Celebrity as Parable

By on

(Reaction to this blog post, which got some time on Hacker News a while back.)

Occasionally, our habit of fixating on celebrity leaves tech hopefuls feeling lost. It can be hard to watch other men and women attain riches while thinking, “I, too, have similar skills; what did I do wrong?”

You might have similar skills, but rocks rolling down from the top of a mountain end up in very different places depending on the bumps they hit on the way down. Just because you’re similarly shaped doesn’t mean you’ll end up with the same outcome.

I’m not claiming that there is nothing special about Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, just that these men are not singularly gifted. Each of our lives unfolds as collaboration between ourselves and those around us. If we’re to believe Gladwell’s message in Outliers, the mountain has as much, if not more, impact on trajectory as the shape of the rock.

When celebrating the Houstons and Zuckerbergs of the world, we should congratulate the achievements of the person, yes. But for our own purposes of self-growth, it is probably more healthy to think of them as parables, not people. Regardless of how you feel about the truth of Gladwell’s thesis, these CEOs represent 0.01% of the outcome space for starting a company. As such they’re all so far away from the mean that it is emotionally unhealthy and probably counterproductive to use them as personal role models anyway.

Instead, let them be archetypes. You can use Drew as the character through which to tell the story “scratch your own itch” or “symmetric sharing incentives.” You can use Bill to tell any number of stories, like: “license and become platform.” And so on.

Distill the essence of what they did well and let that–not their success–be your guide. It’s a bit similar to the idea of Chengyu (成語) in Chinese: short idioms that serve as poetic allusions to some situation. Sometimes these idioms call out a historical figure by name, like saying “Custer’s Last Stand” to describe a situation in [American] English.

Just for fun, here are three. I’m not a native speaker, so forgive me (and email me) if I’m mischaracterizing:

  • Yu Passed by his House Three Times without Entering (大禹三過家門而不入) Refers to Yu the Great, who designed and built a system of irrigation canals that tamed the floods which had been plaguing the Chinese people. He was so dedicated to this task that he didn’t return home to his wife for thirteen years until it was complete, despite passing by the very doors of his house three times during that period. Today the saying refers to someone wholly dedicated their country or work.

  • The old man lost his horse (塞翁失馬) refers to a story about an old man who once lived lived near a place called Xiongnu. When things happened to him–good or bad–he demonstrated wisdom by refraining from snap judgement, knowing that things that appear good or bad in the short term can often turn out to be the opposite in the long term. (Side note: what a great parable to include in a CS class on Greedy Algorithms!)

  • Dongshi Imitated a Frown (东施效颦) is like saying “cargo cult”, except with the additional meaning that the cargo cult imitation creates a bad (instead of merely neutral) outcome. Dong Shi was a woman who feigned chest pains, jealous of her beautiful friend who got lots of attention when she fell sick. But instead of getting more attention, Dongshi’s feigned illness scared people away.

Anyway, the point is, don’t fixate on celebrity. Everyone has the capacity to touch lives and do great work, and some people end up getting famous. By all means try for fame and glory, if that’s what you want, but it’s probably best if you use celebrities as parable, not role model, along the way.