"There is also an introversion in the innovator that keeps him from team sports and social events. He dislikes authority, or at least being told what to do. He is not a leader in high school or college, nor is he likely to be pledged by social clubs. From an early age he is a dreamer, not a doer. His attention wanders easily. He likes to probe, to collect, to tinker. He is prone to fantasize. He is not inclined to focus. He will not be voted by his classmates most likely to succeed."
An interesting conflict arises when these people become startup founders. If their companies succeed, they're forced to become leaders, whether they want to or not. But they rarely learn to relish it.
And yet these founders are usually the best leaders for their companies, if they can make themselves do it. It's one of the only examples I know where the people who are best at something don't like doing it much.
As a counterpoint, I also happen to know people who have done “important new things” and they mostly don’t match that description. One of the most brilliant people I’ve known seemed almost born to lead. He didn’t particularly excel at sports, but he enjoyed playing and watching them, and was on teams in high school and college. I wouldn’t describe him as a “dreamer” or as unfocused; in all things he seemed relentlessly focused. His opinion on authority is probably lukewarm, but not negative.
I think that paragraph presents a false dichotomy - even of the people I’ve known who more closely match some of the other qualities, I wouldn’t describe any of them as lacking in focus nor action. It’s easy to come up with examples of famous innovators matching either description, and it’s probably easy to slip into disagreement about things like, “well what does not inclined to focus mean?” In short, it’s underspecified, and people can read into it what appeals to them.
I'm curious what exactly that person is doing. You seem to be describing a leader but not necessarily tech/science innovator.
Wilson is talking about people who invent and build innovative stuff. They can become leaders only as long as they are forced to, in order to achieve their goals (e.g. become a founder and lead a company). Lack of focus applies to things that are not interesting to these people, but then they become hyper-focused and even obsessed about their own ideas.
He’s a research scientist at a tech company. He resolved a central open problem in his field while in academia, then entered the industry to work on applied research.
> Lack of focus applies to things that are not interesting to these people, but then they become hyper-focused and even obsessed about their own ideas.
Maybe. But you saying this is part of my original point: is that actually what the quote means? What you’re saying sounds like the stereotypical conception of a genius, not necessarily the reality of high performing innovators. I feel like it’s hard for me focus on things that aren’t interesting to me, and I dive into things that interest me. But that also describes...essentially everyone I know, if I’m reasonably objective about it.
If we can keep exchanging anecdata that supports or challenges that description, it’s no longer a description of the world, but rather just a description of particular people (and one without predictive impact). A description isn’t impactful if you have to keep clarifying its interpretation in order to make it work. Reasonable people can disagree about whether it’s fair to say your interpretation is what the quote is actually getting at, and in any case we could find obvious counterexamples for it.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.
To summarize the summary of the summary: people are a problem”
- Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
-- Hannah Arendt
I would characterize people who are described by your quote as people who prefer breadth of knowledge over depth. This is a good quality to have in order to avoid tunnel vision. The downside (as you mentioned) is that it takes more willpower to maintain prolonged focus on an objective.
I believe that I tend to fall in this category of people and its annoying when society demands to see immediate, obvious results. Small, incremental progress is less risky but it seems(to me) that the rewards are also minimized. Its difficult to judge whether the 'dreaming' one is doing will realize as concrete, positive changes.
Someone who dreams and fails to map reality to said dreams will not.
At least my life experience.
Just hard to do the former. Took a military career to be able to do the former as it takes so much discipline.
There is also an introversion in the innovator that keeps him from team sports and social events. He dislikes authority, or at least being told what to do. He is not a leader in high school or college, nor is he likely to be pledged by social clubs. From an early age he is a dreamer, not a doer. His attention wanders easily. He likes to probe, to collect, to tinker. He is prone to fantasize. He is not inclined to focus. He will not be voted by his classmates most likely to succeed.
This is not the type of person the elite universities are looking for. Whether it's Harvard, Stanford, Sorbonne, Beida, IITs, etc., they're looking for high-scoring, blindingly bright geniuses for undergraduate and many graduate programs, too. If they're confident extroverts, i.e., "natural leaders," even better.
Are they doing it all wrong?
The best scientists probably won't be recognized during their lifetimes. The scientists you do recognize while they're alive, are probably not the best at "science".
Hard disagree, unless what you mean by recognition is popular fame of the sort Stephen Hawking enjoys. Within their fields, scientists are typically recognized well before they die. Feynman was extremely well known to physicists, but he’s still basically unknown compared to Neil Degrasse Tyson. Alan Turing and Claude Shannon were renowned. Terence Tao, Ed Witten and Andrew Wiles are probably in the top percentile of mathematicians in the world, and they’re heaped with awards despite still being alive. But ask random passerby on the street about any of these people and you’ll get a vague guess at best.
