Unteachable Excellence

post by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-02T15:33:22.933Z · score: 36 (42 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 40 comments

There's a whole genre of literature whose authors want to sell you the secret success sauce behind Gates's Microsoft or Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway - the common theme being that you, yes, you can be the next Larry Page.

But probably not even Warren Buffett can teach you to be the next Warren Buffett.  That kind of extraordinary success is extraordinary because no one has yet figured out how to teach it reliably.

And so mostly these books are a waste of hope, feeding off the excitement from dangling the possibility of the glorious yet unattainable; which is why I call them "excellence pornography", with subgenres like investment pornography and business pornography, telling every barista how to run the next Starbucks and every MBA student how to be the best CEO in the Fortune 500.  Calling this "excellence pornography" might be too unkind to pornography, which is at least overtly fiction.

Now, there are incredibly powerful techniques that civilization has figured out how to teach: techniques like "test your ideas by experiment" or "reinvest your wealth to generate more wealth".  You, yes, you can be a scientist!  Or maybe not everyone - but enough people can become scientists by using learnable techniques and communicable knowledge, to support our technological civilization.

"You, yes, you can reinvest the proceeds of your earlier investments!"  You may not beat the market like Warren Buffett.  But if you think about a whole civilization practicing that rule, we do better nowadays than historical societies with no banks or stock markets.  (No, really, we still do better on net.)  Because the trick of Reinvestment can be taught, can be described in words, can work for ordinary people without extraordinary luck... we don't think of it as an extraordinary triumph.  Just anyone can do it, so it must not be important.

Warren Buffett did manage to turn on a lot of people to value investing.  He's given out a lot of advice, and it looks like good advice to me on the occasions I've read it.  The impression I get, at least, is that if he knew how to communicate what was left, he would just tell you.

But Berkshire Hathaway, and Buffett personally, still spend huge amounts of time looking for managerial excellence.  Why?  Because they don't know any systematically reliable process to start with bright kids and turn them into Fortune 500 CEOs.

There are things you can learn from the superstars.  But you can't expect to eat their whole soul, and the last mile of their extraordinariness will be the hardest for them to teach.  You will, at best, learn a few useful tricks that a lot of other people can learn as well, and that won't put you anywhere near the delicious high status of the superstar.  Unless, of course, you yourself have the right mix of raw genetic talents and you put years and years into training yourself and have a lot of luck along the way, etcetera, but the point is, you won't get there by reading pornography.

(If someone actually does come up with a new teachable supertrick, so that civilization itself is about to take another lurching step forward, then you should expect to have a lot of fellow superstars by the time you're done learning!) 

There's a number of lessons that I draw from this point; but one of the main ones is that much of the most important information we can learn from history is about how to not lose, rather than how to win.

It's easier to avoid duplicating spectacular failures than to duplicate spectacular successes.  And it's often easier to generalize failure between domains.  The instructions for "how to be a superstar" tend to be highly specific and domain-specialized (Buffett ≠ Einstein) but the lessons for "how not to be an idiot" have a lot more in common between professions.

Ken Lay can teach you how not to be the next Enron a lot more easily than Warren Buffett can teach you to be the next Berkshire Hathaway.  Casey Serin can teach you how to lose hope, Lord Kelvin can teach you not to worship your own ignorance...

But that kind of lesson won't make you a glorious superstar.  It may prevent your life from becoming miserable, but this is not as glamorous.  And even worse - this kind of lesson may end up showing you that you're doing something wrong, that you yes you are about to join the ranks of fools.

It's a lot easier to sell excellence pornography.

40 comments

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comment by Nebu · 2009-03-09T18:04:46.825Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

When I combine the following ideas:

Just anyone can do it, so it must not be important.

You will, at best, learn a few useful tricks that a lot of other people can learn as well, and that won't put you anywhere near the delicious high status of the superstar.

(If someone actually does come up with a new teachable supertrick, so that civilization itself is about to take another lurching step forward, then you should expect to have a lot of fellow superstars by the time you're done learning!)

I realize that there are "supertricks"; and as Eliezer noted, there's a lot of fellow superstars all around us using these supertricks all the time.

These tricks include things like "written language", "using tools", "cooking food", etc. People who don't use these supertrick probably see the people who do as superstars (at least relative to them).

We all know and use these supertricks, so we don't see each other as being superstars, and we don't see these tricks as being supertricks.

If you define excellence as being unusually good at something -- rare by definition -- then, supertricks are inherently unteachable. If they were teachable, everyone woudl learn it, and the related skills would no longer be rare, and thus no longer be "excellent" under this definition.

