Today's post, Unteachable Excellence was originally published on 02 March 2009. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):

 

If it were possible to teach people reliably how to become exceptional, then it would no longer be exceptional.


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If it were possible to teach people reliably how to become exceptional, then it would no longer be exceptional.

I think people can teach you how to become exceptional, but they can't guarantee the tail distribution success of a Warren Buffett. Because some of that was likely dumb luck. Right person, right biases, right preferences, right place, right time. Fitness for an environment meets the environment it best fits. Slightly different environment gives entirely different result.

It seems to me that you can't teach excellence because excellence is notice something important about the world that no one else has developed, and develop it. There are ways of increasing the odds of doing this, but by definition it can't be reduced to a specific method.

If you can teach others reliable ways of increasing our odds of noticing novel important things about the world and developing those things in worthwhile ways, it seems to me I'm not mis-stating the situation significantly if I describe you as teaching excellence.

I'd say that excellence is a description of level of competence and capability, not accomplishment or result.

Yeah. I actually have been wondering, though, whether there is any practical way to optimize one's chances of catching the gift of greatness and running with it. I suspect that a lot of potentially unpleasant intrigue is needed and that I have missed the chance.

But probably not even Warren Buffett can teach you to be the next Warren Buffett. That kind of extraordinary success is extraordinary because no one has yet figured out how to teach it reliably.

A nice example: this review of Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In, on Slate. The author complains that the book's advice on how to succeed in business is vague, contradictory, and unhelpful. And now we know why.