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Why brilliant people lose their touch (timharford.com)
432 points by hhs 24 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 193 comments

Working a lot, especially on one thing, makes us stupid, I think.

Although I was emotionally immature until ~25 years old, I actually believe that I was more intelligent and knowledgeable in my youth. Because I didn't have to work for a living, I could spend more time meddling in various subjects and activities. I never got particularly good at anything except programming and native plant identification, but I had more opinions on subjects with the absorbed knowledge to back up my thoughts.

These days, I have little time for anything else besides programming for a Fortune 100 company and searching for other means of supplementary income. I feel like my intelligence has been reduced to the next lowest standard deviation; the most I seem to be able to understand about anything that society deems important is at the periphery of the big picture. Good luck getting me to remember all the names of the political crooks I used to know like the back of my hand.

Worse yet, I'm not as good at my career, either. I think I was a better programmer when I was working for peanuts but doing equally complicated things.

I'm not saying that I'm brilliant, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think that people, brilliant or not, can "lose their touch" both because people simply change and because focusing on one thing for too long cuts loose the neural pathways that we took for granted when we could afford to make connections between all sorts of ideas at a time in our lives when the stakes were low. If this isn't a form of actual brain damage, it certainly seems like it to me.

And I'm not burned out, as far as I'm aware. I just suck more than I used to, and I do think that's the result of becoming a "subject idiot".

I can identify with the feeling. Thinking back on the period of my late teens and early 20s, I had a lot of strong opinions on things. And I'd read about them. I could call upon information on those topics. I could cite the source where I read it.

In my mid-30s, I'm much less confident about just about everything. I still have some medium to strong opinions, but I've been wrong enough times about things I was sure about that it's just hard to hold such strong views on things having only read it in a book or two.

There are a couple of differences between your experience and mine though, I think. The first is that I'm about to finish my PhD and have a great deal more expertise than I did in my early 20s. So as my expertise has grown, my certainty in many things, especially those outside my field has diminished. This is largely because I realize just how much more depth most fields of knowledge have and just how much is required to really hold an informed opinion.

I also deal with a fair number of young people, college students in my department and in other contexts. I recognize some of the same certainty and optimism I used to have at their age, and I hear some of the same opinions I used to hold on such things as vegetarianism, government systems, and economic policy. I remember having those beliefs, and talking to these young adults, it's striking just how little evidence their certainty rests on. It's worse inside my field, where students come in with their "great idea" having done no research and spent all of about 5 minutes really thinking through the ramifications of their idea, but that same certainty and optimism is there.

I often wish I was as idealistic and energetic as I was 15 years ago. But I wouldn't trade it for the naive surface-level thinking that went along with it. I like seeing the depth in the world too much, even when it shows just how shallow my thinking is in most areas, and even if it means that in most areas of life I'm forced to constantly face my uncertainty and lack of expertise.

Anyway, I hope that was at least a little bit helpful.

When you are younger your learning rate of change is higher but you also don’t necessarily know what you don’t know. As you get older you start to appreciate that things are more complicated than they first appear. In school everything that you learn (besides learning how to learn) is already known. Mastery gives you confidence to approach the unknown which is life outside of formal education.

Mastery has been an incredible and incredibly humbling journey.

I'm not so bold as to propose I'm a master yet, but I've definitely hit a patch of "these problems are plaguing the industry and lots of smarter people have not managed to fully solve them yet."

What's been fascinating is I now have sufficient perspective to have thoughts and hypothesis of how to approach solving them, but the experience to have a sense of where I'll likely hit walls.

In the case of business it gets interesting because in many cases, if these problems have been solved, there's vested interests in making sure nobody else finds out how you did it, so these may actually be solved by some companies already and I'll never know.

Also, earlier in our development (in general, or in an area), we don't yet know what's known and unknown (by anyone).

Nor might we know when a teacher or mentor is communicating something textbook vs. some non-textbook insight or new idea.

This is my overall take on this. I don't think I' am getting dumber, I appreciate that experience has given me a more nuanced view on things and to be certain about something, unless that subject is really really narrow, is a type of ignorance.

Doesn't mean I don't hold a strong view on some subjects, experience has also solidified things that time has shown as essential.

Just a thought I have sometimes:

Both these accounts fit with lower levels of testosterone with age...

They'd also fit with anything else that changes over time.

Very true. But it's easy to crank testosterone, and see what happens.

Easy? How?

Options include intramuscular injection, slow-release implants, and skin creams. I prefer skin creams, because you get a ~normal diurnal cycle. And old-school cream, not Androgel or Testim. Because it's much less expensive, and leaves ~no residue.

If you actually have low testosterone, many doctors will prescribe supplements. It may take some work to find one who doesn't consider age-related decline to be "normal", and so not warranting treatment. And if you can't, then you'll need to shop online.

You really shouldn't use WebMD as a primary source for anything.

They are a content farm owned by Internet Brands and their only focus is creating content as vehicles for pharmaceutical and consumer packaged goods advertisements.

Weightlifting without a doubt increases your testosterone. After weight training consistently for about 8 months, there are definitely changes beyond muscle growth

Makes sense to me.

But there's a problem, if your testosterone level is too low. In my experience, that increases the risk of tendonitis. Also, it didn't seem that exercise did much good. At least, not for strength training.

But with testosterone supplementation, exercising builds muscle and reduces fat. And no tendonitis. Also better blood sugar management, and less acne. Maybe even darker hair. But clearly not more hair on my head.

That's interesting you attribute low testosterone to tendonitis because high testosterone does the same thing. In fact, that's why steroids (testosterone ethanate) can increase the chance of injury in abusers because the muscle grows in strength far faster than the tendons so they tear. However, the benefits of testosterone supplementation vastly overweight the cons if you are naturally low and I suspect that it starts a positive re-enforcement cycle where increased testosterone increases muscle which then stimulates more testosterone production until a good equillibrium is met.

That's actually a very interesting observation. I've taken herbal supplements that (supposedly) increase testosterone in the past. In particular, Longjack extract led to a marked increase in stubbornness, argumentativeness, and using extreme language in my arguments - e.g., "There's no way this ISN'T true!" or "There's no other reasonable way to see it." I had to stop taking it as this was causing interpersonal problems.

On the other hand, this effect doesn't seem to be limited solely to men, so while I may have mellowed with age, I don't think that's the only thing going on here.

> I'm much less confident about everything

This doesn't seem like a bad thing.

Maybe people just realize as they grow older how complex things really are, and eventually learn not to fall for the dunning Kruger effect on everything

I think PhDs suffer the most from narrowly studying an area.

In my experience, learning better how to learn was far more valuable than the knowledge itself.

I think this is a common feeling, but I also think it's usually wrong.

It's no surprise that most 22 year olds think they're brilliant. But are they actually? Sometimes, yes, but usually, no.

I think with age comes a bit more humility about one's own brilliance. Perhaps because we find the limits of our own knowledge and we also meet others that truly are brilliant in some regard, which makes us question our own brilliance.

When looking back, it's normal to take our old high self-regard as real -- and compare it to our current, more realistic self-regard. But in fact, our youthful cockiness was often unearned.

This feels like the truest answer.

I was very opinionated and had a bunch of random knowledge to back up my opinions when I was young. I had a lot of confidence that I actually knew a lot.

Then at some point, some people started saying that I was almost right, but not quite. I didn’t have all the info. Just some. Sometimes I was just wrong. Was I getting stupider, or was I finally being called out?

I think learning you don’t have all of the answers and restraining your opinions is an important part of becoming a sensible adult.