Frankly, if anything I feel Einstein’s legacy has enjoyed outsized fame compared to his actual contributions. I think his work was the best of the field in the 20th century, but I’m not sure it’s realistically possible to become as recognized in modern science.
This brings up an important point. People are good at different tasks.
Some people are exceptional with gleaning and regurgitating information from texts and lectures. This is what we mostly label as "smart" today.
Others can be great at different things, such as any of the vast sets of social skills, critical thinking, maths, strategy, etc.
The problem is that while intelligence in one skill is correlated with intelligence in another, it is not necessarily the case.
We probably all have met engineers who openly admit they're not the greatest writers. Another example was one I learned from my interest in chess. Bobby Fischer was one of the greatest at the game, but notoriously struggled with memorizing opening game lines and theory. I am sure many of us here have also met engineers and academics with a lot of knowledge in their field, but whom also hold missconceptions, or easily come to factually erroneous conclusions on things which they have not studies.
When I read the story, I was a bit incredulous at the author's words that "IQ is real and it does matter," not because it's such an obvious over-simplification.
However, universities will be reluctant to disavow their beliefs in the mystical IQ--an idea which rests in the scholarly literature as an estimation of G, general intelligence--as this is a set of institutions which benefits from their faith not just that it is something which can be measured on a test, but that they do accurately measure it.
They're running in circles with this "medium brilliance" because they're out of ideas about why their faith's predictions failed. Turns out those who score the best on IQ tests are those who are the best at scoring well on IQ tests--not the same set of skills needed to be the best scientists.
Here is one such interview: https://youtu.be/7EuxVOgrEig
> "He employs a limited range of openings. Of course, this is not a sign of Fischer's limited creativity, since he compensates for this by a very profound and sound knowledge of the variations he favours [sic]." Plisetsky & Voronkov 2005, p. 270.
> Fischer was renowned for his opening preparation and made numerous contributions to chess opening theory
He promoted (not invented) Fischerrandom / Chess960 because he felt that memorizing ever-long opening sequences was boring and ruined the game, and that would be soon dominated by computers with their far-superior memory.
Fischer was, despite being, at one point,
the greatest chess player in the world, and on people's all-time greatest lists, predictable in his use of openings, as you know since this is widely documented and you're well-read on him. Your quote even admits this.
So I'm not sure what you are exactly disagreeing with that I said. Maybe the source of disagreement is that I unintentionally gave the impression that he has a bad memory, or a bad opening game. As he was one of the greatest chess players, this was clearly not true. Rather, the idea was that he had a notable disdain and discouragement from memorizing learning opening game theory. He was never able to master a very large number of openings... This was a notable feature of him as a player.
Perhaps he could have, but that would be speculation. I think he just wasn't as good at it as the other top players.
The reason I didn't became a scientist is that it SUCKS being a scientist in Poland. Last time I checked the best Polish university is outside the top 400 universities of the world. It's the last foothold of feudalism in my country. The academic environment is dominated by middle aged and senior men who are only concerned about keeping what they have. In many other ways, Poland has an innovation problem.
That, and childhood traumas I don't want to bother you with. When you get a bachelor's degree in CS, but you only have so-so grades and it took you 5 years instead of 3, it's hard to impress anyone in academia.
So I became a programmer. It was hard getting used to doing stuff initially, but I learned to enjoy it. However, I'm quickly bored by repetitive tasks and programming languages worse than Python. I seem to love learning new programming paradigms, libraries, programming languages even if they're difficult (I wrote a Rust program).
I like programming, but I'm not super excited by it. I wonder if you could suggest me some other career I can pursue if I don't have success as a programmer? I thought about an investigative journalist, but few people value good journalism around here.
I’m thinking about continuing my education in US after a 6 years break from academia. I’m a bit anxious no one will want me, a 28 y/o guy with a degree from an unknown university. I also find myself leaning towards journalism and social studies, which doesn’t play nice with my CS degree.
Anyway, I wish you luck in any direction you end up taking.
Academia is hierarchical ("feudal"), is so everywhere, and this is by design. And it works.
There are wholly different factors such as complacency of local academics in dishonest practices of some of their subset. There does exist a genius loci, the whole social, administrative contexts matter.
Also the Wallerstein centre/periphery theory applies, developing countries are at a disadvantage and that is not for the lack of smart among their people or even in the pockets of their academia (remember, Oxford also has a lot of dead wood, the difference lies they have at least 50% of it while you might approach 90%).
I would not place the selection process among those factors. It may be romantic to think the US grant system as meritocratic. However historically it was first introduced by Vannevar Bush who in the war time has lead the State's scientific efforts. He saw public subsidy as the modus operandi of a successful effort and also saw the Soviets realizing the same while the US government was barred by the Constitution from direct subsidy. So the NSF was set up not for selection, that's a byproduct, but as a workaround enabling government to pour streams of money to the usual suspects. Wallerstein's dynamics also applies to the inter-US provincial relations with the centres.
