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.