Sensible adults don't give opinions because they are wary of politics.

It's fine to be opinionated if your opinion is backed up with experience. Young people by definition lack that experience.

It's not fine to be opinionated if your opinion would cause politics. Even if you're right - you're screwed.

There are also a lot of institutions interested in making 22-year-olds feel brilliant in exchange for their creative output. Once you leave the institution or find yourself at a different place within it, you may lose some of this feeling—not because anything changed about you, but because of your changing relationship to the thing which was supporting your self-image.

> There are also a lot of institutions interested in making 22-year-olds feel brilliant in exchange for their creative output.

There seem to be a few motivations for promoting someone else's (not just 22yos) self-image of being "brilliant". Ones I've seen so far:

* A teacher/mentor might offer encouragement, so that a person will keep working on learning/doing something that needs effort, rather than think they're not cut out for it. (Though it's maybe better to expressly attribute accomplishments to effort rather than innate qualities.)

* A manager might also do it for good morale/atmosphere, and even a genuine expression of appreciation for a positive contribution and effort.

* An employer, investor, or university might "recognize" and echo-chamber "brilliance", to attract people and extract work/tuition/rankings from them. (Don't you want to go where people are "brilliant" and, perhaps after hazing to reinforce that, they accept you as one?) (Also, flattery costs less to give than dollars do.)

I read somewhere: "Marurity is answering more a more often with a 'it depends ...'"

This resonates me a lot. Ageing has made me very alergic to strong opinions, black and white approaches and naive enthusiasm.

Counter-opinion: over-complication is very much en vogue! Our academia, media, business, etc. are awash with post-structuralist influenced thinking that seeks to deliberately undermine previously accepted pillars on which our culture was founded, e.g. men and women are defined by biology, strength is preferable to weakness, etc. Sometimes debating shades of grey serves no purpose other than to undermine progress.

I feel exactly the same. I am still surprised by the broadness and complexity of software projects I engaged in when much younger (under 18). At some point I was writing a videogame (programming a sprite editor from scratch in Borland Pascal, writing the game in Borland C), designing and writing a multi-tasking operating system in Z80 (where I remember having to come up tricks such as pushing the address to jump to on the stack and using "ret" because there was no mechanism to jump to a runtime defined address) and participating in programming contents at the national level (where, in one instance, I "invented" backtracking without even realizing what it was until much later). I could learn a new programming language in a month, write thousands of lines of code in a few more weeks and make connections between the different languages, styles, challenges and come up with solutions based on the broadness of that knowledge. To this day (20 years later) I still reference things I learned back then when I find patterns/similarities in day to day programming work. Haven't been able to broaden my knowledge much since, motivation has taken a huge dive and I spend almost no time at all improving these skills outside of work.

Did you happened to take on many more life responsibilities in the intervening years, e.g. parenting & home ownership?

Home ownership consumes a much larger amount of time than I could have ever envisioned.

Simple things like going to one washer and dryer vs using an apartment's laundry facility increase the amount of time and attention the weekly chore requires. Doing projects you are capable of takes just as much time as coordinating the ones you cannot

Decision fatigue is a real thing and home ownership requires a lot of decisions.

The price we pay to try and capture 20-40% of our income in equity instead of it enriching someone else!

I used to scoff at various art forms (paintings, music, dance, etc). I too am at your place. Extremely involved in a multitude of activities in youth, cold pressed into an engineering job at a big company.

> I feel like my intelligence has been reduced to the next lowest standard deviation

I used to have this same feeling. Especially after watching my junior engineers work through stuff, both in office and online. A lot of self doubt crept up into me regarding my capabilities.

Then I started getting into stuff like arts, politics, physics, etc. I have a natural love of paintings. Reading books about paintings, learning their history, etc. to keep me occupied has helped me a lot. I can't pin point exactly, but I felt more confident. I expanded my leisure by completely stopping any TV or videos (I avoided buying a new TV when moving away from my parents house) and just reading and listening a lot about a wide variety of topics. Engineering, Astro Physics, Painting, Culture, Politics (But not sports, I hate sports). I do it just for 30 - 45 minutes a day.

Maybe it's just me, but I feel more confident. I am not even sure if that's the reason for the confidence.

Could you give some recommendations on culture/art books worth reading?

Not the OP, but as an engineer I dug into art history too to broaden my outlook with this book: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/280190.Art_History

Not a cover to cover thing, but it was fascinating cherry picking periods in history I was interested in and seeing the art of the time and of course visiting local museums and seeing the art works mentioned in the book.

Thank you, very helpful resource.

This is not what I experience. For a couple of years I studied really hard and all I did was eat, sleep and study. During these times I definitely recognize what you have experienced. It's a form of narrowing down your world because you focus.

After studying hardcore, I slowly opened up again (read: I did less and less). This partially had to do with a mild depression (self-diagnosed, take it with a grain of salt). I noticed that during this period, I simply reflected more. I asked questions about other things.

And that's how I felt smarter and more intellectual again. simply because I had the time.

I wonder how you would experience a gap year. It may be the case that your 'original intelligence' comes back.

Working a lot, especially on one thing, makes us stupid, I think.

"Geniuses" are frequently people with unusual sets of interests. This is probably not simply a reflection of their mind, but also a shaper of their thought processes.

Think of it this way: If you have ten programmers in the office and nine of them play video games as their hobby and the tenth knits as their hobby, the knitter will probably come up with very different ideas from the other nine when facing similar problems at work.

Now scale that up further. If ninety percent of all programmers have a lot of similar hobbies and interests, the ten percent with "odd" interests for their profession will be the ones with wildly different takes on any given problem at work.

I come from a working class family. We use to think that people who were Fortune 100 programmers didn't need supplementary income, just more time to spend "all that money they get paid." I do not have the intelligence or social skills to be a programmer or any Fortune 100 position. Why do you need supplemental income? (I ask because I am curious about a world I will never enter.)

This is my take on it.

The world is a really interesting place with lots of things to do, but many of the most interesting things have a high risk of not paying out, or are just inherently unprofitable, and everyone needs something to eat and a place to sleep. The more money you have, the longer your runway, and the more risks you can take on.

Want to leave your job and go overseas for three months to a bootcamp? Start a company? Start a charity? Get a PhD.? Organise a music festival? Catalog the butterflies in your area? These things are all pretty risky compared to staying at your job - if you were going to do them, you'd want to have a savings account to dip into.

> The more money you have, the longer your runway, and the more risks you can take on

This resonates for me. It wasn’t until I significantly curbed my spending habits on frivolous luxuries and learned how to save that I was able to do the things I wanted to really do.

I wish they taught basic book keeping and financial common sense stuff in school. I mean they taught us week after week in home economics how to bake and cook, surely some financial lessons there would’ve been a good idea.

The need for health insurance absolutely deterred me from taking more risks, leading me to take the safer job with benefits.

Why are you selling yourself short like that (last sentence)?

He may have debts, or live in an expensive area, or maybe he just loves money and will do anything to put some extra dollars into investments on top of his primary income.

The big money is made by top tier FANG ( and really just FA) programmers. Not generic fortune X companies.

Debatable, there's certainly lots of money to be made in finance software positions that are both incredibly lucrative and demanding.

This feels all so familiar to me. My biggest pain point is the loosing ability to think about things as the speed at which things shall be delivered seems to increase with every month / iteration.