Under this definition, supertricks are only super because they are unteachable.

comment by Benya (Benja) · 2009-03-02T16:15:20.643Z · score: 10 (12 votes) · LW · GW

"You, yes, you can reinvest the proceeds of your earlier investments!" You may not beat the market like Warren Buffett. But if you think about a whole civilization practicing that rule, we do better nowadays than historical societies with no banks or stock markets.

By the way -- (only very tangentially related to the topic of this post, I'll admit, but hopefully just enough to pass muster) -- does anybody happen to know a good introduction to the theory behind this statement? Are there any introductory textbooks (microecon? macroecon?) that make the case, for example? Think of me as a very naive reader, who would be tempted to ask "clearly it is people doing actual work who create wealth, how does everybody reinvesting get people to do more / more useful work" and would like to hear the actual answer that convinced you in the first place.

Thanks! :-)

comment by knb · 2009-03-02T18:05:07.795Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Presumably this is because allocation of capital drastically augments the labor that people do. (investing in a farm allows a farmer to replace his hand-plow with a tractor, drastically increasing output). I learned Intro. Econ from Greg Mankiw's textbook "Principles of Economics" and I was very impressed by his reasoning.

If this wasn't a sincere question then I apologize: my ability to read sarcasm is limited.

comment by Benya (Benja) · 2009-03-02T18:53:28.360Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, no, I do do sarcasm, but that wasn't a specimen. :) Thanks! I've put it on my reading list.

comment by nazgulnarsil · 2009-03-03T02:18:41.902Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

the simple answer is that when you reinvest you have to reinvest in something. Lots of people investing in lots of companies = more competition = better world.

comment by billswift · 2009-03-04T00:10:12.353Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Reinvestment is necessary to provide the tools for doing anything more than basic subsistence. Without the factories and tools provided by reinvested capital the "people doing actual work" wouldn't be more productive than a hunter/gatherer/stone-chipper or, at best, a Medieval serf.

Two good, readable books on economics are David Friedman's "Hidden Order: The Economics of Everyday Life" (a popularization of his Price Theory text) and Thomas Sowell's "Basic Economics". Sowell's text is amazingly clear and uses no math at all. Economics is one field where textbooks aren't superior - they bury the important principles under masses of usually useless detail.

comment by MartinB · 2011-04-14T21:36:27.023Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Work => buy tools => get more done by work + tools.

A very simple introduction for the layman ist the 1920's book Richest Man in Babylon by George Clayson

comment by dsalamon · 2009-03-17T09:59:39.164Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Quick point lest ye overgeneralize: Buffet, Bill Gates, and [insert Fortune 500 CEO here] read excellence porn on the way to the top. [from Buffet's wikipedia: "Buffett took a Dale Carnegie public speaking course."]

I think business porn doesn't make you excellent, but it will expand your thinking, and shave years off your learning curve.

Charlie Munger (Buffett's business partner) on this topic: "In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn't read all the time-none, zero. You'd be amazed at how much Warren reads-and at how much I read. My children laugh at me, they think I'm a book with a couple of legs sticking out"

comment by David_Gerard · 2011-05-04T15:27:44.296Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I would class Dale Carnegie not as excellence porn, but as "how not to lose."

comment by Desrtopa · 2013-03-14T22:05:24.910Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

If it's just "how not to lose" now, I think that has a lot to do with the degree to which its messages have already been absorbed into the mainstream to the point that it'll only bring you up to what other people in your field "ought to know." At the time it was written, America was just starting to undergo a shift in the standard models of business, and the sort of thinking it promoted revolutionized how a lot of people approached the idea of building their careers. So it's more like a supertrick that stopped being a supertrick because it was widely replicable.

comment by John_Maxwell (John_Maxwell_IV) · 2009-03-03T03:49:32.272Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

(If someone actually does come up with a new teachable supertrick, so that civilization itself is about to take another lurching step forward, then you should expect to have a lot of fellow superstars by the time you're done learning!)

Not necessarily. There are a lot of people who claim to have the next supertrick. I wouldn't be surprised if the next actual supertrick isn't as heavily promoted as the fakes. So it might be worthwhile to do research in areas that seem promising but neglected.

Bayesian statistics used to be pretty obscure, I hear.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-03T15:43:59.559Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

But it's a part of difficulty of communication. The first thing you need for successful communication is to get the attention of those you are trying to communicate with. Maybe they need to study for years in order to get the benefits, even if the process is reliable and they do get the benefits as a result. The success of an important advancement is not necessarily experimentally evident in the practitioners, while at the same time it can be both real and (not at all easily) explainable. Robin Hanson's post on testing rationality is right on point.

comment by MartinB · 2010-09-03T15:29:21.620Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

There are many bits and pieces available, but few have the ability to get them all. Many techniques are published and easy to access, but still rarely used. (Insert your own example here or refer to checklists). Then there is the whole point about determination and persistence or just the hunger to learn more. Buffet, Manger are probably decent in judging information and putting it to use. This can be easily communicated, but only applied by repeated exercise.

