should give you that money instead of giving it to malaria prevention?

We're not necessarily seeking funding from effective altruist types: we are concerned about the possibility of diverting EA funding, and would prefer to secure funding from other sources. We can engage in detailed discussion with people who are interested in the possibility of donating to Cognito Mentoring and want to hear our thoughts on its relative relative cost-effectiveness. I don't necessarily think that donating to Cognito Mentoring is more cost-effective than donating to other EA organizations. All else being equal, there's an a priori reason for donating to a smaller organization than a larger organization (diminishing marginal returns), but I would want to talk with other EA organizations about their room for more funding before giving too much weight to this point.

Comment author: [deleted] 24 March 2014 09:34:19AM 4 points [-]

If you are adding a blog, make sure you reliably and consistently update it. Otherwise this may look worse than not having a blog at all.

Comment author: ChristianKl 23 March 2014 11:45:00PM 4 points [-]

We've been looking into platforms that would be interested in publishing articles. We hadn't considered Business Insider or Forbes. Why do you mention them specifically?

They seem to me like the kind of venues that are the best match. I would think that the kind of stuff you write has a better stuff at those venues than at Buzzfeed.

I would also consider it be to easier to become a payed blogger for the kind of content you want to write at those venues than at the New York Times.

Comment author: Kawoomba 24 March 2014 05:41:29PM *  11 points [-]

What you need is a real business model. If you tailor your enterprise towards providing a YouTube channel, building a subscriber base and living off of ads, that is substantially different to creating a website, to providing 1-on-1 personal services. It's not only hindsight bias that your original financing plans seemed doom to fail, when I first read of your project I very nearly made a public comment predicting as much (but didn't want to be a Debbie Downer, also my head was dizzy from all the shaking).

"Ideas as to how to secure philanthropic funding" is so far removed from an actual business model, philanthrophy-financed or otherwise, it's hard where to start. I'd advise a "back to the drawing board" to come up with a highly tailored approach that you can sell in a 2 minute elevator speech. (Non-serious aside: One to investors and one to ignorant parents in Greenwich, Conn., who will pay whatever to support their precious super-high-IQ (all of them) sunflowers (and because the neighbors do it).)

ETA: It's true, life coaches (and homeopathy peddlers) often do just fine with their 1-on-1 or 1-to-many coaching. For the most part, they're just talented bullshitters. You, Sir, are [un]fortunately not a bullshitter, but interested in actually providing high-quality advice. Alas, it turns out that bullshitting is a better proxy for "providing valuable services" than, you know, actually providing a valuable service.

Comment author: ChristianKl 25 March 2014 12:21:26PM *  3 points [-]

ETA: It's true, life coaches (and homeopathy peddlers) often do just fine with their 1-on-1 or 1-to-many coaching.

Coaching is not primarily about giving advice. Some of them even have a ethical codex against pushing their solution onto clients.

It is basically about asking people: "What do you think you have to do? Don't tell me bullshit, what do you really think would be best for you? When will you do it?" Then next week: "Did you do last week what you said at the last meeting?"

A coach helps you to go where you have ugh fields. There are plenty of people who get value from it.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 07:00:04PM 2 points [-]

Thanks.

If you tailor your enterprise towards providing a YouTube channel, building a subscriber base and living off of ads, that is substantially different to creating a website, to providing 1-on-1 personal services.

I don't quite follow this – are you suggesting that we pursue the former strategy?

It's not only hindsight bias that your original financing plans seemed doom to fail, when I first read of your project I very nearly made a public comment predicting as much

I wouldn't have minded.

It's not only hindsight bias that your original financing plans seemed doom to fail, when I first read of your project I very nearly made a public comment predicting as much

I'd advise a "back to the drawing board" to come up with a highly tailored approach that you can sell in a 2 minute elevator speech.

Tailored to whom?

You, Sir, are [un]fortunately not a bullshitter, but interested in actually providing high-quality advice.

Do you think the two are mutually exclusive?