However I recently started to repair random things, mostly those which have a reputation for being the building blocks of our welfare, like water pumps, generators, old stationary engines. This provided me with the need to deeply engage in research hos stuff works and improvisation as many spare parts cant be bought new any more. Working with my hands also gives me a good feeling of having actually done something.

> I never got particularly good at anything except programming and native plant identification

What a coincidence, those used to be my points of interest too!

> However I recently started to repair random things, mostly those which have a reputation for being the building blocks of our welfare,

This is something I'd love to be good at. Any tips on where to start?

In some things I see where you're coming from, but while I work two programming jobs and have 4 kids and very little time, I think I'm generally more knowledgeable than in the past. I don't have as much _potential_ simply because I spent the last 15 years writing code instead of trying to make it as an artist or an athlete or an academic, but I have continued to grow in those areas, albeit slower than I might have if I had made different choices.

How does the two job situation work for you? Can you describe your day to day routine, for example?

Haha, it is a grind basically. Often times I have to choose between getting enough exercise or getting enough sleep.

Basically I do 6am-10am twice a week for the part time job and then try to fit in a couple more hours either during an evening session or over the weekend.

The day job I probably don’t technically put in 40 hours every week, but I just make the best use of the time that I can. It’s not like you can write code for 40 hours a week anyway so I try to be prepared for what I’m going to crush “today” up front so I don’t waste much time.

Until I started doing this I would basically get bored every 18-24 months and switch jobs. Doing 2 at once seems to be enough variety to keep me interested and challenged basically all the time. But I do have to guard heavily against burn out.

Younger people suffer from the Dunning Kruger effect. I had strong opinions about a wide range of things in my 20s. As I aged, I became very good at a few things and in doing so, I became less sure of my convictions on most matters. In some cases, I completely reversed my beliefs.

That's not brain damage; it's the realization that there is a near-infinite amount to know about any given subject, and that the world can be a much more deceptive and deeper place than we're taught about in school. As you become really good at a few things, you realize the same depth exists in all subject matter, and that if you are coming to strong conclusions based on cursory knowledge, you are probably also an idiot.

You might call it wisdom...

> Younger people suffer from the Dunning Kruger effect. I had strong opinions about a wide range of things in my 20s. As I aged, I became very good at a few things and in doing so, I became less sure of my convictions on most matters.

You aren't describing the Dunning-Kruger effect. Essentially, D-K can be summarized as "people's opinion of their own relative confidence tends to be drawn toward the 70th percentile, with those whose actual competence is lower being overconfident and those whose competence is higher being underconfident."

You seem to be describing the popular misconception of D-K as if it were the actual D-K effect, that is, that the least competent were not merely the most overconfident but actually the most confident -- the idea that those who think they are very competent are actual the most incompetent. Whereas in the actual D-K effect, those who have the highest opinion of their own competence are actually even farther above average than their self-image suggests.

I can relate with you a lot here but I don't think we necessarily suck more.

I think as we become subject matter experts, our standards for what it takes to have opinions advance to the point that our dilettante interests in varied subjects no longer impresses. It especially does not impress the experts of the subjects in question who are the only people really capable of holding a discussion that could impress us back.

I sense a kind of urgency to achieve career success only to be able to say I'm finished with it all so that I can go back to the mentality I had earlier in my life when I was interested in so many more things.

I can completely relate to this.

I feel like the extent of my problem solving and social skills has slowly been hemmed in by my hyper-focused work. Year by year I've started struggling to adapt to new situations. If I run into a challenge outside of work that is even mildly complex I have a hard time figuring out where to start. That has definitely made me think differently about my career and I'm starting to come to terms with the idea that success in a really narrow niche has some unexpected consequences.

>Because I didn't have to work for a living, I could spend more time meddling in various subjects and activities.

Observation: If you stop working, you’ll still be living.

> I have little time for anything else besides programming for a Fortune 100 company and searching for other means of supplementary income.

I need to ask, what is the problem here? At my fortune 500 company, I make easily enough that I don't care about money.

In a few years, I'll have my home paid off, and in a few more, enough money to retire forever.

What do you want the supplemental income for?

> Working a lot, especially on one thing, makes us stupid, I think.

Quite the opposite: working a lot on one thing, usually, means deep focus and, as a result, getting deep specialized knowledge and skills. That is smart, not stupid.

But I understand why it is tempting to think that hard work is making us stupid: it is an excuse for not doing the hard work.

Did you read the rest of what I wrote? I'm not saying that deep focus on a narrow set of skills doesn't have benefits, and perhaps the word "stupid" was a poor choice of words. Of course focus on specialized knowledge is a "smart" thing. Expertise doesn't make anyone literally stupid, but the necessity of focus in my field and my experience has made me less effective and less knowledgeable about the world around me. I'm not coming up with excuses for not doing the hard work; I already did the hard work.

When you are young you are too inexperienced to realize how ignorant you are, and so you have high confidence. They used to call this being a fool.

> ... I think that people, brilliant or not, can "lose their touch" both because people simply change ...

Alazia is the word that describe that feeling.

"beginners mind"? I do think some people have to work hard to keep preconceptions at bay. And some people don't bother.

well you certainly are a standard dev or more above average ... albeit maybe not where you think your potential should be. the giveaway: great understanding of self. very few bother to reflect at all much less see past their ego. (eg most people think they are good drivers)

25 is around the age where intellect starts to decline (along with everything else) so it isn't really that much of a mystery.

> 25 is around the age where intellect starts to decline

An argument can be made that F1 racing is the most demanding endevor a human can participate in--both mentally and physically. Most F1 champions dont even hit their peak until their early to mid 30's. I understand it's about the same for fighter pilots.

I think I'd enjoy hearing your argument that F1 racing is the most demanding mental endeavor a human can participate in.

Care to share?

> I think I'd enjoy hearing your argument that F1 racing is the most demanding mental endeavor a human can participate in.

The argument is not mine, not at all, but rather that of many medical professionals including sports psychologists. The level of concentration required to pilot an F1 car or really any topline completion car at the limit of adhesion is Total--there is zero room for a concentration lapse. If your mind wanders even on the straights--you're probably taking an ambulance ride.

Race cars are not like street cars At all; they want to spin out--pretty much all the time. If you picture the brakes locking up as you're about to brake late; They Will every time. Part of the trick is to acknowledge what is likely to go wrong BUT Do NOT imagine it happening, that shit takes iron concentration.

Possibly the incorporation of and reaction to vast amounts of sensory input with a very short time window, where very small mistakes could lead to very large failures. Path planning, resource management, mental modeling of opponents, situational awareness, equipment awareness, physical modeling and prediction, would all be at maximum capacity most of the time.

I wonder how can one compare mental workload a chess grandmaster experiences to the one of F1 driver.

This is too simplistic. Certain types of intellect seem to peak around there, like mathematical ability, but other types of intellect such as emotional intelligence or verbal skills (think nobel prize winning author) peak much much later in life - certainly into our 50's.

I am not sure it is true that mathematical intelligence peaks early, people like to say it though and I'd be interested if there is evidence on it.

Here are a lot of examples of good contributions by older mathematicians.


I think one factor is that young people tend to be hungry to achieve something and also aren't burdened with family or admin which means they can work harder.

Interesting... sounds to me like the difference between fluid and crystallized intelligence.

There is no good data on age related intellectual decline. Most cross-sectional studies that show a decline ignore the Flynn effect as well as things like higher levels of lead poisoning in previous generations.

You're joking, right? Cause now I have one more thing to feel insecure about.

I wouldn't worry about it. Every study I've seen on the matter has clearly stated that it's a relatively small effect and is dwarfed by improved knowledge and experience. Overall intellectual performance is still rising at that point.