comment by RobinHanson · 2009-03-02T18:56:14.122Z · score: 5 (15 votes) · LW · GW

Summary: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2009-03-02T22:32:19.252Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

That's a good lesson too, but isn't the post more about how lessons in avoiding disasters, though un-glamourous, are useful because they tend to work across domains, whereas genuinely useful shortcuts-to-excellence lessons tend to be more domain-specific?

comment by Eliezer Yudkowsky (Eliezer_Yudkowsky) · 2009-03-02T22:44:28.441Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

That, plus the idea that in a hunter-gatherer tribe, the idols to emulate are probably people not too distant from you, but one Warren Buffett out of the whole world might involve rarer luck, rarer genes, and harder skills to learn.

comment by Jack · 2009-03-03T08:03:48.490Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I've never read anything like this "excellence pornography" but I believe:

  1. A survey of such literature that examined commonalities would be far more useful.
  2. The secrets of the successful are probably things successful people have internalized such that they cannot easily explicate them to others. For example, there is strong experimental evidence that in determining who gets a job given identically qualified candidates the chief variables are posture and demeanor in the interview. But I'd be no successful person would explain their success by pointing to their posture just as most unsuccessful people won't even know what it is they did wrong.

    But that does not mean such tricks cannot be taught, just that you'll have to critically compare the lives of the successful to the lives of the unsuccessful (obviously with statistically significant sample sizes) in order to figure out what exactly the tricks are (you'd also need to take your raw data and control for the factors individuals cannot control). But the data gathering couldn't be done by interview or survey, you'd have to examine the lives of your subjects. This would be a gargantuan task if you wanted to look at every aspect of people's lives at once but it is easy to do give certain limited parameters (like in the interview case) and you can infer things from such limited conclusions. It would also be worth looking at the intersection of limited parameter studies (which could answer questions like whether quality or quantity is more important for getting promotions, posture vs. articulateness vs. physical appearence etc.).

Anyway here is scientifically sound list of 7 Habits of Highly Successful People: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/links/lists/23BrendonLloyd.html

comment by Johnicholas · 2009-03-02T20:00:48.952Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Marvin Minsky makes a similar point in Negative Expertise

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-03T13:46:39.369Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

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comment by Cameron_Taylor · 2009-03-03T14:10:24.580Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance. (Unless excellence porn includes a masochistic subgenre.)

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-03T14:17:38.225Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

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comment by Alan · 2009-03-03T03:51:54.176Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I hazily recall that in the introduction to Benjamin Grahams "Intelligent Investor, "Buffett credits his former mentor with educating a group of stellar-performing security analysts and investors, among whom he counts himself.

Buffett has advised to read Graham, Fisher (Phil), and take it from there, so to speak. Easier said than done. Graham and Dodd's 1934 classic, "Security Analysis," for example, is comprised of 726 pages including its index. There is nothing seductively narrative, personal or hyperbolic about the book's content. Rather, it states plainly that the function of security analysis is can be placed under the headings: descriptive, selective, and critical. Anyone who was serious about learning Buffett's techniques, it seems obvious, should at least peruse books authored by his mentor while trying to internalize some of their lessons. Failure to do so constitutes a curious and telling omission.

Much of the run of management books fall into the groove of presenting engaging narratives based on ex post facto selection of protagonists. Buffett undoubtedly understands that while success is not random, it is fleeting. That understanding may be what motivates the perpetual search for talent.

Two other books of general interest on this topic include "The Halo Effect" by Phil Rosenzweig (on the specific delusions propagated in much excellence literature); and "Winning the Loser's Game" by Charles Ellis (on the long-term futility of chasing outsize investment returns through a strategy based on active trading). Yes, it is possible to win by not losing when you are playing a loser's game. But apparently for many, it's simply easier to buy excellence porn and indulge in wishful thinking.

comment by pjeby · 2009-03-03T01:42:23.788Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

It's also easier to teach what the "right thing" is, than to catalog all the possible wrong things. People, as it turns out, are good at coming up with NEW ways to be wrong.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-03T15:38:04.947Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You can't teach the right thing, because you don't know what it is, even if you can do it. You can't, for example, write an AI that can talk as fluently and meaningfully as you can, even though you yourself actually can talk.

comment by pjeby · 2009-03-06T16:08:01.582Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps I should've given an example: you can easily teach that the "right thing" is to run a profitable business, whose income exceeds its expenses, whose customers are fans of it, etc., etc. You can even teach in minute detail how each of these pieces is achieved.

What you can't do is prevent all the ways that people can go and apply that "right" knowledge in the wrong way. The Dilbert comic strip is full of such examples, of people taking good ideas about how to run a business, and turning them into voodoo.

