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The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius (paulgraham.com)
1164 points by pilingual 14 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 477 comments

Before I read the article, I thought the “bus ticket” was referencing William Sidis, who in the early 20th century gave a mathematics lecture at MIT at 10, a Harvard student at 11, was expected to revolutionize math but then dropped out of the public eye to write strange books, one being an etymology of train and bus tickets across the US, collecting several thousand unique stubs. I bet that you could learn a lot about the flow of ideas and culture in the US from such a strange artifact, and while I agree with much of what PG says here, his definition of utility leans towards the economic sense. Also of note, Knuth has a section on his website devoted to photos of traffic signs!

I knew I'd heard recently about someone brilliant who had obsessed over bus tickets. Thanks for helping me recall it.

A recent episode of Radiolab, dated August 27, 2019, introduced a large audience (including me) to another podcast, The Memory Palace:


With that strong endorsement I began going through the whole back-catalog of The Memory Palace, and Episode 36, dated January 7, 2011, “six scenes from the life of william james sidis, wonderful boy”, talks about Sidis' obsession with bus tickets. Or maybe more precisely, streetcar transfers.


I think it said he figured out ways to traverse great distances on a single fare by connecting transfers. That kind of graph traversal thinking strikes me as ahead of its time for the age of streetcars, and could plausibly have led to some interesting places.

I've been fascinated by Sidis in the past, yet never really got his transfer ticket fascination. Maybe because I've been steeped in graph theory for the last couple of years but listening to that episode made me realize the beauty of what he saw.

If this written/possible (is it?) today, no doubt we'd have web pages and youtube channels devoted to "Transfer Surfing".

And I've got a new podcast to listen to!

Glad to hear it. The Memory Palace is one of the most interesting podcasts on my (extensive) list. It's beautifully produced and wonderfully idiosyncratic in its choice of subjects.

The father of William was Boris Sidis. Wikipedia notes Boris:

“sought to provide insight into why people behave as they do, particularly in cases of a mob frenzy or religious mania. With the publication of his book Nervous Ills: Their Cause and Cure in 1922, he summarized much of his previous work in diagnosing, understanding and treating nervous disorders. He saw fear as an underlying cause of much human mental suffering and problematic behavior.”


I had the same first thought. The book is called _Notes on the Collection of Transfers_, and is available for free on the Sidis archives:


Classmate of another child prodigy, one who did achieve notable accomplishment, Norbert Wiener.


> his definition of utility leans towards the economic sense.

I think his preference is probably closer to the generality and “interestingness” of the discovery.

Darwin’s theory is obviously very general and applicable in a multitude of domains in addition to the original one he worked on. Although Ramanujan’s series were not obviously general but they imply some deep mathematical patterns that are more general than specific forms. Neither had much economic utility during the discoverer’s lifetime.

Does anyone have a hypothesis on why William Sidis made such a interesting pivot?

Something of a political awakening about age 21:


Seems to have opted out of society for the most part afterward.

That paragraph in Wikipedia seems to me to subtly imply his parents' attempt at "reforming" him could be relevant here.

A reasonable conclusion. What is perceived as society turning its back on you and betraying you, has a tendency to generate the same in return - especially in people who have a tendency to see more in things than the average person.

Somewhat similar stories with eg Grothendieck and Kaczynski. As the article points out, one of the properties of genius is that it can’t really be deliberately focused.

Reminded me of https://magazine.atavist.com/promethea-unbound-child-genius-...

I think future generations will see our inability to provide opportunity to genius to rise up as a criminal waste of potential. I sometimes idly speculate how different human society would be if we raised our offspring communally, with every child given the same (high) opportunity to express their capabilities.

As usual Asimov has a riff on this: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Deep_(short_story) - worth reading the original story though...

> one of the properties of genius is that it can’t really be deliberately focused

i think this is true. I think there is a statement that is a bit more crisp, genius focuses intensely on what it must.

I, an average person, can focus or not on whatever. perhaps i'm a genius. I'm not a fool, but i'm also not pushing the boundaries. Your phrasing gives me room to think i'm a genius. (i'm not).

Some folks, on the other hand, get hung up on details. And to those details matter a lot. They don't have a choice, in much the same way i don't have a choice about breathing. I'll do it if i want to or not. Genius is obsession. sometimes that obsession leads somewhere and we all benefit. but usually, it's just crazy guy ranting about squirrels.

I agree with his theory, but what I find particularly interesting is that I think most people do not have an obsessive interest in anything at all. And as someone who has obsessive interests in a lot of things (some “useful”, some not), that seems really odd to me: how can you just be satisfied to go to work, come home, watch TV, and go to bed each day? (Not saying that’s the wrong way to live, just saying it is surprising to someone who isn’t that way). But I guess the obsessive ones are really the weird ones in society, in terms of the fraction of the population they constitute.

My problem lately has been acquiring enough free time to be obsessive. I really miss the days of playing piano for 12 hours straight or tinkering around with reverse engineering the OS of some MP3 player. And my wife is pregnant for the first time, so like PG mentions, I wonder (but suspect) how that is going to change things. I have a very intense dread of losing myself in the necessary mundanity of life; I am more financially comfortable than ever, but I also feel less like myself than I ever have. Going to meetings, making dinner, creating to-do lists — these don’t fit my personality at all, but I have to do them because they need to be done.

Frankly most people obsess about things like finding a mate, playing video games, collecting comics, politics, reading books, watching & discussing TV shows & movies, social websites (such as this one), sex, porn, fashion, sports, the social politics of work (as opposed to the work itself -- e.g. "The Office") and, of course, their kids. But none of these sorts of obsessions are likely to lead to fame or fortune.

I think it is the rare person who literally has no obsessive interests at all. Sounds rather sad and boring.

Interests aren't necessarily obsessions or passions.

I think it's rare to be obsessed with any of those things, but common to be superficially interested. For instance many people will just watch a TV show and enjoy it, and maybe even rewatch it a few times, without knowing all of the actors or writers or how the production of the show worked, etc etc, while you would expect an obsessed person to know at least some of these things, because they are compelled to find out at much as they possibly can about the object of their obsession.

Yeah that’s a good point. Almost everyone watches TV. But people like say Jimmy Kimmel watched TV so closely that they came to understand its underlying mechanisms.

What makes people laugh? What entertains them and makes them less lonely? Who are the important people in the business? You could watch TV for years and never ask yourself those questions.

After all there’s no real school for TV. Many people on TV now studied it by simply paying closer attention. There are LA insiders for sure who can watch their parents, but there are also people like Letterman who was from a small town in Indiana.

As another example, a lot of UFC fighters also grew up watching the nascent sport in the 90’s. They learned how it worked simply by paying more attention, practicing, and being more obsessive about it than the millions of other fans. There’s no school for it since it was a rapidly developing martial art. YouTube has apparently permanently changed the state of practice in Jiu-Jitsu.

I think its fairly common for teenagers (and some not-teenagers) to be obsessed with sex. Many people seem to be obsessed with politics. I've met many adults who I assume are obsessed with work since they spend so much time doing it.

Many of my relatives seem to have no interests or hobbies. I mean sure, they watch TV and movies, but it's not like they are deeply interested in them, they serve more as pastimes. They don't have anything they are actually passionate about.

Most people I meet seem to simply survive on instinct and mimicking others around them.

I find it really refreshing when I discover that someone is passionate about something, no matter what it is.

The possibility exists that I could just be a bad interviewer though.

> The possibility exists that I could just be a bad interviewer though.

Making small talk with people I have this thought constantly. Is the format of small talk what's preventing us from having a discussion about what you're passionate about or do they lack a passion?

You’ve just listed off a dozen obsessive interests, and that’s the problem — you can’t have a dozen obsessive interests, there’s only enough room for one.

When I was twenty I could afford an obsessive interest in my studies. Now I’m in my late thirties I simply have too much going on.

On the upside, when I’m sixty (which is peak bus ticket collecting age) I can see how I will, finally free of the constraints of work and children, finally have time to obsess again. I hope I still have the mental agility to do it well, and that I don’t get sucked into some bus ticket vortex.

From the article, Newton had room for more than one.

> I agree with his theory, but what I find particularly interesting is that I think most people do not have an obsessive interest in anything at all.

I am not convinced that this is true. I think a lot more people are really interested or passionate about something than you may realize, but not all of them talk about those things to everyone. Alternatively, their passion might be what they do for a living.

So for instance a case of the former might be someone that has a very niche interest, so they have learned that in most cases talking about that thing does not lead to any interesting conversations.

Another possibility is that they might not view themselves as being particularly good at their area of interest (which may or may not be the case), so they don’t like to talk about it.

So for whatever reason, including the above or other reasons, you end up not learning about these interests that those people have when you just talk casually with them.

And as for the people that do it for a living, it could be that they have no interests outside of work, because work fulfills their passion. For example someone who is a really passionate salesperson, if they already truly derive meaning and joy from doing what they do at work, maybe they don’t need anything outside of work other than to relax and recover.

Lastly, another group of people I can think of are those that have interests that are very costly and they don’t have a high paying job. So most of the year they spend a lot of time at work and on the spare time they sit in front of the TV, or the computer and it sounds like they have no passion for anything but really they are spending a lot of time dreaming about the next trip they can afford to go on in the Himalayas or whatever, and when they sit at home they watch programs about skiing, and they read about skiing online and discuss it with others online, and maybe read magazines about it as well.

I’m not saying that everyone has something that they are deeply interested in, but I believe that more people do than one might realize.

I can vouch for the "do it for a living" route. Spent almost ten years obsessively tinkering with electronics. Started a career in electronics. Pretty much abandoned hobby electronics; I do it all day at work, get my enjoyment, and pursue more casual interests for fun. Although life still gets empty if it's just work/eat/sleep.