Those are IQ tests (mental quickness on tiny tasks), that don't cover knowledge and wisdom.

Is wisdom relevant to programming? 20 years of COBOL experience doesn't help much when writing Kotlin.

Experience of design patterns would seem to be most relevant to senior technical roles and program architecture... which is where you see older programmers.

We rarely know exactly why a thing works. This is part of why successful businesses are scared of change: They may break a thing they didn't know mattered and have no means to figure out what went wrong.

There's a story of a sausage business that built a new factory further north in town. A long time employee retired rather than make the longer commute.

After the move, their sausages lost some of their unique characteristics that had made them so successful. They were baffled and didn't know what went wrong.

One day, people were reminiscing about the good old days and began talking about the guy that retired. It had been his job to move the sausages from one area of the building to another.

With talking about it, they realized it had taken him like 30 minutes to do this and they had inadvertently eliminated this stage in the more efficiently designed new factory. They added a holding room or warming room and, voila, their sausages resumed having the characteristics that made them so popular.

I also love stories about bands that break up and later get back together after discovering that none of the individual musicians can capture the magic the band had. Or even stories where one particular band member rocketed to success and the others didn't.

I just love these examples of how changing conditions can cast light on who the real talent was or where the real magic was. It often isn't what people thought before the change.

For this sort of thing, I really enjoyed Scott Alexander's review of The Secret Of Our Success (https://slatestarcodex.com/2019/06/04/book-review-the-secret...), which contains lots of examples of how culture came to solve problems. Manioc is the big example from that article: when manioc was taken over to Africa as a cheap food, the corresponding culture was not taken with it, with the result that millions of Africans started showing the symptoms of cyanide poisoning twenty years later.

This is related to the general "is it luck or is it skill" question: At the broadest scales, luck increasingly explains every factor of experience. But in the everyday situation you can always point to factors of skill, until you get down to the most raw performance indicators of speed, strength, reflexes, etc.: then it becomes luck, unless you have a way of training those things, improving them with nutrition, pharmaceuticals etc. And then it becomes skill again, until you are limited by stuff inherent to a human body, and then it could be luck that you have long swimmer arms or bodybuilder genetics. You can then switch to considering mechanical assistance and developing original inventions, and now you are considering mental performance. It goes on and on like that.

The most practical thing I've found to do, in light of this problem, is to focus on developing better feedback: success and failure signals for each problem that you can use to summarize how you are doing. Then the skill/luck question becomes less reliant on external comparison and more on inner growth - hence more in control, more skill-driven.

But as a society our measures are mostly external. If someone succeeds, that's all we see.

As to luck there's an old saying that I really like: the harder I work the luckier I get.

How I interpret this it that working hard increases your skills. If you are more skillful you are more able to take advantage of lucky situations you have. We all have lucky situations, some more than others (we can even say privilege plays a large role here). But here's the thing, if you don't have the skills to take advantage of these situations then they are useless.

Let's make up an egregious example. Let's say you are working on battery powered rockets that use AI. If you one day meet Elon Musk at your local grocery store and somehow strike up a conversation then he's probably going to be very interested in you and your background. He'll probably try to keep in contact with you and maybe offer you a job. Now let's consider without the skill. Well you met Elon Musk which is pretty cool, but you're probably not going to get a job.

It isn't so much luck vs skill, but the combination of the two. I would be willing to bet that there is not a single millionaire (yes, that low) that can't chalk up a significant portion of their wealth to something that others would consider luck. Such as family/friend's connections, stumbling into a situation, taking jobs that lead to other jobs in the right way, etc (this is why the specific wording of the previous sentence. Because most don't notice these kinds of things and when looking from the inside we notice the skill part and not the luck. Because we did in fact work hard, and you know... Human psychology)

I think it's a myth that a person can choose whether or not they're a hard worker. It's most likely a matter of neurochemistry far beyond conscious control.

This is entirely a defeatist mentality. I don't think there is any evidence to show that neurochemistry causes determinism, which is essentially what you are suggesting.

But let's assume it is true (which I don't think it is). Is it mentally healthy to go around saying "well fuck it, I'm just this way because I was born this way".

I do believe you can change yourself. Neurochemistry definitely plays a role in your ability to (luck). But having this defeatist mentality means you'll never attempt it. I would even argue that this comment should hint at some evolutionary benefit of getting down trodden.

Exactly. I choose to believe I can control my own behavior, and that belief undeniably affects my actual behavior. Now some Determinist comes along and says I didn't really make that choice, it was destiny. Well, okay, whatever you say dude; but the fact that I believe it is still in play.

I don't see what the value in denying free will is. Fascinating sophomore debate? Yes. Gonna help you survive and thrive on this planet? No.

I agree with this. The question of free will existing or not is not an important question. An interesting one, but at the same time the answer isn't really meaningful.

If we find free will exists, well we continue with the way we have been going. If we find that it doesn't, well we don't change anything because we don't have free will. (Honestly I believe there is middle ground to this question. That some people can exert more free will than others but that you can also train this behavior. But that's another discussion. If this is true, I do find this a meaningful answer though)

I'm guessing a proof that a free will does not exist could lead to a collapse of civilization, as many people would just not feel accountable and responsible for their lives any more.

Would it? They don't have free will anyway. So is that a cheatcode for death? I doubt it, because that means we'd be programed for survival.

Individuals would survive, but everyone could excuse their own bad behaviour with "I'm not in charge of myself, it's not me who's making this decision to rob/rape/kill etc.", which would lead to decline of society and, eventually, civilization.

I want to know if I was always destined to find the idea of creatures in a supposedly deterministic universe worrying about whether free will exists to be hilariously funny?

So is the paradoxical idea of a person deciding that free will doesn't exist

There's also this Bertrand Russell quote:

"As against solipsism it is to be said, in the first place, that it is psychologically impossible to believe, and is rejected in fact even by those who mean to accept it. I once received a letter from an eminent logician, Mrs. Christine Ladd-Franklin, saying that she was a solipsist, and was surprised that there were no others. Coming from a logician and a solipsist, her surprise surprised me."

I feel like this is saying you're a Christian because religion is useful regardless of whether it's true. That's cool man, I'm not here to yuck your yum.

Sure, but all analogies are flawed. Yours is not as offensive to me as you might have hoped because I’m agnostic. But I can also flip it on its head:

The problem with religion comes when it’s used as a justification for horrible acts—just like one might use the lack of free will to justify horrible acts.

Sorry, I genuinely wasn't trying to offend you, though I can see why it came off that way. I just meant to convey I'm not on some mission to convince people of anything. If it's helpful or makes people feel good to believe in free will, that's good enough for me. Even if I were 100% sure of there was no robust free will, I wouldn't be interested in changing people's minds.

It seems to me that the idea of free will is used to justify horrible acts as well - the entire concept of retributive justice for instance.

If we're not equipped to handle and the truth and knowing it could actually destroy us, it's better to live in a lie.

> Is it mentally healthy to go around saying "well fuck it, I'm just this way because I was born this way".

If the alternative is to commit suicide since you feel like such a loser and the help people give you is the advice "stop being so lazy!", then yes.

Or when dealing with heinous criminals. Imagining that if I were unlucky enough to be born with that DNA into that family in that location and lived those experiences I most likely would have committed the same terrible acts. So while I see value in perhaps protecting broader society from them by doing things like imprisoning them, I am less likely to dehumanize them. By random luck it was them and not me.