It's "Guessing The Teacher's Password" -- you can't stop someone with the wrong idea already in their head, from taking what you tell them and processing it through that existing wrong idea, thereby making it wrong.

comment by jimrandomh · 2009-03-02T20:10:13.996Z · score: 3 (7 votes) · LW · GW

If you could figure out what makes any particular exceptional person or group of exceptional people exceptional, and teach that to a large group of people, then those people would still be mediocre. After all, no more than 500 people at a time can ever be Fortune 500 CEOs.

comment by billswift · 2009-03-04T00:15:55.837Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

The more people who have a higher level of ability, the higher would be the level of functioning rated as mediocre. Most people, by definition, are medicre, it's what mediocre means; but that doesn't mean that what level of functioning that counts as mediocre stays the same.

comment by Marshall · 2009-03-02T18:44:41.598Z · score: 3 (5 votes) · LW · GW

But is it truly excellence we see in these big names or is it luck, charisma and many words of explanation? A mix which only comes around once in a while and can't be emulated.

comment by Ryan · 2009-03-03T07:38:13.006Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I wonder about the value of any advice from a person or company once they hit their super success. Does someone like Buffett have influence to the point where he just forces his moves be good or great? Not that he would be unaware of that, but still.

Or Microsoft, they could release a piece of software which for them can make profits and define industry standards, but for another firm might be considered a disaster.

It does seem like the best advice from these types will at some point boil down to 'be me' or 'be us'. In that case its probably cheaper to learn the basics which can be taught elsewhere.

comment by [deleted] · 2009-03-03T19:53:57.294Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Warren Buffet's advice has always been "invest in index funds", which is a how-not-to-lose strategy. You won't make billions like he did investing in a straight index, but you'll beat around 80-90% of managed funds.

comment by MartinB · 2011-04-14T21:40:18.318Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The environment changes all the time. But some basics probably hold true.

Work hard, work smart. Move slow, do not get hyped. Have good caches.

comment by billswift · 2009-03-04T00:19:56.843Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I don't remember which essay it was in [Six Dumbest Ideas in Computer Security], but Marcus Ranum (www.ranum.com) wrote: "It is often easier to not do something dumb, than to do something smart."

comment by PhilGoetz · 2009-03-03T05:50:25.466Z · score: 1 (7 votes) · LW · GW

I've sometimes thought that it might be more useful to read the life stories of obscure losers than of famous people.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2009-03-03T15:48:36.439Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

It sounds wise, but I think it's false.

comment by steven0461 · 2009-03-04T15:35:45.830Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I agree. In theory it seems studying the case that deviates more from the average (in this case, great success) should yield more information. If most widgets are small and a few are big, and you want to know what properties of widgets correlate with size, and you can study only one widget, you should study a big widget.

comment by Emile · 2009-03-02T20:47:27.743Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I'd be interested in statistics about people that excel and how much excellence pornography they read. I really don't know whether they would read more or less than the average. Probably more, but not by much.

comment by nsrivast · 2009-03-02T17:43:18.002Z · score: 1 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Reading excellence pornography isn't a waste of hope even if the superstars can't teach us how they got there. These books narrate the paths of success stories, letting me know which factors were at least partially involved in the generation of extraordinariness. I can aspire to learn lessons (make early investments, start businesses, respect the role of luck), and as long as I'm 1) mindful of the thousands of others who tried and failed or failed to try and 2) aware that these lessons are not guarantees of success, I can avoid expending unnecessary emotional energy envisioning superstar status.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2009-03-02T23:07:16.991Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, but there's a big publication bias at work. You don't read as much from those who did the same things, took the same risks, and lost their shirts.

Picture a bookshelf of got-rich biographies. Hidden behind it is a bookshelf-labyrinth of oops-i-lost-my-house unwritten biographies you can't read. Good advice isn't what the authors did lots, it's what the authors did lots more than the unauthors. You have to figure out what the Warren Buffetts do that the Casey Serins don't.

comment by Lojban · 2009-03-02T20:20:20.663Z · score: -8 (14 votes) · LW · GW

I don't want to learn from Larry Page. I want the Singularity University and associated endeavors to be pushed. We won't have particular domains to worry about (thus, the General in AGI). No picking and choosing from Buffett or Einstein. I suppose this and overcomingbias before aren't supposed to be too caught up in singularity thinking, though.

comment by MichaelHoward · 2009-03-04T19:00:07.158Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

I want the Singularity University and associated endeavors to be pushed. We won't have particular domains to worry about (thus, the General in AGI).

Not sure that follows. I think skill and talent in many different domains would be needed for these plans to come to fruition. I'd be rather nervous if those involved didn't think so.

I suppose this and overcomingbias before aren't supposed to be too caught up in singularity thinking, though.

Just for a couple of months though. We'll survive :-)