I have a hard time agreeing with this. In my experience people's single most interesting thing to talk about is themselves. Once you notice that, you see it everywhere. It's such a lure, it's almost irresistible. I've made it a habit to ask them a couple of open questions and then just let them have at it. In a few situations folks lost business with me simply because they were too preoccupied with talking about themselves to simply ask "so... how about you? what do you do?"

It follows that whenever someone has an obsession, it comes up naturally while they talk about themselves.

I don't think it follows. Obsession about a niche topic + good social sense = you're not likely to mention it during random conversations with regular people.

Personally I don't often like to talk about my obsessions with random people.

I find that talking about them usually leads to a predictable surface-level conversation that I'm bound to find boring.

Usually it's only with other experts that I can have an interesting conversation about the details of something I'm very familiar with.

When you ask me open ended question and I am able to talk about that topic, I will talk about that topic. If people ask me about family I talk about family, if people ask me about work I talk about work and if they ask me about sport I talk about sport.

It has nothing to do with what I find most interesting to talk about. It has to do with me assuming that this is what you want to talk about, since you asked about it.

I also kind of expect the person I talk to make own pronouncements about the topic they started, without having to ask "what about you". When I am asking "what about you", it is usually admission that this is not going well, conversation feels one sided and I am desperately trying to make it two sided so I am not the asshole there.

People answering questions does not imply that their favorite thing to talk about is themselves. It’s simply an easy venue to conversation when you don’t know the other person.

>People answering questions does not imply that their favorite thing to talk about is themselves.

Nor does what I said imply your assertion.

You'll come up for air around 3 and minor hobbies will re-emerge around 5. I would recommend finding some deeply informed and interesting podcasts on subjects you expect to be helpful in order to educate yourself passively during the early years.

And many parents we know (ourselves included) give up exercise. If at all possible, try to maintain some semblance of an exercise routine.

My twins are 6 months. I've maintained 3x a week, hour long full body training sessions the entire time (and I get out for 2-3 10k runs a week and occasionally get out for a mountain bike ride, depending on how good of a deal I can make with my wife). I'm fortunate to work from home full-time, which means that I can get my workout in over lunch hour.

For people who aren't are so fortunate, I always recommend that they look into Kettlebell Simple & Sinister on Amazon from Pavel Tsatsouline (there's a new version, recently released, easy to read and very dense with information and incredible strength training insights).

Simple & Sinister is essentially a 20 minute, no nonsense, 100% legitimate strength training routine that can be done daily, even in combination with other training programs and workouts. Kettlebells take up essentially no space and if you buy a reputable brand you will have this strength training implement for the rest of your life.

> My twins are 6 months.

For what it's worth, that means that you're actually at an easier phase than you will be when the kids get older. Infants are time-consuming in many ways, but they also sleep a lot and have few external needs of their own.

When your kids stopping napping and start acquiring their own friends and activities, the time commitment goes up a lot, especially when they are still too young to do much for themselves.

Elementary age sort of plateaus: the amount of activities goes up, but they can take care of more of their own maintainance too. I don't know what middle school is like yet, but my hunch is that the time commitment starts going down when they become old enough to go to activities on their own.

Oh, for sure. It's already ramped up, month over month, just due to them napping less. I'm excited to see where it all takes us over the coming years. That said, a major factor in why I work full-time remote today is because I wanted to take control of my health and use my lunch hour to exercise. I don't plan on ever giving that up, but I know that's optimistic. I'd happily go back to S&S 6 days a week if that's where my life took me (again).

How do you handle progressive overload? Do you have a bunch of different kettlebells of various weights? Seems like that would defeat the space savings. Or do you cycle out the lower weights or put them in storage once you've progressed past them? Curious to see if I could make this work for me, as I also have time/space constraints.

This program "only" consists of 2 movements, the kettlebell swing and the turkish get-up. But it's deceptively challenging. Progressive overload with S&S is mainly in building up the swings and in perfecting the form of the TGU. Once you have mastery with a kettlebell of a certain size, you test yourself and move up to the next size. It used to have time requirements, in version 1, but that has been removed in the latest iteration.

Kettlebells, traditionally, jump in 4kg increments. So, on average, with this program, you start with a single 16kg kettlebell, and then move to a 20kg, on up to 32kg.

I have a lot of kettlebells... 2x12kg, 2x16kg, 2x20kg, 1x24kg, 1x28kg, 1x32kg, 1x36kg, 1x40kg. They have a small footprint. I leave them all in a corner in the garage and they take up very little space, maybe 3 square feet. I'm on a different (non-kettlebell) program right now. But, I am using the 32kg on days that are not my main training days for strength-endurance purposes (I like doing between 300 and 500 heavy swings a week).

Sorry for the brevity, but I wanted to respond. Hope it helps.

That's very helpful. Thanks!

Simplest solution: if the traffic situation around you allows it get a bike. And use it for anything under 10 km or when you need to transport something heavy. Cheaper than the gym and far healthier, saves you money on w&t on your car as well.

Why is biking far healthier than the gym?

I think they just mean it's healthier than not biking to work.

That makes sense, I probably parsed it differently than the author intended.

Until you get hit by a car.

I’ve said it before, but I’m in the best shape of my life now with two children because the YMCA has free childcare.

Best way to do that is bike to work.

Yeah, I commuted by bike until we had kids. Sadly, the preschool that we liked the most also wasn't easily bikable from the house. The kids now go to a school that is easily bikable, and it's a joy.

I do that now because I'm fortunate enough to live very close to work, but that can be really difficult for parents. If your commute time is too long then commute + work + commute can end up a longer span of time than the gap between breakfast and dinner for the kids. When I lived farther, I drove because that mattered more to me than missing meals with them.

What separates piano and OS hscking from making dinner, for you? What is mundane versus interesting?

It seems to reduce the problem back to what might lead to a useful discovery versus what won't. But piano is likely in the latter category, given that its obsessed about so often over centuries. Maybe the time for OS hacking to lead to discoveries is on its way out, as well.

Obsessive cooking might be more likely to be fruitful, come to think of it. We have changing ideas about food production and nutrition; and more enabling technologies around for new ideas.

(I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with obsessing about things that won't lead to discoveries. They could be useful in a more mundane way, or be useless but still engaging.)

I think that's the whole point. It's not about what is interesting and what not, but what truly obsesses you. What OP means is that cooking is not something he feels obsessed about. It's great if you are obsessed about cooking and have 10 hours a day to practice your cooking. But most of us, wish we had more time to explore the topics we are deeply attracted to. If they make a difference, all the better.

That said many topics are deeply fascinating in their own ways, and we just haven't stopped & looked close enough to discover it.

Manufacturing fascination is a hard mental task, doubly so if you try to do it to find a substitute for something you're already fascinated in, but can't find time to pursue - you'll know you're trying to cheat yourself.

I highly recommend going obsessive with cooking. It pays dividends when you can cook at home and eat like a king. I found playing with Heston Blumenthal recipes and then diving into as many cook books as possible to be the best way to start.

Your fear is valid. One way I solved it (partly) is to hire help. Use your financial comfort to buy back your own time by paying someone else to do chores like cleaning, dishes etc. And the 1-2 hours per day that you'll save, now you can spend with your kid and/or on your interests.

> I have a very intense dread of losing myself in the necessary mundanity of life; I am more financially comfortable than ever, but I also feel less like myself than I ever have. Going to meetings, making dinner, creating to-do lists — these don’t fit my personality at all, but I have to do them because they need to be done.

You just articulated my worst fear, occasionally some aspect of it creeps into my life when society demands some "busy work" from me... each time it makes me feel like wanting to retreat into the wilderness to escape from society and enjoy nature and do things I actually find interesting.

Except simply surviving in a non-urban environment is even more mundane and exhausting.

oh absolutely, for prolonged escape if you don't take the basic technology of modern civilization with you, you will loose all your time again to keeping yourself clean, clothed, warm and fed. I you really want to escape I think the trick must be to live just close enough to reap the benefits of modern industry - but for me it is merely a desire or maybe a fantasy that seems more attractive on some days than others.

You can go to some small village in south America. Live on a beach or in mountains. It's so cheap that all you basic needs can be taken care of with 100-400$/month and you can dedicate yourself to the persuit of your hobby.

I think it'd be more accurate to say that most people haven't yet found something to be obsessively interested in.

Although the child prodigy is a popular image, I don't actually know anyone who's ended up doing the same thing all their life since they were young. People bounce around a lot before they hit something that clicks. Sometimes it's at 15, sometimes it's at 50.

Even people who have obsessive interests today first went through their boring phases, too.

> I am more financially comfortable than ever

Work part-time? I get 1-2 days off per week for projects (and house stuff) then in the evenings/weekends I actually have time and energy for playing with my child.

Plus, it's better for the environment than more work, more consumption.

Millions of people have obsessive interest in their family or in professional sports.

> Going to meetings, making dinner, creating to-do lists — these don’t fit my personality at all, but I have to do them because they need to be done.

Have you ever tried not doing things, and seeing what happens? A lot of things are quite frankly unnecessary in life.

FWIW, making to-do list is often a way of coping with inability to focus and hold coherent thoughts for longer periods of time in one's head. At least that's how I do this - especially now that I have a kid. I jot down lots of random throwaway todo lists for the day or week; otherwise, between the job, family and unwinding on HN, I'd essentially never do anything other than daily chores and "firefighting".

It’s not that bad. I just had twin girls and I’m still managing to draw for ~3 hours a day in between feeding and diaper changes. If you like your hobby enough you’ll find the energy and time somewhere ;P

I've got a new one too. My guitar follows me all around the house, and I've planted books in a bunch of different places for the in-between time. I'm curious to see how this evolves as the baby gets older.