But if someone is just a monster who makes evil decisions, then they can simply be disposed of like trash. They aren't like me, I make good decisions.

Maybe you have abusive parents. If you can imagine that if you'd had exactly their DNA and life experiences, you too would be abusive. This is helpful in forgiving them, which is an important part of recovery. Protect yourself from future damage, but allow yourself to move on.

Of course in practical terms this means I find it useful to pretend as if I have free will but others do not.

> I do believe you can change yourself.

I don't believe you can change much. You can force yourself to behave differently, but at a cost of extra effort and suffering.

Instead of personality change, I think the environment changes, and we express different psychological features depending on the situation. There are people/situations that bring out the best in us, and the opposite. Who we are depends on where we are, and with who we are interacting.

And of course with more experience comes less over-confidence. We change our values in light of our past experience.

Another thing is risk. The more you have to lose the less you want to risk it. When you have invested a lot in a family or career, you change your values in order to minimise risk.

So I think we are not changing our personality but it reflects differently because our situation has changed.

This realisation helped me forgive myself of the torture of changing my personality, instead I seek a situation where the better characteristics of my personality shine. I have always been myself even though externally I changed.

Or maybe, outside some share of pathologic cases, they can. But we pacify ourselves with thought that we are victims of circumstances out of our control.

> I think it's a myth that a person can choose whether or not they're a hard worker. It's most likely a matter of neurochemistry far beyond conscious control.

There's debate as to if free will exists at all. If the future is exactly determined (at the beginning of the universe), then nothing we do is a choice, and no one is to blame, really.

I believe very much so the opposite.

The human mind is very, very malleable. Growth and change are not just possible but inevitable.

If it's inevitable, then it's not a choice. It's just a state machine's response to input.

If you take one abstraction back from any decision, it's easy to see that you have no choice whatsoever. Let's imagine I ask you to think of a random person at your school. If you're like most people, several options will come into your conscious mind. Then you will sort of settle on one of those that came into your conscious mind. But the ones who entered your conscious mind are not all of the people you knew at school. At what point did you choose which ones would enter your mind and which ones would not? Obviously, you did not consciously control this. And we know from studies that you almost certainly don't know the real reason why you chose the one person you ultimately selected. The mind comes up with a justification post-hoc. So in this way, you can't even control the most trivial decisions in your life, because you can't control which options even enter your conscious mind.

It's just a decision. Perhaps you have to be special to make decisions.

I pretty much agree with this. From different hobbies, skill seems to determine two things: How much advantage or luck you need to utilize your skill, and the multiplier you get from your initial edge.

This can be scary at a small scale like a foosball table. Some of the league players I play with have an amazing ability to catch and control the ball on their 3 or 5. If the ball moves somewhere into the area of their 3, they'll have it - and this enables them to utilize their shooting technique. And if they miss a shot, they'll usually be able to re-catch the ball if the keeper can't keep it, so they get more chances to score. A less skilled player either doesn't catch the ball in the first place, or loses it after the first shot.

And edges like that are even worse in games with a snowballing effect, like dominion. Getting the right 4/3 or 5/2 split on your first 2 hands is hard luck. However, choosing the right 2 cards to initially get with that is skill and will massively impact the course of the game.

You do need opportunities, and you can't always make your own opportunities. However, you can work on your ability to utilize opportunities.

> As to luck there's an old saying that I really like: the harder I work the luckier I get.

Luck is where opportunity meets preparation.

Though I agree with the overall thrust of your comment, I'd imagine there are thousands of everyday millionaires in their 60s and 70s who have nothing I would look at as particularly great luck [other than to be healthy and employed for 40 years while saving diligently].

Also being born in America (or the developed world, generally) at the right point in history.

Someone born in China in 1860 who saved diligently, best case, would've lost it all in the Xinhai Revolution, Chinese Civil War, Sino-Japanese War, or Communist takeover. Worst case, they and their whole family is dead. Ditto Russia over the same time period, Vietnam in 1900, a plantation owner born in South Carolina in 1800, a Jew in Austria in 1870, etc.

For that matter, that 70-year-old American isn't out of the woods yet: there's a looming demographic time bomb that's going to hit America in the early 2020s, and it's by no guarantee that they'll remain millionaires.

And this is part of what I think people don't contribute to luck. There's many forms of luck. But I wouldn't say everything is attributed to it. But at the same time it would be naive to ignore it.

the common phrase is: luck is where/when opportunity meets preparation

> But as a society our measures are mostly external. If someone succeeds, that's all we see.

The notion of external measures or what is readily apparent, is also why 'luck' feels like a simplistic and incorrect explanation for success, in my experience. A lot of people who are successful create their own luck (or rather, increase the probability for their personal successes). They set themselves up to be successful despite variability and randomness, and despite differences in natural talent relative to competition. They focus on the right things, they push themselves harder than others think possible, etc.

Put another way, they make trade-offs in life that result in success. As to what they give up...it depends on the person and their circumstances, but very often they are giving up peace of mind, free time (leisure), relationships, happiness, and sometimes even their health. But delayed gratification and long-term focus (long-term trading-off) seem like key elements to success. I don't view that as just luck.

The anecdote of the fund manager who was less successful in China from the article stood out to me as logically flawed. This later failure in a different time, a different market, does not mean the person's prior success was due to mere luck. The world has changed a lot (for example advent of the Internet and digital trading) and China is also a very different place. It could be simply that this person was no longer in a position where they've made the right trade-offs to be relatively competitive in the new set of circumstances years after their "prime". And it might even be a conscious choice - it is easier to make some trade-offs when you are younger (better health, more energy, lack of familial obligations, etc.) and as we get older and our priorities change, we're less likely to make some of those trade-offs (not always, but typically). But I don't think it makes logical sense to cast prior success as luck due to later failure - the causality there is spurious, at best.

The problem with examining from the 'create your own luck' angle is that it's prone to survivorship bias. There are incredibly brilliant people out there working hard in order to succeed, but end up having little success despite positioning themselves in all the right places.

This notion also tends to ignore the people that can fail upwards: They reach positions or become managers that they're not at all qualified at, but end up doing well through a few lucky rolls of the dice. I'm sure we'd all like to say that eventually this comes back around to bite them in the rear, but unfortunately that would imply a just world fallacy.

It seems to me that hard work is a necessary (in most cases) but not sufficient condition for success.

Anecdotally, my least successful friends and acquaintances are those who do not work hard and blame their lack of success on bad luck.

I cannot agree more. I know quite a few hard working but unlucky folks - and the hard work is generally necessary to capitalize on the luck.

hard work = buying the lottery ticket

luck = winning the Lotto

Need the ticket though.

Ah yes, you mean the luck of being born in the right time, in the right country, to parents in the right socioeconomic class, and with the right genetics? That to me seems like the biggest predictor of success above anything else.

My theory: the tighter the causal feedback loop, the more agency you have (or perceive to have). For example if you want to knock over a cup, you can do that.

But if you want to knock over a cup across the world, or become rich overnight, this is a very complex feedback loop, so you exercise less agency (therefore more luck).

"Perceive to have" is exactly correct. Even though it seems easier to knock over a cup if you want to, there was a complex set of processes occurring both inside and outside your body over a long period of time (forever!) which resulted in you acquiring the desire to knock over the cup in the first place. This process is outside your control.

    There once was a man that said, though
    It seems like I know that I know,
    What I'd like to see
    Is the 'I' that sees me
    When I know that I know that I know

First thought that entered my mind: is it survivorship bias?

