22 April 2018

You'll Always Be an Idiot at Most Things

Jeff Bezos is the world's richest guy, worth $112 billion at age 54.

In his annual letter as CEO of Amazon, he shared some advice about high standards that struck me as valuable. 

It is worth reading in it's entirety here:

One of the questions he asks is 

whether high standards are universal or domain specific. In other words, if you have high standards in one area, do you automatically have high standards elsewhere? I believe high standards are domain specific, and that you have to learn high standards separately in every arena of interest.  

Understanding this point is important because it keeps you humble. You can consider yourself a person of high standards in general and still have debilitating blind spots. There can be whole arenas of endeavor where you may not even know that your standards are low or non-existent, and certainly not world class. It’s critical to be open to that likelihood.

I would go further and word it a little differently. You will always be awful at most things. 

Let's say that you are an eloquent, wonderful speaker. It would be widely impressive if you were a great speaker in two or three languages (most people do well to pull off eloquence in one) but regardless, you will be an absolutely hopeless speaker in the vast majority of the world's languages. You're limited even within your own domain of speaking.

And let's say that you're wonderful at toplologic phases of matter within math theory. Generally speaking, the closer you are to world's best the more specific is your knowledge. If you're an expert in one math domain you are likely only okay at other math theories or speed of computation, say. And of course you will eventually hit academic areas (medieval history, epigenetics, etc.) in which your knowledge and mastery are woefully short of the standards we'd expect of someone earning a bachelor's degree in that subject.

Even baseball players are rarely great hitters and great pitchers; such people come along about once per generation. The Angels have such a player in Shohei Ohtani, an incredible player who has an ERA of 3.6 and batting average of .333. He's amazing, but this is something I know: no NBA or NHL playoff team wants his help right now. Ohtani is terrible at most sports. (Well, terrible by world-class standards. You'd likely still be happy to have him on your team - any team - at a family reunion picnic.)

We're awful at most things, okay at a few, and - if we're lucky - wonderful at one or two.

So what does this mean? First of all, as Bezos points out, be humble. Secondly, know your limitations or trust the guidance of someone who does, someone who can tell you what you're great at and can do for a career and what you might just want to do for fun, what to improve at and what to simply abandon. Third, realize that you will always need other people; they can do well things that you can't do at all. Fourth, be careful about believing that your success in one thing predicts anything about success in another. And that brings me to Trump.

Trump might be the most gifted media magnet of my lifetime. He grabs our attention and holds it. 40% of Americans love him and 60% hate him but everyone stares aghast. He drove up the ratings of the very media outlets he attacks, simultaneously working to undermine their credibility by hollering "fake news!" while driving up their ratings by causing us all to tune in to see what crazy things he's said and done and whether today he has moved closer or farther from criminal charges. He's a natural genius at media.

Sadly for us citizens, high standards are domain specific. Trump doesn't understand how dependent are modern markets on trade, immigration, and disruption. He dismisses science and experts as less credible than his gut or the TV pundits he finds most appealing. This natural genius at media is a natural idiot at policy.

Trump should be both an example and a warning for all of us. We all should aspire to be even 1% as good at something as Trump is at media. And if we should be lucky, talented, and obsessed enough to pull that off, we should immediately remember that no matter how good we are at that one thing, we are still an idiot at most things.

And this is kind of cool. It means no matter how good you are, you can admire someone else - billions of others - as better than you. Even if you are Shoehei Ohtani or LeBron James, you could literally be tutored on millions of topics by other people who have mastered things that you won't do, much less be bad at.

So go do your thing. Become great at it if you can. And then be humble about it because, you're an idiot at most things. As Deming said, "You can trust a man who knows his limitations." And your limitations are nearly limitless. 

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