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Feb 6, 2023·edited Feb 6, 2023Liked by Henrik Karlsson

Thanks for writing this Henrik, I've been doing a lot of reading in my own spare time with similar interests and there's a lot of overlap here with what I've seen as well. Simplistically my attempt to summarize would be something like, "deviant outcomes tend to involve deviant origin stories, deviant nurturance, etc" – which is somehow not obvious to lots of people.

I would say the big thing I'm personally obsessed about here is "what comes after?" in relation to this is– I tend to ask the question "how did they solve for distribution?" Because yeah there are definitely people who have had similar formative experiences and yet tragically they languish in obscurity. And the big difference I think is that they found, or fell into, some context where their unique perspectives and skills (often developed earlier in childhood) could be properly put to use towards outcomes that were valuable to other people.

I intend to write a more coherent essay about this... but thank you again for writing this, I see it as a valuable bit of scene-building to get more curious eyeballs on a potentially very consequential topic. 🙏🏾

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Yes, the question - what comes after is something that deserves its own treatment. The arc of development is far from over at fifteen or whatever. There's the part where they develop their network, or navigate to their proper place in the social graph, and then the thing you say. I would love to here your take on that. That dance of integrating a deep unfolding of the self, which is what the kids experience in this piece, with a deep understanding of the structure of the social world, and how to fit those.

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It seems to me that 'some context' could even be just a mentor who sees potential amd encourages to keep pushing- but i have a feeling you see something more social (switchboardy?)

Any hints why that is? (Or am i wrong?)

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A mentor is a sort of micro-context, and they can be a very nourishing and valuable one, but they cannot be a 1-person substitute for a larger context of dozens, hundreds of people – an audience, a scene, a marketplace.

The questions are "potential at what", "keep pushing at what"? Whatever it is that you get good at, you have to subsequently somehow solve for distribution to be recognized for that ability. The mentor can try to be a good proxy, but even at its best I don't typically think that's very healthy. There's a reason the mentors often die in Hero's Journey type stories, whether symbolically or literally. The hero has to carve out their own path and face reality directly themselves

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I have a half formed though here, which is related to what you are saying.

You want to learn at the edge of legibility. Ie you want to experience the world as richly and complexly as you are capable of, but not more. (And good tools, and good mentors, push that edge further out.)

If the mentor is a proxy, someone who simplifies the world, makes it more legible, the mentor needs to go as you expand your capacity; or the mentor will make you blind to the world. There is a fear of messy reality that makes ppl long for legibility and tools and mentors who reduce complexity. What we need is tools, norms, social support etc that helps us navigate the mess, and helps push the edge of legibility further out.

The thing about ppl that are exceptional is that they have been able to go further out than others, where they can see patterns not visible further in. These patterns are I guess a type of tacit knowledge. And when you have it, it will look really obvious, to you, like, ah, so this is how I distribute what I know! and everyone else is like how did you do that?

I'm tired.

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Feb 20, 2023Liked by Henrik Karlsson

I think that there's something to 'You outgrow the mentor', but then that could also be a product of how at a certain point, most people hit a peak and begin to atrophy from there.

What I feel may well be the magic touch is igniting something within oneself that pushes you to strive ever forward - that at some point, your true students will surpass you, but that gives you a chance to flip the relationship, learn from them, and push to a new height you could never attain without having first nurtured successors.

Or, in other words - yea, traditionally the mentor dies. But I think transforming it into 'The mentor becomes another teammate, ally, partner in the journey' would be a way to thread that needle.

Of course, not all who have ascended are going to want to keep ascending. There comes a time where you are ready to sit down and rest.

But I keep stumbling across people who...the only way of putting it is sensing that potential, but it isn't developed. It's still there though, just...dormant. Finding out how to convince them to tap it and then ignite it into a self-sustaining drive is something I am obsessing over lately.

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Feb 27, 2023Liked by Henrik Karlsson

Thanks for this - I needed it this morning!

One approach to answering some of the nature/nurture/why do some "exceptional" children fail to live up to early promise? questions: what do the biographies of the parents (or primary adult caregivers) tell us about their approach to their young charges?

I can see how one could grow up in an environment that supported creativity and self-reliance in technical or mechanical areas but that taught emotional and relational lessons that unintentionally sabotaged the more concrete successes. A person with that experience would be likely to work to correct those deficiencies in rearing their own children, meaning that it could take two or three generations for things to come together.

