Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Being OK with not being extraordinary (tiffanymatthe.com)
830 points by tmatthe 8 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 382 comments

> Climbing to a higher vantage point can also unlock new forms of extraordinary that you might have never noticed before.

I read an article once about how the amount of work to get into the top tier in a single area is astronomical, but the amount of work to become top tier in a combination of 2-3 fields is attainable by almost anyone.

For example, becoming a top tier statistician is hard. But becoming a top tier statistician/programmer is easier. In other words, if you can get to a state where you know more statistics than your average programmer and more programming than your average statistician, then suddenly you are an above-average programmer/statistician. Keep improving those two skills and you may start to "unlock new forms of extraordinary". Or maybe you are a music teacher, and also pretty good at programming, and so you can make extraordinary music teaching software that is way better than the competition's because you understand the nuances of music teaching intimately enough that you capture them clearly in software requirements. Or maybe you are pretty good at art, pretty good at music composition, pretty good at programming, pretty good at story telling (not necessarily top tier in any one category though)... and you combine all of those skills to single-handedly create a game that by many measures is extraordinary[0][1].

Something like that. Anyway, the point being, you may not be extraordinary in any one field, but it isn't too hard to achieve extraordinary things due to a combination of skills in multiple fields if you work at it.

[0] https://undertale.com/

[1] https://www.cavestory.org/

This is my career so far in a nutshell.

I’m an average programmer.

I’m an excellent problem solver.

I have an above average work ethic.

I’m an excellent communicator.

Basically, I combined all of these traits and found roles that leveraged these traits to maximize my impact.

Not for nothing, but this is why my liberal arts college was profoundly impactful for me, despite not getting a “top tier” CS education. My writing abilities were given a shot in the arm, because I had to write so many analysis papers for my government minor. My understanding of human behavior was expanded by my psychology courses. My understanding of how I should never design a UI was solidified by how poorly I did during a year of art classes.

Some days I wish I was as strong mathematically as my friends who went to MIT, or as talented with programming languages as my friends who went to Cambridge, but each one of us have been able to have successful careers, despite our differences in breadth/depth.

> I’m an excellent problem solver.

Don't mean this to be a mean comment but how did you assess this?

I think i am good problem solver but i don't know if i am better than anyone else.

Despite the answers below, it’s not an IQ question (I likely have an above average IQ, but nothing remotely special).

If I see a problem, particularly in a business context (I’m not a trained scientist curing cancer here), I can solve it. Whether that’s marketing, product, sales, devops, engineering, you name it. I don’t mind jumping between disciplines, getting my hands dirty, and doing the work that needs doing (no matter how unglamorous).

And if I work for companies with hundreds of employees and I’m one of the go to people for any problem, big or small, I know I have something special that sets me apart.

What roles and companies do you typically search for when job hunting?

I’m on my fifth company of my career. Every job I’ve joined as an IC.

My first job I got because I interned and they wanted me to join full time.

My second job I joined as a straight SE.

My third job was via an acquisition of the second company, and I started as an IC and became a Sr Director.

My fourth job I was a co-founder that did a little of everything.

My fifth job I joined as a senior IC, and basically pitched where I could have the most impact during my first week and then have just run from there.

The only thing that matters when joining a company is really your salary, as they are unlikely to fix that quickly. Role, title, focus, manager, etc, can all be changed quickly if you present a solution to leadership that makes sense to them.

Oh, and regarding what type of companies. For me the primary factor right now is remote. I plan on being remote for the rest of my career. That’s my number one priority when looking at companies to join.

Problem solving ability is basically just IQ.

Disagree totally with this. My psychometric IQ has been stable for a long time, yet my problem solving ability has increased significantly.

Some ways to modulate it might be reading material such as George Polya's "How to Solve It," taking your own notes on heuristics and techniques you've found useful and continuously reapplying and iterating them, and simply delving deep into many hard problems (be they directly coding related or not).

Agreed. Problem solving is a skill separate from IQ and unlike IQ it can be developed over time. If you want to level up your problem solving skill, carry around a small notebook and pay attention to the problems you see in other people, or in the office, in public, or in yourself. Write down the problem and its cause, continually drilling down into root causes. Then make a graph of problems and root causes, with directed edges showing causation.

Within one or two years of doing this you will recognize patterns others do not see. I have improved my problem solving skill by at least 7-8% by doing this. The key is iteration.

My IQ has been stable like yours, around the 96th percentile, and despite being a Tier 1 top-talent engineer, I’ve had to actively improve my problem solving ability over time.

Interesting that you are you self-aware you can tell the difference between a 6% and a 9% increase is something as nebulous as "problem solving ability."

Edit: Oh, the account is nothing but troll comments. Nevermind.

IQ is a prerequisite for being a problem solver, but is not enough. You also need to have the correct mindset for it.

This betrays a lack of familiarity with the literature on intelligence. Fluid intelligence doesn’t change much if at all between 14 and 27, when it starts its long slow decline. Crystallized intelligence can keep rising for decades after that. The number of fields where fluid is more important than crystallized is very small if very important. Having a vast knowledge base, built on a foundation of experience, is more important for most full time academics, never mind those of us not engaged in research. You can’t play at all if your fluid intelligence isn’t high enough but there are a lot of people out there who’re smart and vastly less successful than dumber people who worked consistently at something. At the top are the smart, hard working and lucky but intelligence is not the be all and end all.

If that were true, everyone with a very high IQ would be a great poker player, a great negotiator, a great writer, a great leader, a great investor.. etc.

IQ is as proxy for problem solving if the problems look like a standardized test. The problems people face in the real world require more specialization and a more complex combination of skills and traits.

IQ is a general measure for pattern recognition. Most modern IQ tests are heavily dependent of things like ravens matrices.

Pattern recognition in obviously helpful when problem solving.

Is IQ really legit? I heard form Nassim Nicholas Taleb that the math used by psychologist is weak.

It's not. It was originally used to find profoundly disabled children. But know extended to be the be all and end all of intelligence. It's weak science.

its legit in the sense that is a huge variable in predicting general life success/educational attainment.

if you think those outcomes are decent proxies for intelligence then IQ is useful

Well... There is fluid intelligence and crystalized intelligence.

What you're pointing out is that crystalized intelligence is what matters.

Fluid intelligence mediates the ability to gain crystalized intelligence.

Higher IQ in theory means you should get further faster. Though even without if you are dedicated enough to obtain the same level of crystalized intelligence you might be able to do so. I suspect at some point the cognitive ceilings are different, but who knows by how much.

IQ is one of the strongest predictors we have for many life outcomes, such as career success, wealth, lower risk of death. This doesn't mean "everyone with a very high IQ will blah blah blah" but it does mean that those with high IQs are more likely to achieve certain things.

Strongest predictor taken from a pool of weak predictors is still a weak predictor.

I might be pulling things out of my ass here but IIRC the correlation is up there with that of your parents’ wealth. And in current political discussion lots of time is spent on how to deal with the latter. It may in fact still be a weak predictor, but that obviously doesn’t make it meaningless.

IQ is somewhat inheritable as well though. Is it IQ or inherited wealth that is the factor?

The studies account for wealth.

IQ is one of those myths smart people love.

I'm having trouble parsing this - is it a mark of stupidity not to believe in IQ or is IQ a lie that mostly hoodwinks smart people?

What should I do if I know i have a low IQ?

Please stop. Your self pity is annoying. You have an engineering degree. There’s no way you’re not in the top quintile of intelligence and you’re probably in the top decile. Enough of the pity party. If you hate yourself go join a boxing club or start running marathons or something else that will put the petty bullshit of work life in perspective besides the fact that you’re young and you have a beautiful, working body.

First, understand that IQ tests can be biased and can shaft minorities. Second, they are tools and are only as good as the person making use of them.

Third, eat right, exercise, live right, etc. Performance is impacted by health and even supposedly high IQ people will perform worse if they are sick, short of sleep, etc.

IQ isn't a useless concept, but I'm somewhat well versed in the history of IQ tests, etc, and it's got a lot of issues with it.

Time put in still matters no matter how smart you are.

I think a person with a high IQ could be a great poker OR a great negotiator OR a great writer. Perhaps 2-3 total.

Not really.

It's both fluid and crystalized intelligence that are required.

The better you can pattern match the faster you will be able to acquire crystalized intelligence by being able to connect the dots and you'll likely be able to leverage superior pattern matching abilities to utilize less crystalized intelligence to draw the same conclusions in certain cases. But if you have no or very little crystalized intelligence in the domain you're trying to problem solve in then you aren't going to get very far.

It's very much a combination of the two.

I think problem solving is knowing when and what terms to google

The amount of times I've solved something no one else could, just because I went the extra check of looking up the manufacturers documentation when the companies fell short...

Real problem solving is what you do when google doesn't have the answer.

An HR leader once shared with me: "Because every hire is a compromise between available candidates.. there is no perfect hire, and no two candidates are truly comparable."

