The World Is Made by People No Smarter than You

Maarten van Doorn
Jul 10 · 8 min read

“I’m not sure I can do [ambitious] career X, therefore I shall apply for a job in [less difficult] line of work Y.”

As a Millennial, I’ve heard fellow recent graduates apply this decision rule recently, as they were choosing what to set their sights on after college. Consequentially, some of them ended up settling for a not-so-extraordinary line of profession as one might not be able to handle the stress/workload/complexity of the more challenging walk of life.

And so you set yourself on a career track to become a nurse instead of a physicist, even though you like physics more, because you are sure you can succeed at becoming a nurse.

This is the single biggest mistake you can make in your life.

“Who am I to …”

It has taken me years to understand that when people say “I’m not sure I can do X,” they’re not saying: “My confidence level as to whether my (potential) skillset is adequate for succeeding at X is <100%. I’m not sure I can do it, so I’ll go and find out.” No, they’re saying: “My confidence level as to whether I can or will succeed at X is <50%. I don’t think I can do it, so I’m not going to try.”

Usually something else is implied too:

“Who am I to think I could succeed at becoming a physicist? That I could become a good lawyer? After all, those are challenging roles, and not many people I know have climbed that high, so who am I to think I could outperform them? Why would I be so special?”

When someone I care about speak the words “Who am I to think I could do [something rare]?”, implying “The proper thing to do for someone like me would be to stay small,” my heart breaks into a million pieces.

‘Winners’ lose MORE than ‘losers’

If you almost never fail on something you try your best at, you’re filtering your efforts on far too high a required probability of success.

Sure, you could fail. But so what? The real losers aren’t those who lose often, but those who lose infrequently:

“You will either be judged, or you will be ignored.” — Seth Godin

Look around and you’ll notice a correlation between more rejections and more success. Make the count, right now. Think of the people you know. Those who have better jobs, did they (on average) suffer more or less rejected applications? Those with more fulfilling marriages, did they (on average) experience more or less preceding romantic hiccups? Those with awesome careers, did they (on average) have more or less setbacks (rejected book proposals, failed projects, horrible meetings, and so on) than those with mediocre careers?

When I do the math, the numbers are clear. The perceived ‘winners’ didn’t get there by simply not failing. If anything, they lost more times.

I think this is intuitively evident to most people who use our dreaded decision rule. Yet the mental model of “winners just don’t fail, so if I fail, I’m a loser, so I’m going to make sure I don’t” seems terribly common these days.

Why?

Status anxiety

I think it has to do with status anxiety. With not wanting to lose face.

As Eliezer Yudkowsky explains in Inadequate Equilibria:

If you only try the things that are allowed for your “reference class,” you’re supposed to be safe — in a certain social sense. You may fail, but you can justify the attempt to others by noting that many others have succeeded on similar tasks. On the other hand, if you try something more ambitious, you could fail and have everyone think you were stupid to try.

More and more, I see people slicing of the entire realm of uncertain, scary projects because the prospect of public failure seems so horrible that challenges in this class are not to be considered.

It seems people experience quite the strong fear of trying something and failing. A fear so heavy you become a nurse instead of a physicist (which you dream of) because that’s something you are certain you can do. Anything you might not be able to do is crossed off the list immediately. It was probably never generated as a policy option in the first place.

I get that.

The fear you’re experiencing is real. And it’s being reinforced all the time. Grown-ups these days, in a devastating example of good intentions gone bad, are very apt to tell everyone and their children and their mothers how they are not very special, probably can’t do the special thing, and will inevitably fail if they try.

“Sorry, kid,” the older person says as he smiles with gently forgiving superiority at the youthful enthusiasm of those who are still “naive” enough to attempt to do better.

This is wrong

The “Who am I” line, then, is you having internalized this slapdown and you coming to believe it would — indeed — be silly to try.

Hard truth: it’s a fact of life that some people hold us back, while other propel us forward. Those who often express incredulity at your targets by cherry-picking a reference class that predicts you’ll fail, telling you to “just act normal”, are in the holding-back category, no matter how much they claim to love you.

