Skip to content

Gays, Jews, and Geniuses

The 21st Century will enable more outcasts and weirdos to flourish. The world needs to get ready.

Dror Poleg
5 min read
Gays, Jews, and Geniuses

🍾 We just welcomed the 500th sign-up to Hype-Free Crypto. The next cohort begins on Tuesday. The next 72 hours are the last chance to sign up before we raise prices. Join us for a hype-free introduction to the technologies and business models that will define the next decade.

🚀 Looking for a Corporate Crypto Course? Give your team a hands-on introduction to Blockchains, Decentralized Finance, and Web3 with our private corporate cohorts. Learn more here.


👴🏻 Are you ready for phased retirement?

The WSJ reports that programs that "allow workers nearing retirement age to cut back on their hours while keeping some pay and benefits" are increasingly popular:

"In a forthcoming survey of 1,736 HR executives world-wide from consultant Mercer LLC, about 38% say they offer phased retirement, more than double the 17.2% that did so before the pandemic.

In the U.S. 23% of employers had these arrangements in 2021, up from 16% in 2016, according to the Society for Human Resources Management. A growing subset—8%, up from 6% in 2019—have introduced formal programs, which generally target older workers who meet certain criteria. Another 15% offer the option on an informal or ad hoc basis, frequently to employees in hard-to-fill roles."

This is part of a bigger shift towards modular work, where specific people are "tapped" for their specific knowledge and skills without the need to employ them full-time.

🧠 Why aren't we producing more Einsteins?

Matt Clancy shared an intriguing new theory by Erik Hoel. At a time when most people have "essentially free access to the entirety of knowledge," humanity has failed to produce a "golden age" and the type of towering geniuses that existed in earlier eras.

I'm not sure we aren't in the middle of a golden age. The fact that most of humanity has free access to the entirety of human knowledge is, in itself, a remarkable achievement, built by multidisciplinary geniuses.

In any case, Hoel brings data to support the premise that we're not producing as many geniuses as we used to. It's a chart made by Holden Karnofksy, showing the decline in the per capita number of notable individuals in arts and sciences:

The number of acclaimed figures in science and art+lit+music, adjusted for Karnofsky's "effective population" estimate

Karnofky's piece on Where's Today's Beethoven? is also worth a read. But back to Hoel. If we accept the premise that we're producing fewer geniuses, we must ask ourselves why?

Hoel's links to various pieces on the topic before providing his own theory: We're not maximizing the potential of the world's most gifted individuals because we're not educating them the right way. In the past, geniuses did not go to school; they were tutored — getting most of their education at home, for a single person (or a small group of people).

Yes, kids these days still have tutors — wealthy kids, in particular. But contemporary tutoring is focused almost exclusively on getting through specific subjects at school, passing specific standardized tests, or getting admitted to specific universities or corporations.

Historically, tutoring was something else entirely:

"Historically, it usually involved a paid adult tutor, who was an expert in the field, spending significant time with a young child or teenager, instructing them but also engaging them in discussions, often in a live-in capacity, fostering both knowledge but also engagement with intellectual subjects and fields. As the name suggests it was something reserved mostly for aristocrats, which means, no way around it, it was deeply inequitable."

And indeed, the greatest geniuses seemed to have been educated in this manner:

"Name a genius and find a tutor: the governesses of John von Neumann taught him languages, and he had other later tutors as well. Even in the cases where the children weren’t entirely homeschooled, up until the latter half of the 20th century aristocratic tutors were a casual and constant supplement to traditional education. Consider the easy nature by which Darwin, at the age of only 16 and already in university, personally hired John Edmonstone, a former slave and black freedman, to give him lessons on taxidermy outside of his classes (lessons later key to his specimen collections on The Beagle)."

To make the most of human potential, we must tutor the best and brightest away from the systems and goals that govern broader society. Is that feasible?

Yes. And that's where the world is headed. During the 20th Century and up until five minutes ago, it was necessary for humanity to channel people into standardized fields based on standardized tests and then force them to spend their time focusing on narrow and specific problems repetitively. The predominant industrial technology of the day demanded that we organize society along these lines. And it gave rise to two dominant ideologies — Capitalism and Communism — that tried to justify this type of organization in various ways.

It is no a coincidence that many of the most formidable intellects of the 20th Century belonged to outcasts — Jews and gays, in particular — who grew up outside the "system," were barred from participating in it fully, or struggled to adapt to it. Consider some of Hoel's examples (and many others): Einstein, John Von Neumann, Hannah Arendt, Virginia Woolf, Alan Turing.

From now on, individual people can allocate skills on a much more fluid basis. People can express multiple dimensions of their personality and apply themselves across disciplines without asking for anyone's permission. The result will be a flourishing of human talents and growing inequality.

The 20th Century was defined by standardization — the coordination of groups to produce more output. The 21st Century is defined by leverage— the ability of a single individual to reach billions of customers, readers, and collaborators and to match their unique combination of skills to their most profitable use. And mainstream work in the 21st Century can accommodate many types of people. Remote work, in particular, enables neurologically atypical people with various other non-office-compliant traits and behaviors to bring their full talents to bear.

The internet will enable more outcasts and weirdos to flourish. It already is, but most of our economy and institutions are still built on 20th Century assumptions and hinder the internet's impact. But they can't stop it. This means that over the next decades, we'll see more impactful geniuses than in any other era and a new class of "sub-geniuses" who are doing remarkable things in various niches. It also means that most people will be far less productive in relative terms and earn much less.

But in absolute terms, making the most of humanity's best and brightest will create enough wealth to keep all people on earth well-housed, well-fed, and healthy. But will they be happy? We need a new cultural and political ideology to help them feel useful — or distract them.

👋 What did I miss?

What else happened this week that I should write about? Reply to this email to let me know.

Have a wonderful weekend. If you enjoyed this email, please forward it to a friend (and subscribe), and check out my Hype-Free Crytpo course.