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Competence shows

Our schooling system might have many flaws but, at least in my experience, is quite meritocratic. Get the answers right, and you’ll pass the exam. Try to bullshit your way through, and you’ll fail1.

Contrast that with the business world: I am still surprised by the sheer amount of successful2 charlatans out there. You know the kind of person I’m talking about, right? Fast talker, self-confident, fried air seller.

It used to bother me quite a lot: why can’t people see past the shiny facade? Why don’t charlatans get put in their place more often?

There are at least two ways this thread can unfold.

The first one is they are masters of their own trade. Like any good snake charmer, they can be very effective in hiding the lack of substance in their work. They often come with a prestigious pedigree: we default to think “Wow, this person must be really knowledgeable!”, so we give them an opportunity - which will contribute to their pedigree, in a self-perpetuating circle. And - knockout punch incoming - most of us are more insecure than we like to admit: the prospect of someone steering us is so attractive we fall for it, even if deep down we know it’s all mouth and no trousers.

The second one is it doesn’t really matter: competence shows.

One of the best examples I can think of is Harry Metcalfe. He’s a British journalist who co-founded Evo - an automotive magazine. Through his YouTube channel, Harry’s Garage, he now reviews cars. Around a year ago, I was wasting time on YouTube when the recommender system those smart folks designed suggested me this video. I’m not that much of a car enthusiast, mind you: I buy cars with my wallet, not my heart. But I was hooked, and I have been watching every video he has published ever since.

Cinematography? Average. Editing? Nothing fancy, just a few cuts between him speaking and the car moving. But there’s something about the calmness, competence and quiet enthusiasm of his delivery that gets across the screen. Is it the gem he shares once in a while about one of his Evo experiences? Is it the enthusiasm about restored carpets for one of his classic cars? Is it the time when he casually pulls out a screwdriver to adjust a Rolls-Royce’s choke in the Artic Circle?

I don’t have the answer. I only know he has earned the scarcest commodities I have - my time and attention - with his competence.

If you’re not into cars at all, here’s another example: Chris Anderson, the head of TED. Just watch how this interview with Greg Brockman flows.

And what about the way he conducted it? A few notes, scribbled down on a piece of paper:

  • Emergence
  • Child
  • Guardrails
  • Pandora’s Box
  • OpenAI
  • Advice

Six bullet points were all he needed to interview OpenAI’s CTO without blinking an eye.

Chris Anderson's notes

So here’s my - in retrospect obvious - conclusion:

Don’t worry about charlatans: just aim to be the Harry or Chris within your field. Results will speak for themselves.

  1. Like in everything, there are exceptions. I’m talking about the general tendency.
  2. I’m talking about career and financial success - and I agree this is a very limited definition of success.

Published Aug 27, 2023

Mechatronics Engineer, machine learning enthusiast, busy building Compiuta.