I find your fears about age premature. I know of many academics who started late or took enormous time. The whole system in Sweden is set up around taking enormous time for everything. If you are able to show good research you might have a honest chance. If all you want to show is pedigree, you set yourself up a rat race with all the Asians for example.
There are fields combining CS and media, such as for example the so-called digital storytelling lately combining grammars of graphical visualization, and probabilistic programming in spreadsheets, NLP and what not.
On the contrary, I think that's precisely the stereotypical image of smart people (e.g. Turing in The Imitation Game). I think a bunch of people who think they are smart would agree with this self-evaluation; I'm tempted to see myself as the intelligent loner who is right while others are wrong. However, I think that view is more narrative than having an actual bearing on aptitude.
Articles like this will perpetuate that belief. Bad soft skills? Lack of a structured lifestyle? Cannot focus? Many people will relate to these because they take effort to build.
Though Wilson touches a good point. Medium levels of intelligence is require for most jobs, even in Investing you do not need to be that bright to be "the best" in the field. Additionally, we know now that novel ideas comes from a background process in your brain that takes a lot of time and domain knowledge to develop.
At the risk of kicking off a debate to define the word “intelligence”, I think you’re massively underestimating the intelligence - not just effort and experience, but actual intellectual horsepower - poured into the upper echelons of investing strategy.
More generally, while I agree with your overall comment I’d say there’s likely few fields where the best professionals aren’t extraordinarily intelligent in addition to other success-amplifying qualities.
There is some truth to this. Bright students often don't have to work that hard at getting good grades. Some kids who just knew all the answers without studying until high school or college never learned how to study. It isn't uncommon for them to have a really tough adjustment period when they suddenly do need to study.
Though maybe lazy is not the best word for it.
I knew quite a few of my classmates at MIT who never learned to focus and direct their energies. Even advanced/AP/IB classes in high school didn't require them to focus for very long at a time. It's not that they disliked work, it was that they had never before practiced focusing for very long. Also, being obviously smart, teachers and administrators had always made exceptions for them.
My old room mate was a regional US chess champion and widely regarded as one of the smartest in our MIT peer group. He really enjoyed difficult problems, but lacked the ability to steer his intellect. When he was in high school in Atlanta, there was a school program where the government would pay the AP exam fees for any student who signed up, as long as they didn't sign up for two exams that were concurrently administered. There was no requirement that the student take the corresponding course. Partly to demonstrate the wastefulness of the program, my old room mate got a schedule, signed up for all of the exams corresponding to his classes, and also filled in his schedule with as many exams as possible. When the administration discovered his little demonstration, they called him in and told him that he would be actually taking all of the exams, and there would be stern consequences if he didn't pass all of them. I think the threat was to bill his parents for the exam fees for intentionally wasting school resources. They told his teachers what was going on and that he was to be excused from normal classroom activities in order to sit in the corner of the classroom and study from a textbook for a different subject. He passed a full slate of exams, most without benefit of instruction, and most with background distraction of an unrelated class going on in the background while he studied.
He wouldn't have been able to do this if he were merely adverse to work or unable to focus. However, the motivation to focus was externally applied. At least until his early 30s, he never gained the ability to will himself to focus, and he never got an undergraduate degree.
Although I would argue that the failure is one of the educational system - not that I try to avoid taking responsibility, but children in this context are the innocent participants in a system set up for them by adults. Innocent as in that they don't know any better until they're older.
The problem is one of understimulation. I do actually like to work hard, and always have. But for topics that bore me, where I don't see the point, why would I invest more than the minimum amount of effort to pass the grade, so that I can focus on things that I do care about? Of course I realise now that I was pubescent ignoramus, but you can't expect a teenager to realise that. That's the responsibility of the adults around them. Again, that is what I mean with teenage innocence.
Also, I remember one time another very bright classmate in middle school told me "being gifted is a mental illness of the parents". I don't know if he came up with that or if he stole it from somewhere, but it always stuck with me: a lot of kids (mostly guys, I suspect) who think they're oh so smart are really pampered by their parents - for one, it made me realise my mom praised my abilities way too much (luckily early enough to realise she was wrong quite often).
I can't find the article right now, but later I read somewhere that praising children for being gifted - "wow, you must be really smart to get this!" - discourages them from practising hard. Praising them for their accomplishments - "wow, you must have worked really hard to solve this!" - does the opposite.
The problem (for all the students, not just the cleverest ones) is that school curriculum is necessarily insipid, and school pedagogy provides very little direct practice and delayed, often unhelpful feedback. A huge amount of time is wasted on organizational overhead, other students can be tremendously distracting, and meaningful learning is often cut off by scheduled class changes. The primary focus is on memorizing and regurgitating atomized and decontextualized definitions, factoids, and formulas, and students are discouraged from asking and answering their own questions, solving their own problems, or doing their own research. Perhaps worse, there is an excessive focus on getting the “right answers”, which discourages risk taking.