As an American reared on ideas of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency and the importance of paying attention (which eventually reveals that rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are more complex than folk wisdom seems to imply), I spend a lot of time thinking about education and how it has changed over the years. The point that strikes me as most informative is this: School was primarily about learning to read and to write and to cipher - learning the means of communicating skills (carpentry, food preparation, farming, blacksmithing, clothing construction) they had already begun learning at home. This is contrast to the foundational principle that drives (in my experience) education over at least the past 20 years: assume they don't know anything and start from the really basic basics. Sad but appropriate. But the tragedy (it seems to me) comes with the attempt to teach basics with pencil and paper or computer, not with tools and and materials and the physical elements that make up our physical existence. Teaching with tools and materials requires significant adult supervision, which functions as a shepherding into the adult world. It's also expensive.

I am delighted to discover your substack (via Eric Barker). Thanks.

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Feb 7, 2023Liked by Henrik Karlsson

Okay, I'm almost 21, I suppose I've missed the cut off point for much of this, but now I'm wondering if I'm at a point in which I could, I don't know, inject myself into a delayed version if I could. Does it seem possible?

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Absolutely! Look at Faraday for inspiration for how to approach it. He was still young, but did it himself, and there are plenty of cases of latebloomers.

How to think about this problem is an underlying theme in many of my posts - for example the series that starts with First we shape our social graph; then it shapes us.

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If you are interesting in late bloomers, you might enjoy this: https://commonreader.substack.com/p/i-quit-my-job-to-write-a-book-about

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I'm sorry, but this appears to me to be another case of "winners observational syndrome." Basically I'm saying if you go into the locker room of the person or team who just won, and you ask them how they got there, they'll tell you all manner of important stuff, from playing hard to having a great plan to not changing their sweat socks, or whatever . But there's no evidence any of that matters, and there are plenty of other people who didn't win who did all the same things. In this essay, you mention that these "winners" were gifted. In my view, that's the explanation right there: the gifted kid becomes a winner because of his/her gift, not because daddy brought them into adult conversations, immersed them in Latin, or taught them one on one. Yours is a nice story, but I don't buy it.

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What follows from this observation? Are you saying everything is basically genetics, and it is kind of wasted time thinking about how to alter trajectories?

I'm perfectly aware that what I'm doing in the post is not a scientific project - I'm simply looking for patterns. If you wanted to be rigorous about it you would need all sorts of tests etc. But gathering some impressions helps form ideas, and for practical matters, like, how should I raise my kids, I find this valuable. Curious: what would you rather have me do?

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Feb 6, 2023·edited Feb 6, 2023

Is sports success and success in the kind of fields he speaks of here really comparable? Also, you say of the sports stars attributions "there are plenty of other people who didn't win who did all those same things" - are you sure that is the case here? Especially today in this urbanized, atomized, homogenized, technocratic and democratic age?

My understanding, based on multiple anecdotes from attempted studies on subjects ranging from sexology to nutrition, is that one of the major obstacles to research that might test such a hypothesis is that it's all but impossible to find people who consistently depart in a significant manner from the mainstream on core practices (especially as regards abstinence). Everyone watches porn, everyone eats shitty food, and I gather that few if any shut their children off from mass society to create the kind of milieu that he describes here. And the research - which is perhaps influencing your stated opinion - suggested to show that parenting doesn't make a difference invariably has the minor flaw of not containing within its set any number of folks who significantly diverge from "standard practice". We live in a cookie cutter age. If all our kids end up looking like cookies, may I suggest that we shouldn't be surprised, not should we jump to the conclusion that not using the cookie cutter will not make a difference.

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It should be noted, too, that quite a few of them (mill, pascal, montaigne, I'm forgetting other examples) described their childhoods as excentric, or were described thus by their peers. So... some of the stuff is fairly common, but some is very much not so. I think especially being taken extremely seriously and invited into serious conversation and collaboration.

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> Is sports success and success in the kind of fields he speaks of here really comparable?

This is just a common extended metaphor for success.

As to the broader point, they seem to be mentioning that there's no "smoking gun", but human lives are too complex and the world is too dynamic for something like that to be easily identified. Frankly speaking, ascribing success to some nebulous "gift" feels like a cop-out. It's too simplistic when a simple analysis would point at the real causes being multi-modal.

> "there are plenty of other people who didn't win who did all those same things" - are you sure that is the case here? Especially today in this urbanized, atomized, homogenized, technocratic and democratic age?