I'm very new to having a kid but so far I've found it's helped focus my time more efficiently by getting better at multi-tasking, and then the remaining "interests" time is spent with a serious, no-time-to-waste approach.

Also, you might be surprised at what having a kid does to you, in a good way. Like PG mentions in his essay, once people have kids they tend to be their focus, and it's satisfying to guide them and see them grow.

Yeah, kid, family and relationships seems like the basic answer to "why aren't most people obsessed with obscure X".

The chances are your kid will take all your time when they're young and then probably won't share obsessive interest X when they get older.

Just as much with relationships - you can't be an appealing mate by being successful, well-balanced and well-adjusted. Or you can share interest X with you mate. But latter approach gives one 1/10000th as many people - not impossible but it's something to think about.

I think there are some portion of people who could find hobby X appealing but then, consciously or unconsciously think about these considerations and push themselves back to mainstream.

I would also like to say -- having a kid makes one realize how much time is wasted online reading reading reading. It's been a nice adjustment getting away from the internet.

Go look up what the average American or European media consumption is. It's difficult to see it as anything but an obsession. It's just that the obsession relates to things others are producing.

I used to be obsessed with many different things during childhood, perhaps because I am an only child and had large chunks of time where I was in my own room, alone, as a child. I would do things like lay out a paper map of a city, and start tracing my fingers along the roads as if I was a bus driver, or pretending I had multiple estates. I would start documenting the statistics of my Pokemon card deck. Take apart my computer. Spend hours trying to create something significant from random Lego blocks. Make songs by humming into a cassette tape recorder. Even invented a language (very short-lived hobby).

Then puberty hit. I became more interested in making sure my hair and clothes were cool enough, so I could fit in, so I could attract my crush. I became much more addicted into the mainstream grooves of video games, such as League of Legends. I lost interest in random obsessions, and instead replaced it with a more artificial one governed by Riot Games or Blizzard, and the digital points/levels that I got in game.

Then I grew up. I am now working as a software developer, but don't even have much obsession for programming at all. I just don't see how someone can get excited about the intracacies of a programming language, because its so dry and boring. And I feel a bit ashamed for not being too interested in hacking together a MVP anymore, even though programming presents such a huge realm of possibility available to anyone at no barrier/cost to entry. Nowadays, whenever I have a slight interest in anything, the capitalistic worldview has polluted my thoughts by always triggering the thought: "but is this a viable business idea? Could I get recognition from others and provide value such that the market would compensate me?"

I would trade anything to get my childhood obsessions back, because I am living mostly like the repetitive 9-5er you describe.

If you don't have time for your obsessive interest, then it's not really obsessive after all. A maximally obsessive person would have neglected distractions from his obsession.

Read about and in depth how to raise kids. There is a lot of good books how you can let kids become strong individuals instead of good at following instructions.

You will never be bored :p

Any advice?

My trip regarding this has been mostly Swedish content. Like this guy: (Grow, not obey) http://www.larshgustafsson.se/?p=1413 I don't see any of this book translated to English though.

He reflects upon his life as a doctor for mostly kids. How interactions with parents work out. How he hates methods and recipies to handle your kids, since that tends to distance yourself from the kid, use your instinct instead.

Another book I was really fascinated by was "Barn som bråkar" (Kids that fight) by Bo Heijskov: https://eng.hejlskov.se/books/ I think most books are a good read there. Mostly about how nothing can be solved by screaming/shouting/distancing. Accept that kids have their own mechanics that you need to appreciate and tend to. Angry kids are good, that means they love you enough to share their emotions. Now it is up to you as a guardian to control the structure around the kid to make it easier to exist and control itself.

Most likely I have missed tons of authors, but I strongly believe that if one follows the pattern of giving love to kids and not shout at them, things will be much easier, for both parent and kids. Reading about it and discussing it with ones partner is something that needs to be tended to all the time.

For me as a bonus dad/bonus grandad and dad I fill a lot of roles, I tend to do deep dives in all areas (tech, music, philosofy etc), reading more about the roles I fill was such a joy and time consuming.

To be fair I started out reading Bo Heilskov and then the site with soundbooks gave me the others.

As to answer the parent as well. Most books going forward is always a recommend after something like the book above.

There should be a site like parenting.com which lists all of these.

Kids is never at fault really, they just try their best with given tooling.

1) Your kid will determine how much free time you have. Some infants sleep 22 hours a day. Some sleep 4 hours a day. You can't know which you'll get.

2) Ruthless economizing & prioritizing of what's important to you. Combine activities, e.g. biking to work is commute, exercise, and possibly shower all-in-one.

> making dinner

That seemed an odd thing to include. Making food is a rewarding and intriguing pursuit. It combines aesthetics, science, social benefit and sensual rewards. It has a rich history and tons of controversies to poke at.

I never feel that making dinner is a waste of my time.

I’m pretty much with you. And I can’t help but wonder as joining startups has clearly been sold as a path to riches, this site has shifted.

Here’s a benchmark question: is it better to be right or be popular?

I think this is correct. The bad news is we are creating systems which minimise the number of geniuses entering each field.

In the past, science was an eccentric hobby, not particularly valued and certainly not a viable career option. Today it's all of these things - like becoming a doctor. Telling your mother you want to be a scientist is far better than saying you want to be a musician. A hundred years ago that wouldn't have been the case.

The consequence of this is that these fields are filled up with careerists - people who are socially driven rather than curiosity driven. I think this might go some way to explaining the slowdown in scientific progress, because people chase low-risk 'hot' fields to advance their careers, rather than splashing about in the unfashionable backwaters of science for the sheer enjoyment of it.

The 'problem' with modern science is that a large finite amount of stuff has been discovered, and new discoveries are most often built on that stuff. I splash around in the backwaters of machine learning, however I have to pick my targets carefully and maintain a very tight focus - the defined knowledge base has already grown to more than anyone can ingest in detail. Given the amount of knowledge that has to be absorbed to achieve mastery in a scientific discipline, and the fact that knowledge base keeps growing, it takes longer and longer to lay a foundation for just understanding what the hell people are talking about. Now, there are opportunities, for example the use of genetic algorithms as part of ML solutions, because for any 'real' researcher, GA's aren't the cool kid in the opinions of reviewers or funding agents. It's easier when you are the PI and the funding authority, even if the budget is quite a bit smaller

The problem with modern science is that there is no room for the unusual.

Faraday had no formal training, but his natural intuition, interest, and tenacity made him standout.

Newton was a brilliant, paranoid asshole.

Instead funding goes to credentialed career scientists whose greatest ability is self-promotion, fund raising, and stringing-along the public.

As an example: The next big particle accelerator sucks up billions; while alternative approaches to QM never get any attention because it’s a guaranteed way to kill a career and become a pariah.

So nobody is available to even try to create the theoretical framework at the investment of a few million.

There is still plenty of room for the unusual, it just isn't as easy as it was back in the day when most important discoveries were made by people working by themselves at home with little organizational funding.

It's a nice narrative that overgrown institutions are ruthlessly repressing all creativity. And I do believe there is some truth to that. We should work hard to understand why and then improve the situation. However, unfortunately, reality is usually more complex and also more mundane (in some ways) than any nice narratives we can come up with.

From my experiences in the life sciences going through the academic credentialing process (PhD to postdoc), there was room for the unusual but the way it worked was a little convoluted. Basically the grant funding agencies give you money for a project that they can understand and follow your logic on why it will succeed. Then when they fund you, you cut back on the resources required to get to that success and spend the savings on new ideas. The fun part about the "new idea" spending is you can look at most anything that your instrumentation can look for. The idea being all the tools in your lab, your departments lab, even collaborating institutions are available to play around with and probe. You can even build new instrumentation to look at new things with that money. This is how modern life science pushes ahead.

Or the other option is you get funding for an idea that falls within the same realm as your unusual idea. Then you spend the money on those overlapping projects.

A great example is a chemist I knew that love research with selenium (an uncommon element). He was most interested in what role it plays in organic chemistry. That’s it.

But when he wrote up grant proposals it was always about the anti-cancer properties of selenium compounds. Never mind the fact he had zero plans to actually pursues that end.

So what happens if you get caught? Or someone calls you out?

Nobody's checking. The focus is on what you're going to spend next year's money on, not how you spent last year's money. And if you're savvy, you can use tools that were already bought for some other purpose, or that don't cost much.

Working a day job in industry isn't categorically different, except that someone is probably watching your spending more closely. You have to figure out a way to set aside some time to work on your own interest, whether you do it at work or at home.

As for money, you can get technology made for 1/10 of what it costs your employer, by choosing your battles, cutting out all of the overhead, and using free stuff.

So I moved into industry out of post doc and I can tell you as long as you're getting your day job done and it isn't that expensive you can test most any idea. I'd say it's even easier to do it in industry because "not that expensive" to industry is like 10-fold more than in academia.

Except that you’re not allowed to be bored and mentally daydream.

Newton and Einstein both hit on some big ideas during lulls (@home to avoid plague for the former; patent office work for the latter).

In Newton's day a single person could probably learn all the math and science there was to be learned in the entire world.

Now things are much more specialized and require years of formal study just to get a base level of knowledge in one tiny aspect.

I doubt this is the case at all.

We have the luxury of hindsight to know which peculiar schools of thought were rubbish, so we don’t even teach them.

I’m sure there are many, many theorems built up with Euclidean Geometry that we don’t bother teaching anymore.

Because modern methods make the results trivial.

Today, what are we burdening upcoming scientists with unnecessarily?

Part of it has to also do with science becoming more empirical.

The number of unanswered questions grows even faster as more questions are answered.

Good questions are even harder to find than good answers.