Motivated students who have learned some meta-cognitive skills can often learn entirely independently without any human interaction more efficiently than they can from a typical classroom studying a typical school textbook and doing assigned homework.
Working 1:1 with an expert tutor/mentor/coach for at least a few hours per week (and then spending the rest of the time on independent practice) is dramatically more effective. Of particular note for clever students, this allows for students to try problems and projects of much larger scope and much greater difficulty than the typical curriculum has room for. But nobody has figured out how to scale this affordably to the whole society.
One lucky thing in the software industry is that the tools are very interactive and there are lots of opportunities to get various kinds of feedback even when working independently.
Maybe the best example is Einstein, if only because he's been falsely spun as this sort of trope. I'm not sure where the myth of Einstein doing poorly at math at an early age came from, but it's fake. Instead of just being whimsical and bored, he sought out a challenge when his assigned courses were unable to provide that. A quote from Einstein when asked of this rumor is, "I never failed in mathematics. Before I was fifteen, I had mastered differential and integral calculus." And his notes and works were prolific driven by another incredible work ethic.
I think the wandering mind is certainly fair, but that wandering is often directed towards finding challenges to which an unprecedented level of energy is put forward, often for years or decades at a time, to great achievement.
The 2007 HN link about Inverse Power of Praise was the eye-opener for me. a.k.a. "How not to talk to your kids"
The takedown is "praise for effort, not for intelligence". Because intelligence is perceived as something you can't change.
Our university programming teacher liked to say a good programer should be lazy, because then he will think how to do the job with least effort. How to apply the least amount of force and still get the job done.
I guess the article is trying to say that being a genious is demotivational,
in some counterintuitive (not "unintuitive") way. I get that- but so is always
being the last in class in grades and the first in the pricipal's office.
If geniouses find it hard to advance in life because they never learn to do
the hard work - well so do the kids who always get all the D-'s, but for the
opposite reason. The genious kids learn that rewards don't require hard work.
The "antisocial dreamer" kids learn that working hard brings no reward. They
both stop trying, after a while- but the bright kids still get ahead, without
And don't get me started on the "antisocial" part. Maybe that's the mark of a
true scientist- but it's also the mark of the kid who'll spent most of her
school years ostracised, once the other kids' parents get the message that
she's "disruptive", who'll finish school with bad grades and struggle to get
into the good universities, or the good jobs, and generally find all the doors
closed and everyone's back turned.
Yeah, sure, you can make it to the top even so. But if every day is an uphill
struggle, you'll find you can do a lot less, just because there's only so much
motivation a person can have and you'll need to spend most of it just to stay
on your feet.
This is what I have to say: life is a series of Quick Time Events. If you
don't push the right buttons, at the right time, in the right order- you're
screwed for ever more. Don't waste your school days being that kid who's
always the first to take the blame and the last to receive any praise. And
don't let your kids be that kid, either.
Am I the only one that has this relation between ideas and temperature? If I take a sauna, it is like my brain shifts into a completely different gear, new ideas and deep insights are generated at high speed. When I'm cold, I can barely do basic math.
This reminds me of a piece I once read on Freeman Dyson — can't find it now, sorry — which had a couple of interesting nuggets. As I recall, Dyson was once at lunch with a couple of Nobel laureates, when someone mentioned a puzzle they had heard, some question in number theory. Everyone at the table was stumped except Dyson; and once he gave the answer they were baffled as to how he had come up with it so quickly.
On the other hand, he was asked, as I guess he occasionally is, why he had not won a Nobel. His answer was something like, "To do that you have to work on the same problem for a decade. I don't have that kind of attention span."
So it seems like Wilson may have a point here.
I hope that one of the good things to come out of today's "information age" is that a bright but bored-with-school student can easily access materials more appropriate to their level, for example learn to learn some programming or more advanced maths in their free time.
One point that I think is not particularly well made: "the ideal scientist is smart only to an intermediate degree" - immediately followed up by examples of people (including Wilson himself) estimated at least at the 90th percentile. That's not "intermediate" by any reasonable definition of the word!
See also, the UK definition of “middle class” (which isn’t entirely about income, but certainly doesn’t mean “close to median wage”).
In most situations its more effective to be "pretty good" at both aspects rather than super good at just one of them.
> "the father of sociobology"
Strangely enough, which I didn't know when first writing this post, is that my aunt knows this lady as they overlapped during their tenure as professors at the university of warwick
For typos and suchlike, I know I ought to run them manually before going public with anything - HN comments included - but usually I either forget or can't be bothered, because I know the real errors will drown in a sea of red underlining - me using strange words or simply writing in another language than the checker is set up to expect.