Yes, you too, reader, should believe you may be world-class

[Something I’ve struggled with in my adult life is truly internalizing that I’m exceptionally great at certain niche things and acting on this belief—not just best in my fifth-grade class great, or best in my summer camp great, but actually one of the best in a specific category of traits/skills/interests. This post is mostly written as a self-affirmation, but I think it is useful for many others as well, looking for a little more encouragement that they too are world-class.]

In our society, recognition often goes to those who conform to established standards, competitions, and legible career paths. If you’re smart, you should have gone to Harvard or worked at Google or McKinsey. The view by many is, if you don’t have some prestigious credential and you’re just some person with a no-status job in your 30s, well, you probably aren’t a superstar.

There are so many people out there, including potentially you, reading this, who are already superstars or world-class in some specific domain or could be shortly if they get on the right path, waiting for the right life opportunity to bring them full recognition.

To cite AppliedDivinityStudies:

“Here are some biographical notes of popular authors you might actually care about:

Byrne Hobart had “astonishingly bad” grades in high school, attended Arizona State University (ranked #103 in the US). Then he dropped out to move to Brooklyn and live off rice and beans in a “former crack den.”

Scott Alexander: Attended University College Cork School of Medicine in Ireland (ranked #151-200 globally for Medicine), was unable to get a residency. Once wrote that all math “slip[s] out of my mental grasp.” Spent 13+ years playing a nerdier and (more) made-up version of Dungeons and Dragons, and clearly not in a casual way, but in a “we’ve only had one person totally lose touch with reality” kind of way.

Alexey Guzey: Failed high school entrance exams, was afraid of girls, was very depressed and addicted to video games, and didn’t have any friends.

These are three of my favorite writers. And with all due respect, they’re all massive losers.”

For many skill sets, there’s a predefined path to excellence and a legible measure of success in society’s view. If your particular kind of smarts is being really great at writing the SAT, then great, there’s a good chance you can be recognized. If you have one of the 1000x other types of brilliance that isn’t recognized by the SATs, your road will be much harder.

I’ve been lucky to meet lots of incredibly successful people, including many who went to Harvard, worked at Google or McKinsey, or similar high-status equivalents. One of the very noticeable trends for these uber high-achievers is growing up in a wealthy, supportive environment (nearly always in the USA); being very conscientious and conformist; having very strong writing abilities; and hitting their stride early in life—or, very noticeably, getting incredibly lucky or set up with one early stage in their career, and having nearly everything flow from that.

Now, imagine if you grew up in an environment like the above, or where the exact thing you were best at, enjoyed the most, and excelled in was specifically recognized by society and offered many opportunities to pursue—it’s easier to see yourself being recognized as a superstar in this scenario.

Being a superstar means excelling in a particular niche, not in everything, and not necessarily in adjacent areas that are more easily recognized and assessed. Often, to be world-class does not require you to be exceptional at any one discrete thing, but rather to be very good at several different things, or have knowledge in multiple fields, that together synergize to make you world-class in one particular niche. This means that merely having a strong interest or skill set in an eclectic mix of fields will likely lead to you being world-class at some nexus of these areas. Given the number of contingencies involved here, it would be impossible for society to recognize your world-class ability in this thing until all of these things line up and create an opportunity for this particular thing to shine and be relevant.

I’m always daydreaming of becoming a more popular blogger, so I’ll share my own experience of dealing with the personal challenge of thinking my content is worth sharing but not having an existing audience to share it with. Sure, I can post my writing to Hacker News, LessWrong, Slate Star Codex Reddit, etc., to try and find an audience, but this is riddled with challenges that leave me feeling demotivated.

There’s a Hacker News poster named Jger15, an infovore with great taste, who posts his favourite articles he reads on Hacker News—and to be clear, these articles are all typically fantastic, often much better than what I could write, which have already been curated as articles Jger15 loves (and presumably, he thinks will do well on Hacker News), and nearly all of these links go by unnoticed, without few upvotes or comments. Even for the links that do well, you can often find the same articles posted at different times, with widely varying levels of success.

I really enjoy the writing of Henrik Karlsson, who now has an extremely enthusiastic and loyal following at Escaping Flatland, but before this, he would post to places like Slate Star Codex Reddit  and LessWrong, and while some posts did well, many didn’t get a great reception, including lots of disagreeable comments.

There is a specific type of content and writer the readers of LW, HN, SSC Reddit want to read. And if you are that exact match, then great, you have a chance of making it with this audience. But if you are not that exact match, and you actually appeal to a slightly different audience, no matter how wonderful your writing is, the readers of HN, LW, or whatever aren’t going to be so enamoured with what you share.

The challenge is, when there are only a few possible paths to getting recognized/success, when you don’t conform to the criteria of these audiences, it’s easy to conflate being unremarkable with merely not reaching the right people.

As I discussed in my article on beauty, subjective perception is highly variable. Nearly everyone is perceived to be incredibly beautiful by some—it’s just that for conventionally attractive people, it may be 600/1000 people at an event, whereas for someone less conventional, it may be just 1/1000 of the people at the event. Most of being identified as a superstar (or in this case, a wonderful writer) is having broad enough exposure and/or luck to find the audience who most appreciates your skill set, which typically won’t come organically.

One of the challenges with this is that to become world-class, you typically need to commit to putting in the work for years and continue to pursue excellence. Positive feedback is crucial for motivation, as is getting external support/mentoring/training, which is more likely to happen when you feel comfortable putting yourself out there and have more potential people to provide you with support and opportunities. If you already have a following or are recognized, it’s easy to keep pushing through. If you don’t have a following, it’s so tempting to give up rather than continue dredging away.


This post was specifically prompted by Tyler Cowen’s comment on April 15, 2024: “I had not known that in the early 16th century Iran was still predominantly Sunni.”

Tyler has been to Azerbaijan (the source of Iran becoming Shiite), read (and browsed) books like “Revolutionary Iran” and “Iran: A Modern History”, and is generally a very well-read, traveled, and knowledgeable person. As someone who also travels to these parts of the world and is interested in history, religion, and culture, it is incomprehensible to me that he did not know this. The reality is, I respect Tyler so much and think of him as being so incredibly talented that I didn’t believe I could actually be better than him at some of these things. My experience traveling to 75+ countries, reading extensively on these topics, and my endless curiosity and passion for it make me world-class in my knowledge and ability to understand some of these areas.

Separate from this but also worth sharing, the smartest person I’ve ever met couldn’t make it in academia and immigrated (an American Jew) to Turkey, working as a private tutor there. Aside from writing some of the greatest Reddit comments of all time, I’m pretty sure nobody around him even grasps, within a few orders of magnitude, his brilliance. The most impressive human I’ve ever known, who, if you heard about her random life feats, would make your jaw drop to the floor, while a successful professional in a very selective industry, has no meaningful recognition from the world, her field, or anyone in her life (sadly, including herself). There are a lot of superstars out there, without anyone to realize how special they are.