Losers, IQ, and the Lottery of Success

I waw this blog post by “Applied Divinity Studies” On Being a Loser, or Should you Start a Blog?

He writes:

Having said that, the problem is not even you’ll be unsuccessful and waste a bit of time. It’s that you’ll be moderately successful and waste a ton of time. The US median income is $36,000. That’s $28,000 after taxes, which isn’t a horrible opportunity cost… until you compound 10% annual returns less 2% inflation for 50 years, and realize you’re paying $1,300,000 for the privilege of pretending to be a writer.

It’s not though. The very source he cites says it’s closer to $56k/year for full-time workers as of 2020.

The U.S. Census Bureau lists the annual real median earnings at $41,535 in 2020 for all workers with earnings[4] and lists the annual median earnings at $56,287 in 2020 for people who worked full-time, year round

He then gives three examples of popular and favorite writers of his who were ‘losers’, those being Byrne Hobart, Scott Alexander, and Alexey Guzey:

These are three of my favorite writers. And with all due respect, they’re all massive losers. You could argue that Scott at least had a medical degree (even if it was from a 3rd-tier university). But I’m sorry, if your career plans include the phrase “going back to Japan and seeing if my old English teaching job is still available and whether I can just do that for the rest of my life”, something has gone wrong.

These are three of my favorite writers. And with all due respect, they’re all massive losers. You could argue that Scott at least had a medical degree (even if it was from a 3rd-tier university). But I’m sorry, if your career plans include the phrase “going back to Japan and seeing if my old English teaching job is still available and whether I can just do that for the rest of my life”, something has gone wrong.

That’s not really saying much though. Anyone , even Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, can look like a loser if you cherry pick the lowest or worse moments of their lives or their individual failures. It’s like Bill Gates was famously arrested for a DUI…what a loser.

The first is something to do with growth mindset. Scott, Byrne and Alexey were losers, but then they became smart, capable and hardworking. If true, this implies that you can do great things with your life, no matter how it seems to be doing at the moment.

I think being smart makes it easier pull oneself up from adversity. But also, smarter people are more likely to stay successful and wealthy once they attain success. Less intelligent people tend to have more volatile or fleeting wealth. Tech wealth tends to be much more permanent than other types of wealth, like ‘home flipping’. On Reddit or Hacker News, when smart people get rich they tend to stay rich, such as with tech jobs and or stock investments, whereas it’s not uncommon on Reddit to read stories of average or low-IQ people who made money in construction or real estate speculation, only to lose it all when the market crashed or due to bad business decisions, and they never recovered.

This sounds nice, but it strikes me as implausible. Sure, you can get better at math and learn new skills, but I don’t think you can just “growth mindset” your way from a community college dropout to world-class writer and financial analyst.

I am skeptical of the growth mindset too, and the plasticity of intelligence. It’s not possible for someone to become smart later in life. IQ is innate and generally considered to be stable throughout life, after around the age of 7 or so. Sure, someone can possibly acquire wisdom through experience, but this is not the same as being smarter. Intelligence is not something that one aspires to; you either have it or you do not.

Finally, you might argue that only losers become bloggers, because everyone else is busy working actual jobs and making money. So Scott Alexander looks like a genius, but he’s really just the lord of the flies, or the one-eyed man leading the blind, or whatever your favorite ableist/speciest metaphor is for a winner who’s actually a loser.

Scott is a legit genius, and I think that helped greatly. His setbacks do not detract from this. I believe you have to be extremely smart and talented to succeed at writing, probably even more so than STEM, because even people who we can reasonably assume are smart–scientists, tech CEOs, public figures, etc.–very often do not write their own books or articles, not because they don’t have the time, but because it’s so hard to write well. For this reason the ghostwriting industry is huge. Elon Musk and Peter Thiel had their books ghostwritten or co-written. Same for Richard Feynman. Also, verbal ability is as ‘g loaded’ as quantitative/math ability, and top scores on the verbal section of the ‘old’ SATs (and the GRE) are more uncommon than top math scores (recent revisions to the SATs generally involved making the verbal section easier, not the math section easier), so it’s not unreasonable to assume that successful writers may be as smart, if not smarter, than top ‘STEM people’.

Writing entails taking some inchoate thought or feeling and articulating it into written form, which requires accuracy and preciseness to minimize confusion or disconnect between the intent of the author and how the reader interprets it. But also, the writer has to convey his or her message in a way that reader will, ideally, enjoy or at least be compelled to read the entire work. This is a lot to ask for. Unlike screen writing , in which there are actors and props, the only resource at your disposal are the words.

I know successful people in STEM fields, but know no one who is that good at writing or makes a living at it. If I expanded my social circle by a factor of 10 I still don’t think I would know anyone who does, to get an idea of the difficulty and rarity of the skill involved. STEM, with its dispassionate rigor, is supposed to be harder than the subjective liberal arts. But if writing were so much easier, all of these scientists and businesspeople would not need ghostwriters; they would do it themselves. Dr. Peterson is on to something when he says that good communication skills, particularly written communication, is invaluable for being an effective person at anything in life.

