Say there are two Doctors with similar rank and experience. The first one looks like Doctors do in movies or stock photos: white lab coat, gold-rimmed glasses, silver well-groomed hair, winning smile, Ivy League diploma on the wall. The other Doctor is unkempt, arrogant, has an unusual accent, his shirt is untucked, he’s wearing sneakers, and he went to a 3rd tier medical college. Which Doctor would you choose?
Nassim Taleb, author of “Skin in the Game”, says we should go for the second. The first Doctor has all the right memes – they look exactly like we expect – so their whole life everyone has given them the benefit of the doubt. If both Doctors have reached a similar level, the first must have had an easier ride. Whereas the second Doctor got this far despite not ‘looking the part’, which means they must be uncommonly talented, hard working, or both. Only the best in a profession can get away with incongruous memes; everyone else has to live up to expectations.
Below average software engineers, wear shirts and ties to work. The best software developers look like Dennis Nedry in the movie Jurassic Park, wearing shorts and flipflops to work because they can get away with it. They respect merit not hierarchy. Once you notice it, you see it everywhere. Good food is often served from humble establishments. Geniuses often have poor personal hygiene. Steve Jobs regularly went without bathing – a tradition stretching back to Edison, Beethoven, and Michelangelo. In this framing, Elon Musk’s erratic Tweeting is actually a good sign for Tesla investors – it’s the extremely polished CEOs with extensive media-training that are insecure in their positions – when Musk goes quiet that’s when you know he’s worried about results. But be careful: the Next Mark Zuckerberg won’t look like Mark Zuckerberg. He wore a hoodie in meetings because he genuinely didn’t need to dress up. Anyone dressing like him today is play acting “The Social Network”. The real contrarian move today might be to wear a suit and tie, or athletic gear. To identify real talent you must expect the unexpected.
This is a case where our mental toolkits for identifying and classifying people based on their memes fails us. We form preconceived notions of what to expect, and when we recognize it, we’re rewarded with a hit of dopamine. Like any drug, it’s addictive, and as such we’re suspicious of disconfirming information. Studies show that when high capability candidates apply for a job, HR believe it’s too good to be true, or that they will care less about the company. The best candidates have to display higher levels of commitment than other candidates to get hired. Bad candidates know this and take advantage of it: they defer to HR’s expectations and give them the respect they feel they deserve. It’s easier to jump through hoops when there’s nothing better you could be doing with your time. Whether it’s the suave guy in the suit, the beautiful woman in the red dress, or the lone genius in the hoodie, any sufficiently popular trope can and will be used against us.
The truth is that much of what leads to success can’t be easily quantified or measured. Once success in one domain is established, it’s unlikely the same playbook will work elsewhere. That’s even if the beneficiaries themselves are not completely mistaken about what factors contributed to their success. When a situation is messy and complex, we tend to look for a more appealing explanation. The fallacy is that what actually drives success isn’t necessarily easily explainable through intellect and logic. The more educated and higher status someone is, the more likely they are to make this mistake. They’re simply getting more feedback and pressure to conform to the accepted doctrine of what works. Lone outsiders with nothing to lose are inherently more trustworthy, especially if they don’t look it.
The rule to avoid this trap is to invert your expectations. If someone looks like a stereotype for their profession, that’s a sign they may not very good at it. When someone tries to impress you with what school they went to, what companies they worked at, or who they know, you should suspect they’re covering for a lack of substance. Fraudulent companies always have immaculate office furniture. The best operators are too busy working to care about crafting the right image. Don’t feel imposter syndrome from talking to someone more senior in status to you: it’s likely they got there by bullsh*tting. Remember that every interaction is a negotiation: what does the other side gain from engaging with you? As the great Groucho Marx said: “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member”.
Groucho Marx quote
Surgeons Should Not Look Like Surgeons, Taleb, Skin in the Game
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