It's really an eye-opening statement for tech roles, and how formally taught and self-taught/transferred folks can work side by side successfully.

The unique thing about tech skills is there's more than one valid way to solve a problem or do something "right". It's hard to measure that.

Not even two CS majors who may be equivalently capable (in different ways) on the outset will be identical, nor will be the outcome of how they grow their strengths and capabilities.

I look forward to HR continuing to evolve better to understand technical roles and contributions as being beyond a binary yes/no measurement.

Current hiring practices continue not to extend well from a bricks and mortar approach to a abstracted online/digital measurement.

In the meantime... knowing how to leverage and communicate your skillet in a transferable way is really what's important. There's no better way to do that than learning to write and communicate well, and better than others.

This is also why processes are often not transferable, because the people are different.

Better leaders are always taking stock of what they have or don't have and reorienting the process rather than trying to stuff the new team into the old process.

Good point. The only way a process stands a chance is if it's person agnostic, which can introduce a different set of issues to navigate.

I don't know about in modern times but historically military leaders had a lot of interest in person agnostic processes. Caesar's book is all about what he does to avoid relying on anyone having special talents.

Startups, and riskier technology ventures generally, seem to be the opposite. There you aren't Caesar, you're the Gauls. You're hoping that your team has just what it takes to overcome the odds.

Startups rely on Generalists who can specialize until the scaling happens, then it's about specialists who look to grow into generalizing/broadening.

Different skills needed for different stages of growth and not everyone can switch gears or have the range in transmission, founding leaders included.

In terms of concrete specifics, I've found having interviews with at least 3 engineers on the team you will potentially be working with to be really helpful for both sides to evaluate, and more specifically when the interviews are pair programming problem solving. You get to see how the candidate works through a problem and they don't have to code for an exact solution (or I don't think that should be the requirement anyways, it should be more about approach and communication than an exactly correct implementation , especially given limited time)

Whiteboarding architecture/approach is in my mind as important, or more important than memorizing things for coding tests.

Clever architecture will almost always beat and outlast clever programming. Knowing how to best approach a problem is more than half the battle.

How do you do leverage these strengths? I have a somewhat similar profile and I simply feel like a fish judged by its ability to climb a tree.

Yet, I:

- Help with hiring/marketing/leading scrum sessions (when the actual scrum master is ill)

- Conduct pentests

- Do the frontend and backend (what I was hired to do)

If they'd let me, I'd help with the writing efforts as well as my writing ability is better than that of the average developer, if I have to believe my grades on any report in any degree that I did (game studies, psychology and CS).

Join companies with problems worth solving, add value as quickly as possible, and then find problems that you can tackle and start advocating to be granted the latitude to tackle them.

Most companies and teams are thrilled to have people who proactively seek to solve thorny issues. The difference with me is that most programmers are attracted to solving “problems” in a code base, which might add value but have arguable ROI. I’m rarely the person who advocates for a rewrite or tries to push some hot new technology. I’m almost always the engineer who asks the question “how can we apply what we’ve already written to this new sector” or “how do we change up this experience to cut onboarding time in half” etc.

Better take, to add in to this:

My unique (well one of) internalized properties I have is having a keen eye for good problem to technology fit. Steve Jobs said it best with

“start with the experience and work backwards toward the technology”

In another words, it’s extremely valuable to be able to understand when you can re use an existing tool (in this case, existing code) to achieve the result, which is different from trying to shoehorn your existing code to fix/improve/add a feature to an existing problem space or product domain.

That’s the real key, to me, in a nutshell

(And why I almost never buy in on complete re writes)

My other knowledge is in biology, but bioinformatics seems to pay less than normal software engineering.

Not OP, but had a similar experience.

The key, I've found, is figuring out the role that maximizes your strengths, and converting your current role into that (gradually) or finding a company that has a position that matches.

For example, I loved a lot of aspects of being a PM (leading the team, breaking down complicated tasks/releases, designing great UX) but am an engineer at heart. So I worked with my PM to take over responsibilities that leveraged those skills, and then I used that experience to get a new role where I'm able to do those same things to a greater degree (at a company now that combines typical tech lead + PM responsibilities into one).

How do you balance both of those roles? Do you take on a smaller portion of technical work and "manage yourself"?

Sounds like you might want to try out being a product manager. I'm a sub par engineer, but I think my diverse skills worked out pretty well for a PM job.

>How do you do leverage these strengths?

What is your goal? I identify with the parent comment here, (the parent of that too) and feel like I've reached a point where the most obvious answer to your question (on leveraging strengths) is management.

If you can code, project manage, and communicate effectively with [non]tech people and don't mind the stress of dealing with other people's issues, then it might be up your alley.

Say if that were true (as it might be), one doesn't just go into project management. There is no company who'd hire me as that as I have no prior experience in it.

>I have no prior experience in it

Well based on the comment I replied to, you communicated that you did! Don't sell yourself short. Talk to your manager; is there opportunity at your current org to do the kind of work you are looking for? If not, look elsewhere; the challenge is communicating that you have the relevant experience (ideally with something to show at your current role (hence my previous comment)).

When I was first starting out, one of my goals was to manage a team. I thought no one would hire me for that role since I didn't have the background for it.

Instead I started freelancing, got a few clients, and eventually hired others to help me.

Looking back, when I impressed clients with my work I was regularly offered various forms of management responsibilities. I probably could have found other opportunities like that if I had pursued it.

If you demonstrate good results in one of the main skills required for a job and explain how you would build up the others, you might be surprised at who would hire you.

People who can do well in several areas and effectively manage projects or other people are always in short supply.

No but if you have a job right. Ow you can take in PM responsibilities on top of your current work. After 6–12 months you have PM experience you can parlay into a PM job.

One of my favorite colleagues is just an average developer, but he’s also very funny. He has figured out his niche and excels at it. To leverage strengths, it’s often helpful to understand the team.

How is him being funny helpful for career advancement ?

"Well-well look. I already told you: I deal with the god damn customers so the engineers don't have to. I have people skills; I am good at dealing with people. Can't you understand that? What the hell is wrong with you people?"

Oh man! Haven't heard that one in a while. Need to rewatch it and write a TPS report.

Soft skills. Having everyone around you like you is more important than being a good programer.

Being consistent, personable, and kind has helped me advance more in my career than any one specific technical skill. Funny people are generally endearing, and it is usually easier and more productive to work with folks you get along with than ones you don't.

My very first service desk job interview began with:

Interviewer decidedly nervous, shaking even!

Me Pours glass of water for them, and for me, take sip.

Interviewer Takes a sip, notably calms down

Rest of the interview was: Interviewer:"Do you know XYZ software we have to use?"


Got the job.

People like working with others with whom they like. Being a smart-asshole, by contrast, is a difficult way to get ahead.

Being funny is one way to be like able

an aside, being funny in this context is where everyone gets a benefit of being happier. some types of humor is denigrating to a particular group or person and that's generally not going to take you very far in a lot of fields.

There is a fine line between being offensive and being funny. I think the funniest people go very close to that line, but maybe that's just the type of humour I appreciate. I tone my homour down a lot at work compared to when I am with good friends as there are a lot more consequences to going over the line.

Join a smaller company.

Being an excellent communicator is a great virtue to have and something I come to value more and more in co-workers. Once upon a time in my career it was standard for devs to wander off into the woods to painstakingly craft a wonder over 3-4 months, now collaborative working is the thing and it's far more productive. Those people who have the right balance of not being constantly dependent on others but knowing when they need to tap someone in and, specifically, knowing how to get someone up to speed quickly for that tap in - those people shine brightly.

Being a good communicator is probably what I'd ask new devs to focus on the most - it's going to pay out a lot more than an encyclopedic knowledge of algorithms or creative problem solving and it's the only skill that everyone on the team greatly benefits from.

>Once upon a time in my career it was standard for devs to wander off into the woods to painstakingly craft a wonder over 3-4 months

Care to elaborate on that more? Curious to hear what kind of work streams you were a part of, and how they differ from the more 'collaborative' norm of today.

For a while I was employed at a shop that was a sort of unified platform and on that platform we would support a number of tools - these tools were usually developed by contractors that would get a complex set of business rules and build a solution to fit - then we FTEs would take care of the plumbing and platform tech debt... Unlike how a lot of places like that might look with outsourcing our contractor pool was pretty steady so while they didn't technically continuously work for the company they were essentially co-workers.

It was an interesting place to be but suffered greatly from a lack of permanence in the roster - for a few years tings were great - then some of our regulars moved on and were replaced with more flaky people. I assume it was just the specific mix of folks that made that setup sustainable while it was.

I agree. And over time I have realised that a good team player is far more valuable than an algorithmic wizard who is a prima donna.

The problem is no one interviews for that.

I think that fresh out of uni people feel like being a prima donna algorithmic wizard is the expectation so they play towards that sterotype. When you're looking at hiring more senior people they have usually accumulated the confidence to highlight how dev teams they've been a part of have worked together to overcome issues together without telling a personal glory story - those folks are worth their weight in gold.

