On Competent Elites

I have no idea where this post is going.

"Imposter syndrome" can feel like something designed to make you feel better as long as you don't look too closely under the covers: "smart people often feel like imposters" does not, unfortunately, imply that if you feel like an imposter then you must in fact be competent.

The other day I came across one of those articles that skewers directly to your soul, specifically targeting those deep insecurities! It was via a tweet from John Carmack, referencing an article on lesswrong.com:

Even so, these people of the Power Elite were visibly much smarter than average mortals. In conversation they spoke quickly, sensibly, and by and large intelligently. When talk turned to deep and difficult topics, they understood faster, made fewer mistakes, were readier to adopt others' suggestions.

No, even worse than that, much worse than that: these CEOs and CTOs and hedge-fund traders, these folk of the mid-level power elite, seemed happier and more alive.

This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public. This is something that reporters must not write about, when they visit gatherings of the power elite.

Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally. Your reader would much rather read about how these folks are overworked to the bone or suffering from existential ennui.

In some ways the last time I remember feeling so confronted, as if the author were focussing on me particularly across a crowded room and pointing out that thing you were feeling awkward about, was Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash:

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. if my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad. Hiro used to feel that way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this is liberating. He no longer has to worry about trying to be the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken.

I first read that when I was 23. I was a gym junkie and martial artist (albeit, starting to realise I might never be Bruce Lee), and with just enough budding awareness to realise that I was exactly the sort of person he was talking to, and that he was 100% right.

It is possible that the rest of your life is determined, in some ways at least, by what you do with that realisation. Do you pack it in once it is obvious you'll never be the best; do you keep switching paths searching for something you might be the best at (or at least, switching frequently enough to plausibly claim that perhaps you could have been if only you had kept going); or are you comfortable enough to be your best?

I think by and large I settled on the last option. If anything, I became a little too comfortable. This can manifest as abrogating responsibility: I followed the training program and did everything I was supposed to do, so if I'm not great it's just because I was never going to be and that's ok.

(To be clear, it is ok, particularly if you're ok with it, but there is still the nagging realisation that anything beyond satisfactory requires some amount — possibly lots — of perseverance through sticking points and plateaus, and perhaps just a little bit of stubborness and foolhardy desire will get you through. Stuhlberg and Magness cover just this contradiction in The Passion Paradox).

My whole life has basically been assuming that I could, to a point, outwork people or otherwise accomplish things I didn't seem talented at, just by being persistent ("showing up") and studying up on it. I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies and enjoy the routine so this is not a hair shirt I wear.

I was never particularly good at chess, relative to others who spent more sporadic time in the lunchtime chess room in high school, but I played board 1 in the state high-school championship because I spent a lot of time playing through games and learning opening lines. I was never interested in endurance sports at all, and instead spent 25 years in the gym trying to get as strong as I could, but recently became involved in ultra running purely because so much of it involves simply putting in the hours1.

So back to Competent Elites: the author is correct, it's a confronting observation because we all know (and have probably seen) the Peter Principal, and we often hear how the pursuit of money or success is a Faustian bargain so contradictory evidence can make us feel like we've been lied to.

That's actually not quite what the author is saying, on closer examination. The two points I took away are that some types of job (such as CEO) are their own particular type of difficult, and that some people are more widely informed than others.

Delving in a little, it seems entirely possible that the people he's describing (CEOs, venture capitalists, and to simplify wildly, the sort of people who get invited to those gatherings) are by necessity smart and skilled in a particular way: of being widely read, and connecting the dots, often on their feet. You could hypothesise that a deep specialist such as Donald Knuth would not seem as impressive in this company, by the author's assumed definition.

Having worked through that, possibly the reason this article struck a nerve is simply the very personal realisation that it's easy to fall too far on the "good enough" side. It's a timely kick-in-the-pants that in my current career I might be better served studying more on systems-thinking, since these days I don't find the time to specialise much. It's also a reminder to assess how effective my current practices are. For example, my chess improvement was limited because I didn't actually play enough2, probably because ego got in the way and it's easier to open another book. In general while I love diving in and absorbing new topics, I often tend to focus on that aspect instead of critically analysing or thinking of wider implications, or sometimes even of exercising the new knowledge.

All in all, I doubt I'll ever get invited to those parties, but I enjoyed the thought-process the article prompted!


Also, if I'm honest, I like that it's not purely about running ability. I'll never have a fast road 10K time, but I can enjoy that preparation takes you a long way, and when you're vomitting and still have 50% to go that you can tough it out and keep going.


The boardgame Go has a proverb "lose your first 100 games as quickly as possible". I did not do this with Chess. (… or with Go).


1210 Words

2022-10-24 00:00 +0000

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