When you come up with a good question, make sure lots of people hear it.

> a large finite amount of stuff has been discovered


Neural networks are a good example of something that was once ignored as an academic curiosity at best.

Neural networks followed a typical hype cycle — before they were ignored they were the next big thing.

Then they got ignored, and then they finally got useful.

It's worse than this. The careerists have taken control and use it to demand you work as they would like. They kill the creativity and passion and will not allow the real work to happen and make progress.

There is a formula you must fit into, 5 days a week, probably 50 hours, a specific attitude, and everything they can get from you. Try this: in your next offer negotiation, ask to cut your salary by 20% and get one day back.

Can't blame them. It is how Tesla and many other inventive minds have been made subject. It's not slavery but it doesn't honor the contributor acting in good faith.

> The consequence of this is that these fields are filled up with careerists - people who are socially driven rather than curiosity driven.

I think it's worse than this: school and academia is no longer the sole option for the ultra curious. Curiosity is better fed by the internet, which means we end up lacking a social institution which captures and unifies people like this.

Isn't the internet the social institution then?

There's a much more obvious difference between now and 100 years ago: 100 years ago the education and financial support for scientific research was largely a closed shop for European-descended upper middle class men. There are certainly many geniuses obsessively researching into areas that stimulate their intellectual interest today that wouldn't have had the opportunity to do so back then.

I'm not sure being a scientist was that unfashionable 100 years ago anyway: research labs were a thing, academic work was arguably more prestigious than it is today, fortunes were being made from inventions especially in fields where there were low hanging fruit, competitions and societies and exhibitions to celebrate scientific achievement had come into existence and the idea of inventiveness was even tied up in popular contemporaneous notions of national and racial superiority. There might be more subfields and more research to build on nowadays, but the stereotype of scientists being underpaid eccentrics certainly hasn't gone away and nor has the fact a mathematics prodigy can make a lot more money working in financial services than academic research.

I'm also unconvinced scientific progress has slowed because today's geniuses are working on interpreting our genetic code, modelling solutions to climate change and solving scaling problems in computation rather than drawing taxonomy diagrams, inventing new types of consumer electronics and breaking the land speed record.

> 100 years ago the education and financial support for scientific invention was largely a closed shop for European-descended upper middle class men.

i.e. exactly the people who were, by far, most likely to be living a comfortable, stress-free life back then. We should not underestimate the sheer amount of material progress and economic growth that has occurred since then. A lot more people can have the luxury of getting playfully obsessed about something than could back then.

800 karma in 73 days. I wonder what the highest karma gain in two months was, in HN’s history. (From comments only, and with the top comment removed from consideration to avoid one-offs.)

I guess I’m a bus ticket collector of HN facts.

tptacek has 323873 since november 2007 [0] or an average of 2,249 per month so probably quite a bit higher.

[0]: https://news.ycombinator.com/user?id=tptacek

I probably should have specified “besides tptacek.” He’s a fascinating outlier. He once claimed he was worried some Russians were going to harm him due to his HN comments. I still wonder if he was just saying that to sound cool, but truth is often strange.

That average does put things into perspective though.

I said what? If this was in person, I'm confident I was both drunk and joking.


Hey, please don't swerve into personal attack here. Friendly banter needn't turn ugly.


How did you read 'hate' into that? Genuinely curious.

As an aside, I recently feel at odds with the language many people are using. The mere word 'hate' seems to have grown weird political connotations, while is suddenly okay to hate 'hate'. Is this not fostering the very emotion you revile, under twisted pretense? I remember 'love thy enemy' to have been the twist of the knife in peaceful protest, not sinking to their level with 'justified hate'. It feels hollow. If we want a change, we need to reach out first. /rant

There is a trend to demonize the Chinese and Russians governments (it is always about governments but then it translates to companies and then to people). This trend is very useful to promote different kinds of online censorship and put people into political boxes (e.g., you like this then you are that). Basically, when every single piece of material about a country is negative, you get a set of feeling where hate is not the least common. Then you go full paranoia cycle and expect that these same people also will punish you for what you write about them. One can benefit from these tendencies and ride them to get attention and respect of like-minded people, basically sell hate.

I’ve consistently gained karma faster than that. By my estimate, there’s still a handful of people who are currently accumulating karma even faster than I am (one of whom has been mentioned here), though I expect to only really be sure in a year or so.

I would say:

100 years ago the education and financial support for scientific research by European-descended upper middle class men

was a thing.

50 years ago I wasn't expecting it to come back, it wouldn't have helped me anyway, overall scientific opportunities were far worse by then and the trend has continued. I wasn't waiting around for an uptick, I just started right away putting in the effort to try and compensate.

And I agree with this completely:

>There are certainly many geniuses obsessively researching into areas that stimulate their intellectual interest today that wouldn't have had the opportunity to do so back then.

There is so much brilliance in so many cultures through so many millennia, it can be seen that education and financial support are not even essential for genius, mainly for documenting, recognizing, and leveraging the influence of a very very small percentage of geniuses through history, only those few whose works were preserved and/or applied.

Surviving largely within a system of lesser thinkers whose works were better preserved and/or more stongly applied.

Which is why I think

>inventing new types of consumer electronics

can be a good thing if the consumer is given careful enough consideration.

Science has a level of technical difficulty and detail to not be obsessed about something in order to discover anything. Try one of those extract DNA from a strawberry kit for example. Even in big data science you find people who know a lot of math or applied math that have the technical insights. A lot of science today also requires collaborative cross discipline work to make progress as well. I don’t think careerism is an issue. We should encourage wacky ideas though through competitive grants.

The people driven by curiosity will still be in those unfashionable backwaters of any field. I would think true progress is made by those individuals, not ones that chase ‘hot’ fields.

Bingo. I would add that the movers tend to define their own fields, and by action and driven by need/practicality, not marketing. Those seeking to enter a career, generally have a different set of goals and priorities, reguardless of overlap.

> In the past, science was an eccentric hobby, not particularly valued and certainly not a viable career option. Today it's all of these things - like becoming a doctor.

Really! That's news to me. Are you aware of how much scientists are paid and their general career prospects?

The average tenured professor salary in the US is $141k. Star research directors with a proven record of bringing in grant money can easily earn two or three times that. In engineering, physics, med, and bio there are also lucrative consultancy opportunities.

The average scientist outside academia is probably doing grunt work and is paid badly - unless they're working in fintech, or something with an obvious financial upside.

The reality is that the entire research system is optimised for direct and indirect cash accumulation, not for genuine innovation or invention. There's some interest in blue sky funding, but if you're a fresh postgrad no grant body is going to give you a lot of money to go off and design a working warp drive unless you also have the bureaucratic skills to make your project sound like something they want to fund - probably for other reasons.

Researchers with good bureaucratic skills and genius-level scientific insights are exceptionally rare. And the publishing system isn't welcoming to talented semi-outsiders

Newton, Einstein, Darwin, and Ramanujan would really struggle in today's environment. Newton might be okay if he managed to get tenure, but the others not so much.

The big difference is that currently scientists are paid and their research equipment funded by someone else; contrasting to the earlier times where usually you could be a scientist if and only if had "passive income" (usually, inherited wealth), so that you would not need to work to earn money and could instead study (and pay for studies in a world without student loans) and research instead of that.

>Telling your mother you want to be a scientist is far better than saying you want to be a musician.

Are you joking? A small child literally has a better chance of growing up to become a professional athlete than a tenured research professor!

This doesn’t seem true.

In 2016, American universities hired about 20,000 tenure-track faculty [1]. Adding up the major pro sports leagues, there are very very generously 10,000 American pro athletes, (i.e. people who don’t have day jobs).

I guess things change if you include all the minor league and farm teams, especially for the MLB.

[1] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2018/10/12/about-three-q...

Of course very few tenured research professors grow up to be professional athletes, but that hardly seems relevant.

> filled up with careerists

I agree but I think it is driven by academia's incentive structure which promotes and rewards such behavior.

thats why we have bad doctors?

The BIGGEST problem with research is this: it's HARD, not easy, to understand. Most papers written are absolute trash. Not because the content is. Because it's written in a shitty, overly braggy way (especially mathematics and physics), that's mostly shouting "I'm better than you and if you don't get it, you're an idiot". They are not written with any USER, let alone, READER, in mind. Anyone would immediately be fired by a remotely consumer-centric company.

Wikipedia was a huge step in the right direction: making everything easier to understand. With lots of proofs and examples.

I think you could easily become billionaire by improving Wikipedia and the "make science and knowledge easily absorbable" 10X easier

Please don't use uppercase for emphasis.


That's one very interesting observation. I've commented in that vein a short while ago where I noticed that once I finally understood what some paper was about my usual response (definitely not always) would be 'That's it?'.

Wikipedia has been a godsend for me, to be able to understand core principles without having to wade through what seems to be obfuscated English in order to hide something relatively trivial at the heart of the document.

Wikipedia for certain topic is often just as inscrutable as papers would be. I have no idea why this is, but my guess is that it’s written by people with passing interest in the field who lack the experience to effectively distill their knowledge like paper authors might.

You could not "easily" become a billionaire by improving Wikipedia, which is the result of millions of hours of writing and editing. The fact is most low-hanging fruit has already been plucked, thus every scientific discovery relies upon more and more background knowledge. Yes, we do make innovations in explaining/teaching science more quickly to successive generations, but I doubt if we'll ever see a Newton or Darwin who can single-handedly, obsessively write and observe and calculate, by themselves, and then push science forward by leaps and bounds. The best research today is all done by teams, with experts on statistics, study design, clinicians, hardware experts - there are just so many niche fields that we MUST collaborate on extremely advanced work.