Comment author: Kawoomba 24 March 2014 08:49:00PM *  4 points [-]

Well, I suppose that I'd be suggesting that you tailor your speech to the powers-that-be at LW: Make Cognito Mentoring part of their (and CFAR's) outreach effort, Cognito Mentoring mentions on every new chapter of HPMOR. The perfect audience! When you find a synergy, exploit it to the max: In exchange for being able to thoroughly tap into the HPMOR community, the Cognito Mentoring YouTube channel you create will also regularly feature CFAR content*. Quite the glaring omission for the LW-CFAR-cloud not to have an active and promoted YouTube channel, you can solve that**. You require very little manpower from them, you can take care of nearly everything yourselves. You provide a new gateway into the rationality community (academic-accomplishment centered, another demonstration of how rationality training can be applied to more than picking the door with the goat) with new participants for the workshops, and you get not to start from scratch with your community building efforts (and a community is what is required, even if only a loose one). Along the lines of "Think of an incentive the other person hasn't even thought of -- and then meet it".There's no reason the hours you're putting in can't "double-count" for both CFAR and Cognito Mentoring, considering the large overlap in 'ideology'. Whether you'd label such a partnership as an affiliation or as Cognito Mentoring being a sister organisation would be up to the negotiatin'.

* It may also drop the Bayes.

** If there is such a channel, I'm not aware of it, case in point.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 09:08:25PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the suggestion :-) We'd have to see whether people at CFAR would be interested.

Comment author: Lumifer 23 March 2014 07:44:50PM 10 points [-]

Where does your credibility come from?

Comment author: [deleted] 24 March 2014 03:37:51PM *  2 points [-]

They have credibility to Less Wrong people by virtue of being Less Wrong people, but if they want to expand outside of that they should probably heavily advertise their own educational credentials. This is how McKinsey et al. get customers happy to let twenty-somethings advise them on business practices: they only draw from elite colleges. "Advice from Ivy League grads" is an easy-to-understand selling point.

Comment author: JonahSinick 23 March 2014 08:09:54PM *  2 points [-]

Good question.

  • To a large degree we're aggregating and synthesizing the best existing advice, rather than generating our own wholecloth. This lowers the bar that we have to clear.

  • Vipul and I both have experience doing research and analysis for MIRI.

  • I worked at MathPath for 3 summers, taught college students throughout graduate school at University of Illinois, taught high school at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and technology (an academic magnet high school) and teach high performing math students at Art of Problem Solving. Vipul taught throughout graduate school at University of Chicago.

  • We're learning about our target population through personalized advising.

But the ultimate test is whether people find our advice useful.

You can see some reviews here.

Comment author: Lumifer 23 March 2014 09:48:19PM 9 points [-]

I think you are answering the question why you think are you qualified to offer advice. That's a different question.

None of your four points answers the question as to why high-IQ kids should turn to you for advice about, basically, how to run their life.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 24 March 2014 12:06:44AM 12 points [-]

Agreed. This is maybe the most important question that isn't addressed in the post. There are lots of people and organizations offering young people advice of varying quality, and if Jonah and Vipul want to reach lots of people they need to send a strong signal among all of this noise that people will notice and pay attention to. (The quality of the advice is not such a signal; presumably if the target population could distinguish between good and bad advice then they wouldn't need this service.)

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 04:18:57AM *  4 points [-]

Thanks.

One response to this is that even though there's a lot of competition for people's attention in general, if one restricts to a niche population, there's much less competition. Do you think that there's a lot of advice aimed specifically intellectually gifted young people? What are some examples of such sources? (We know of some, e.g. College Confidential — I'm curious as to whether you know ones that we haven't come across, or haven't thought of.)