Honestly, if someone walks into an interview talking about how they did something awesome to support a co-worker while they were struggling that's about the best anecdote I could hope to hear.

I suspect that also goes for products as well.

An iPod

A phone

An internet communicator

nice. I understood that reference.

> My understanding of human behavior was expanded by my psychology courses.

Lee Iacocca [0] in his autobiography states that his minor in Psychology in college was the part of his education that was most useful to him as he worked his way up the chain at Ford.

I highly recommend his autobiography as well.

[0] - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lee_Iacocca

I go to a liberal arts college studying CS too. I don’t know if I can accurately attribute what I learned in college to anything but I have broadened my scope a lot.

How do you suggest to make good use of this situation/setup?

I, too, have had a pretty successful and rewarding career in software with a liberal arts degree -- but I'm also 50, so when I entered the workforce in the early 1990s, lots of (at least American) university programs were still super behind what was actually in use in the commercial world.

Many of my coworkers over the years had only 2-year degrees, or in a couple of exceptional cases no degree at all. People my age mostly learned to program on our own, as teenagers, starting with BASIC and then going deeper, so by the time we were in a position to take CS 101 or whatever we balked, because spending time listening to a professor tell you about writing a bubble sort in FORTRAN just isn't interesting or applicable when your hobby project is writing your own text editor or whatever.

So yeah, lots of people my age have liberal arts degrees -- political science, English, foreign languages, history, whatever. The secret advantage of that background is that we can usually write and communicate WAY better than the CS grads, which turns out to be immensely useful.

The tl;dr is really "understanding how software gets built AND being able to describe it to both technical and nontechnical people opens up lucrative career paths."

I first heard that advice referenced from Scott Adams the creator of Dilbert. Where he notes that he is not a very good artist or very funny, but combining the two with his background in business is why he was successful.


I respect Scott Adams for his comic, but his blog is (in my opinion) a bunch of mass-produced rhetoric-pseudo-rational ramblings¹, trading out quality for (a very large) quantity.

Scott Adams is definitely not famous because "he is an ok graphic artist and has an ok humor". He's famous because his satire was fairly unique and very sharp. I think he's very talented in the humor department; in addition to his creating invention and sharp wit, very often his strips have two punchlines - in the middle and the last panel - which take twice as much effort as a "standard" comic strip.

His drawing skill didn't/don't really matter, as a matter of fact, he wasn't particularly good at the beginning, and his style is generic and simple anyway.

It's very unlikely that somebody with "he is an ok graphic artist and has an ok humor" will get his success just because of such qualities.

¹=A very ridicolous example of whom was when he was proving that Trump will be successful because, based on his observations, leaders who were great in the long term, typically had a rough start. Can't find the post.

>I respect Scott Adams for his comic, but his blog is (in my opinion) a bunch of mass-produced rhetoric-pseudo-rational ramblings¹, trading out quality for (a very large) quantity

Not so sure about the "rhetoric-pseudo-rational ramblings". He writes his opinions and gives arguments. Nothing "pseudo" about them, though they could still be (and often are) wrong, either factually or as a reasoning.

>It's very unlikely that somebody with "he is an ok graphic artist and has an ok humor" will get his success just because of such qualities.

Well, if they also knew about business workings, and did business-related comic strips at a time when nobody else (or very few) was doing them, then they might. Humor, like drawing, is honed over time anyway.

>A very ridicolous example of whom was when he was proving that Trump will be successful because, based on his observations, leaders who were great in the long term, typically had a rough start.

Well, his prediction did pan out, when all pundits said otherwise. Could be dumb luck, but he has been lucky often enough.

Theirs [the pundits'] arguments then, would be even worse "pseudo-rational arguments" that Scott's: because on top of claiming rationality, facts, legitimacy, and statistics on their side and being presented with fanfare on prime time (unlike a mere personal blog), they were also proven wrong.

I'll probably regret posting this at some point because Scott Adams is smart (just not particularly aligned with my own moral compass). I don't think he is AS smart as he thinks he is but that doesn't mean he isn't smart, it just means he has a particularly large ego.

See, I predicted Trump would win as well. It seemed incredibly obvious to me despite it being the worst possible outcome I could imagine. I based my "prediction" on my time spent in the US and a gut feeling. I guessing Adams did as well, and found ways to justify it (not exactly unique to him).

Adams tends to think in terms of "persuasion" as a skill. In that sense, he probably sees the world transactionally and cynically. I have heard him debate people with a good command of the facts and a similar combination of ego and articulation. He comes off as smug, too confident, and more like a small fish in a big pond than he does when he is just writing on his blog or "destroying" someone in social media.

do you remember when he put a whole section at the end of The Dilbert Future that was basically The Secret? :D

I made the mistake of buying his Trump book on a whim.

It was terrible, couldn't get far into it.

Was it the inherent quality (or lack thereof of the book) of mere resistance to counter opinions and certainty that "this can't be any good since it's ideologically opposite" though?

No, I am genuinely interested on the opposing take, but as far as I remember he was just babbling some ridiculous thing over and over. It didn't make any intellectual sense, whether you're right-wing/left-wing, populist/liberal.

To be frank, I find his arguments a little flaky and hand-wavy, of the "self-help guru" variety, but there's usually some interesting perspective or tidbit there that I wouldn't have thought otherwise...

I think that's his point?

If he drew like that but had no interesting content, no one would read the comics.

If he wrote jokes but couldn't illustrate them at even a basic level, they wouldn't reach many people.

And to be fair he could draw the absurd out of a semi-realistic situation, but he wasn't producing a treatise on modern management and how to run a business. You could find a lot of the same observations in water cooler chats at many workplaces.

He just made that really easy to consume and then got it in front of a lot of people. Which is probably a sign that he has a half decent understanding of distribution and promotion too. Once again he may not be a genius there but he knows enough to not screw up something good.

I'm take a gander that your view about his blog is based on your pre-existing political leanings.

I mean... https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Scott_Adams#Views_on_science_a...

The guy has a ton of crank views

As if RationalWiki has any business calling people cranks

Has it always been that way?

I seem to remember RationalWiki (or perhaps some other similar site?) as an occasionally snarky but generally high-quality wiki on rationality, fallacies, science vs. pseudoscience, the logical or other mistakes in arguments that have been given for quackery, etc.

Nowadays it seems like a lot of the content is just about bashing people who have expressed less-than-greatly argued opinions, with some kind of a special target drawn on conservatives.

I mean, you can also do that and not be wrong, but that's entirely different than (mostly) dispassionately documenting things, even if while doing the latter you'd be somewhat poignant.

Either the content seemed to have a different tone ~10 years ago, or I remember wrong.

The problem is that sticky issues are so rarely aligned on party lines. Like science vs pseudo science. Where are that line? The scientific method? Because as we’ve seen in recent years, our poor incentive structure for scientific advancement has given rise to bullshit study’s that grab headlines, but are flawed in major ways.

Like everything in life, complex issues that have many facets are difficult to shoehorn into a right/left box. Sites like rational wiki excel at warping issues to make them simple binary choices. Life is hard, thinking is harder, you can’t outsource your judgments of the world and expect to have a clear picture of reality.

It's come across as pretty bad since I discovered it, maybe 5 years ago.

So a link to rational wiki, a massively biased website with a far left agenda... As your response to somebody bringing up Scott’s reasoning on things.

Weak sauce. That’s added nothing to the discussion of Scott Adam’s talents, hubris, ego, or cold logic skills.

Media Bias/Fact Check labels their factual reporting as "High" despite a Left-Center bias rating:



And as patio11 says, combining engineering with good writing skills makes it very easy to be one of the top with your combined skills

I’ve been trying to lean more into that advice the past couple months by publishing on my blog :)

Surprisingly enough, just this morning I woke up to realize someone had shared an article I wrote and it was on the HN front page!


I'm not convinced that writing and engineering are a rare, yet sought-after combination. I'm a pretty good writer; good enough that I had several professors in college asked me to use my work as examples for future classes.

It's been recognized by my peers and managers. Not much has ever really come from it. I've been given opportunities to draft "bad news" copy to be sent to clients, and I'm the point person for editing design documentation. But none of these are really roles of prestige. If anything, I'm really seen as being the person responsible for the grunt work that people don't generally enjoy doing.

I think you are underselling yourself. As far as I can tell, at a globally distributed engineering org, clear written communication is probably more important than the code you write, because it has more impact - it has an effect on how everyone else writes their code.

It might come easily to you, but me and other people I know often draft emails and such 3-4 times, asking for proofreading from trusted friends.

Yea, the proofreading for docs and writing client copies isn't fun, but the skills to do these well help all of your written communication immensely.

Your org could be very different, but I feel like I am recognized in large part because I care about communicating, and put a lot of effort into clear emails and docs. Part of your recognition could be because you have great writing skills.