I was actively discouraged from writing readable text in my thesis. That kind of behavior would erode the power of the guild.

Your advisors were acting in your best interest. There is a time and place for readable science, and your thesis is not it. It has nothing to do with the power of the guild, and everything to do with assessing your knowledge and preparation.

The purpose of your thesis is to demonstrate to them (and perhaps the larger scientific community) that you can communicate to other scientist in the language of the field, that you possess the requisite knowledge, and that you are prepared to advance that field.

There is no guild, but there are gate keepers (reviewers of various sorts) and you must be prepared well enough to make convincing cases (for publication, funding, etc.) Your advisors were training you for this role.

Well, so sorry. If things are as bad as you sketch them then there may as well be a guild.

Science is first and foremost about understanding, and writing in a way that purposefully obfuscates and makes it harder to understand what is communicated is anathema to true science.

You misunderstand the purpose - it's not intentional obfuscation. Its the lingua franca of the field. A technical term can define in one phrase an entire concept that would be tedious to spell out each and every time. It can define one 'chunk' that you can then combine with other chunks to develop deeper understanding. Surely you can agree with that?

While I fully agree that ability to communicate science to the general public is incredibly important, the thesis is not necessary the place for this. Plenty of other places are (blogs, twitter, etc) and this ability is crucial for a publicly funded scientist. General large conferences that I am aware of often encourage non-technical translations of abstracts.

I don't think that's what 'jacquesm is talking about. It's not about the technical term that can communicate a lot of meaning in few characters. It's about constant use of obscure technical phrases that communicate the same or less than a plain-language description, except you have to work to decipher it. It's obfuscation, in a sense similar to what a JS obfuscator does to readable code.

I long for voice, for playful humor, for that je ne sais quoi of good writing! Robert Anton Wilson wrote a marvelous book called Quantum Psychology, where he uses the insights of quantum physics to upend the prevailing Aristotelian view of is / is not logic in psychology and in scientific thinking generally. It was a genuine pleasure to read, as I sensed the intelligent, interested, living being doing the writing all throughout. It felt intimate despite its serious nature. I just don't understand why writing about a scientific subject, even in an obscure and rarified field, gives you a pass on crafting a piece of writing someone might actually want to read, might actually connect with on an emotional level.

You may think there is some rational choice to be made about obsessive curiosity. Maybe not. In 1960, my mom lived near a six year old who could fix electric stuff. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him and brought him things to fix. TV's were no problem; dead radios were great; telephones were cool. He was a super happy kid with a constant enthusiasm and a sparkle in his eye, running home from school every day to see what he could learn and what neighbors had brought for his help. He had thrown circuit breakers in the house many times. One day, there was a blackout and he came down from his room to apologize to this parents, again. They had an idea and they pointed out the window. "Well you really did it this time. Look, the entire city went down." And that was it. He stopped with electronics. At first he was morose and anxious, but his parents figured he would get used to his new life. He left for college the same disconnected and subdued kid he became at six. My mom bumped into him again around 1990, when he was about 35, and he never did recover: still sad, puffy, disconnected from people, uninspired, hating his job, unhappy with friends.

I thought this story was going to end with "and that kid was Richard Feynman"

That's a great contrast. Yes, Feynman had a thriving business fixing electronics as a kid. Difference: his parents didn't worry that he was going to grow up weird. They were happy with what might have become his bus ticket collecting

I thought it was going to be about William Sidis.

Not the point of the story, but he didn’t do it though, right? It was probably this? https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_1965

No. It was a local blackout: too much load with air conditioners in the summer

Did... did they not tell him it was a joke?

No. They meant to stop him from his compulsive interest in electronics. They wanted him to play with other kids, play sports, run around. He seemed weird and they thought he would seem weird when he grew up. And running shop that fixes radios didn't look like success to them. (Until recently, "nerd" was a very offensive insult.)

> (Until recently, "nerd" was a very offensive insult.)

In that sense, perhaps society has made a little progress, in socially embracing those that seem eccentric, quirky or uncomfortable - maybe not always for the right reasons, but it allows more people to be themselves and be happy.

I think it's less of actual progress, and more of economy: what was considered nerdy two decades ago, now is the easiest path to both upper-class and 1%-levels of wealth. People don't hate nerds anymore, they want to be them - not because the topics are interesting, but because they're a good career.

There's certainly some of that, but the long tail of the Internet means there are all sorts of communities and real-life meet ups of the strangest obsessions where their interests are celebrated, not made fun of. This means it's safe to declare your weird obsessions. Even if you're family doesn't understand it, they don't have to - theres a community to connect with, whereas previously there was little/no such ability, and Nerd interests were shunned. Now they're the feature of Comic Con, SDCC, Pax, etc.

Rather, the connotations of the word "nerd" have lessened significantly. In the 60s and 70s, it was like what being called an "incel" is today. It was meant to mark you as unlikeable, unpleasant, unattractive, and pretty much outside of the realm of normal human consideration.

I feel like my life is going in this direction. I have a vague plan to get out of this through startups. Don't know if it'll work.

Which direction?

Very dubious that a electronics mini-wizard could not figure by himself that it's impossible to take down the electric city distribution system from your house.

I' vaguely remember confronting my father over a similar issue during my electrical experimental days as a kid, asking him why our house had no adequate protection (those days simple fuses where still normal).

This is very sad. I hope he figures it out.

Two reactions to this. I almost believe these:

1. The difference between collecting bus tickets, working on mathematics, and figuring the crystallization patterns of snowflakes is virtually nothing. To the people obsessed with it, it is all-important; to outsiders, all three look indistinguishably pointless. Only in retrospect can anyone say whether the activity led to something society considers important. The truly obsessed don't care.

2. Genius is overrated. We like stories of great individuals changing the world with their genius because we like stories and we dislike chance. But for nearly every invention and idea, history shows that multiple people were working on it at the same time. Civilization's progress is more a sequence of ideas whose time had come, but we prefer stories of great unique geniuses.

A fantastic book by Vernon Vinge called “A Deepness in the Sky” toys around with this idea a lot actually.

There is a virus that can release neurotoxins and it is flipped in very specific parts of the brain with a MRI-like device. This can elicit a state of “Focus” where the person (victim more like) becomes totally obsessed with a particular idea or subject. They devote all energy towards this subject and can make stunning breakthroughs on difficult topics because they are utterly and completely _obssessed_ with whatever topic they are supposed to be.

They are held captives by their own fascination and work as slaves.

I know this is taking the idea a bit far from the point, but it’s an interesting extension of the idea.

Thank you so much. I read this book when it came out 20 years ago and have been trying to remember what it was called at odd times, On and Off, for roughly the last decade, specifically because of the plot point of the “Focus” virus.

Being obsessed with something is indeed a lot like slavery, or indentured servitude. But the difference is it was my idea.

> But for nearly every invention and idea, history shows that multiple people were working on it at the same time.

Agree and not to mention we don't have any data on people who loved and were obsessive and that did not lead to anything. I am actually surprised in how simplistic PG is when he writes some of what he does. For example he states that Darwin was obsessed (as he was) but ignores that just like the bus ticket collector he most likely did that simply because he was interested or curious for some reason. A hobby or a like is no better than anyone else's. Who is to say watching football matters (it doesn't) or collecting stamps matters (it doesn't) or by the same token if you obsess over mathematics (and it matters and leads to something) that that is why you even did it in the first place?

I would even say that often people are obsessive about what they do not even thinking it will lead to anything. I was an obsessive commenter on a site and most would say I was wasting my time. But that activity has led to over 7 figures of income. But I did it because I enjoyed it (and did it every day). Likewise the same happens here on HN. In one sense you might be wasting your time but if you enjoy it and it leads to something is not genuine to say you did it for another reason.

> I was an obsessive commenter on a site and most would say I was wasting my time. But that activity has led to over 7 figures of income.

That's amazing! Can you tell us more?

From time to time mathematicians discover something interesting, like the theoretical bases for elliptic-curve cryptography. I also remember some interesting work with applications to tomography, but it's mostly like a black box so it's more difficult to be sure how aplicable it was.

> 2. Genius is overrated.


> But for nearly every invention and idea, history shows that multiple people were working on it at the same time.

Not just "people" - "geniuses". History shows multiple geniuses were working on it at the same time.

I do agree that we give too much credit to a single genius. Had Isaac Newton not lived, we'd still have calculus, physics, etc in some form or another. The same thing with Einstein, Turing, etc. But that doesn't mean genius is overrated. What's overrated is the hero worshiping narrative we build around a single genius due to racial or nationalistic reasons.

But I think we should have as many geniuses working on problems as possible rather than saying that genius is overrated.

Were all great discoveries and works made by “geniuses”? Or do we assign them the title in retrospect?

For a long time, the Great Man theory dominated a lot of thinkers. Now there's a lot of pushback on the Great Man theory. I think I like both the theory and the pushback both. Reality's complicated.

You’re completely deluded into believing that genius is overrated. While it is never in isolation, and its fruits are the product of historical necessity, it takes a rare breed of sacrifice, which PG here is saying as obsession, to hit the targets no one else sees (paraphrasing Arthur Schopenhauer); and is constitutionally the personal, moral input of an individual on choosing how to cause themselves to be, unconcerned with the mediocre concerns of their contemporary society.

Shame on you and your ilk for suggesting Descartes, Newton, Kant etc. were just there picking low hanging fruit. They were doing work no one had the courage to do.

> You’re completely deluded [...] Shame on you and your ilk

Crossing into personal attack isn't allowed, and we ban accounts the keep doing it, so can you please not do it here? If you'd take a look at https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html you'll see how the intended spirit of this site points in the opposite direction. Note that it doesn't depend on how right you are.

I was personally offended, I apologize for my rhetoric.