Comment author: lukeprog 23 March 2014 11:33:37PM *  9 points [-]

Why not pursue a model where parents pay for the personalized advising? If you're advising students, that means parents are your target customers.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 12:40:15AM *  7 points [-]

Some points:

  • This would work if both the parents and the students wanted advising for the students.
  • Teenagers and young adults are often rebellious and don't want to do what their parents tell them to.
  • If the students don't want advising, they won't benefit much from it.
  • A large fraction of parents are willing to pay for SAT prep and such, but that's very different from what we're offering.
  • If the children are sufficiently young, there's less of an issue of teenage rebelliousness, and parents are more directly involved in their children's education.
  • The only parents who have made contact with us are parents of young children. (Edit: I misremembered – there were a few parents of older children who contacted us, but their children weren't interested.)
  • The parents of young children who contacted us expressed willingness to pay much more often than the students who contacted us.
  • Our expertise is much more relevant to high school and college students than to elementary and middle school students, except for the ones who are precocious to the point of being cognitively similar to high performing high school and college students. We haven't worked with other elementary and middle school students and have no background in early childhood development.
  • As in my post, there's an issue of needing a large flow of clients (because the number of hours per client is small).

It could be that we haven't pursued this option in sufficient depth. We could to focus on elementary and middle school students, or see whether the parent-child correlation of interest in advising for older students is sufficiently high. We would guess that the correlation isn't high enough, though we only have a few relevant data points (examples or parents being interested when their children aren't - there are many examples in the other direction) and further testing could reveal otherwise.

Any thoughts?

Comment author: Nornagest 24 March 2014 06:27:40PM 4 points [-]

Teenagers and young adults are often rebellious and don't want to do what their parents tell them to.

I'm basing this mainly on fifteen-year-old memories of myself as a teenager, but it seems to me that even teenagers who are academically rebellious in general may be more receptive to services that cast them as exceptional, especially if they can be spun as an end-run around what they (correctly) see as an ossified and intellectually sterile school system. I agree that you mainly want to be appealing to parents, though; there simply aren't enough teenagers that are smart enough to benefit from targeted education and independent-minded enough to pursue it and have enough money or pull to fund it.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 07:02:34PM 1 point [-]

Thanks.

Comment author: ruthie 24 March 2014 06:03:28AM 5 points [-]

Have you considered advertising through high school gifted programs?

I would have benefited a lot from this type of mentoring in high school, and when I think of how you could have reached high school me, the most plausible path would have been through my school's gifted program. I grew up in a mid-sized city where I more or less exhausted the educational opportunities for high school students, and never attended academic summer programs or anything similar. I also didn't use the internet much, and I think it's unlikely that I would have stumbled across this on my own. In fact, by some of the same tokens, I might have been an unusually high-impact person to reach because I wasn't likely to get the type of information you are disseminating through other avenues.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 06:48:08AM 1 point [-]

Thanks ruthie!

This is a path that we haven't explored, so it's helpful that you point it out.

Comment author: VAuroch 24 March 2014 09:13:38PM 0 points [-]

More effective than advertising through gifted programs might be to seek out schools without gifted programs and talk to the teachers. Where there are already gifted programs, you're less needed and will probably be perceived accordingly. In systems with no or minimal gifted programs, there will still usually be good teachers who have identified students who need more than they're getting. If you can find good criteria for identifying active "good teachers" and contact them selectively, you would do more good and probably attract more interest.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 24 March 2014 01:35:14AM *  4 points [-]

Out of curiosity, how have you been funding yourselves thus far?

Regarding promotion, there seem to be smart high schoolers on Quora. Even if you don't link to your site directly in your answers, if you write good questions, answers, and comments on answers in categories you're interested in, then people will probably visit your profile, right? My vague impression is that there are some "quora celebrities" like Yishan Wong who got a lot of visibility just by answering a lot of questions well.

You can also look at general "smart people" sites like http://boards.straightdope.com/ and see what their policies on self-promotion are; probably there will be some smart young folks or parents of smart young folks on such sites. Here's a list I made a while ago, can't vouch for quality. You could probably generate even more such sites by looking at recommendations made on sites on the list, e.g. this one for Less Wrong.