Just ask for more money for doing it then. Or push to not do it. If you end up not doing it then your saved the work. IF they pay you money, you get the prestige.

Ah, I see where you're coming from.

The benefits don't accrue as much when you're writing material you've been told to write, especially when it's not something the recipient will be happy to receive. Those can be valuable learning experiences, but it's not harvest season yet.

The value comes when you CHOOSE to compose messages meant to persuade YOUR peers and internal stake holders. Your skill with the pen gives you a voice, like a bard who can urge a crowd to action.

What words do we associate with those kinds of people?



Writing can help get you there

It is a great combo, but you need to have a lot of personal initiative to make it work.

Here's the thing - the typical software engineer interview doesn't assess writing(or many other valuable traits that can become unusually valuable when combined with good coding ability). Almost every one I've done has been a rehash of data structu res and algorithms along with a few other technical topics. Someone who is an excellent writer and merely a good programmer is likely to be screened out. If you combine skills, you're treading a path that people don't really hire for, mainly because they can't conceive of it, and it doesn't fit into the silos.

That's fine. You need to accept that the google-style software engineering path probably isn't for you. But you do need to have more initiative. Companies that post jobs tend not to look for these combinations. However, if you have personal initiative, you can often build this role within a company (or on your own), and the career path it opens up can be very satisfying.

There may not be a test of writing abilities in a job interview itself, but applying for the job is a test of writing abilities.

But does being in the top of those combined skills command top pay?

If you're at the level where you can write a decent book on programming or something... that means guaranteed job offers for the rest of your career.

Like, I haven't seen Raymond Chen's resume, but if he calls me up tomorrow looking for a job, I'll find something for him, even if we're not hiring.

Ditto for Steve Klabnik, Carol Nichols, and some other people in the Rust community.

Engineering and writing/communication/organization is basically the definition of a tech lead. If you find me a good engineer with good communications skills, I'll get you a mid-6-figure salary no question.

I'm pretty sure it does, but I'm also pretty sure it's okay if it doesn't.

You don't need to get paid directly for those skills to be valuable.

I started brushing up on my writing skills since at the higher levels of engineering (and prob all other fields) communicating your ideas more effectively will open up way more opportunities down the line.

Some of those may have monetary rewards. But the reward can be something else as well

According to legend, a new student of Euclid’s once asked him, “What shall I get by learning these things?” In reply, Euclid beckoned his slave and told him, “Give him a coin, since he must make gain out of what he learns.”

Depends what those two or more skills are.

You might be a top flight musical basket weaver but that won't pay too well.

You make me music baskets and I’ll find a way to make it pay well.

I learned this lesson from Clifford Stoll.

He said that astronomers figure he must be an exceptional programmer, since he's clearly a mediocre astronomer. While programmers figure he must be an exceptional astronomer, since his programming is strictly middle-of-the-road!

Of course, these days, he's the best dang Klein bottle glass blower in the game. No substitute for finding your niche.

Cliff is an amazing person. Just a joy! Every time I see him on Numberphile, my life is made better.



P.S. Cliff, we know you're on HN. Please continue being yourself, it seems like a really great person to be!

Not to mention a pretty good writer. I recently finished "The Cuckoo's Egg" and found it both highly informative and entertaining.

> Of course, these days, he's the best dang Klein bottle glass blower in the game.

And of course, he hires out the manufacturing. That's why he has (an awesome, little) warehouse under his hour full of them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-k3mVnRlQLU

I disagree. It is one those things that are said once, repeated enough and make enough sense to be believed, although I suspect they are not true. If you combine an average programmer with an average statistician, you get a profile that is not particularly attractive. If the comment that follows is: but is it not what data scientist are? the answer is that good data scientist have good (or great) programming for what the programming they need to do.

My undergrad and Master's are in an interdisciplinary field, which had at the time felt needed by Universities offering those degrees, but in the end the professional profile was not of interest. An average knowledge of chemistry, engineering, physics, and other sciences does not make you an interdisciplinary scientist, but someone who can do a little bit of many things, but not at the level that is required in order to get paid for it.

The Dilbert's creator has excellent drawing abilities for the comics he is drawing —- here the lesson is that you need to do excellent relative to the quality that is needed, not that if you combine average talents you get world-class results.

>> If you combine an average programmer with an average statistician, you get a profile that is not particularly attractive.

Nobody said being average at both was enough. The parent post specifically said if you know more than average in both areas. You still need to be good, but the combination of good in multiple areas is claimed to be sort of like being extraordinary in one. I think there's some truth in that.

I still think the parent has a strong point though. Stats and CS are correlated skill sets. Almost all CS people learn a good bit of statistics as part of their education process, and I suspect that most statisticians are passable programmers. The fact that we have a term for the combination of both skills suggests that being great in both is not unique, it just makes you a great data scientist.

The crux behind the idea of being better than average at two things makes you individually extraordinary is that the two skills are not correlated. An above average singer is probably an above average player of one or more instruments, but I'm sure there aren't many who are also great ice cream makers.

> Almost all CS people learn a good bit of statistics

Oh how I wish that were true

> Almost all CS people learn a good bit of statistics as part of their education

> The crux behind the idea of being better than average at two things makes you individually extraordinary is that the two skills are not correlated.

I don't know if "almost all CS people" come from better schools than mine, but I've never had a proper statistics course, and my degree has a "data science" stamp on it. Having good statistics skills, and not just good knowledge of some machine learning frameworks, is probably rarer than you think.

>> but I've never had a proper statistics course, and my degree has a "data science" stamp on it.

How do they justify that? ML is not IMHO the same thing, but maybe times are changing?

I've given up trying to understand. The school focuses heavily on software development, and they don't seem willing to change the curriculum too drastically to make room for a good data science track. But they want to have one anyway...

I wondered if my degree was an exception.

I suspect you are looking at this the wrong way. Someone who is average at a number of things is probably a decent generalist; valuable but not particularly are.

But the argument is being above average in two or more areas can make you as impactful as being top of your field in one area, even though you are nowhere near that talented in any different field.

Even with your example, I would counter that a huge number of people successful in data scientist roles would not be successful (or at least, much less so) either as programmers or statisticians. It seems many of the earliest wave of data scientists (e.g. pre bootcamps etc.) have failed to thrive at at least one of the two before ending up in "data science" (caveat, agree this is poorly defined).

A decent generalist that nobody may want, though.

You are right that "successful in data scientist roles would not be successful (or at least, much less so) either as programmers or statisticians", assuming they do not train a bit more and become better statisticians (a subject in which world-class experts have wildly different opinions about the very foundations of the field) or programmers (a 1X, say).

What I had maybe issues articulating is that the Dilbert's creator is focusing on the system of skills (and, what does "better than average" mean? Better than the population average or better than the average of people professionally working, say professional comic artists? Because we are talking about two different things) instead of the application of the skills. He had a brilliant (a posteriori) idea that did not require to be neither Caravaggio nor Dave Chapelle. The lesson is that you can have success drawing like a 6-year old (which is better than what I can do) and some deadpan humor about office work which is funny one every ten times. Which is, IMO, way below the average skills of professionals.

His "lesson" is between "nothing new" and "so what": nothing new because we have seen many successful people having near-zero talents or skills (that would be a long book for me), and so what because it is not the above average skills (and I ask again: average of what?) but the more or less fortuitous choice of a profession or activity.

We have vague-casting, vague-posting, and, in this case, vague-philosophizing.

  A decent generalist that nobody may want, though.
Right - but I think that pretty clearly wasn't what he was talking about.

I don't love Adam's formulation, but it is close to something real.

I think the idea is be the a good (better than average) programer and good statistician radther than being a amazing top 1% statistician or programmer.

Curiously enough Scott Adams(Dilbert creator) talks a lot about what he call the "talent stack", which is what we are discussing here.

If you have a combination of skills that have synergy then you can have great results.

I first encountered this notion playing D&D of all things.

The concept of dual/multi-classing, and what later became prestige classes/archetypes in later editions was all about highlighting that the sum of the parts was greater than the whole.

There was a trade-off of course, especially in the early/mid levels as other solo-class characters started coming into their stride with higher-tier abilities. If you made it past that stage as you continued developing your other class(s), you really ended up with a unique character.

The benefits of multi-classing go beyond the combat mechanics of the game, as well. If you develop a character-driven reason for multi-classing, that's character growth in action. Great for role-playing as well as for driving the plot of the campaign forwards.

Great point. This was one of my favorite aspects of it actually.

I started as a rogue and would gradually "harvest" some sort of arcane trophy from various monsters we defeated or quests we went on. I gradually cobbled together a spellbook as I grew my rogue, including some hacked together spells that had some wild magic type surprises at first as I was learning. These were the most fun levels by far.

It's designed like that though, and artificially so.

It's not real.

It's like taking dating tips from films, it's made up. And if you copy what they do in films you'd end up being really creepy.

No, the problem is that what is defined as top tier keeps rising, and raises the bar just to be average. You also now have to compete with a huge cohort of people due to the net now.

