Omens of exceptional talent

Gaiseric…was a man of moderate height and lame in consequence of a fall from his horse. He was a man of deep thought and few words

I’m often asked about the signs of exceptional talent I’ve observed, probably because I spend too much running around talking to people & observing things, instead of doing anything useful.

Patrick Collison, Sam Altman, and Tyler Cowen are the three names that come to mind when thinking about this question. Of my writing, Intelligence killed genius and (Autistic) visionaries are not natural-born leaders are most relevant.

Take this post as more of a no-filter brainstorming exercise rather than a list of requirements or anything of that sort and please don’t go around telling everyone that Alexey will only work with people who dropped out of undergrad and type really fast. It’s called “omens” for a reason & there’s a good chance I’m going to wake up tomorrow feeling embarrassed for half of it (unfortunately I’m terrible at interpreting omens and don’t know which half yet!).

In any case, here are the signs I’ve observed:

  1. i’m scared that they might be better than me at everything and that i’ll be out of job if they try to do whatever it is i’m doing
  2. drop everything and work non-stop on a single thing if decide on the right thing to do
  3. exceptionally clear writing
  4. fast when it matters, slow when it doesn’t
  5. really get “if you’re not sure what to do, just do the right thing”
  6. deliver on an agreed schedule, even if it means getting best effort rather than perfect thing (and their “best effort” tends to be impressive given the timeline)
  7. figure out assignments from people they respect on their own and deliver way above expectations on them
  8. ahead of me on important thoughts, questions, insights, achievements (if very young: ahead of me at their age)
  9. are clearly much better than me at >=2 important things
  10. seriously ask the biggest questions & do their best to go all the way answering them
  11. keep promises
  12. impatient yet patient; brilliant yet dumb
  13. ask questions that make people they talk to smarter and more specific
  14. not scared of interrupting people
  15. do what’s required to get where they want to get (rather than only doing what they’re good at)
  16. have specific, correct hot takes (if young, on the path there)
  17. delivered a ton of interesting projects that weren’t helpful for anything in particular (whether it’s writing, coding, leading or anything else)
  18. learn really fast & you can see it from their behavior
  19. actions reflect beliefs
  20. have a history of embarrassing cold emails
  21. have a promise of good taste
  22. i have no clue how they’ve done what they’ve done
  23. take ideas seriously
  24. type really fast (clearly a spurious correlation but still interesting)
  25. ok with being low status & not afraid to do things that are not viewed as “normal”
  26. consistently surprise me
  27. not afraid to majorly change a (successful) career path, if needed
  28. drop out of undergrad or grad school (for non-academics)
  29. when i look at their resume i feel embarrassed for myself
  30. have 6 months+ periods of unemployment/underemployment
  31. don’t give up (eventually)
  32. see the future
  33. don’t settle for proxies, zoom all the way in & out
  34. keep doing what they believe is the right thing in the absence of any positive feedback or only negative (even if only perceived) feedback from others
  35. have thought through everything
  36. use first principles when there are no priors & use priors when there are priors
  37. extremely curious

Thanks to Aleksander Madry for feedback on the draft.

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