I see the reasonings of both of your points. To me it seems in the old days, there was a lot of hindrance in reaching your potential therefore for those few to become geniuses, you truly had to be exceptional and since there was so few, your impact would be tremendous.

Now compare that to the modern day, where I'd say a lot higher percentage of people are hitting their potential as a genius. Therefore, a lot more people are coming up with new novel things, but since a lot of the easy major milestones in sciences have been attained, the impact of those single individual geniuses is much smaller.

Modern age Newton could be just a very good AI researcher from England. It's just impossible for humans to have devolved so much that the genius of the previous generations would be so much different than we have today.

> You’re completely deluded into believing that genius is overrated.


> Shame on you and your ilk for suggesting Descartes, Newton, Kant etc. were just there picking low hanging fruit. They were doing work no one had the courage to do.

There's a lot of passion in your comment, but it's also really antagonistic. The person you replied to was very respectful and cogent in expressing their point of view; you abandoned that civility quite quickly - and for what?

If you're as well read as your references imply, surely you can appreciate an argument which casts aspersion on the "lone hero" ideation of historical progress.

Competitive gaming is a particularly good example of this. I followed most of the rise of Dota from trashy Warcraft 3 mod to Valve's multi-million-dollar-prize-pool juggernaut.

The first few crops of Dota millionaires all had the same backstory: "I played this game 14 hours a day. If there were tournaments at all they didn't really pay anything. My parents said I was wasting my life. I never had a girlfriend. Everyone thought I was a loser, but I just wanted to play and win... and now I know it was all worth it."

And the thing that I couldn't help thinking is: was it? I'm not sure that any rational person would make that decision. Even if you could somehow know that competitive gaming would get big enough, and that your particular game would be popular enough, and that you could become good enough to win – that's just table stakes. You then have to actually play the game obsessively for a decade. There are, frankly, far more comfortable ways to earn a million dollars in exchange for 20,000 to 50,000 hours of your life.

It's kind of hard to take a coherent message away from that. Should you become a competitive gamer for the millions? Certainly not then, and definitely not now. Should you hope that your fringe interest (bus tickets, say) becomes a million-dollar enterprise? No, that's probably even less likely.

Perhaps the message is just that millions are delivered to those with a combination of luck and the freedom to pursue rationally unjustifiable interests. A combination that is increasingly rare in an economic system designed to squeeze out the inefficient. Lest we forget the Bell monopoly; we may never see such inefficiency again.

It’s a confirmation bias.

I have a similar story. I dropped out of school at 16, and spent 14+ hours a day playing Stepmania Online, which was Dance Dance Revolution for your fingers. I was one of the best in the world! Then everyone stopped playing and nothing came of it. So for every DOTA millionaire or whatnot there’s likely thousands of people who are obsessed with something equally niche who haven’t realized any financial gains because of it.

Now I’m a software engineer, it’s working out way better than playing video games all day.

Ah, Stepmania Online...what a fun time that was. I remember putting in my 6-8 a day after school. I may not have been at the level you were at but I was roughly the same age and quite good. Then, I went to college and no longer had the same desire to play anymore.

Do you still crack open Stepmania every so often for old times sake? I have no idea if any kind of a community still exists around it.

Hah I haven’t for a couple years but last time I did I was amazed and dismayed at having the sensation that my mind knows what to do, but my fingers just aren’t quick enough. I’d guess if you were a musician or athlete who hadn’t played in awhile it’d feel similar. I end up shutting it off because my brain isn’t entertained by the slow songs and my hands can’t physically keep up with the fast ones that I loved so much, and it’d probably take me a few weeks to get any good again and I’m not willing to put in that kind of time with a family.

It also gave me a lesson in hierarchies of competence. Even though I was maybe one of the 20 best people ranked in Stepmania Online, there were people who despite the amount of time I’d put in were significantly better at the game. (The name Nima comes to mind, I think he was a concert pianist whose skills translated into perfect accuracy on Stepmania). Despite being really good, I felt like I’d never be the best.

It was also around that time that I met Day9, the pro Starcraft now relatively famous Twitch streamer at a LAN party and he introduced me to Beatmania, which was like Stepmania only more keys. He was so good at it (and arrogant, hah but isn’t any sixteen year old that can be?) that I sort of gave up on Stepmania because it felt like peanuts in comparison.

Yeah, I remember Nima, and I also remember a similar feeling upon discovering Beatmania. Now that I'm digging into the cobwebs of my memories, I am beginning to recall a game called O2Jam which was essentially a South Korean Beatmania flavored MMO. Very challenging, and it definitely usurped some of the space I was otherwise giving to Stepmania Online. Did you ever get into O2Jam? I think it might even still be around.

But doesn't your case support the hypothesis that it's interest and luck? You had the former but not the latter, of which the DOTA players did.

> Competitive gaming is a particularly good example of this.

Anything competitive is emphatically not a good example of this. If you're in a competition, then by definition you're doing the exact same thing as everyone else. That's a guaranteed recipe for not accomplishing anything meaningful in life.

Competition can be great for cultivating positive character traits and developing certain skills, but at some point you need to move beyond it.

The key ingredient in the obsession is that you're not seeking personal advantage. I wish there was a better word for this than pg's "disinterested" because it sounds strange to have an intense, all-consuming interest in which you're disinterested (see his footnote about choosing this word).

Because you're not pursuing personal advantage, this kind of obsession is incompatible with competition. You're obsessively interested in collecting old bus tickets not because you want to get paid, not because you want to be famous, not because you want to change the world, and not because you want to win.

So it's a bit weird for pg to identify "heuristics you can use to guess whether an obsession might be one that matters". If you care about whether a thing matters, instead about the thing itself, then you're not really disinterested.

As soon as your obsession becomes influenced by thoughts of personal advantage, then it's about garden variety ambition and determination, not the magical property of disinterest that pg describes.

Disinterested obsession may be a powerful source of innovation and progress, but the instant you intentionally try to harness this power in pursuit of progress, you destroy the magic of disinterest.

> I wish there was a better word for this than pg's "disinterested" because it sounds strange to have an intense, all-consuming interest in which you're disinterested.

It's interest in the sense of "conflict of interest", not in the sense of finding something fascinating.

Perhaps a word that connotes neutrality like “impartial” would be better in this context?

I'd almost say "introversion" or "selfishness" is the right term, if the latter weren't so prejudicial. You aren't collecting bus tickets or obsessing over infinite series to advance your own material interests or standing in the external world.

"Disinterest" doesn't work at all in any sense of the term. In the absence of overt mental illness, the bus-ticket collector must see it as being in his best interest to spend his time collecting bus tickets, or he'd do something else instead. ("You are your calendar.") The search for gratification, however externally meaningless, is certainly a valid expression of self-interest.

Put another way, if you would object if you were forcibly stopped from pursuing a goal, then you cannot be described as "disinterested."

> I wish there was a better word for this than pg's "disinterested"

"Intrinsic motivation", perhaps?

Yeah, I'm not a fan of the word "disinterested" either. "dis-self-interested" might be more accurate, but also not good.

Maybe "impersonal"? Still weirdly contradictory but closer to the meaning maybe.

"detached" or "impartial"?

The limitations of English are weird.

Did you see PG's footnote?

[2] I worried a little about using the word "disinterested," since some people mistakenly believe it means not interested. But anyone who expects to be a genius will have to know the meaning of such a basic word, so I figure they may as well start now.

From dictionary.com, the second definition of disinterested is "having no interest in something," but the first is, "not influenced by considerations of personal advantage."

You're eliminating a big category of things most people recognize as genius here. There's a long history of recognized genius in the development of chess and go over time for instance. You may not consider this as meaningful as breakthroughs in physics and biology for instance (and I may agree), but I think it leaves out a pretty big part of our history to discount this altogether.

Interesting perspective!

I guess the rebuttal might go something like: Business is inherently competitive. Creating startups, you are usually competing not only with old line businesses but with other startups.

I guess the rebuttal to the rebuttal might sound something like Thiel's startup lectures: Startups should try to be anticompetitive, ideally carving out new niches. You don't want to engage in head-to-head competition.

The 3rd degree rebuttal might be something like: There are plenty of examples of successful startups that began as clones of other businesses (Facebook seems the canonical example).

But then as you say, they moved beyond being a clone of Friendster/Myspace/Tribe/etc... but isn't that the competitive process?

Competitive gaming was an extreme niche 20 years ago. Now its just a niche with lots of people. When these people started, the concept of competitive gaming didnt even really exist.

It might just be a matter of framing, but I do not understand: How could you ever do anything work related, void of competition for any significant stretch of time?

Even if you create or exploit something wildly new that is completely beyond reach for anyone else at that moment – let's say you made time travel viable tomorrow – as soon as you did and started commercialising it, competition would start forming later that day.

For everything else, you will right off the gate be competing with someone over something (at the very least time and money). Airbnb is competing with Hotels/Motels, Uber with Taxis, Facebook with MySpace. MySpace with more specialised communities and GeoCities. The internet was competing with telephones, mail, fax and the yellow pages.

Can you elaborate?

What in life is not a competition?

What the above comment is about applies to so much in life, from education to careers because at their core, they are competitions.

> If you're in a competition, the. By definition you're doing the exact same thing as everyone else.

Not true.

There are people who play competitive, ranked, games 3 hrs a week and are happy with being in the top 50% of players

And there are people who spend 30hrs a week in a game and are profoundly unhappy they're only in the top 5% of players.

Those wind up being two very different paths, and it applies to way more than just gaming, like education, which I can speak from experience to that

From a young age I would spend hours upon hours on computers working on my games and random ideas. Even in school I would skip classes to work on my own projects in a computer lab.