Given enough time, even the survivors die... I worked at a hedge fund in 2008 that was leveraged like 40 to 1 when the market tanked. Nearly blew up, but managed to stay afloat. 3 years earlier we had cannibalized another fund that couldn't make their margin call. Bought about 9 Billion in assets for pennies on the dollar.

For stock pickers it’s absolutely reversion to the mean.

If a millions monkeys flip a coin hundreds of times, you’ll inevitably have a few who have gotten all heads for all their flips

To give some context, two to the 100th power is 1,267,650,600,228,229,401,496,703,205,376.

Interesting description here! http://www.freemars.org/jeff/2exp100/answer.htm

You'd need far more than a million monkeys to reasonably expect that result.

I've written about some of the brilliant people I know who suffered at least one episode of burnout:


As I’ve gone through my 30s and 40s, I’ve been surprised at how many of my friends have suffered some kind of burnout. In fact, between the ages of 15 and 45, I would say that everyone I know personally has had at least one bad year. Back when I was in school, it seemed like some people were reliably happy, and other people were reliably depressed. And yes, many of those personality traits turned out to be consistent over several decades. But it was a surprise to realize that even the happiest people could fall into a dark spot. Some people are highly resilient, but no one is infinitely resilient.

Depression can end your career, end your marriage, and end your life. But long before most people find themselves facing a serious depression, they typically pass through an earlier stage, more mild and more subtle. What if we could all catch ourselves at that earlier stage?

I’m talking about burnout. Perhaps we can think of it as the mildest form of depression, or a mid-point between true mental health and outright depression. How do we identify something so subtle? Specific anecdotes are useful, because people need to be able to hear a story similar to what they are going through.


I don't see it that way. I have been severely burned-out, and will never let that happen again. I have also been visited by the Black Dog. They are different. Perhaps both present in some people, so maybe hard to tease apart.

The cure for burn out is to cut out any activities that do not bring personal joy and satisfaction. (My burn-out was cured by a few months off pursuing my hobbies. Yes, I was lucky to have that option.) The thing about depression is that nothing brings joy or satisfaction. Burn-out and depression are orthogonal. But IMO you must cure depression first, before trying to address burn out, if both are present.

> The cure for burn out is to cut out any activities that do not bring personal joy and satisfaction.

That, and giving yourself a series of small tasks, each of which you can complete easily. That feeling of satisfaction that you obtain by completing these small tasks quickly turns into your emotional ability to complete bigger and bigger tasks, and before you know it, you're back on the horse. It's amazing how effective this is, it's been documented here before too. I'll see if I can dig out where I first read this.

I have an acquaintance who works from home.

He recently told me that every time he feels like he's losing his motivation and starts to fall into negativity, he goes to the kitchen and does the dishes.

He considers this time to be part of his work day.

By the time he has washed the dishes, the sense of accomplishment is back.

What I take from this anecdote is that the brain does not distinguish that washing something is not part of building a web application. It is simply content to have cleaned multiple objects and then have completed a complex task.

This is what I learned/intuited/assumed (?) to be the practical value of raking the gravel in a zen garden. It's not the effect, it's the process.

I've also assumed that this was the moral of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance though I've never read it.

(I have my own rituals.)

[0] Not mentioned on the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_rock_garden

For me it's tidying my office at work.

When I'm at the point of defenestrating the computer, I tidy up the flotsam and jetsam that accumulates in any workspace, once everything is back in order I grab a coffee and carry on.

Never ceases to amaze me how often a simple solution to a frustrating problem occurs midway down the stairs with a box of empty amazon packaging or whatever.

I love that story. I vaguely recall from some psych class long ago something about the psychology of "task completion". Your take-away is spot on.

Thanks. Was having an off day. This got me off the couch and scanning some documents while listening to music. A necessary task I am easily able to do. Feel much better already.

I’d be interested in hearing more about this. I often get the “so much stuff to do that it’s overwhelming” feeling, which creates an unproductive feedback cycle.

Consider spending more time deciding what not to do. Say "no". Delegate, both up, and down. Try the "rocking chair test", which is asking yourself, "When I am sitting on the porch of the old-folks home in my rocking chair, looking back on my life, what are the chances I will say: 'I wish I had spent one more day of my life doing X.'" -- Where X is that thing that seems soooo important to your boss/coworkers today. Tremendously clarifying.

For me, learning to delegate was a battle against my perfectionist tendencies. "But that's not they way I would have done it." Yup. When you delegate, people do it their way. To me the key was learning to parse out what is it that I care deeply about, and what not so much. Be sure the things you care deeply about are in the spec, and let go of the things that are not so important.

Make time for yourself. I am a ham radio operator, so for me spending a few days in the sun butchering a pile of aluminum tube to make antennas cures many ills. That is unlikely to be a universal prescription -- find yours.

If I could double upvote this I would. My most recent encounters with burnout were a result of taking on too many projects to check boxes on a promotion. I found it helped my optimism when I chased personal development over projects that I really didn't care much about. Handing everything off made me feel better, was strategic from a leadership development position and gave me the extra time to concentrate on my own interests and development.

Saying "no" is a forgotten method of self-preservation.

I get this problem too. I'm incredibly productive when I only have a couple of tasks. But, when there's a lot on my mind, I basically shut down.

Similar to what the other user mentioned, I get moving again by focusing on the easy tasks to feel productive again. I make a simple text file with everything I need to do, sorted by month, and each month sorted with the easiest to hardest tasks.

I write every single thing on my mind. For example, I need to order something online, so that gets added to the list. I have a wedding to attend this month and need a new white shirt, that gets added to the list. I need to wish someone happy birthday next week, so I'll add that to the list. Do I need to book a haircut appointment? On the list it goes. Everything goes on the list. It really helps to clear my mind when I don't have to remember these things.

Then, when I start my day, it's not an overwhelming number of thoughts. I look at the list for this month, and I just choose a task I'm in the mood to finish. Do I want to check off a few easy ones? Do I have the entire day to myself and I can focus on a more complex one? If I'm going to the city, then I can take care of all the ones located downtown.

In short, write everything down, start checking things off the list.

I think writing everything down is very valuable. I also think it is important to drop things that turned out to not be so important. This helps to avoid an ever growing list.

I do this by keeping my list on a small paper (A6) in my notebook. When the page is full, I transfer over only the incomplete tasks that are still relevant over to a new page. Often also refining their scope. This chance of default from 'keep' to 'not keep' has had large impact on how many (useless) tasks I drop, and the associated mental burden.

I find that writing things down "takes it out of my head", which I think is exactly what you're saying.

There's a mental pressure that results from having a number of things on the go at once, and writing each thing down relieves that pressure, probably in a similar way to the aforementioned ticking off of simple tasks.

I'm the opposite way, interestingly -- the more I have to do, the more I get done. The less I have to do, the exponentially less I do.

Just my perspective as a long-time depression sufferer who's also had burnout: Burnout can lead to both chronic chemical and acute situational depression, and they're different. The chronic chemical depression is an overall downregulation that can be very difficult to get out of. Having to or choosing to stick around in bad situations for long periods of time causes the chronic version.

For me, burn out was like heat stroke. One instance was enough to make me hypersensitive to overwork for the rest of my life.

I agree with your post a lot and made another comment before I saw it. I think comparing burnout to depression indicates a lack of understanding of what depression really is. One of the greatest differences, which you mention, is that burnout has a pretty straightforward treatment which is to remove yourself from the work that you are burnt out from.