Going with the videogame focus, if you ever play competitive games you actually see how brutal it can be. In Overwatch for example you have an absolute mountain to climb in ranked because you can't just improve, you have to improve above average to increase your rank. This means a lot of people are getting better at the game over time but are going down in ranking simply because everyone else is getting better faster.

Essentially the internconnectedness of everything is making it hard to find the niches you speak of. There's always someone who loves his job so much and works at it so much that he defines the meta, so to say. This is a problem in computer science, even.

While this is true, there are simply so many problems that need solving and too few humans to solve them, which makes it not too hard to do well in life. Luckily, life isn’t a zero sum game unlike video games.

This is a ridiculously defeatist attitude, and the quicker you can drop it the better off you'll be.

If video games are the subject the attitude should be am I having fun, not am I getting better. Some people can make money at playing games (both video and otherwise), but most people need to be okay with doing it for fun and never being world class.

This discounts the long-term benefits of learning to derive pleasure from the progression of your own skills and abilities.

Fair point. Pleasure is the goal

> Essentially the internconnectedness of everything is making it hard to find the niches you speak of. There's always someone who loves his job so much and works at it so much that he defines the meta, so to say. This is a problem in computer science, even.

Then, seek out those people and work with them. Computing is collaborative. It's rather difficult (and unnecessary!) to create anything meaningful entirely by yourself.

This comment really spoke to me

The video game analogy seems apt to me, and helped me realize why I might be struggling (as a bit of a generalist) more than others in my career. I'm not putting in as much of the work in beefing up my skills as I can easily see when I play others in video games.

I definitely recognize myself in this. I consider myself a decent programmer but I also know quite a bit about electronics and even a bit of Verilog/VHDL. Not enough to work as an ASIC/FPGA engineer, but enough to understand the broad concepts and how it all fits together. If you talk to me about timing violations and setup times and clock trees I'm not completely out of my depth.

All that happened pretty much by accident, mainly because I was always interested in all things low level, but it proves really advantageous in my career. Basically if a problem stands at the interface between hardware and software I tend to be massively more productive than a very good software engineer who knows very little of electronics or vice versa. If we have a problem like "we have this driver that seems to lock up because it misses an IRQ, but we're not sure if it's a software race or a hardware problem" I can usually help.

Of course that's all fairly niche, but as long as the niche is big enough that's not an issue. It's all about finding complementary skills. There might be a need somewhere for a good software dev that also very good at Sumo, but that's probably not very common...

In other words, generalists triumphs over specialists.

But the best of them is the multi-specialists. https://techcrunch.com/2020/07/19/the-dual-phd-problem-of-to...

Stated differently:

Diminishing returns on time invested to expertise gained becomes unattractive at the highest expertise levels. A lot of time is required for a small growth in expertise (pushing to expand the frontier of knowledge in physics, for example).

You can be an expert, but not the world class expert, with less time invested (before diminishing returns becomes prohibitive). I like to think of this as catching up to the state of the art, but not actively working to advance it (much, much harder).

Do this in multiple fields and you may have a unique skillset or perspective that's valuable.

Too bad society generally doesn't reward that sort of combined expertise due to rigid licensing/credentialing/organizational structures.

I like your examples: those two games were amazing to play and very inspirational to me personally, for the reasons you articulated so well.

I once heard another example of a man who'd washed out of both medical school and art school, lacking the apitude and/or drive to really make it in either field. He wound up finding a very successful career as an illustrator of medical textbooks, as the number of people versed in both medicine and art is extremely small. He's booked up years in advance.

(That man's story was, I believe, part of an NPR news story roughly 15 years ago. I've not been able to find any mention of it since then!)

I've been able to combine good-but-not-elite skills in my own career in order to find success.

My aunt trained in medical illustration at the Cleveland Institute of Art. She switched to primary education years ago and could never get a gig in her original field.

That's interesting to hear and, more importantly, I'm sorry to hear that.

Perhaps the man in the radio broadcast was able to succeed because he had the luxury of a (full? partial?) medical education as well.

(It's also worth noting that only a tiny fraction of the populace would be able to afford such an amount of education - he must've had soooooome trust fund, or indulgent parents, or something)

There are not very many people with defined Erdős–Bacon numbers [1].

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erd%C5%91s%E2%80%93Bacon_numbe...

> To have a defined Erdős–Bacon number, it is necessary to have both appeared in a film and co-authored an academic paper, although this in and of itself is not sufficient.

This surprised me. I guess you could star in a tiny indie film completely closed off from the Bacon graph...

I imagine there would be one massive connected component and a large number of really tiny ones.

Probably easier to co-author a paper with another novice author.

Apparently there are sufficient (even I have one - 7 IIRC) that an even more exclusive club as been formed: https://rosschurchley.com/blog/who-else-has-an-erdos-bacon-s...

A relevant analogy is small fish in a big pond or big fish in a small pond. You are effectively making the pond smaller by going into a more specific niche.

AH yes that is exactly what I meant! I love the examples you put out here.

What people haven't realized is you dont need to think in terms of Hierarchy anymore.

Which is the way people have thought about anything for thousands of years. Fitting into domination or skill based hierarchies was optimal when resources where limited.

The Network and its explosion in the last 20-30 (not even one generation old) challenges the reliance on anything Hierarchical. Just one example - I can connect to my boss's boss's boss with a tweet or an email or whatsapp message and establish a connection. A deep one if I am of value. I dont need to go through my boss or through multiple levels anymore. It changes everything. The more networked everything gets the harder and harder its going to get for hierarchies to maintain their stability.

Why are Experts and Famous people's weaknesses so easy to find and pounce on today? Because of the network.

Stop thinking about Hierarchies and how to climb up or what pushes ppl down. Its outdated. Those who climb and pretend there is some safe summit, their weaknesses will be scrutinized by thousands more people than in the past. You can see it from Obama to Gates to Trump to Xi to your favorite scientist or celeb who has fallen from grace.

So think about Networks. Think about how they are created, how connections strengthen, how two networks connect, how to grow them etc. Networks change the value of all people. Just as in the Brain. There is no one extraordinary neuron.

Book recos - Niall Ferguson - The Square and the Tower - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07KKYostAJ0

Albert-László Barabási - The Formula

Moises Naim - The end of power

The Hierarchies of Skill and Domination will continue to face major pressure the likes they haven't seen in the past from ever changing network configurations.

I can connect to my boss's boss's boss with a tweet or an email or whatsapp message and establish a connection

And then your 3boss recommends firing you for insubordination regardless of your value.

For real, the old ways aren’t just disappearing overnight, or over 30 years. Our organization and social structures are in many ways baked in.

This is spot on.

For a while, in my career, it felt like I was pursuing multiple career paths and in fact, there were many times I wondered if those were wasted years.

Turns out, that being a fairly good jack of a few trades does pay off. A mix of knowledge of analytics, statistics that was honed through a few years in economic research and most importantly, business understanding. I see that all of these skills, together, help me understand and grasp problems much better.

I am not the best cloud ops guy or the one with the best code or in-pace with the latest arxiv paper on machine learning but when faced with the latest business question on how to use data to help drive sales or reduce costs, I know enough to piece the different bits together and build a prototype at the least.

This is hugely empowering. I owe it to luck and fortune of course, but when the opportunity presents I felt these cross-domain skills made me more confident and helped visualise the solution better.

PS: I have not mentioned the most important skill though - how you work with people but I believe that is only gained through experience

Sam Altman posted a tweet storm about this topic a couple of hours ago. You'd probably find it interesting: https://twitter.com/sama/status/1297912739206242306

I can't find the quote now, but I recall Bill Bailey saying once that he's not a good enough musician to just play music and not funny enough to just be a comedian. But he's the funniest musician and the most musical comedian out there.

I think most of his fans would be willing to say that he's more than good enough at both, but that's looking at a career 35+ years in the making.

Yes, that was exactly the one I was referring to in my OP, but I couldn't remember enough keywords to find it. Thanks!

Coincidence; I discovered Cavestory few days back and I'm currently playing now.

I'm an OK developer, don't know anything but superficial about AI or parser combinators or compilers, and most of my work is building pages, forms, APIs and databases and has been for the past decade+.

However, my experience doing that trick is very varied by now; I can do the trick in a handful of back-end languages, front-end frameworks, even native iOS.

So yeah I'm nowhere near a rockstar developer, but I'm experienced, productive, pragmatic, etc.

It won't make me ridiculously rich but I get by. That said, I could increase my income by going self-employed I guess.

Sounds like me. Never gonna be rich, but doesn't look like I'll be out of a job any time soon.

I like this idea very much. "Find your niche," in other words?

I remember reading this somewhere as well. If I recall correctly it was called something like “compound skills”. Could have been... Linchpin.

There is the notion of skill shapes. Typically, I, T, M (sometimes Π, N, or E), and X (describing leadership), sometimes dash ("—", pure generalist), also tree.

