The “It” Quality

In the business world investors are looking for TheGuy, according to Randall Stross:

The guy. No special emphasis on either the or guy, but no intervening pause, either. TheGuy. That’s the person needed to head a start-up once it has grown beyond a seed. To wit, a stud, ideally, a big honkin’ stud or a total fuckin’ stud. He (or yes, she) will not lack for balls, at least in one sense, but in another will work his nuts off, or his ass off. A high-hustle guy. A total can-do guy. A winner. Smart. Someone with integrity off the charts. Scrappy. A kick-ass dude, a nail-eatin’, nut-crushin’ decision maker, a competitor with killer instincts. Someone who attracts and hires A’s, unafraid to hire above himself. A player. A hitter.

You can abbreviate it: They’re looking for an entrepreneur who has “it.”

When businesspeople don’t have “it,” you can tell. From the Vanity Fair profile of Arthur Sulzberger:

Here, in a nutshell, in the words of a veteran Times staffer, is what is supposedly wrong with Arthur: “He has no rays”—rays, as in the lines cartoonists draw around a character to suggest radiance, or power. In the comics trade these lines are called “emanata.” The emanata deficit is a standard insider lament about Arthur, although most Times people need a few more words to make the point.

“It” means more than “very smart.” Besides suffering from word inflation, “smart” doesn’t capture energy, zest for life, incredible get-shit-done capabilities, and general radiance that seem to accompany these people. It’s the total package.

In the sports world, elite athletes who always take care of business often earn the “it” label. I once watched a football game and heard the announcers say the quarterback has “it.” They went on to say, He is a baller, He is a player, He is a competitor, He is hyper talented. But none of these things seemed sufficient. At a loss, they said again, “He just has ‘it.'”

Finally, the “it” quality lives large in the world of beauty. Supermodels seem just normally beautiful at first. Why do the cameras never tire of them, then? Supermodel beauty involves, among other things, “uncanny symmetry and harmony to their features so that once you start looking at them it becomes difficult to stop.” It’s regular high ranking beauty plus this other harder-to-describe stuff (“harmony to their features”?) that make it work.

You know it when you see it.

10 Responses to The “It” Quality

  1. Nathan says:

    Could it be that this “it” is a confusion?

    Eliezer Yudkowski seems to argue against the “it” (he calls it the “aura of destiny”) here: link to lesswrong.com

    Here’s the key passage:

    The problem is not that you need an aura of destiny and the aura of destiny is missing. If you’d met Albert [Einstein] before he published his papers, you would have perceived no aura of destiny about him to match his future high status. He would seem like just another Jewish genius.

    This is not because the royal birthright is concealed, but because it simply is not there. It is not necessary. There is no separate magisterium for people who do important things.

  2. Chris Yeh says:

    As a fellow who has been told on a number of occasions that he has “it,” I have to agree with Nathan.

    “It” is certainly a useful quality to have, but it’s not clear to me that it always leads to success.

    In my career, I’ve known a number of people who had “it.” Some went on to great success. Others failed to live up to those great expectations. And the people I know who achieved the greatest financial success were not folks whom I would have characterized as having “it.”

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    I’m not sure “it” means predestined success….

  4. Krishna says:

    “IT” as a contextual, visionary trait could work better in fields like modeling where it’s all about just looks and body metrics. But as a likely CEO for a startup in a scaling mode, the probe has to be deeper. That’s exactly when the stakes are higher, bets get the riskiest and one wrong decision to deploy all cash will make or mar the enterprise. In those times it’s better to look for battle-hardened, soaked-in-wisdom experimentalist than the ray-fanged seemingly IT guy.

  5. I love this post, and it certainly describes something valid, powerful, and socially real, but I should also point out that after watching “it” people for a few decades, many of them also end up divorced, alcoholic, estranged from their kids, drug problems (particularly cocaine, the “it”-person’s drug, for boosting those emanata), and so on. Yes, it gets you more sex and money, at first. But time levels the playing field.

  6. I see in the The Lexicon of Comicana article at Wikipedia that American cartoonist Mort Walker invented the international set of symbols called Symbolia, which include such delightful terms as agitrons, blurgits, and the ever-useful grawlixes, which stand for profanities.

    Excuse me for playing the pedantic schoolmarm, but it seems that emanata are properly defined as lines drawn around the head to indicate shock or surprise.

    I think the word we want is “solrads”, which Walker defines as radiating lines drawn from something luminous like a lightbulb or the sun.

    I’m interested in the correlation between male physical beauty in the sports world and this subjective “it” quality.

    You see it in the the pretty boy quarterback, the magnetic soccer star, and most especially, at least in my biased observation, in the ungodly number of surfing champions with movie-star looks.

    Of course the possession of “uncanny symmetry and harmony to their features” we can ascribe to genetic inheritance, but you have to wonder about the balance of nature and nurture in the development of this nebulous “it” quality.

    We know social advantages accrue to the lucky possessor of physical beauty. Does this genetic superiority predispose the handsome man to brilliance on the playing field as well?

    Just what is it that makes that son of a bitch Kelly Slater so goddamned good-looking and so rad?;-)

  7. Charlie says:

    How about a look at some of the most famously successful tech entrepreneurs and whether the ten-second first impression would say that they had “it”:

    Bill Gates – No
    Steve Jobs – Yes
    Larry Page and Sergey Brin – No
    Mark Zuckerberg – No

    Am I operating under the right definition of “it” here?

  8. Gioiam says:

    Hey Ben,

    Check out this article on the front page of ESPN today. Kind of long but talks about “it”

    link to sports.espn.go.com

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    Thanks for the pointer!

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