I don't think burnout and depression are really the same thing. They exhibit similar traits and can have similar symptoms, but so can the cold, the flu, and bacterial meningitis. For example there are lots of depressed people who aren't burnt out and are highly productive, you just don't know about them because most people understand depression as being unmotivated and in a bad mood most of the time (which is not at all a comprehensive understanding of it). There are lots of burnt out people who aren't depressed either, they are maybe just disenchanted with what they've been working on and need an extended break; their bad mood isn't intrinsic so much as it is a reaction to working on something they've grown to dislike.

Of course burnout and depression can coincide but I would guess that in that case it is more likely to just be misattributed depression. I don't want to gatekeep depression but I don't think working a lot on something you dislike and consequently needing a break or to move on to working on something else (what I understand to be burnout) is depression. For example I hate cleaning things, both household cleaning and dishes, so if I were to force myself to clean 60 hours a week I would quickly feel burnt out but I wouldn't really be depressed.

I wonder if burnout isn't the result of your brain associating work with failure or some other deep-seated negative emotion.

I've noticed that I can get my brain back on the right track by completing a few tasks that have a high probability of success and a clearer link between effort and reward.

I devised this plan on the basis that working for nothing seemed to be the crucial factor.

>I wonder if burnout isn't the result of your brain associating work with failure

Failure is definitely not a requirement. I was very successful in my last career. I was working 60 hours at the bare minimum with non-stressful things in stressful deadlines. I was akin to a supervisor with a great team in my corner. Performance at my level and below was never an issue, and every single one of my juniors was 100% dependable.

Management above me - in spite of one director who kicked ass at everything - and the culture in general sucked. I was tired of excelling at a place where no one valued my contributions. Not in a, "give me money and awards" way, but in a "can you not treat your most valuable employees like complete dirt?"

Your brain might have associated work with failure to obtain what you were sacrificing in order to work 60 hours, i.e. entertainment, play, love, family, health... (guessing).

What is the explanation when burnout follows success? I've personally seen that as well.

I was unaware that was possible! I'd say maybe the brain devalues the rewards or finds the work unnecessary once success is achieved?

and what happens when you identify it?

A fourth reason could be psychological. Being expected to win can be a huge burden. It's much easier to be the underdog.

I always felt that people (brilliant or not, who am I to judge) lose their touch because they stop learning and start making excuses. "I'm not young anymore". "The world has changed". "Back in my days it was easier".

As far as burnout, I always felt like getting a few small wins was quite beneficial for preventing it. For example, as a programmer, depending on a level of burnout, I might:

- Fix a small bug

- Learn / setup up a new framework (shout-out to all JS frameworks out there -- you help us prevent burnout!)

- Do a self-contained project that you can release in a few days

- in severe cases Do some random shit completely not related to programming until you miss it and naturally come back because it's fun again.

Gradual brain damage can strike at any time. You wouldn't even notice anything other than feeling more sluggish and having foggier thoughts. Imagine how many people don't even know they have sleep apnea that is slowly lowering their IQ. Imagine how many people have an oral herpes infection that reached their brain where it will now wage an endless battle to convert all of their neurons into derelict HSV-1 replicators. There could even be an evolutionary advantage to a brain automatically permanently entering a more dormant state after it senses it has reached the top of the pyramid, assuming tribes were less likely to self-destruct when members of the next generation had a fairer chance at usurping the throne.

I ended up meeting a lot of my idols who had lost their touch when I was young and it never made sense in close quarters. But when I'd go out with them and people would incessantly talk to them it finally made sense, they lost their ability to observe the world and had no choice but to be observed. They weren't able to grow

I'm glad that others have mentioned regression toward the mean https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regression_toward_the_mean but this article also suffers from fundamental attribution error https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_attribution_error. Society identifies brilliant people by brilliant outcomes, but this is a flawed implication: brilliant outcomes can happen to anyone, and brilliant people might never have a brilliant outcome.

I think one possibility is if you're one of the gifted you tend to skyrocket during the first half of your career.

But if everything came easy to you from the start you missed out on working through tough problems. You didn't develop the tenacity to push through. So by time you do start seeing the harder problems you start failing and the failures hit you harder. Without the skill to keep pushing yourself through failure you just kinda give up sooner.

I was great at Visual BASIC 6.0 until Dotnet came out. I had years of experience in VB 6.0 but nothing in C# or VB.Net. Technology passed me by, and the same thing happened when I did COBOL and FORTRAN on an IBM 370 Mainframe. I didn't lose my touch, technology passed me by.

So now I have to catch up with Python, C# and other languages. I've been sick from the stress of a toxic environment at work and had to go on short term disability and rest. I didn't become stupid or lose my touch or get soft in the head. I can still program VB 6.0 just that nobody wants those skills anymore.

Personally when I am looking at something interesting that I want to learn from, I always ask:

"What is the difference that make the difference?"

These are my general observations:

When you do not understand what the important variables are, most often than not, you end up clueless.

Humans are not good with too much complexity. When too many variables are playing a role, it is usually not clear what dominates.

Being a generalist helps understanding. To figure out what is going on, a generalist mindset helps because you can find clues from other domains.

Over generalization is the root of all evils. People usually dramatically fail when they think the situation is the same of one they observed in the past but it is in reality VERY different. This happens because they are looking at variables they observed in the past situation that are similar. But they are not seeing or underestimate other variables that dominate the new situation.

In general, even when you think you got it, it is useful to test a few times (assuming you can) to find out, if you really got it right.

An insightful book that touches on these issues in more depth is Robert H. Frank's Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy.

Good argument for the estate tax, by the way.


Hormonal decline due to accumulated stress/inflammation/cortisol/insulin. Starts with DHEA at ~25. Others follow, as DHEA is a precursor.

Meditation, time, absence of urgency, replacement of contentment with a new passion/spark, nootropics, nutrition, less stress, compatible environment, etc..

I agree with the article about luck and context. The world changed, your brand, product, or philosophy may be come less relevant or regarded over time, or faces greater competition.

But part of the death of genius is certainly in rooted in the person. A number of pitfalls in that direction to which we can relate. I think a major one is believing in your own hype, decreasing your ability to reject bad ideas. Also success can dim the the fire inside that had something to prove, and by caring less, settle for less. Also, for certain types of genius, it may have depended on peak working memory, and that declines with age. Last, I think knowledge of the world dims certain types of genius. I think melodic genius is particularly vulnerable to having heard and played too much music previously. Patterns get built up in your mind, and when trying to write music, at least for me, not only am I more likely to travel down the same worn melodic paths, but if I do discover some interesting turn of melodic phrase, I am more likely to recall some bit of music that I've heard, and go "ahh.. its one of these" and suddenly its hard for it to take its own path, and you are comparing it to what was written before....which kinda kills a moment of inspiration.

With some exceptions, there is no mystery about it at all, sooner or later luck runs out and they simply regress toward the mean [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Regression_toward_the_mean

fascinating stuff:

> Perhaps we do. Michael Blastland’s recent book, The Hidden Half, argues that much of the variation we see in the world around us is essentially mysterious. Mr Blastland’s opening example is the marmorkrebs, a kind of crayfish that reproduces parthenogenetically — that is, marmorkrebs lay eggs without mating and those eggs develop into clones of their mothers.

Blastland is a very passionate speaker too. RSA talk on the subject:

Risk, Chance and Choice - Michael Blastland and David Spiegelhalter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=INw0O5F-yWc

Regression to mean of a random walk.

And when the billioneth monkey writes shakespeare, a dozen pop-psychology books will be written about its "secret". Add: Survivorship bias.

