Unteachable Excellence

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.