They make you into the kind of person who asks: “Not many people have achieved [dream], so on what grounds should I be any different? Isn’t that common sense?”

People should really stop saying this. It makes me want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them and shake them and shake them until they wake up.

“Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.” — Albert Einstein

Your self-doubt is unwarranted!

I can’t make your social environment stop trying to hold you down. I’ll just mention that since you’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with, the dream in your heart may be bigger than the environment in which you find yourself. Sometimes you have to get out of that environment to see your dream fulfilled.

Instead, the rest of the essay is a sort of frustrated shotgun blast — I’ll be making uncareful, speculative generalizations about “most people”, hoping you’ll either start hating me because of it or alternatively become convinced it’s accurate to estimate you can achieve that “unrealistic” goal.

I’ve come to believe this myself not after having attended a Tony Robbins seminar, but was persuaded by two cold, rational arguments.

It’s incorrect to assume most people’s observed performance is them maximizing what they can do

Reason one: What, it seems to you from the outside, ‘many people can handle’ is not a good guide to what you are capable of if you set “unrealistic” goals.

These people you’re using as a comparison to arrive at this judgment probably used similar modest decision heuristics you’re currently employing for choosing your career path. You shouldn’t draw conclusions from that reference class to yourself if you, unlike them, willing to ignore potential social status costs of failure and chase your dream instead (sounds like a no-brainer to me).

When you look at the odds and diagnose your own likely inadequacy for the little-achieved goal of making it as a lawyer, for example, you’re assuming it’s a little-achieved position because there are many who gave it their all and didn’t make it despite that. But have you considered that, in fact, a now-adult might have grown up with parents telling you that if they’re not smart enough to be a lawyer, then neither are you? And that that’s a relatively common phenomenon? And that that’s why their default belief is that they can’t do it, even if they’ve never tested that hypothesis and actually tried?

And now they have grown up and have become the people you look at who make you go: “Well, if they couldn’t do it, who am I to …”.

And so the tyranny of soft expectations becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

A more accurate baseline for assessing your relative capabilities

Since most people’s reasoning has also been of the “Who am I to …” variant, causing them to under-perform, it’s not arrogant of you to think you might be able to land higher than they have.

Really.

You have to stop thinking “most people” are doing such a goddamn amazing job at life that it would be misplaced of you to think you could do something better than average and set your sights on high-level stuff.

“Who am I too…” assumes the way most people do things, is somehow epic, meeting a standard it’s foolish of you to every dream of being able to touch.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The second observation that made me realize this is: When you look at the way most people do stuff, you’ll find that’s usually not a very efficient way. Neither an effective one. So many endeavors have a time trajectory we just allow for, but is … rather lenient:

[Early in my life someone showed me that] “the standard pace is for chumps” — The system is designed so anyone can keep up. If you’re more driven than most people, you can do way more than anyone expects. — Derek Sivers, There’s no speed limit

It’s Parkinson’s Law all over the place. Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.

As Deep Work-author Cal Newport advices in a classic post from twelve years ago: defy conventional wisdom regarding limited time. Ignore other people’s thoughts on how much time work requires. They’re wrong.

Final thoughts

We really, really don’t live in a Totally Optimized World where self-questioning would be appropriate if you dare to think you can reach a high percentile level and outperform your reference class (as is implied by the “Who am I to think that I …” argument).

90% of everything is crap.

To end, I’ll share my favorite quote ever. It’s Steve Jobs telling you the emperor really isn’t actually wearing any clothes:

“When you grow up, you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money. That’s a very limited life.

Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact. And that is: Everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.”


There’s more to that

If you’re looking for more chumps outperforming their reference class, please subscribe to my personal blog. You’ll get a weekly dose of similarly mind-expanding ideas.

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Thanks to Danny Forest

Maarten van Doorn

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PhD candidate in philosophy. Reconsidering the obvious. Chasing interestingness. Get good ideas that make you think: maartenvandoorn.com

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