The idea being to have some mix of depth and breadth. Multiple depths is often quite useful.


Horrible quickly DDG'd blogs (the concept tends to attract — shallow exposition):






Skill stacking

Been wondering about this. I built my career on focusing on the technical aspects of programming only.

I feel that people who got domain knowledge were always better contributors even if their technical programming knowledge is not that great.

Been contemplating on getting a masters on an interesting field but current economic climate is still uncertain.

Programming is not about coding or knowing technical intricacies. It’s a two step process:

  1) understand the universe
  2) explain it to the three years old
Coding comes as a part of the second step, but domain knowledge is crucial for the first.

I believe I read that article as well; but haven't been able to find it in a while; it's not pateo11 OR Malcolm Gladwell ;), but does anybody have a link to a blog/article that may have been the original source? Thx! :)

I agree in principle, though I think the example is telling.

If the combination is valuable enough, in this case programmer/statistician, then we simply create a new field for you to compete in: data science.

> becoming a top tier statistician is hard > but the amount of work to become top tier in a combination of 2-3 fields is attainable by almost anyone

I think this is general work advice and in that sense I think it makes sense; it holds even more for {x, programming}.

From my perspective, specificity and personality is an important part of the creative process towards becoming an expert or otherwise accomplished in a field, or at least, a field that has some inventiveness to it. In other words, focusing on even fewer things than a field such as statistics.

To use the statistics example, I view statistics, or at least applied statistics, from the point of view of multivariate statistics. This makes me quite ignorant towards frequentist statistics (no, I am not about to promote Bayesian statistics, which in my opinion is the word that often refers simply to the Bayes Theorem in the context of frequentist statistics) but with very clear reasons:

1. Normality doesn't really come into play in multivariate stats unless we are sampling randomly and without context. In multivariate stats, we actually tend to either use an exhaustive dataset or we sample contextually, or maybe uniformly along a geographical feature such as a riverbed.

2. Dependence of variables is why we resort to multivariate statistics in the first place.

3. Sample size, similar to 1.), is often not applicable. It does apply in the sense that a small matrix gives few insights. However, replicates in an experiment in frequentist statistics are used as a measure of internal variation in relation to between group variation. In multivariate stats you can do the analysis in complete ignorance of whether there are groups at all, or, you can use the groups in a similar way and consider replicates. But there are not hard conventions like having at least three replicates in order to define what variation means in the first place. In multivariate stats variation is a measure of variation between variables, not groups, and the principal components order variation in terms of new, virtual variables via eigenvectors.

4. For a combination of these reasons, the general application of different types of statistics, specifically frequentist statistics as opposed to multivariate statistics tend to change the whole field you are working in to start off with.

Now, the reason for my elaborate story about differences in statistical approaches is that to be an expert in anything, I personally think is a journey towards discovering what makes your interests peculiar, or if you prefer another word, special. (Also, it depends on which experts you happen to be exposed to.) So, yes, of course it should be hard to be one of the best in anything, but I think a reasonable approach is to find the peculiarities of what you could become deeply committed to.

Frequentist statistics is contextually difficult for me to be focused on, and that makes it difficult. However, once the central limit theorem gets introduced, I instead would venture towards it and then once again forget whether I even can ever have enough time to properly study sampling. After all, I wasn't the one to happen to work for Guinness. Beer, now that would be a good reason to study sampling.

Jack of [many] trades, master of none.

"T-shaped developer" master of one (or two).


There are some problems with that though. Let's pick your first example and say you are a statistician/programmer. The problem is that whenever you talk to your peers, which are either better statisticians or better programmers, you will have a hard time earning their respect.

Also, most people will know intuitively that it is easier to diversify than it is to specialize.

And by combining skills you aren't going to make it into the history books. However, hard work in one area may actually get you there one day.

There are lots of people reacting to the extraordinary with "inspiration", "disappointment", and "jealousy".

I'd say none of these are as useful as reacting with curiosity. There's an endless amount to learn from the extraordinary in any field or sport or hobby. It's easy to write off the extraordinary as naturally talented or lucky or something else surface level. Most of the time it's anything but.

I play golf. It's a game that can be extraordinarily frustrating to beginners. It often takes years of hard work to just be moderately adequate at the game. Going into it with disappointment or jealousy of extraordinary golfers will quickly lead them to quit as they'll be way too stressed out to enjoy the game. Those who go into it with inspiration or admiration of those who are better won't be able to sustain it when the inspiration burns out.

Curiosity is the only emotion I've found that is sustainable. Endless curiosity as you try to figure out and piece together what makes someone good at what they do. It's an emotion that sustains because it's the only emotion that is useful both when you hit a bad shot and when you hit a good shot. It's useful both when you watch someone who is worse than you, and when you watch someone who is better than you.

> Curiosity is the only emotion I've found that is sustainable.

The other one I know is gratitude.

When I'm in the right headspace, instead of being intimidated or jealous of the accomplishments of others, I'm grateful that they shared those accomplishments with us all, and that I'm able to learn from them.

Half the time when I watch Jacques Pepin, I think that I'll never make an omelet that good. But the other half the time, I'm so thankful that he's shown me how to make mine better than they ever were before.

Totally agree. When I think about the maxim "it's about the journey, not the destination," I think that curiosity is what keeps you taking that next step, and lets you stay immersed in the journey. Every place you get to along the way, if you find something in sight to explore, sooner or later you'll find yourself far beyond where you started.

I don't play golf, but I imagine there are so many minutiae, from driving, choosing which iron to use, putting, stance, hand positions, comparing clubs of the same type from different manufacturers, and same for golf balls. Each has a breadth and depth to explore as you get more and more into that topic.

I'm willing to bet the people that rise to the top are the people who love to tinker with all those parameters, not necessarily because they know it will make then X% better, but because they just want to see the effect.

I agree, and I've thought for a long time that "natural talent" is usually just "natural curiosity" that has been given enough time to grow into something bigger. After all, if you regularly spend your attention focused on something, you'll inevitably become better over time. I think a lot of topics that people consider to be "impenetrable", like programming, science or math, can be tackled with this attitude.

Disclaimer: I ask this to explore the truth in your comment, not to be pedantic about your choice of terms.

> Curiosity is the only emotion I've found that's sustainable.

It jumped out at me that curiosity technically isn't an emotion, but might be better labeled a state of mind. So the natural follow-up question for me is: What are some ways to help oneself get in that state of mind?

The professor that taught my "logic" class in college would say that feelings and actions come about as a result of _beliefs_. So what kinds of beliefs lead to feeling inspired/disappointed/jealous? And in contrast, what kinds of beliefs tend to lead one to curiosity?

Emotion, reaction, state of mind, whatever floats your boat. I think I got my point across.

As for how to get into the curiosity mindset, and how to push away the other states of mind, I don't have a full answer for you. My personal strategies stem from a somewhat related area of study: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I'm able to push away the negative thoughts like disappointment/jealousy/anger and substitute it with curiosity. I don't necessarily find inspiration or other "positive" states of mind something I need to push away, I'm just aware that it's fleeting.

Very good question for psychology & neuroscience. We are yet to find why some are born with a state of mind of "why" & "how" while others have to try to learn it(and yet, might not perfect it)

I think I have a mix of envy and curiosity.

I'm envious because often these high achieving people had amazing opportunities, which enabled them to reach the level they're at.

I'm curious because of exactly what you said.

Unfortunately it seems like the journey people take to achieve these amazing feats is often never documented and everyone only focuses on the outcome. It's quite disappointing because I love to read about how people went from A -> B.

I really like this take. Haven't thought about sustainable emotions much, but this hits the mark.

This is a really great perspective. As someone who dealt with the external pressures of being 'extraordinary' at a young age, it seems to me that curiosity is one of the easiest things to lose, and hardest to bring back, when your focus is on others' expectations.

Somewhat unexpectedly, discovering some parts of Stoic philosophy has definitely helped to rediscover the joy of curiosity that can be found almost anywhere.

I have a senior who tells me to hire people who are naturally curious(in-spite of any skill shortages). Your explanation is bulls eye to that theory.

“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn't matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all.” ― Richard P. Feynman

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” - Teddy Roosevelt

To me, "extraordinary" is a state of being rather than doing. Don't worry about what you want to be, but just what you want to do. Do things and be alive in the experience, and stop worrying so much about how you stack up against others. You're all going to die, live while you can.

It's too easy for rich successful people who have made it to declare that you should follow your passion. We wouldn't hear a quote from the dozens of lesser-known physicists who struggled and wouldn't recommend the field, we just hear the quote from Feynman who was the lucky one.

For instance, I love painting and woodworking, but I suffer no illusions that I would do "well" in those fields, as even far more talented and experienced individuals that I know in those fields are struggling mightily and envy my hobbyist status.

I know and deal with some physicists and they all seem really happy and only one of them is famous/rich. The fact that you can always bail and go to finance seems to be a good backstop for them.