The harsh reality is that losers (as in people who have middling or average IQs) seldom become winners at life unless there is an generous helping of luck and or outside help/connections. They cannot succeed on intellectual qualifications alone. Examples include the popular podcast Breaking Points, hosted by Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti, neither of whom are that smart and just parrot stale populist talking points, but succeeded because of connections. Or Zeynep Tufekci, whose success can only be chalked up to non-meritocratic factors. Or Gary Vaynerchuk, who inherited his family’s wine business, and then was early and benefited from connections. Nassim Taleb benefited from extensive media coverage and connections. Same for Malcolm Gladwell. Other examples in business include Derek Sivers and Seth Godin. If someone seems way too successful despite otherwise being manifestly mediocre in ability or skill, likely they benefited from some combination of favoritism, timing, and or outreach/connections.

The talk radio industry is full of boomers and gen-x appropriating content created by smarter gen-z. A common pattern is rehashing populist themes, which you see on both sides of the aisle, whether it’s Breaking Points or Hannity. That’s why everyone on talk radio is talking about ‘Cultural Marxism’ and ‘CRT’ as if they are clueing in their listeners to some sort of new concept, long after those terms gained cultural currency online. The smart tend to be more skeptical of populist themes or are more original.

Breaking Points can keep repeating the same populist talking points and retain a large audience, but if someone was try to copy its populist formula elsewhere, like on Reddit or on Substack, without already having connections and good timing, it would fall flat. They would get tons of pushback, and their populist talking points, which seem so self-evident and correct in podcast form when the conversation is one-way, would be taken apart bit by bit by astute commenters. The podcast format, along with TV and talk radio, does a great job of insulating mediocre people from the criticism they would get outside of those platforms. Thus, when seeing the success of a podcast like Breaking Points, one may be under the mistaken assumption that the opinions espoused are correct or good, when they are not. Good opinions do not have to be shielded from the marketplace of criticism. The reason why Breaking Points is successful is because it benefited from connections and timing, which was enough to counteract the intellectual mediocrity of its hosts and content. But luck is not a reproducible formula. For podcasts or Substacks to go viral without luck or connections, requires intellectual merit.[0]

On the opposite side of the spectrum are people who succeeded through raw intellect, with minimal help from connections or fortuitous timing, some examples being Freddie deBoer, Curtis Yarvin aka Moldbug, Richard Hanania, Scott Alexander, Matthew Yglesias, Tim Urban (Wait But Why), and Zvi Mowshowitz. Smart people benefit more from a meritocratic system of success, whereas less intelligent people benefit from a lottery-like system (or having to ‘pay one’s dues’). Silicon Valley tech jobs are more meritocratic, whereas on the other extreme is the fashion industry, which is much more like a lottery. Same for the podcasting industry, in which success is very much dependent on connections (which is why all the top podcasters interview the same guests and each other) and timing.

But being smart helps even for fields that are a lottery. An example is Lex Friedman, who leveraged his MIT credentials into one of the fastest growing and successful podcasts ever, and he gets all the top guests like Elon Musk. Same for genius physicist Eric Weinstein, who also had an instantly successful but short-lived podcast, The Portal. Another example of instant success is the YouTube channel “TechLead Show” which was created on May 16, 2020 by a former Google and Facebook employee, in which he shares life tips and news commentary. So in just a year he achieved more success than even industry veterans. ‘10,000 hours’ eat your heart out. He had no connections or ‘plugs’, but being so smart (he even makes videos in which he openly brags about how smart he is) is like a magnet for attracting viewers. It helps too that a lot of his commentary is incisive as it is controversial in nature. Forget buying ads or doing product reviews in the hope of getting a mention, maybe buy some math books or coding books and make videos about that, and…boom…overnight viral success.

In regard to newsletters/blogs, Lyn Alden also had similar instant-success trajectory, by writing huge, data-laden blog posts about complicated macro econ stuff, and by having the necessary STEM credentials that convey that invaluable credibility necessary to building a large audience quickly. [I believe she has an engineering degree, and it’s evident she is quite smart, although I disagree with some of her analysis like about gold and Bitcoin.]

In summary, being smart is like skipping to the front of the line in terms of success at probably almost everything. This runs counter to our notion of fairness, because the assumption is you’re supposed to ‘pay your dues,’ and by doing so, ‘build a network,’ and then finally get ‘chosen’, but that is what the empirical evidence bears out based on the examples I have given (and there are many more, but to list them all would take too much space and time). Compare Lex Freidman, who went from nothing to being at the top of the podcasting game almost instantly, to Joe Rogan, who is not as smart, and for him it took much longer to rise to the top–at least 20 years by parlaying his TV and standup comedy connections.

If someone tried to replicate Mr. Rogan’s formula without paying dues or having those invaluable connections, it would not work.

[0] I call this the populist paradox. If populist talking points are popular among a lot of people, like Tucker Carlson’s show, how come they are not necessarily viral? It’s explained in detail here. The idea is, is that for content to be viral it must be accepted among people who have large audiences, which is not the same as something being popular. Christianity is popular worldwide, but it’s not viral. Because of the correlation between IQ and social status, it means that for content to go viral requires that it be popular among high IQ influencers, who tend to have large audiences. So Hannity and Tucker are very successful talk show hosts, and their populist opinions are popular among many people, but their content will never go viral. They became successful because of branding, connections, timing, and marketing, such as being backed by Fox, not viralness.