Wild Minds

The following is an excerpt from my new book, Same As Ever, which comes out November 7th. You can order it here.

Eliud Kipchoge, the world’s best marathon runner, was being held in a staging room during the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He and two other runners – Bashir Abdi from Belgium and Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands – were waiting to receive their Olympic medals after the marathon race, which Kipchoge won for his second time.

Logistics of the awards ceremony meant the runners would have to wait for several hours in a cramped, dull, room with nothing to do but sit. Abdi and Negeeey later explained that they did what anyone else would do – they pulled out their cellphones, found a Wi-Fi network, and aimlessly scrolled social media.

Kipchoge didn’t.

Abdi and Negeeey said he just sat there, staring at the wall, in perfect silence and contentment.

For hours.

“He is not human,” Abdi joked.

He is not human.

He doesn’t think, act, or behave like an ordinary person.

Some variation of that phrase can be used on most of your role models. You like them because they do things other people would never consider, or can’t even comprehend.

Some of those traits are awesome and you should look up to them, maybe even try to emulate.

Others aren’t. Many aren’t.

Something that’s built into the human condition is that people who think about the world in unique ways you like almost certainly also think about the world in unique ways you won’t like.

It’s so easy to overlook, and it causes us to have poor judgment about who we should look up to and what we should expect out of very successful people.

The key thing is that unique minds have to be accepted as a full package, because the things they do well and that we admire cannot be separated from the things we wouldn’t want for ourselves or look down upon.

Let me tell you a quick story about a fighter pilot who everyone needed but no one could stand.

John Boyd was probably the greatest fighter pilot to ever live.

He revolutionized his field more than anyone before or since. A manual he wrote, Aerial Attack Study, incorporated as much math into the science of fighting maneuvers as engineers used in building the planes.

His insights were simple but powerful. In one, Boyd realized a tactical advantage was not how fast or high a plane could fly, but how quickly it could change course and begin climbing – a discovery that changed not only how pilots thought, but how planes were built. He was as close to a flying savant as they come. Boyd’s manual, written in his 20s, became the official tactics guide of fighter pilots. It’s still used today.

Boyd is known as one of the most influential thinkers in military history. He’s also described, as the New York Times once wrote, as “A virtual nonperson … even in the Air Force.”

That’s because as smart as Boyd was, he was a maniac.

He was rude. Erratic. Disobedient. Impatient. He screamed at his superiors to the astonishment of peers, and was once nearly court-martialed for setting ablaze hangars that didn’t have proper heating. In meetings he would chew calluses off his hands and spit the dead skin across the table.

The Air Force loved, and needed, Boyd’s insights. But they couldn’t stand Boyd, the man.

Boyd’s defining trait was that he thought about flying planes through a totally different lens than other pilots. Like he was using a different part of his brain, and playing a different game than everyone else.

That same personality made him naturally indifferent to established customs. So his superiors would, in the same performance report, rave of his contributions but then attempt to block his promotions.

One review said, “This brilliant young officer is an original thinker,” but went on, “He is an intense and impatient man who does not respond well to close supervision. He is extremely intolerant of those who attempt to impede his program.” While Boyd was writing the definitive book on fighter maneuvers, two Colonels denied his promotion.

Boyd was eventually promoted. He was too talented to not be. But throughout his career, no one knew what to do with him. He pissed off a lot of people. He was unique in every way – good, bad, awful, and occasionally illegal.

John Maynard Keynes once purchased a trove of Issac Newton’s original papers at auction.

Many had never been seen before, having been stashed away at Cambridge for centuries.

Newton is probably the smartest human to ever live. But Keynes was astonished to find that much of the work was devoted to alchemy, sorcery, and trying to find a potion for eternal life.

Keynes wrote:

I have glanced through a great quantity of this at least 100,000 words, I should say. It is utterly impossible to deny that it is wholly magical and wholly devoid of scientific value; and also impossible not to admit that Newton devoted years of work to it.

I wonder: Was Newton a genius in spite of being addicted to magic, or was being curious about things that seemed impossible part of what made him so successful?

I think it’s impossible to know. But the idea that crazy geniuses sometimes just look straight up crazy is nearly unavoidable.

There’s a scene in the movie Patton where the actor portraying the legendary World War II general George Patton meets his Russian counterpart after the war. Speaking through an interpreter, the Russian general proposes a toast.

“My compliments to the general,” Patton says, “but please inform him that I do not care to drink with him or any other Russian son of a bitch.”

The interpreter is stunned, and says she can’t relay that message. Patton insists.

The Russian general responds through the interpreter that he thinks Patton is also a son of a bitch.

Patton laughs hysterically, raises his glass, and says, “Now that’s something I can drink to. From one son of a bitch to another!”

That may perfectly sum up how extremely successful people operate. Of course they have abnormal characteristics. That’s why they’re successful! And there is no world in which we should assume that all those abnormal characteristics are positive, polite, endearing, or appealing.

Something I’ve long thought true, and shows up constantly when you look for it, is that people who are abnormally good at one thing tend to be abnormally bad at something else. It’s as if the brain only has capacity for so much knowledge and emotion, and an abnormal skill robs bandwidth from other parts of someone’s personality.

Take Elon Musk.

What kind of 32-year-old thinks they can take on GM, Ford, and NASA at the same time? An utter maniac. The kind of person who thinks normal constraints don’t apply to them – not in an egotistical way, but in a genuine, believe-it-in-your-bones way. Which is also the kind of person who doesn’t worry about, say, Twitter etiquette.

A mindset that can dump a personal fortune into colonizing Mars is not the kind of mindset that worries about the downsides of hyperbole. And the kind of person who proposes making Mars habitable by constantly dropping nuclear bombs in its atmosphere is not the kind of person worried about overstepping the boundaries of reality.

The kind of person who says there’s a 99.9999% chance humanity is a computer simulation is not the kind of person worried about making untenable promises to shareholders.

The kind of person who promises to solve Flint, Michigan’s water problems within days of trying to save a Thai children’s soccer team stuck in a cave, which was within days of rebuilding the Tesla Model 3 assembly line in a tent, is not the kind of person who views his lawyers signing off as a critical step.

People love the visionary genius side of Musk, but want it to come without the side that operates in his distorted I-don’t-care-about-your-customs version of reality. But I don’t think those two things can be separated. They’re the risk-reward trade-offs of the same personality trait.

Same for John Boyd.

Same for Steve Jobs, who was both a genius and a monster of a boss.

Same for Walt Disney, whose ambitions pushed every company he touched to the razor’s edge of bankruptcy.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy once told President John F. Kennedy that trying to go to the moon was a crazy goal. Kennedy responded: “You don’t run for president in your forties unless you have a certain moxie.”

Part of this is realizing that people who are capable of achieving incredible things often take risks that can backfire just as powerfully.

What kind of person makes their way to the top of a successful company, or a big country?

Someone who is determined, optimistic, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and is relentlessly confident in their own abilities.

What kind of person is likely to go overboard, bite off more than they can chew, and discount risks that are blindingly obvious to others?

Someone who is determined, optimistic, doesn’t take “no” for an answer, and is relentlessly confident in their own abilities.

Reversion to the mean is one of the most common stories in history. It’s the main character in economies, markets, countries, companies, careers – everything. Part of the reason it happens is because the same personality traits that push people to the top also increase the odds of pushing them over the edge.

This is true for countries, particularly empires. A country determined to expand by acquiring more land is unlikely to be run by a person capable of saying, “OK, that’s enough. Let’s be thankful for what we have and stop invading other countries.” They’ll keep pushing until they meet their match. Novelist Stefan Zweig says, “History reveals no instances of a conqueror being surfeited by conquests,” meaning no conqueror gets what they wish and then retires.

Perhaps the most important part of this topic is gaining better insight into who we should look up to, particularly who we want to be and who we want to emulate.

Naval once wrote:

The part of the person that we envy doesn’t exist without the rest of that person … One day, I realized with all these people I was jealous of, I couldn’t just choose little aspects of their life. I couldn’t say I want his body, I want her money, I want his personality. You have to be that person. Do you want to actually be that person with all of their reactions, their desires, their family, their happiness level, their outlook on life, their self-image? If you’re not willing to do a wholesale, 24/7, 100 percent swap with who that person is, then there is no point in being jealous.

Either you want someone else’s life or you don’t. Either is equally powerful. Just know which is which when finding role models.

“You gotta challenge all assumptions. If you don’t, what is doctrine on day one becomes dogma forever after,” John Boyd once said.

That’s the kind of philosophy you’ll always be remembered for – for better or worse.