There Are No Magic Businesspeople
30 May 2008
Warren Buffett. Jack Welch. Bill Gates. Steve Jobs. JP Morgan. John D. Rockefeller. Seth Godin. David Allen. Tim Ferriss. Guy Kawasaki. Dan Kennedy. Jay Abraham. Chet Holmes. Michael Masterson. Dale Carnegie. Michael Porter. Jim Collins. Peter Drucker. Gods and Demi-Gods in the pantheon of business success, capable of wielding super-human powers of profit creation, productivity, insight, and decision-making. Extremely rare geniuses who have more potential in their shoelaces than normal people can muster in a lifetime, right? Wrong.
For me, one of the unexpected benefits of developing the Personal MBA has been the realization / internalization of the fact that successful businesspeople (and business book authors) are normal people, just like you and me. Their work is mundane, not magical – they’ve simply identified a need or opportunity, developed their knowledge and skills, and created something of value that satisfies the demand.
It’s easy to deify these figures because they seem so exceptional and (many times) far removed from your current state. Unless you have the opportunity to meet them in person or take a few minutes to write them a letter, they remain enshrined in a place of honor on your bookshelf, encased in a throne of paper, ink, and glue. It’s only after you come in close contact with one of these notable people that you realize there’s really nothing magical about them at all.
Eliezer Yudkowsky is a very deep and intelligent thinker who spends most of his time considering global catastrophic risk and future human development. I had the pleasure of meeting Eliezer while he was in New York a few months ago, and I’ve been following his posts on Overcoming Bias ever since. In Einstein’s Superpowers, Eliezer meditates on the tendency of scientists (and the general public) to treat Albert Einstein as a mystical scientific superhero:
…There’s this tendency to think that Einstein, even before he was famous, already had an inherent disposition to be Einstein – a potential as rare as his fame and as magical as his deeds. So that if you claim to have the potential to do what Einstein did, it is just the same as claiming Einstein’s rank, rising far above your assigned status in the tribe…
…The problem is not that you need an aura of destiny and the aura of destiny is missing. If you’d met Albert before he published his papers, you would have perceived no aura of destiny about him to match his future high status. He would seem like just another Jewish genius.
This is not because the royal birthright is concealed, but because it simply is not there. It is not necessary. There is no separate magisterium for people who do important things.
I say this, because I want to do important things with my life, and I have a genuinely important problem, and an angle of attack, and I’ve been banging my head on it for years, and I’ve managed to set up a support structure for it; and I very frequently meet people who, in one way or another, say: “Yeah? Let’s see your aura of destiny, buddy.”
What impressed me about Julian Barbour was a quality that I don’t think anyone would have known how to fake without actually having it: Barbour seemed to have seen through Einstein – he talked about Einstein as if everything Einstein had done was perfectly understandable and mundane.
Though even having realized this, to me it still came as a shock, when Barbour said something along the lines of, “Now here’s where Einstein failed to apply his own methods, and missed the key insight -” But the shock was fleeting, I knew the Law: No gods, no magic, and ancient heroes are milestones to tick off in your rearview mirror.
I get a kick out of reading transcriptions of talks Warren Buffett gives every so often to business students from various universities. Invariably, someone will make the comment: “but he seems so normal!” That’s because he is: he simply figured out a way to blend his emotional fortitude with a well-developed analytical process that eliminates risk from his investment decisions, and then he waited long enough for the cash to inevitably accumulate. In all other respects, he’s a normal guy. There’s nothing magical about him.
To become successful in the field you’re interested in, you don’t need an “aura of destiny,” just an important problem (or need), the desire to improve your knowledge and skills, and the determination to solve the problem regardless of how much time and effort it takes.
To paraphrase Jim Rohn, the point of business is not simply to accumulate over $1 million dollars. The real purpose is to become the type of person who is worth over $1 million dollars, and there’s nothing magical about that.
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