Metafilter is a pretty smart website and they have this section explicitly for promoting your own projects. Becoming a member costs $5. Since you're interested in younger folks, maybe look at unschooling websites?

There seem to be few forums where smart high school students congregate.

Have you thought about creating such a forum? How many of your 70 advisees would appreciate a forum/chat room/etc.? Could be self-sustaining/growing.

I think your point about side projects is a really good one. When I sit down and think about the best ways to improve the world, a lot of them seem like they require passionate activists rather than boatloads of funds, e.g. improving reflectiveness seems like something that you'd work to accomplish in a way similar to typical "awareness-spreading" activities: create art, submit links to social media, try to convince important people that your ideas are correct, etc.

Comment author: JonahSinick 24 March 2014 04:15:17AM 2 points [-]

Thanks very much for your thoughts.

Out of curiosity, how have you been funding yourselves thus far?

We've been self-funded.

Regarding promotion, there seem to be smart high schoolers on Quora. Even if you don't link to your site directly in your answers, if you write good questions, answers, and comments on answers in categories you're interested in, then people will probably visit your profile, right?

Yes. The time cost associated with writing high quality answers from scratch is high. But there's probably some low hanging fruit to be plucked in the direction of looking for questions asking about things that our articles address. Thanks for reminding us.

Quora celebrity Alex K Chen is one of our advisors, is a coauthor at our Quora blog, and has been compiling material useful to Cognito Mentoring.

Here's a list I made a while ago, can't vouch for quality.

Thanks, this is great, it's the sort of thing I was hoping for when I posted.

Have you thought about creating such a forum? How many of your 70 advisees would appreciate a forum/chat room/etc.? Could be self-sustaining/growing.

James Miller made a suggestion along similar lines. We're investigating this.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 25 March 2014 06:54:01AM 0 points [-]

Quora celebrity Alex K Chen is one of our advisors, is a coauthor at our Quora blog, and has been compiling material useful to Cognito Mentoring.

Congrats. Maybe you could persuade him to include a statement like "I am an advisor to Cognito Mentoring" or similar in his self-summary? Or try to get other Quora celebrities to become advisors (esp. those who have taken an interest in smart high schoolers and answering questions related to them) and then get them to link to Cognito Mentoring from their profiles? How about asking past/present/future advisees to link to you from their online profiles?

BTW, I just wanted to say thanks a lot to both of you for working on Cognito Mentoring. It's a great idea and it seems like you guys are doing a great job.

Comment author: insomniasexx 25 March 2014 04:40:43AM 0 points [-]

Here is hubski.com's policy on personal / promotional content: http://hubski.com/pub?id=100957

Obviously, you will get more attention and genuine interest if you don't just throw links at the feed and hope they stick.

Comment author: James_Miller 23 March 2014 06:50:22PM 4 points [-]

To make money perhaps you could start some kind of social network among gifted young people and eventually charge for advertising. I believe that the Davidson Institute took down their student forum so there might be an opening.

Comment author: JonahSinick 23 March 2014 08:09:23PM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the suggestion! We've been thinking about this. See also my post Can an online peer group substitute? at the Davidson Institute forum for parents. It seems as though it would take a long time to get enough users for it to pay for itself, but maybe it could eventually become self-sustaining.

Comment author: aarongertler 23 March 2014 10:37:09PM *  3 points [-]

Have you looked at the Johns Hopkins/Center for Talented Youth forums at https://cogito.cty.jhu.edu? I think you need a special login to get on, and I forgot my info long ago, but the community still seems to be of a respectable size.

Comment author: JonahSinick 23 March 2014 10:43:13PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks! We've heard of it, but don't know very much about it, because it's gated. You used to use it? What was your experience?

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 24 March 2014 03:23:22PM *  3 points [-]

The main avenues through which people generate social value and disvalue are...

It's interesting, and a sign of the times, that you didn't mention public service in your list.

Comment author: chaosmage 24 March 2014 09:27:47AM *  2 points [-]

Consider a YouTube channel. YouTube is where many of your customers go to learn things.