They clearly aren't struggling if you think they are far more talented. They are just struggling financially. Which is what all these hang-ups are about, including your own.

It's not a hang up if you can't pay your bills or afford to take a vacation once in a while. Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs does require us to meet some basic needs regardless of our passions.

Even if you are an extraordinary woodworker, if you can barely meet rent, you are unlikely to find any happiness due to the stress you will need to manage day-to-day.

Quote would have been better if he said "and can" after "and want." But, as general advice, I think it's still pretty good.

It took me a long time to really believe quotes like that. It’s just not too convincing when the people quoted as saying “you don’t need to be extraordinary” are quotable because they’re extraordinary.

Eh, I mean.. Okay. Maybe this is true for the first steps into your profession, but after so many years in tech the amount of things I have to do that are, compared to my initial 'love' for tech, really horrible tasks vs the things I would like to be doing definately isn't in balance...

It's a nice idea, but this "do what you love" doesn't scale.

I mean, did it too, there was a day where I was super excited to be working as a developer or a sysadmin with tech I loved but after a while if you want to actually get anywhere that thing that you loved doing turns out to be a very small subset of what it takes to be great at something, or be senior enough to have responsability enough to steer things towards your interests..

So yeah. Do what you love at first; but what you love won't be enough in the long term and you're going to have to spend months of 12 hour shifts to migrate some horrible app or other at some point, or many points, and without doing some things that go against 'what you want to do' you'll never be able to do more of what you actually want to do...

Not sure if that makes sense..

I really wish I didn't go into software development as a profession, and instead went to school for something that still pays ok but could still enjoy programming on the side.

Yeah, it's a nice idea for me too. It's a (for me anyway) impossible to make call to give up the kind of salary we make as a senior in tech just because I miss coding for fun though..

I've had pretty good success with replacing programming as a hobby with other things though (biking, woodwork, parenting etc) and I don't really miss 'coding for fun' much anymore. Between clients I'll maybe do some to keep up to date, but that has a different feel to what it was like when I was young ;)

I mean, "do what you love" is a fine plan A. It will work out for some people, either in the "their passion makes them the best makes them rich" sense or at least the "because they love their work, they are happy even though they are not rich" sense.

But it doesn't hurt to have a "find something to do for money that you don't hate and maybe even enjoy some parts of, and then find some other stuff to do on the side that makes you feel like your life has meaning" plan B in your back pocket.

For me tech is the plan B and I've never truly gone after plan A. Sometimes I regret that but on the whole I think a well executed plan B makes way more sense than attempting plan A.

If you're successful enough with plan B you can FIRE and then more easily go after plan A, potentially multiple plan As.

Your comment reads like a quote from Rick&Morty!

I prefer Call Newport's point o view:

Beyond Passion: The Science of Loving What You Do https://www.calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/beyond-passion-th...

Excellent read! I enrolled in my second bachelors for Computer Science because of Cal Newport's influence on me: Choose something that is valuable and get good at it (competence). Then, use the career capital to get autonomy and relatedness. It also reminds me of why I want to become a part time software developer instead of full time, because I want to have the autonomy associated with being part time!

That’s a great insight. There have been times when I asked myself if I made the right choice by entering CS given the sad state of hiring process and all. Also, time and time again, I have been pushed into situations and circumstances where I don’t get to work on what I want to. All of these forced me to think about how I work and what I work on. Maybe I just need to sail the waters and find something new. The world is big and so are the opportunities. There is no reason to limit ourselves to certain well received means of earning a livelihood.

> Don't think about what you want to be, but what you want to do.

I would agree, as long as we differentiate between "'what' you want to be" and "'how' you want to be." I'd say that "what" is a function of other people and their evaluation of you---in the "what" category are "famous," "respected," "talented," "recognized," etc. Chasing these is vain.

But "'how' I want to be" is completely internal, and I don't rely on the approval of others for them: I want to be "disciplined," "thoughtful," "kind," "honest," etc. These are worth chasing, even though technically they do not deal what "what you want to 'do'" and could be construed to conflict with Feynman's thoughts (though I think they don't really).

The internet has made everyone feel inadequate as it's easy to compare yourself to people you see on the internet. Couple of things to keep in mind if your comparing yourself:

1. There aren't as many uber successful people out there as the internet makes it seem. It's far fewer than you think. Lets take a simple example of dudes who go to the gym and are strong. Instagram makes it seem like all dudes bench press 400 lbs and have a 6 pack. In my 15 years of going to the gym (ive been to several dozen all across the world) there are less than 5 people I've personally seen who've bench pressed even 300 lbs. Apply this to any field and it's going to be true.If you take programming for instance I'm yet to meet a person who's performing at the standard I had set for myself (become a 10x programmer).

2. Lots of people are really good at marketing themselves, which inflates the number of people you think are extraordinary.

There aren't that many people at the world class level, the internet makes it seem there are more of these than there are. Just relax and do the things you enjoy.

University also taught me that some people are genuinely better than me. I'm a much happier person since I learned to let it be so.

University taught me that I was better than everyone, and then real life taught me that I was just another smart idiot with a lot to learn. The problem is that universities don't really prepare you for living your best life.

3. The successful people you are comparing yourself to are often older than you. Who knows if you'll wind up as successful as them, but I'm pretty sure many of them would trade it all just to be young again.

They'd want to keep their knowledge, which you don't have.

100% agreed with this, with a few more items to add to the list:

3. The people you hear about most are heard about most because they're newsworthy in some way. That tends to mean someone who's extraordinary good at something, or at least has the marketing skill to make it seem that way.

They'll also be the types who'll get a lot of attention on social media, since people are more likely to share extraordinary stories than ordinary ones.

So you get an unrealistic picture, simply because you're seeing all the outliers.

4. People who aren't very good at something tend not to share that, whereas those who do will share it. If you're a fitness buff who can bench press 400 lbs, you're the type of person most likely to post to a fitness subreddit, or Discord server, or on relevant hashtags on Twitter/Facebook/Instagram. The many others who are out of shape? Not so much.

Either way, it all leads to a situation where success/skill is drastically overrepresented online compared to its commonness in the population as a whole.

Isn’t this true for everything? If anything is normal, which is most of the times, it is not worth posting as it is common and won’t generate the buzz. So, only the extremes get posted and make everyone feel either good or bad and not just content. Maybe there needs to be a place where people can just post normal everyday stuff that speaks to everyone and neither provokes good nor bad feelings - just a feeling of content.

Also, it's not a zero-sum game. More extraordinary people out there is actually good for you. It means the world is likely a better place and you can learn from more people.

I remember feeling particularly inadequate when watching Google IO presentations in 2018. All these teams of highly payed engineers presenting the work of a year or more within a few days. Not a healthy thing to compare oneself to.

Maybe it's because of how you grew up, but I've found myself in several different groups/scenarios throughout the years that blew my mind how many people (young people who hadn't worked a day in their lives) had trust funds.

I always thought that was crazy Gossip Girl shit, yet I got into a good university and was in certain clubs and social circles where I met a ton of people with trust funds (1M-30M).

That's when I decided to change the approach to my career. I'm not even a social person, so the number of people I was meeting wasn't astronomical, and I wasn't at an elite university, just a very good one.

I still see it today living in a large city. The number of people who have trust funds or parents willing to give them 200k-1M to put down on a house absolutely astounds me! I know it's a small % of people, but a small % of people is still a ton of people!

Ive never met a single one. I feel completely insulated from the top strata of society that looks down on me because of it - it’s really depressing what going to a state school has done to me.

> There aren't as many uber successful people out there as the internet makes it seem.

I live in a city with two elite universities (guess which one). They're literally all around me.

Getting into either of those is my definition of "uber successful", with many of them being more successful at 17 than I'll ever be in my life!

Weird definition of uber successful. They'll probably have steady employment but their mental health/personal anguish is probably distributed similarly to the rest of the population

I have steady employment too. But I don't have society giving me unlimited external validation. Instead, people think I'm subhuman for where I work and went to school.

> Instead, people think I'm subhuman for where I work and went to school.

My email is in my profile if you want to talk to someone. No one thinks you’re subhuman. People are incalculably more likely to be indifferent to you than to despise you. More people don’t care about you than have any opinion whatsoever about you.

> The internet has made everyone feel inadequate as it's easy to compare yourself to people you see on the internet.

Yes, but at the same time I just look at some of my past collegues. Some people are pretty useless and are kept in often well paying jobs for years. Also Reddit is a good place to find out how dumb a lot of people are, or Facebooks' programming groups if you find Reddit's level too high.

> Lots of people are really good at marketing themselves, which inflates the number of people you think are extraordinary.

Yes, and then those people get all of the promotions, so now even just being good at pretending to be extraordinary is sufficient, which is even more frustrating.

Well, did you train at commercial gyms or powerlifting/weightlifting gyms? What if the lifters just happened to be on high volume blocks, or tapering for a meet whenever you visited?