There's lots of "brilliant" worship in the mainstream and especially among techies. We strive to be geniuses too, never mind one falls and another replaces him. And luck? That's the opposite of what we want to believe.

Right. Outlier success is heavily driven by randomness, sometimes with a real differentiator edge thrown it. It doesn't last because randomness is never permanently positive over a sufficient sample size and whatever edge someone may have is studied and copied or counteracted once they start to outpace everyone else.

But to be fair, outlier success in many fields is rarely possible without some initial high level of skill and knowledge in the first place.

Exactly. This has been a well-known phenomenon for over a century.

As mentioned in the article:

> More likely it is “regression to the mean”, or in simple terms, a return to business as usual.

I haven't got to that point. It was obvious from the first paragraph.

> There is even a legend that athletes who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated are doomed to suffer the “SI jinx”. The rise to the top is followed by the fall from grace.

This phenomenon is pretty easily explained. People make the cover of SI when they've peaked or just hit a major accomplishment. It's extremely unlikely that they'll do anything but regress.

Additionally, until recently there were 50 SI covers per year. Once we're aware of the "SI Jinx", we remember the ones where it comes true and ignore the many, many, many issues where it doesn't.

If you'd have finished reading the article:

Few people make the cover of Sports Illustrated after a run of mediocre luck. They appear after things have been going well, and if the good luck fails to hold then it seems like the SI jinx. More likely it is “regression to the mean”, or in simple terms, a return to business as usual.

Not a big reader but thanks. And I believe you’re breaking the site guidelines:

> Please don't comment on whether someone read an article.


Well the guidelines also say not to post shallow dismissals...

Didn’t you just break that one too?

burnout doesn't have to be negative - sometimes it can force you identify what is really important and leave everything else behind

No, No, No... "Brilliant people" are defined by others by their work, the period when they were born, how they let others know of their work (a form of self-advertisement), hard work and random luck. Lose any of those and the person loses his/her title of "brilliant." Look at Einstein vs Feynman they both did brilliant work but Einstein is considered the smarter man. Einstein made himself a celebrity. He did as much as he could to make sure that people knew about him. Feynman did not. Einstein is considered a more brilliant man but he was not. Einstein was born a the right time in history. Had he been born 100 years earlier he would not have had the accumulated human knowledge to do his work. He was a hard worker. Up to his last days, he worked to advance his work. And ofcourse just random luck which you can't control.

Hmmm.. interesting to compare the two. I am a big fan of both, but like Feynman better as a nerd.

Wasn't Einstein 40 years older than Feynman? He did physics PLUS politics, including the letter to Roosevelt about the bomb. Even at the challenger investigation Feynman mostly stuck to science.

I think Einstein's ability to be interdependent made him a little more brilliant in my eyes. (along with the ability to reflect light)

> We rarely appreciate just how much inconsistency there is in the judgments we and others make, argues Prof Kahneman. It can hardly be a surprise, then, if past performance is no guarantee of future success.

Past performance can often predict future success that's why geniuses often are serial geniuses, sometimes in more fields than one. But we often forget that before they became known as geniuses they passed through a string of failures as is necessary. Im not sure if it's a problem with the geniuses themselves, or a problem of perception from our side, as we become intolerant to their failures.

“future success” does not have to be preceded by past “string of failures”.

Like, at all. That’s just classic gambler fallacy.

If you want an example of reverse gambler fallacy, see here - https://news.ycombinator.com/reply?id=20231181&goto=threads%...

There the author says “10k heads have shown up, so 10k tails are waiting to show up”

which is equally rubbish.

There’s this weird thing where people on HN keep falling prey to Gambler’s fallacy. Maybe it’s like a programmer’s blind spot ?

Buboard may be assuming that performance is greatly influenced by skill and that skill is learned rather than innate, leaving a 'string of failure' in the learning process. Probabilistically, this is roughly that skill-based success is a coin with highly biased initial weight for failure, and learning changes the coin's bias. I do not care to speculate on how success actually works; I'm quite sure it's more complicated than I can fit in a comment.

It's not a gambler fallacy, it's the idea that failure is an important part of learning to be good at something.

You could turn it around and say, assuming I eventually succeed, what's the distribution of failures I'd have to endure? You might get lucky, but it's definitely possible to quantify how long it would most probably take to succeed.

If you have a bunch of people tossing dice and stopping when they roll a 1, only ~1/6 will succeed immediately. Most people will take a few tries; a few will take many tries; there's a nonzero chance you will wait forever without a success.

That's not to say that a success gets more likely with time (the Gambler's Fallacy) but on the whole, you'd expect most successes to have some prior failures, unless the dice are rigged.

> it’s definitely possible to quantify how long it would most probably take to succeed

yes. if success means to roll a 1, and anything else is a failure, you will on average roll the die 6 times before you succeed. E(x) = 1/p for a geometric with p = 1/6. your variance is q/p^2, so 30.

so then, my rational decision as an investor is to quit rolling the die after 17 rolls ( mu + 2 sd = 6 + 2*sqrt(30) = 17 ). I wouldn’t wait until heat death of universe.

If you want an extreme example of this reasoning: I always take a bomb with me on a plane, because what's the chance that two guys with a bomb show up, right?

i agree. but i suppose even einstein had a few failures . It's just that failures are magnified with notoriety, even if these failure might just be the prelude to following success.

> Maybe it’s like a programmer’s blind spot ?

Nah this must come from entrepreneurs , which is a lot more like gambling than science etc.

If there's one thing I've learned over the years is that there is no correlation between being a programmer and following the scientific method or not being prone to fallacies. A lot of programmers go with their hunches when it's inappropriate.

I guess I'm realizing I never approached this from a standpoint of expecting top people to stay on top forever, so the inquiry seems a little misguided to me. Even if you manage to dominate your field, in the very best case you're going to grow old & die someday. That's the pessimistic, decay theory. Or there's the optimistic, "progress" theory: If you believe humanity is on a more-or-less continuous arc of steady progress, that means somebody better is always coming along sooner or later to surpass your work.

Usually when people cite Dunning-Kruger, the results are explained by a corollary of reversion to the mean. Incompetents think they're more average than they are, prodigies think they're more average than they are, full stop.

If you look at the original measurements, they are mostly explainable on that basis. The usual claim that incompetents think they know better than experts doesn't show up in those results, and they don't report that.

That's not to say there aren't people who are really delusional -- Trump exists -- but it's not a rule.

It's not reversion to the mean, exactly, because there's no time series involved, but similar statistical laws operate.

If there's a real "effect", meriting a name, it's that incompetents are even bad at identifying the average, and miss, often thinking they are above average just because they don't really even understand what average means.

They cited this in their actual results.

Something similar I had written in 2011 http://arbidobservations.blogspot.com/2011/08/why-we-think-w...

If you enjoyed this article, I can recommend the author's book "Fifty Inventions That Shaped The Modern Economy" (mentioned at the end of the article). The inventions are not what you might think and it was a pretty enlightening read, at least for me.

Also the World Service 50 episode podcast of those inventions - all freely available. I always thought it a bit odd they renamed it from "50 things" to "50 inventions" for the US book release.


something similar I had written in 2011.


TLDR: Theres like 7 billion people. We have lottery winners both (specifically) and in other areas in life.

Unlike most lotteries, in life we also have lottery losers who have to pay their ticket another 100x or so.

Obligatory xkcd ("Survivorship Bias"):


I think I was born regressed to the mean. :-/

Regression to the mean.

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