You already have content that you can put into video form. If one of you can talk, all you need is a set of videoblog type videomaking equipment. The price range is huge, and surely includes something appropriate to however valuable you estimate such a channel to be.

Comment author: ChristianKl 23 March 2014 08:24:07PM 2 points [-]

I think case studies of how you coach students would be valuable. You could have a model where by default your advice is public and you publish the MP3's of the Skype conversation but you also provide the possibility for payed consulting that's private.

Comment author: InquilineKea 23 March 2014 10:43:40PM 1 point [-]

I'm curious - what do you think of UnCollege and how it manages to advertise/fund itself? Would you be interested in following a similar model?

Also - what about advertising on sites like College Confidential and reddit? It probably wouldn't run well with the mods there if you advertised too much, but doing it once might work.

I think getting in touch with the homeschooling community might also provide some ideas. People in those communities can be incredibly motivated and resourceful.

Comment author: JonahSinick 23 March 2014 11:39:45PM 3 points [-]

Thanks for the thoughts!

I'm curious - what do you think of UnCollege and how it manages to advertise/fund itself? Would you be interested in following a similar model?

I've visited UnCollege once. The participants there seemed very curious and open to experience. I don't know enough about the program itself to make an assessment, though my superficial impressions were favorable. I tend to think that going to college is a good idea for almost everyone who's capable of doing well there, and to that extent there's tension between my views and theirs, but in many cases the participants seemed to be delaying college by a single year rather than not attending altogether.

I don't know what their funding model is – do you? I assumed that the participants pay.

Also - what about advertising on sites like College Confidential and reddit? It probably wouldn't run well with the mods there if you advertised too much, but doing it once might work.

Yeah, I've been hesitant to post to College Confidential because of their strict no-advertising policy. I made a few of our posts to Reddit, but didn't get any upvotes.

I think getting in touch with the homeschooling community might also provide some ideas. People in those communities can be incredibly motivated and resourceful.

We've done some of this (e.g. Gifted Homeschoolers Forum links an article that I wrote about college admissions for home schoolers, but we can probably do more. Thanks.

Comment author: InquilineKea 24 March 2014 12:24:27AM 1 point [-]

Good replies.

Regarding UnCollege -they charge tuition of $14k-$15k/year (see http://www.uncollege.org/program/ ). It's certainly not the way I would fund such a service, but we'll see if it works in the long term..

Hmm.. Yeah.. reddit isn't going to be the easiest medium to advertise on.. You could also try http://www.reddit.com/r/highschool, maybe, though I'm not sure if it'll work. Maybe you could use another page on Cognito Mentoring to advertise on reddit?

Comment author: jsu 27 March 2014 06:44:21AM 0 points [-]

Most of the students who we advised said that knowing what they know now, they would have sought advising from us only if it were free.

I think this is precisely because you aren't charging for advice. If you charged a $200/hour "consulting fee," people would see you as professionals, and value your advice highly. But now that you're giving advice for free, you're just some random Internet guy telling kids how to run their lives.

High school and college students generally don't have much money.

Well, you market it to the parents. People pay for college admissions consulting all the time.

Comment author: Lumifer 27 March 2014 03:14:16PM 2 points [-]

If you charged a $200/hour "consulting fee," people would see you as professionals, and value your advice highly.

Conditional on those people first deciding that these two guys are worth $200/hour.

Comment author: jsu 27 March 2014 06:29:31PM 0 points [-]

Yeah, but nobody's going to think that if the service is offered for free. Some people might if they charge for it. By charging a certain amount you tell people how much they should value your product.

Comment author: Lumifer 27 March 2014 07:05:47PM *  1 point [-]

Yeah, but nobody's going to think that if the service is offered for free.

Yeah, nobody in their right mind would highly value things like Linux or Wikipedia... Or the Sequences, for that matter.

By charging a certain amount you tell people how much they should value your product.

At most you can do some anchoring. You can tell people how much they should value your product and people can (and often do) disagree with that.