Yeah this is mostly at commercial gyms and there are a lot more at powerlifting/weightlifting gyms for sure. But even there there aren't as many as you would expect. It's probably more common to bench 300, but never seen anyone do a 405 lbs squat atg even at a powerlifting gym.

Squatting atg is just not very common to start with.

never seen anyone do a 405 lbs squat atg even at a powerlifting gym

Well yea, a 4-plate ATG squat is gonna be an honest rep, probably by someone pushing 465+ for a parallel squat.

I always figured you could take most men < 45 and hit 1/2/3/4-plate on OP/Bench/Squat/Dead given 2 years on a dedicated schedule w/ a simple plan like 5/3/1. Most people get in the gym for social-hour instead of hammering it hard (aka "fuck-around-itis")

I wrote this for myself when considering a big career move a few years ago:

It’s easy to focus on the next promotion or the completion of a big project that will elevate your career.

By succumbing to the natural instinct of mimicry, we rarely ask ourselves the question: are we climbing the right hill?

In this analogy, the hills represent any long-term goal: career, fulfillment, financial security. Our natural instinct is to walk upward, chasing the next promotion or job opportunity. However, we lose the virtue of randomness by doing this. If your only benchmark is the hill you’ve always known, you have no way to gauge its relative steepness. It’s a good way to reach a local maxima, but not necessarily the best long-term option.

Instead, I allow myself to explore other options, even if it seems “downhill”. For naturally ambitious people, it can seem downright impossible to avoid this instinct. It’s hard, and often feels unnatural. However, the perspective gained from these excursions improves my mental map and I’m able to learn what lies on other hills. Taking this mindset means letting go of the mimetic behavior that leads to jealousy or comparison.

After all, why should it matter if someone else is higher? Your peak is somewhere else entirely.


That’s an amazing viewpoint. Thanks for sharing. It inspired me to change my mindset.

Very good point. This is something that is easy to understand but difficult to internalize.

You gotta step back, relax, and live your life. That's why all the social media etc is poison.

I’ve made well into eight figures by taking almost the opposite approach. As a kid, all I wanted to do was get the fuck out of my unsafe neighborhood and never go back. When I was young I read a lot of biographies of successful people. What I got out of it was that they just worked a lot harder than most, and failed more than most.

Later I observed that there were people dumber than I was with better jobs than I had, and I took that as a positive sign. It meant that just by working hard, I could get those jobs too.

And one thing reading all those biographies told me was that many of these ultra-accomplished people paid a heavy price, usually in their personal lives. I decided I would rather be a happy millionaire with a family than an unhappy billionaire with two or three ex-wives.

I taught myself how to program, took some writing classes in a junior college, and taught myself business and investing by doing dry runs on paper. The kinds of programming I did were fairly challenging, because as a person without a degree I knew I would have to work harder than people who had one. I also stuck to programming that I liked, but that also had a likely long commercial future.

Eventually I was able to parlay all of this into what this website calls a “lifestyle business“, one that has let me stay home and raise children while still earning a great living over the last few decades. I have hit a fair number of singles and doubles, plus a triple or two. At my age now I’m not going to make a billion, But I own a couple of houses outright, have a retirement fund that can help support very high medical bills for medically fragile family members, and I can take care of my handicapped kid until I die.

All of this came from keeping my expectations lower than the author’s. I was thinking not in terms of what I “should“ be able to accomplish, but what I could accomplish if I worked hard and smart.

I have a similar background, but right now I'm just taking a salary as a software engineer and looking to expand that. Have you written more about your path so someone like me could learn from it?

Talked about it a few years ago on Reddit. Feel free to check my profile to contact me. I love talking business.



I almost wrote this same comment. At this point, I'm probably going to be soft-retired in 4-5 years anyway. But once I know I won't die homeless, I'm excited to get started with this capitalism thing.

can you post link to your lifestyle business ?


Maybe this is offtopic, but I made my peace with this kind of anxiety once I met, interacted and worked with people who were really very very good at what they do.

I let me ego go.

It's ok to be normal. And it's ok to get to learn from the masters.

I once read a O Henry short story where the three main characters are at different places in society financially and in terms of power. But they still found some meaning when they accidentally meet each other during the course of the story.

Their relative stature and standing in the world didn't affect what they thought of each other when they met.

It was kind of an uncanny, uplifting little story. Don't remember its name though.

This is a good lesson to learn. Pretty much everyone you interact with is interesting in some way. They can all teach you something you don't know, or share an amazing story. This is something you notice when you try to learn another language; suddenly literally anyone who can speak that language becomes someone who can teach you something. From the greatest king to the lowest prisoner, they all have at least this one thing that is interesting to you.

> Extraordinary also comes in many forms, and its value does not have to be measured in terms of money.

Great point though underdeveloped in the article. Clocking out at 5 so you can spend time with a healthy, happy, well-adjusted, loving family is pretty extraordinary these days.

For what it's worth, you may have a heavily skewed view of what's extraordinary "these days." There are lots of tech companies that are mature enough to not flog their people to death. Companies with strong engineering cultures that also highly value seasoned developers tend to be this way. Where I work, the office is (well, was pre-covid) pretty empty by 5:30.

There are two sides to this coin; sometimes some late hours are unavoidable -- I don't blame my employer for it, they're not forcing me to work these hours at all, but I think if you're a professional you can't avoid such circumstances sometimes and that's why we get $megabucks right?

The right mix for me is working like a daemon about 9 months a year then having 3 months off, but YMMV..

> they're not forcing me to work these hours at all, but I think if you're a professional you can't avoid such circumstances sometimes and that's why we get $megabucks right?

No, you could make the exact opposite statement and it would sound just as valid. Watch:

"they're not forcing me to work these hours at all, and if you're a professional who does get the megabucks, you can avoid such circumstances."

I find most people working those long hours to save the day could have designed a better solution up front and not needed those late hours at the last minute. Not always, but often they should have known and fixed the problem long before then.

I think it sometimes comes down to a matter of choice in working styles. Some people thrive on killing themselves at times. I've been there. I will still occasionally pull a late-nighter because I get in "the zone" and am actually enjoying the productivity and I still get the condescending comments about how if you planned properly, that wouldn't be necessary, but I think that some people just don't get that working like that can actually be very gratifying. I'm getting a bit old for doing it more than about once a quarter, though, whereas I used to do it a couple times a week.

I doubt there’s anyone at Google that doesn’t clock out after 8 hours and they make $200k starting. With my tenure closer to $300k.

I appreciate what you wrote, OP - moderating my ambition is both essential to my mental health and an ongoing process. I do not exaggerate when I say that in my case I believe the stakes are life and death.

One thing that has helped me a lot to find peace here has been becoming a father. Culturally, it comes with a kind of license to finally just accept mediocrity which I find freeing. Bills are paid, I can watch my son grow up, doesn't matter than I'm not the best at anything.

It's nice to hear that you've found some peace! There's no point in being the best if you will crash and burn quickly.

Child rearing does not last forever though, and if you practiced nothing for those 20-30 years you will fall into the same traps again. Accepting mediocrity is not freeing when it leads to giving up all efforts (And that’s a recurrent scheme)

Extraordinary is boring. If one wants to draw as good as Michelangelo Buonarroti, or play the alto sax technically as well as Charlie Parker, one has to put in the hours. Imagine only having one interest? Example: Michelangelo and Charlie practiced or executed their craft incessantly.

"In an interview with Paul Desmond, Parker said that he spent three to four years practicing up to 15 hours a day."

"If people knew how hard I worked to get my mastery, it wouldn’t seem so wonderful at all." ~ Michelangelo

I argue that one is more employable, more accomplished and has more opportunities if one is average, or above average, in five separate disciplines. Has more diverse friendships too.

I don’t really want to be Charlie Parker extraordinary, I just want to be Harvard CS major who makes $500k as a T5 at Google extraordinary. I assure you, that person has more diverse friendships and more leisure time than I do.

Note that "that person" is not actually a specific person, but merely your image of one.

I mean I can probably go on LinkedIn right now and find someone that fits these loose criteria. They’re fairly common!

If your definition of "fairly common" is something like a ~1% chance, then sure.

Certainly more common than Michelangelo-level artists! I think the OP's point was that you don't need to be the absolute best in your field, or even that close, to be rewarded handsomely.

There are artist all over instagram that can do anatomy better than Michelangelo. In fact Michelangelo never painted a portrait because he couldn't do it. Leonardo could but Leonardo could not sculpt.

Agreed. And this makes not even being close even harder for me.

How can you know what goes on in their lives though? Maybe they're bored or bitter or lonely or even suicidal? $500k a year alone does not do much for your well being.

I mean I'm all of those things too but I have way less money and external validation

Man, your issue is not that you do not have enough external validation, it's that you crave it so badly. I guarantee you achieving your concrete goals would not make you happy -- you would just move the goalposts.

I would really recommend therapy as a way to understand and reframe the desire for external validation.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact