You Don't Need to Be Brilliant to Do Brilliant Work

April 2, 2019
Confidence: highly likely

Greatness is something you do, not something you are.

-Sebastian Marshall

I

My friend Csongor recently published a computer science paper that's super interesting if you're as big a nerd as I am. The details are too much to go into here, but suffice to say, it lets us do a lot of things I'd always been told were impossible.

Being told you're now allowed to do the impossible is a staggering experience.

What's more staggering is knowing the guy responsible for letting you do it.

I was curious about how he'd gone about solving this problem. Part of it was a question of ego --- I'd run into this problem around the same time Csongor had. But where he'd stuck with it and eventually broken through, I'd bounced off it assuming there was a reason for the limitation.

Csongor is obviously brilliant, but I don't think his brain works significantly better than mine. Rather than assuming he'd solved the problem because he was smart and I wasn't, I took the position that he had some skill that I was missing. Skills, after all, can be learned.

And so I asked him. How did he start working on it? What was the process like? How long did it take? His answer to the first question[^1] was:

I wanted to understand why this limitation was there. Then learning the answer revealed that it's actually something that can be fixed --- as is always the case with these things if you think about them enough.

He made sure to reiterate the point:

Though I must say that the solution is really quite obvious once you know the underlying reasons, so there was not much brilliance involved.

II

Sometime recently, without realizing it, I've become a big wig in my nerdy programming circle. All of a sudden people were throwing my name around in the company of the people I looked up to, whose work I'd always felt was far beyond my grasp.

This was puzzling to me for an embarrassingly long time. What had changed? I was still the same guy as always, doing lots of experiments and having 95% of them fail on me. I was still as outspoken as ever.

What changed? I think it's that I wrote a book.

All of a sudden my status jumped up a few rungs because my ideas were worthy of a book. I mean, it's a great book and you should go buy a copy, but it's nothing novel. It's just a consolidation of lots of existing techniques, that I painstakingly put in the time and sweat to understand for myself.

All of a sudden, people had a good educational resource, and it had my name attached to it. The book doesn't pull any punches --- it really and truly is a book of difficult things --- but it tries to introduce the ideas as gently and usefully as possible.

I think what happened is that people started thinking "man, this book is full of really hard concepts. The guy who wrote it must be really smart." And they're not wrong, but that's not the point. Really, most of it I learned from long conversations with exceptionally kind and patient people like Renzo Carbonara and Sukant Hajra.

The point is that all people see are my successes. They see this book in its finished form, but are shielded away from the tortuous months I spent writing it. They aren't aware of just how many hours I spent fighting with LaTeX. Or of cajoling my designer-then-girlfriend to help me pick fonts. Or from the countless sleepless nights I spent spinning the ideas around in my head, trying as best I could to find something, anything, to grab on to.

None of it was exceptionally difficult. Mostly it was just tedious.

The book itself took four months to write, but the material took five years to learn. And that seemed like a waste of time if I wasn't able to amortize by that helping other people learn the same things.

Any idiot could have done what I did --- read blog posts, think hard about them, write some code that used the idea, and then write one chapter at a time. That's it. There was no magic.

III

The point I'm trying to make here is that, on the inside, it doesn't feel remarkable to do "great" work. Csongor says "there was not much brilliance involved" in his work. I'm convinced that any idiot could have put together the same book that I did.

The hardest part is putting in the time, and even that's not very hard if you find the process enjoyable and meaningful.

To quote Gwern:

None of these seems special to me. Anyone could’ve compiled the DNB FAQ; anyone could’ve kept a list of online pharmacies where one could buy modafinil; someone tried something similar to my Google shutdown analysis before me (and the fancier statistics were all standard tools). If I have done anything meritorious with them, it was perhaps simply putting more work into them than someone else would have.

Or as Joe Kachmar says:

It's really nice to realize that most/all of the work on these big projects is just folks who have relentlessly kept tugging on some thread until it unravels neatly for them.

There likely are problems out there that are brilliance-constrained, but I'd argue that there 100x more problems which are merely effort-constrained. This is good news, because while it's not clear how to become smarter, it's very doable to just throw more energy at something.

Maybe the problems you consider to be exceptionally hard are just ones that merely require some dedication --- and a doggedness to fix, come-what-may.


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