Comment author: jsu 27 March 2014 11:18:30PM 0 points [-]

Remember several years ago, when people were concerned about how unreliable Wikipedia was, and told students never to cite it in their essays? It took a long time for people to trust Wikipedia, and nowadays people only trust it because lots of other people trust Wikipedia. But in the case of Cognito Mentoring, the average customer won't know anyone else who's used the service, nor is it popular or established. It's not impossible for a free service to be trustworthy, but it's a lot more difficult to trust a free service than a paid one.

At most you can do some anchoring. You can tell people how much they should value your product and people can (and often do) disagree with that.

That is true.

Comment author: Lumifer 28 March 2014 02:24:25PM 1 point [-]

There is folk wisdom which goes along the lines of "it's worth whatever you paid for it" but it is becoming rather irrelevant nowadays. Look at the tech scene. Consumer-oriented services (Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc.) do not charge their customers directly, they all find other ways to make money. Their services are "free" (yes, I know, we can discuss whether they are actually free and are you a product or a customer, but that's another topic) and yet clearly recognized as very valuable. Even if they do charge directly, they almost always offer a generous free tasting that is sufficient for many uses (Evernote, Dropbox, etc.)

The point is ease of trying. Testing a free service only costs you your time and so is easy and tempting to do. In particular, you don't need to trust that service very much because, again, all you are risking is your time. On the other hand, charging $200/hour is going to make most (but not all) people require some proof of the value before they part with the cash. A paid service needs more trust.

I understand that some people interpret price as signaling quality. But there are other factors in play, too.

Comment author: peter_hurford 25 March 2014 12:53:33AM 0 points [-]

At this point, we're seeking philanthropic funding, and would appreciate any ideas as to how to secure it.

What would you do with additional funding?

Comment author: JonahSinick 25 March 2014 03:28:31AM *  2 points [-]

Funding would go toward our salaries. We've been self-funded thus far, and are running out of short-term savings, so the continuation of the project hinges on us getting funding.

As for what we would do with more time:

We're still in an exploratory phase where we're experimenting, so our plans are subject to change, but here is what we have in mind.

Personalized advising and networking of advisees

  • In the process of doing personalized advising, we would learn more about the questions that people have in practice and do research to answer them, which would feed into content creation.

  • We're in the process of introducing our advisees to one another when they have common interests, and are exploring the possibility of creating a discussion group for them. What we learn from their discussion (e.g. resources that they recommend to one another) would feed into our content creation, too.

Content creation.

As above, the particular topics that we end up covering will depend on part on the sorts of questions that arise in the course of our personalized advising. However, some subjects that we'd like to cover are:

  • Careers. We have a detailed page on academia as a career option. We want to create similarly detailed pages for other career options (we plan to add law and consulting). We want to give information on academia as a career option by field of research for common fields of research. We would also like to cover entrepreneurship as a career option in much greater depth than we do now, covering both entrepreneurship in the tech sector and entrepreneurship in other contexts.

  • Majors. There are two things to cover here: (a) how valuable it is to major in a given subject and (b) the best learning resources for a given major. On point (a), there's research to be done on which majors qualify one for which types of jobs / graduate programs. On point (b), in most cases we don't have deep subject matter knowledge, but we can interview subject matter experts to get their thoughts, and scour discussion forums for relevant information.

  • Benefits of learning different subjects. We've made pages for 11 subjects, and would like to flesh these out and cover dozens more subjects. As far as we know, there's no website that does this, so there's room for becoming a canonical reference.

  • Mapping connections between different subjects. We want to be able to present our advisees with information of the type "If you like learning X, you might also like learning Y."

  • College admissions and obtaining financial aid. These things have large zero-sum component, but we want to cover them so as to offer students a complete package of advice. We'll satisfice rather than optimize here.

  • How to learn on your own. Because we advise that gifted students rely on self-learning and not school, it's important that we offer good advice on maintaining motivation and assessing progress while learning on one's own.

