Success? By What Standard?

Monday, February 18, 2013

Venture capitalist Chris Dixon provides us with a pretty dramatic example of the difference between setting one's own goals and falling into the default of living according to the conventional wisdom:

Years later, after Peter [Thiel] built and sold PayPal, he reconnected with an old friend from [Stanford Law School]. The first thing the friend said was, "So, aren't you glad you didn't get that Supreme Court clerkship?" It was a funny question. At the time, it seemed much better to be chosen than not chosen. But there are many reasons to doubt whether winning that last competition would have been so good after all. Probably it would have meant a future of more insane competition. And no PayPal. The pithy, wry version of this is the line about Rhodes Scholars: they all had a great future in their past.
Dixon adds, "Credentials can open doors. But don't let them become an end in themselves." Just as predictive models can fail for completely unanticipated reasons, so can success in uncharted territory arise from what almost everyone might regard as disaster.

-- CAV


Anonymous said...

HI Gus,

I've often wondered if one of the reasons for our present decline is the attempt to substitute credentials for competence.

I'm not saying that credentials are bad but rather that they don't seem to reflect competence or ability. In other words, they're not necessarily good proxies for those other attributes.

We had the worldwide hq of a major engineering firm in our town and one of the VP's actually lived on his ranch off of our back fence.

He started out as one of the 'wheelbarrow' boys and his last stint before they put him into the VP suite was bossing the Cape Canaveral project building the infrastructure for Apollo.

He only had formal education through the 8th grade.

One of the stories that I'd heard about him was that he was talking to a cat operator on the Canaveral project, telling him what was needed for a particular area. The cat op told him "that can't be done." Old Al told him to "get your ass out of that seat and I'll show you how it's done." Which he then did.

I applied for an internship there - assisting in computer modeling for a hydrology project - and one of the old guys was still there. What they were trying to do was get a computer system to model what this guy did with his own brain. I didn't get the internship but I did run into the sponsor a few years later. I asked him how they were doing and he said he wished John hadn't retired. Because he got it right about 90% of the time and the new models and computer types and mbas couldn't seem to break the 50% mark. But they all had college degrees.

The company later went down the tubes because the Board hired a guy who had led two previous companies INTO bankruptcy. I've never figured out why you'd ever hire a guy with that kind of record, but it does seem chronic in Corporate America. That CEO got a massive benefits package and it took two more acquisitions and bankruptcies to strip his Golden Parachute. He was such an incompetent that a friend of mine quipped that he "coulda bankrupted the company for half the price and taken twice as long to do it!"

c. andrew

Gus Van Horn said...


Love that quip!

Your story highlights the other side of the coin of credentialism: Not only can going after credentials artificially limit an individual's aspirations, but attempting to use them as a proxy for competence can artificially limit the talent pool of job candidates.