On Intentionally Vague, Mystique-Infused Explanations of Talent

“Exactly what he does, and how, is difficult to describe,” Anderson Cooper says about music producer Rick Rubin on 60 Minutes.

Cut to interview between Cooper and Rubin.

“Do you play instruments?” Cooper asks.

“Barely,” Rubin replies.

“Do you know how to work a sound board?”

“No,” Rubin replies, “I have no technical ability. And I know nothing about music.”

“Well, you must know something,” Cooper says.”

“I know what I like and what I don’t like. I’m decisive about what I like and what I don’t like,” Rubin says.

“So what are you being paid for?”

“The confidence I have in my taste and my ability to express what I feel,” Rubin says.

It’s a fascinating exchange. And with the gentle music in the background, a scene that cuts to an image of Rubin meditating, and the long beard — you definitely get “genius” vibes.

We’re drawn toward hard-to-pin-down explanations of the attributes of successful people: the “taste” in a musical producer, a VC’s “good nose for founders,” an athlete’s “it factor.”

There’s a real and accurate phenomenon here. For example, it’s not totally quantifiable or describable the difference between elite supermodels and regular models — it has something to do with bodily harmony and symmetry of features. There’s an “it” factor, and sometimes it’s the only way to explain what sets apart a super elite person from a merely good person.

On the other hand, I believe there’s a tendency for experts in a field to sometimes try to describe what they do in intentionally vague, imprecise, omnipotent terms. I mean, who doesn’t want to seem God-like?

Ditto the writers who profile experts: they play up mystique versus straightforwardly describe a set of practical decisions, tactics, moments of luck that the subject of their profile embarked upon. There’s something gripping (by which I mean, click-baity) about the doings of an extraterrestrial genius. It also makes the reader feel less bad about themselves. “He was born that way.”

The Rubin framing takes it even further by undercutting the typical explanations before putting forth the mystical one: One of the most successful musical producers of our time doesn’t know anything about music, has no technical ability, he just…”knows what he likes.”

There may also be practical reasons for experts to talk about their journeys this way. For example, it’s a decent way of deterring competition — to suggest the reasons for your success are unreplicable. In the investing business, when venture investors ascribe their talent at picking companies to “I look for amazing founders and I have good taste” — they aren’t leaving any bread crumbs along the road for their competitors!

So, if afforded the choice between offering a description of their process that feels concrete, learnable, repeatable, at times banal…versus a description that teems with mystique — there’s a pull towards the latter.

And in my opinion, it’s not always true. Perhaps not even often true among the world class performers in our midst, whose development of expertise and deployment of their craft is more understandable than it may appear.

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