  • Socio-emotional issues. This is not our comparative advantage, but we can at least compile existing information, as I did in my post on methods for treating depression.

  • Side projects. We want to research the different kinds of side projects that young people have pursued, with a view toward getting a feel for the range of possibilities of extracurricular activities for our advisees.

Outreach.

Disseminating our content is high priority for us. As I mention in the main post, we're still searching for good ways to do this. One possibility that we're pursuing is getting our content published on other websites such as About.com (hypothetically). So we would spend time looking for such opportunities, in addition to other types of opportunities as they arose.

Comment author: peter_hurford 28 March 2014 04:25:19AM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for putting this together.

A couple more questions come to mind to flesh out your funding case:

1.) How much longer can you run on self-funding?

2.) How much are you looking to fundraise? How much salary do you intend to draw from Cognito Mentoring?

3.) Do you have any near-term or long-term plans to ask those being mentored to pay for the service?

4.) Do you have any case studies available for people you've mentored?

5.) What plans, if any, do you have to learn / iterate / improve based on continuing with your model?

If you want to answer these questions but don't want to do so publicly, feel free to answer by email.

Comment author: JonahSinick 29 March 2014 01:20:45AM 1 point [-]

Hi Peter:

(1) At least 3 months part time and no more than 6 months part time. Some of this time is spent looking for short-term funding sources, which would otherwise be spent on core operations and securing funding sustainably.

(2) Funding of $20k would enable us to work an additional 3 months full-time, and invest resources in incorporating as a nonprofit.

(3) In my original post and in a comment to Luke I wrote about why we think that funding ourselves primarily through advising fees isn't promising. We do intend to charge if we have more potential advisees than we have time for advising.

(4) You can read some reviews here.

(5) We're still in an experimental phase, so to some extent we're continuously iterating. Our advising feeds into our public content. We sent out an advisee satisfaction survey, and we learned that (i) the benefits to a few advisees were major (ii) the benefits to the median advisee were small (iii) few of our advisees would have been willing to pay (even those who reported major benefits) (iv) people like our web content a lot, and we've updated accordingly. We're keeping track of our advisees over time and following up on whether they found our long-term recommendations useful. We've been experimenting with different fora to use to disseminate content. Do these things answer your question, or are you wondering about something else?

Comment author: peter_hurford 31 March 2014 03:17:01AM 0 points [-]

It seems like it would be really great for you to get some sort of EA seed funding so you can continue to develop this idea. I don't have $20K myself, though, unfortunately. Maybe I could help out some? Maybe you could put together a Kickstarter / Indiegogo campaign?

How would you know if a self-reported "major benefit" is actually a major benefit to the EA bottom line?

Do you have any plans to track advisees more deeply?

Comment author: [deleted] 24 March 2014 02:18:52AM 0 points [-]

According to the Boston Globe there is US $14 billion for special education and US $5 million for gifted education. Identifying gifted children among disabled children seems worthy. I've met several exceptionally bright children who were Deaf.

Comment author: James_Miller 24 March 2014 02:42:10AM *  0 points [-]

They are called "twice exceptional" children.

Comment author: shminux 24 March 2014 04:07:44AM 0 points [-]

The standard term is gifted learning disabled, I believe.

Comment author: drethelin 27 March 2014 05:30:43AM *  -1 points [-]

My thoughts when someone asked me what I think about this on IRC: <drethelin> eh

<drethelin> probably a fine idea

<drethelin> I think a more cost effective plan would be to create a summary with links to lesswrong, introductions to probability theory, and maybe some stuff from GTD and how to make friends and influence people

<drethelin> and then email/heavily advertise it to high school chess clubs

<drethelin> like you said, a more generic thing can have a lot more impact per investment

<drethelin> so framing the value as being in the mentoring seems incorrect

<drethelin> I would expect very smart people exposed to the right ideas to come out about as well as very smart people who are exposed to and mentored in the right ideas

<drethelin> especially considering the very short term scale of your mentoring

<drethelin> nothing like Aristotle