The IQ cliff and the lottery of success: Substack vs. YouTube

One thing that stands out, to me at least, when listening to podcasts or popular YouTube channels, whether it’s Jocko, Rogan, Breaking Points, etc. is that the hosts are not particularly smart. They are competent perhaps at their professions, yes, but not that smart. I have observed this for almost all niches (e.g., business, finance, self-help, politics, cryptocurrency, etc). There are some exceptions, perhaps anything STEM-related, but it would seem, overall, that podcasts and YouTube are a definite step down IQ-wise from Substack writers.

It’s like how are these people so successful if they are not that smart, well-read, or original? There are two possible answers. The most obvious one is that these are niches that appeal to large audiences, so it’s not like exceptional intelligence is required or necessarily an asset. You don’t have to be that smart to give generic business advice or to tell people to ‘stop being lazy’.

But the huge, seemingly-overnight success of the Lex Fridman podcast and YouTube channel shows, to the contrary, that high intelligence can be an asset. By leveraging his MIT credentials Mr. Fridman was able convey the necessary and invaluable intellectual credibility to get interesting guests in fields as diverse as AI, physics, and computer science, which helped his channel go viral.

The second possibility is that individuals of average or only slightly above-average intelligence aspire to lottery-like systems of success, such as podcasts, the fashion industry, the entertainment industry, or YouTube. They are not going to be landing lucrative 6-figure white collar jobs right out of college, so either their career options are limited to low-paying jobs or entrepreneurial endeavors, like podcasting or YouTube, which offers a small possibility of striking it big and is more fun than low-skilled work. So in invoking survivorship bias, we only see the successful podcasters and YouTubers who ‘won’ despite not being that smart.

The only way for average-IQ people to succeed at the podcasting or YouTube game is with a generous serving of connections and or luck, not merit, which is why the top podcasters tend to interview each other or the same guests. This also explains how Lex Friedman was so successful so quickly, because being smart gave him a huge head start even without much networking or self-promotion on his part. Same for those hugely popular math and physics channels I am constantly seeing on my recommendations (the videos have easily between 100k-1 million views, so it’s not like I am the only one being recommended them).

But Substack is not like that. How come? Because creative writing is highly ‘g-loaded’, which means that writing ability, or more broadly, verbal ability, is highly corrected with generalized intelligence. It takes a lot of mental horsepower to succeed at it. Even though writing is often framed as being diametrically opposed to math, the latter which is perceived as being more rigorous or objective, quantitative and verbal ability are are both roughly equally g-loaded. This becomes evident when browsing forums which are not selected for intelligence, such as medical forums (because it’s not like only intelligent or unintelligent people get sick), and there is considerable variability in writing ability.

So the ability to write intelligible, cogent sentences probably confers slightly above average IQ, and producing competent but also engaging writing is probably a step above that. Indeed, if you read the bios of top Substack writers, it’s evident they are all in the 90th percentile or above in intelligence, assuming we use educational attainment as a proxy for IQ. A survey by Richard Hanania of his readership would seem to confirm this. Only 1-2% of the general US population has a doctorate compared to 18% of Mr. Hanania’s readers, and 90% of his readers have at least a 4-year degree.

Because the Substack audience is considerably smaller and focused/targeted (probably no more than a hundred thousand total readers) than the total YouTube or total podcasting audience size (in the hundreds of millions), luck and connections plays less of role compared to raw intellectual merit. YouTube is big enough that someone can ‘blow up’ by luck alone. From 2016-2018 as Bitcoin surged from $1,000 to $20,000, almost anyone regardless of intelligence could start a popular YouTube cryptocurrency channel and make money, but four years later the market is considerably more saturated, hence the need for connections and a much bigger role of luck. Same for the success of big channels like Mr. Beast, who succeeded when there was considerably less competition on YouTube a decade ago compared to today despite not being that smart.

So which is better? Obviously the top YouTubers and podcasters earn far more than the top Substack writers ($100+ million for Rogan alone, and probably tens of millions of dollars for PewDiePie and others). But the median for YouTube and podcasting is likely lower given how saturated those mediums have become. (How many more self-improvement podcasts does the world need?) Content goes viral on Substack differently compared to YouTube. Whereas YouTube requires luck and or connections, popular Substack authors such as Richard Hanania, Freddie deBoer, Rob Henderson, and Erik Hoel had little to no outside connections and succeeded through intellectual merit alone. Quality intellectual content needs minimal promotion, connections, or luck compared to more mainstream stuff like podcasts or YouTube; the adage “if you build it (or write it), they will come” really does ring true here.

There are some exceptions, such as authors who were already famous before moving to Substack, enticed by the large contracts offered by Substack at the time. A notable example being Zeynep Tufekci, who was heavily promoted by the New York Times and other mainstream media before moving to Substack, and whose blog titled “Insight” is false advertising in and of itself. But overall, at least from my own experience, there is an enormous IQ drop-off of YouTube compared to Substack, and this is highly correlated with greater intellectual merit of the latter.