(12/14/20) good elite, bad elite

the difference: who still has expertise?

If you’re deciding on which grad school to attend or which company to work for, I’ve got one piece of advice:

Find the good elites.

There are good elites and there are bad elites. Much of the vitriol these days levied against elites is against the bad elites.

But there is nothing wrong with good elites. These are the people you want to learn from and the institutions you want to be a part of.

This week’s email is a short one about good elites and bad elites.

Corporate Hierarchies and Status

The higher up you go in a corporate hierarchy, the less time you actually spend doing the thing you gained status for. As your role changes, the nature of your contribution changes. The longer you stay near the top without challenge, the less clear it becomes why you have any status at all.

The lagging nature of status is so well-worn that there’s even a name for it: The Peter Principle. People in a hierarchy tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

The more your claim to expertise is bundled up in your formal title, the more out of touch you are with that expertise. The larger the organization, the more likely it is for this to be true.

What if this is happening to you?

In the best case, you recognize that you need to develop an entirely different skill. A talented empathetic engineer rises the ranks and becomes a talented manager. He recognizes that while his technical skills got him here, he needs to master a new skill. So he spends more time cultivating the skill of running a team effectively. Soon enough, his claim to expertise will change again.

In the worst case, insecurity drives you to become territorial about the source of your old status. The new manager thinks that to maintain his status, he must convey continuing technical expertise. Even though it begins to calcify. He pokes his nose into matters he no longer has visibility into. He refuses to adapt and develop the new skills that he needs to master.

Several years ago, Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media observed this very insecurity within himself. He produced a podcast episode about a leadership review conducted on him by his team.

First, the good:

A lot of people came to work at Gimlet for and with Alex. He is good at mobilizing people, he is good at addressing people's concerns and still staying on track. Alex inspires people to do their best, infectious enthusiasm is his greatest strength. He’s really supportive.

[…] I’m probably the most experienced person at doing this. It is, after all, what I spent the last 15 years of my life doing. And right now, the best thing we can do as a company is launch really good shows. So, if I’m helping that, I’m helping Gimlet.

But you can probably guess what the growing pains have been for a new CEO:

The review pointed out that there is the tension between what I should be doing for Gimlet now, and what my role should be in the future, if we want Gimlet to continue to grow and thrive.

[…] Your reviewers believe your current management style does not naturally translate to a larger team. They see tension between being intimately involved with the editorial process and managing a growing team. Moving forward, they see this as a challenge you're likely to face.

A CEO’s roles and responsibilities are quite different from a Creative Director. A CEO who still wants to be a CD will piss away his organization’s ability to do great work. A CD who wants to be CEO will likewise harm his team.

Put in other words … the Director of ABC and Vice President of XYZ are not the best source of knowledge on ABC and XYZ. Their skillset is in Directoring and Vice Presidenting. If that’s what you want to learn, and if they are good at it, then you should go to them. Otherwise you’re wasting your time on misunderstood status.

The Great Drying Out of Knowledge

We tend to go learning from people whose pedigrees convey expertise they no longer have (or maybe never had). What they have to teach is no longer anything that they regularly do.

Movement philosopher Ido Portal calls this the drying out of the pyramid of knowledge:

“Leading is done from the front. I still move, research and explore more than my students, even my most advanced ones.

Most 'industry leaders' have forgotten this while fame and money got into the picture. The rest of the pyramid then dries out as new information stops trickling down.”

A lot of what we're seeing in society today is a strong revolt against status-bearing elites, who still expect to be listened to despite the fact that their knowledge and skills have not adapted to a world that has changed rapidly under their feet.

These are bad elites. In America, we’re seeing a backlash against them. In politics, in media, in academia, and in business.

Bad elites take their status for granted. Their expertise is not regularly challenged or kept up to date. You can somewhat smell them from a mile away. They seem to know enough buzzwords to get through a short conversation about any topic.

Good elites couple their status with ongoing expertise, and this expertise is constantly put under the test. They are harder to find because their speech is punctuated with more pauses for consideration.

John Carmack is a great example of this. Carmack wrote the video game Doom, served as CTO of Oculus VR, made some huge contributions to computer science along the way, and is now a student of machine learning.

An old story surfaced about Carmack when he went to Cupertino to visit Steve Jobs at Apple HQ.

John kicked off the meeting by saying, “So I’ve been working with MacOS for the past month and here’s what I learned.”

As Jim Black recounts it:

His #1 concern (at an extremely high level) concerned OpenGL permissions and security for which he felt Apple needed a better solution than what he’d learned about the day before in meetings with the graphics team, even if it came at a slight cost in performance for 3D games.

This was, suffice to say, typical of John in that he was approaching an issue from an objective engineering perspective and arguing for the most technically correct solution rather than pushing for something that might be of benefit to his personal projects.

Jobs got so riled up that he called in his graphics engineers, had them engage Carmack in a deep technical discussion, and changed MacOS’s graphics architecture as a result.

Seek Out Good Elites

If you’re trying to learn something, go to the good elites. Go to where knowledge is not drying out at the top of the pyramid. Seek out specific programs, teams, and practitioners, not well-established brand names (though this is not necessarily mutually exclusive).

Within large organizations, find the small handful of programs and teams who are doing rigorous work. Anecdotally: University of Waterloo Computer Science students tend to punch way above their weight class, while Harvard CS grads punch way below.

Or find a more obscure firm that is low-key doing a lot of great work. Example: Swedish design firm 3drops, whose name seems to pop up quite often in random design conversations.

When you seek out good elites, you just might become a good elite yourself. And isn’t that what all those years of ambition were seeking, anyways?