[FoRK] The Myth of Prodigy and Why it Matters

Stephen Williams sdw at lig.net
Mon Oct 31 17:54:34 PDT 2011


On 10/31/11 5:16 PM, Noon Silk wrote:
> On Mon, Oct 31, 2011 at 4:06 AM, Stephen Williams<sdw at lig.net>  wrote:
>> Good points.  Nice tie-in with running.
>> ...
>> A better poster child for what precociousness really entails, Gladwell
>> hinted, may thus be the famous intellectual late-bloomer, Einstein. Gladwell
>> cited a biographer’s description of the future physicist, who displayed no
>> remarkable native intelligence as a child but whose success seems to have
>> derived from certain habits and personality traits — curiosity, doggedness,
>> determinedness — that are the less glamorous but perhaps more essential
>> components of genius.
> I think probably also important is that there's a significant middle
> group; those who work hard, and are happy. Practically, it's
> impossible for everyone to become Einstein-like, because you'd just
> redefine the best. So, what should be important for the majority of
> people is not "how can I become the best" but, "how can I live a happy
> life"; and I think working hard is a nice way to achieve that (i.e.
> the satisfaction of accomplishment, etc).
>

I don't disagree with the basic point that being happy and satisfied without being "the best" is a reasonable end point.  However, 
there are two different things that are muddled together practically everywhere Einstein and terms like "the best" are mentioned: 
Being the best at something (useful) is interesting, but, as you say, only a few people can be "the best".  What we're actually 
appreciating is usually that someone accomplished something significantly interesting and useful.  You do not need to be the best to 
do that, unless the field is already saturated with best-candidates who are doing everything that can be done faster than you can.

It's not necessarily impossible for many to be Einstein-like in the sense of conceptual depth and breaking new ground, even if it is 
too late to be the guy who discovered relativity.  No one can possibly know and understand everything, let alone focus enough to do 
something interesting.  There is plenty of room to find niches to explore that doesn't overlap with too many other people.  Put in 
your 10K hours, and presto you're an expert.  Choose well.

Don't feel you can invest to get much depth?  Then sign up for QA of those new robotic butlers or something.

Since most of the recent "best and brightest" are spending time gambling with each other, there's plenty of room out there.

It's essentially impossible to become the absolute best at something like a field.  It's not too hard to become the apparent expert 
in a very narrow domain.  And if you create something, then you are, for a time at least, an expert on that.  But expertise is 
ephemeral: It evaporates without constant focus, and you can only focus to that level on a few things at most.

You did take the Stanford ML & AI classes, right?  Fun stuff.

sdw



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