My parents felt it was a complete waste of time (especially since it became a huge drain on my performance at school). I didn't have nearly as many close friends as I should have, didn't form a lot of the bonds people growing up do, it ruined my relationship with my parents.

At the end of the day through luck or something I scraped through high school with a .1 above failing GPA, dropped out of community college after failing 2 semesters and started a career in tech by freelancing.

Now 5 years later and the positions I've taken are consistently higher seniority than my friends who did CS in college, so it worked out, but at what cost?

Those years I lost, not even talking to one of my parents for over a year despite living in the same house, wasn't really worth it.

But it was an obsession, I didn't obsess over programming because I wanted to have a great career one day, it was because I couldn't help it. It was almost like an addiction that I got lucky enough to have double as a marketable skill.

It's crazy how much article really resonates with my experience, almost annoyingly so since I feel like a bus ticket collector sometimes, sure tech is a marketable skill, but you sure build a lot of unimportant stuff

> What in life is not a competition?

The examples given in the post are not competitions.

The bus ticket collector is interested in old bus tickets, and is not competing with anybody.

Ramanujan obsessed over series, and was not competing with anybody.

Flipping light switches is not a competition... I wasn't being literal. I mean a great number of important things in life are competitions even if we don't see ourselves as competitors. -

But actually I disagree with saying Ramanujan wasn't competing with anyone, he just wasn't trying to compete

Plenty of people would consider any academic field a competition, even if not everyone in the field is there to compete

The competitive nature of the mathematics field easily have to do with why Ramanujan was not taken as seriously as he should have been at first. A "competitor" was coming with claims to grand contributions and that already created friction, which when combined with other factors about his non-traditional presentation became roadblocks.

> If you're in a competition, then by definition you're doing the exact same thing as everyone else. That's a guaranteed recipe for not accomplishing anything meaningful in life.

That's a mistaken conclusion because you didn't follow it properly to the narrowed end: if you're in a large field of competition at a thing and you're among the best in the world at it, then the exact opposite is more likely to be true (you will likely do something meaningful and have extreme success) and your supposed guaranteed recipe collapses.

This premise holds true in eg: business, acting, music, science, traditional sports, games like chess, and numerous other fields.

Right now, around the world, dozens (or hundreds) of scientists are competing to reach the same breakthrough. They may not know who all the competitors are and may not know they're all chasing the same thing, but they are. One or a small group of them will get there before the rest. It is competition and it doesn't exclude you from doing something meaningful: you need to win the competition.

See: Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Michael Jordan, Serena Williams, Kurt Cobain, Whitney Houston, Craig Venter, Garry Kasparov, John Carmack, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos

All had to rise to the top of highly competitive fields with a large supply of competitors. How many other grunge bands were there next to Nirvana? How many other singers did Whitney Houston have to stand apart from? How many other women (frequently younger, a big deal in tennis) has Serena Williams had to competitively outlast over ~20 years to spend so much time on top of her sport and put together one of the greatest sports careers of all-time? It's a never ending supply of younger, highly talented competitors, and yet Williams did what she did.

Trying to prove the Riemann hypothesis is doing the same thing like everyone else. Competition might actually force you to come up with a different approach.

Society deify successful people when in reality they are nothing more than serial lottery winners. For every "Ronaldo" there are a myriad of people trying to get there that will end their life as losers because they made an high-stakes bet and lost. The truth in unconfortable and nobody wants to listen about it.

>> Society deify successful people when in reality they are nothing more than serial lottery winners

This is absolutely false and a terrible thing to perpetuate. Work ethic has the highest controllable coefficient to success as an output. Luck exists and the universe is probabilistic, yes, but it is not non-deterministic.

This self-lashing of our community and amongst the populist movement that is growing in popularity in the EU and US is ridiculous, reducing the sum total of human achievement into lucky chance rather than actually understanding the probabilistic universe and knowing that while our actions do not wholly determine our fate, they play the single largest role we have control over, and as such, it would be better to believe the myth that we have full control over our destiny rather than this ridiculous concept that luck controls ~100% of circumstance.

Probability theory needs to be taught in primary school, apparently, because for members of even this community, the fallacy of determinism and binary outcomes run rampant.

>> it would be better to believe the myth that we have full control over our destiny rather than this ridiculous concept that luck controls ~100% of circumstance.

Why think in black and white ?

We have a lot impact on our lives, but there's also some luck involved, especially if we want to achieve extreme things.

> reducing the sum total of human achievement into lucky chance

Not the sum total of achievement, just a single individual's achievement. An individual's achievement can indeed be attributed ~100% to luck. For every Einstein there are hundreds of equally brilliant geniuses who died picking cotton in a field.

I believe genetics is more important than work ethic for being a pro soccer player.

You need both. To be the top one percent of what you do, you need natural ability and dedication.

You absolutely do, but I think there are a lot more people who have dedication than have talent.

This is why having a social safety net is so important. If society can put a floor under how badly people can lose, they'll feel more free to try low-probability high-payoff endeavors.

This is possibly the greatest argument for social safety nets ever made, really.

The economy of today is so efficient and supply chains are so effective at moving things to people who need them, that it seems incredibly stupid to not use it to provide some kind of basic necessities to every human being, no questions asked.

If the US were to do this today, there would be more innovation, less misery, a supercharged economy as you've increased the purchasing power of millions of people overnight...It a fucking no brainer. And cutting taxes rather than providing more benefits seems like the most stupid way to run a country I've ever seen in my life.

So if you spend 14 hours a day for 5 years on a computer project that becomes useful, and a lot of people want it and pay you for it, you are willing to fork over most of that to the government since they provided you with the basic allowance that let you pursue this project, and your success is how they fund a basic allowance for everyone - you included.

While your friend, who did nothing for 5 years, maintains the same standard of living that you do.

I guess this could work, but to me, the level of "disinterest" required to be okay with this result is even more rare than genius.

Nobody on the planet has ever gone "oh fuck me I only made 300 million with my extremely successful business instead of 600 million. Well what a waste of time, I shouldn't have ever started it."

No rational person that isn't already well off would take a 1% shot at 1 billion over a 10% shot at 100 million.

Progressive taxation and social safety don't stifle economies, they make them thrive. They act as a negative tax on risk, and create a framework where actors are free to pursue higher EV bets without worrying as much about utility value. Literally the entire point is to create more pie for everyone.

Bludgers getting "free money" is just a side effect. You're not paying for them with your taxes, you're paying into an insurance fund with all the other innovators. Except this fund is +EV, subsidized by all the other countries in the global economy that aren't taking the same gains. You're the one getting the free money, and the leaners are taxing some percentage of that.

The only reason every successful country in the world isn't already doing it is because of this unintuitive "common sense" optic that you (and about a billion others, literally) are propagating: that somehow it breaks the rules of "fairness". The reality is it's got absolutely nothing to do with fairness, it's about maximizing the bottom line, just like in business. Governments don't give a shit about individual people, nor should they (at least not at the expense of society).

Also, I'd guess most first world countries could easily (and do) provide a world class social safety net without going over 50% taxation in any bracket, not even billionaires. Your example only applies if you're talking about taxation in the 70-100% range.

> While your friend, who did nothing for 5 years, maintains the same standard of living that you do.

Honestly, is this such a bad thing? Why do we incentivize innovation by promising people a basic standard of living? We reward people who take risks with something better than that anyways, so I see no problem with giving people not willing to take those risks something lesser than that “for free”.

> For every "Ronaldo" there are a myriad of people trying to get there that will end their life as losers because they made an high-stakes bet and lost.

For every "Ronaldo" there are a small amount of moderately successful players playing soccer for a good living.

The myriad is the group of people that are coasting their way through life trying to put in as little effort as possible and naturally they don't succeed.

To be fair, Ronaldo is known for exceptional work ethic.

That's kinda the point. Work ethic and obsession are not enough: you have to also win a series of lotteries -- genetic and environmental -- to succeed in his field.

> That's kinda the point. Work ethic and obsession are not enough: you have to also win a series of lotteries -- genetic and environmental -- to succeed in his field.

Ok, you've heard of Cristiano Ronaldo. Yet, have you heard of Dani?


Like Ronaldo he was launched int Sporting Clube de Portugal's first team when he played for the club's U17 team. Unlike Ronaldo, Dani didn't had a heart condition. Unlike Ronaldo, Dani had more appearances in his first year in the first team, and was quickly picked by WestHam and Ajax.

Unlike Ronaldo, Dani had a notoriously poor work ethics. Unlike Ronaldo, Dani's impressive start was squandered and he went nowhere, he achieved nothing and has since been forgotten.

Work ethics is the deciding factor. You may have won the genetic lottery and be a bonafide ubermensch but if your work ethics suck then you'll quickly be surpassed by those lesser talented but more hard working than you.

I mostly agree with you but "work ethics" is also partially genetic. It's defined partly by a big five trait called conscientiousness which has a fair percentage of its effects not explainable by the environment or random chance.

Yes, but work ethic and obsession are the absolute baseline you need.

Most professional athletes aren’t obsessive just because they have a weirdly specific passion for their sport. They’re obsessive because they’re pathologically competitive. There’s stories about eg Michael Jordan buying a ping pong table and obsessively practicing at ping pong because he had a teammate who beat him at ping pong once and he wasn’t able to let it go until he beat the guy in a rematch. Obsession can come from many sources.

I think even that point is debatable depending on how you define success.

If the definition of success is wealth or notoriety, there are certainly people who achieve it without those traits.

The fact that people become successful and/or notorious due to luck does not invalidate the fact that work ethic and your efforts play the largest controllable role you have. To focus on pure chance outcomes is unproductive and nonsensical.

Those do help.

Have you given thought to whether these are the absolute baseline...or actually the consequences of practices more fundamental?

I find it sad and disturbing that so many people worship being a workaholic.

People worship success. Turns out to be better than other hard working people you need to work extremely hard.

Success (by which most people mean financial success, fame, or winning in some competition) is certainly worshipped.

However, just being "a hard worker" in itself is considered a virtue by many people.

I hesitate to call it the Protestant Work Ethic or the Puritan Work Ethic, as it's far from limited to Protestants or Puritans, but that's really what it is. The harder you work, the more virtuous you are considered to be, and working less is considered sinful or lazy (in other words, unvirtuous and blame-worthy).

Being better than other hard working people can also involve simply kicking the ladder from underneath you, playing the social status game or making bets at the edge of the law and shoving that risk onto other people.

And sometimes no matter how hard you work, you're one of those people under the rungs.

Most top athletes have excellent work ethic but they also have natural ability. No amount of work ethic can compensate for lack of natural ability. You absolutely need that to get to the top.

I think pg is trying to argue that passionate disinterest is different from work ethic. For a person like Ronaldo, all of the off-field training might be enjoyable. If it is, then is it really work ethic? Or is it just Ronaldo doing what he wants to do and would be doing anyway, if there were no such thing as money?

Maybe the serial lottery winning is what society subconscious worships.. they know that even with insane amounts of dedications, the others failed when a few particular ones got "lucky".

That reminds me of https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QCsPz0GYGJM "What streaming on Twitch has done to my life" - I remember crying while watching, it's heartbreaking.

You could take this argument all the way down. Why did valve pick it up? I don't think they saw dota2 as a profit engine necessarily, though there is some argument for that. The company does tend to engage in bus ticket obsessions (VR, dota2). Sometimes it fails (artifact). But I strongly suspect that Gabe Newell bus tickets dota2. I would guess that like myself, he has no real skill at the game, but he just loves it. And he hired the guy (icefrog) that bus tickets dota2 mechanics. The combination is an enormously entertaining (for us fans) wildly unlikely tournament that has a 30 million dollar purse.

Tarn and Zach Adams are also bus ticketers.

When valve picked up dota, league of legends was the most played multiplayer pc game in the world. I think it’s more likely that valve was afraid of exodus of pc gamers from their platform.

A bit of both. A group of people in Valve did become fascinated by Dota, though IIRC the leading figure was Robin Walker (of Team Fortress and Team Fortress 2 fame). That's why TF2 started sprouting MOBA-influenced weapons, for instance. But at the same time the business case for adopting Dota must have been quite clear, and surely was discussed seriously. (Valve also had plenty of experience in successfully bringing other people's existing games or mods in-house: TF and CS, Portal and Left 4 Dead.) Meanwhile Blizzard apparently continued to refuse all offers from the Dota developers.

> "pursue rationally unjustifiable interests"

I disagree of how you define rationality here. If someone feels it serves them fine to play 14 hours of a game, it seems perfectly rational for me. Especially in the case that you mentioned, where they were playing before any big money was on the table. It means they liked, despite a lot of people judging them with an air of superiority.

If you work 8 hours a day and sleep 8 hours a day play a video games 14 hours a day, well the math doesn't work to being rational for an adult

It is objectively irrational. The ones who made a lot of money are 1%. The rest wasted their youth pursuing an impossible dream. They sacrificed their social development and their future job prospects.

No it is not. If someone is playing 14 hours of a game that is not even giving a lot of money (not even to any 1%, which is the initial situation mentioned before DOTA was big), then obviously they are not doing that for the money.

You'd be suprised. It's not uncommon to see players that only play that much because they want to become a pro player, but in the end they never make it, or qualify to 1-2 tournaments. The lucky ones end up making money from streaming, but a lot depend on their parents or girlfriend's for a place to live since they don't make enough money to live off of.

I think we are talking about two very different things. I am talking about bus ticket collectors and you are talking about gamers playing pro games giving millions of dollars in prizes.

edit: I re-read my previous comment and I am not sure I could make it more clear.

if a game does not gives money prizes at all, the ones who are playing it are not playing for the money.

Chance favors the prepared mind I guess

They played the game they loved and they loved to win at it

When money arrived into e-games they were most prepared

I don’t like competitive gaming so even if you tell me there are millions to be made I still won’t do it, it seems something so unattainable

> Perhaps the message is just that millions are delivered to those with a combination of luck and the freedom to pursue rationally unjustifiable interests.

Where do you see that message? No luck was involved in your example, just hard work on behalf of the good players and of the Dota developers, and pursuing a hobby with passion is perfectly rational.

The luck comes in that they opted to play Dota at just the right time. If someone had instead opted into becoming a really good Heroes of the Storm player (only to have the developer stop work on it) they would be in a really different position.

> ...pursuing a hobby with passion is perfectly rational.

To a point, yes. Though we may disagree on the threshold where it crosses over from rational to unhealthy obsession. And there is certainly luck involved when there are tens who found fortune out of millions participating.

In my interpretation of the reply, they were "lucky" in that the field took off and became economically viable to be good at it.

Frankly, back 20 years ago I would have never thought that watching someone play a game would become a form of entertainment.

> never thought that watching someone play a game would become a form of entertainment.

Then what the hell are NFL, NBA, etc? People have been watching others play a game as a form of entertainment for as long as society can remember:

> Frankly, back 20 years ago I would have never thought that watching someone play a game would become a form of entertainment.

Even after popular chess matches on TV in the 80's, 90's?

The luck is that that game turned out to be lucrative.

Which highly competitive endeavours, that millions of young people spend many hours per week on, aren't?

Tons of other games didn't become big esports, and most of the people who dedicated years to those games ended up wasting their time.

> ended up wasting their time.

So, did they play these games in the hope to make millions, or because they liked them?

> There are, frankly, far more comfortable ways to earn a million dollars in exchange for 20,000 to 50,000 hours of your life.

Not everything is about ROI, I'm also not saying playing Dota for your entire life is going to be particularly fulfilling in many other ways thought - after all they are playing out their lives within the very finite confines of someone else's creation.

The author does point this out as a suggested heuristic, if you are obsessed with someone elses creation, it's probably not going to be very fruitful (whether fruitful means money, scientific discovery, or fulfillment ones curiosity etc).

>It's kind of hard to take a coherent message away from that. Should you become a competitive gamer for the millions?

If you told these guys to be a competitive gamer for the millions, they probably would have stuck to competitive fishing or whatever they were doing anyway. Taking a message or leadership from it is kind of the antithesis of the point. The point is that some social pursuits are the birthplace of the next big thing and some people who are focused on socializing need to make the choice on pursuits that have a potential and pursuits that don't like. Dance class is pretty dead as a career, but we're going to need people who can sort quality from quantity in a few years, the people focused on a qualitative pursuit socially need to pick a field where it's obvious that's needed like journalism or the swath of video games sure to flood the market.

It doesn't have much to do with rational decision making in detail and is instead a generalized story about the different directions in life you can choose.

> Competitive gaming is a particularly good example of this

>> it's more promising if you're creating something, rather than just consuming something someone else creates

Gaming consumes the creative efforts of others. It's fun, invigorating and a healthy pass-time. But it's not good ground for growing genius.

>And the thing that I couldn't help thinking is: was it? I'm not sure that any rational person would make that decision.

You have to weigh your current abilities and their earning potential vs. the costs of venturing into a new field.

Being at the top of Dota is easier than being at the top of Math or Chess or Go, since Dota is a newer field. They aren't really comparable, but you still compare them if you are trying to figure out what you want to put your time into.

Some people just get lucky and find the thing they are good at on the first try. Then they can maximize their hours available for that thing.

Other people (probably the majority) have to try different fields and start later, and ultimately have less time overall to spend.

So it actually seems rational (if maximizing hours-spent is your goal) to go all-in on the first thing that grabs your interest, which could be Dota.

> Being at the top of Dota is easier than being at the top of Math or Chess or Go

I slightly disagree - neither Chess nor Go have nearly the millions of new players playing it obsessively as they come of age. Math is a bit different, but often times “good at math” isn’t very rewarding except as it pertains to an ancillary job, or if you’re one of the relative few who become a math major.

There’s also a major drop off over time with MOBA players - the average age is 22 or something for professionals. Eventually the reflexes get worse.

I'm going to have to disagree with you there. Being a top chess or go player in modern times necessitates being a child prodigy. The skill gap in chess and go is enormous. I don't think the number of players is the primary indicator of how difficult it is to be at the "top" of an activity.

> combination that is increasingly rare in an economic system designed to squeeze out the inefficient

As a result, more and more areas of science and technology get stuck near local maxima. The same happened in all ancient civilisations.

Does being good at Dota count as being a genius?

I think you are confusing financial success with contributing to artistic/scientific/intellectual progress.

Don't get hung up on the term genius, focus on the chance discovery part that is the actual topic of the article. Those first wave gaming professionals discovered a personal product market fit without trying, by being obsessed with an absurdly unprofitable pastime.

The article title contains the word ‘genius’ and it’s about doing ‘great work’. The fact that some people managed to turn their consumption-based entertainment hobby into a financial success really has nothing to do with genius or great work.

Yeah, for reference, even mid-level people at FAANG in basically any field can make $1M in 2-3 years. I think most people have no idea how much some laborers can make in the US.

Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be a genius to work in FAANG. It's a lot of luck. You just have to give yourself as many good chances in the interview pipeline as possible.

> Perhaps the message is just that millions are delivered to those with a combination of luck and the freedom to pursue rationally unjustifiable interests

Nah, millions are delivered to those who already have millions, everything else is noise that is overemphasized to distract the bottom 80+%.

It might be worthwhile to remind ourselves here that making lots of money, acquiring status, and gaining power are obsessive interests that some people have.

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