I find it odd to question the assertion here, as it flies in the face of a multi-modal model of success. Society is not, and will never be, perfectly fair. In the words of Captain Picard, "It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life." A perfect example is even mentioned in the article itself. Faraday, born into impoverished circumstances, was accepted into an apprenticeship because Davy damaged his eyesight in a chemical experiment gone wrong and required assistance. There's no broader plan; it was just fate.

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Thanks for the feedback, but on the latter point I wasn't suggesting that I believe there is a foolproof path to "moulding" genius but interrogating what I read as a claim that the sort of conditions OP speaks of are so common that one could speak of "plenty of people" failing it.

I read it as him saying, "oh it happens all the time" - when I'm questioning if the attempt is made at all now, by anyone. I would love to live In a world where this was tried often enough that there would exist many who could claim failure, because then I believe we'd have a decent shot of having a few successes.

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Apr 29, 2023Liked by Henrik Karlsson

Jeff Bezos attributes his success to childhood summers he spent at his grandfather’s ranch where the two of them were forced to confront some some daunting challenges by themselves. I also am now wondering if social ineptitude could actually be an advantage from a learning perspective.

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Feb 6, 2023Liked by Henrik Karlsson

Thank you for writing this. It was thought provoking and very well researched. It will stimulate a lot of conversation in our family.

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Thanks for writing back. I'm simply saying to take your observations of what makes a winner with one or more grains of salt. Rather than rigorously emulating Pascal's father, or anyone else, I'd suggest you follow your own best instincts, feelings, and gleanings from actual scientific studies and raise your kids the best ways you can, according to your own lights. As a father, I'd also suggest you work hard at helping them become the best person they already are, rather than driving them to be someone else, particularly someone you wish you were. I'd also suggest that kids learn from what their parents do, much more than from what their parents say. So if you want your kids to be wonderful people, starting trying to be one yourself.

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This is good advice, but I missed the part where the author prescribed any of the parenting he wrote about. It seems to me that many of the parents of these "great minds" were doing exactly what you prescribe "helping them become the best person they already are." You're discounting the value of parents taking an active role in their children's development in a disingenuous way. Gifted children regularly end up being failures, sometimes because of their own faults, but often from not being able to overcome the failures of their parents. If your point comes from a place of parents placing undue burden and expectation on children then that's understandable, but there's an important distinction between that, and being a good, active parent that wishes to help their children develop their potential well.

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It seems that all these originates from having exceptional parents. The amount of meticulousness and care that went into curating those environments had to be devised by equally (or more) exceptional daddies and mommies, who knew what kind of qualities are needed to be placed in an exceptional environment.

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Great post on raising exceptional kids. The formula, if there is one, sounds like: Self directed learning, tutors rather than teachers, apprenticeship, free time that enables boredom and interaction with smart adults.

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"All were likely tutored at some point; ~70 percent were tutored for more than an hour a day growing up. I’m basically making these numbers up; it is an informed guess."

I wish you wouldn't say you're making it up. This is clearly a well-researched article, you have your own sample which you present to the readers, so the 70% number is not made up. Nor is it an informed "guess", it's a mathematical percentage. You can instead say the sample is small and the statistics are not to be taken at face value. Don't devalue your own work.

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This was written when this blog was mainly read by a small group of friends, so the tone is perhaps too coy and casual given the size of the audience that ended up reading it. This particular percentage was hard to assess since in many cases tutors were taken so for granted that they are not mentioned in biographies etc, so you have to make some kind of estimate. An informed guess. But thank you for taking my back against myself here :)

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I always struggle with these kinds of studies/essays when we do not study people who also got a similar environment and freedom as these kids but did not accomplish much. I think inner drive, raw intelligence, and luck makes a huge difference in the life outcome. In the US, it is advertised a lot that going to a top college makes a huge difference in life’s outcome but as we all know several kids who have gone to other colleges are also successful. I know of a study that looked at individuals who got admission to a top college but decided to attend something else and still ended up accomplishing a lot in life. Can we say the same thing about this scenario? These individuals would have accomplished almost the same amount of success if they would have encountered a different environment. I look forward to your thought on this topic.

Below are my comments to Eric’s essay using my other email Id:

I agree with you that one-on-one education was probably the cause of a lot of inventions in the 18th, 19th, and early part of 20 centuries.

The invention has become much harder as most of the low-hanging fruits have already been picked and future invention requires collaboration with people from multiple fields and requires a very high level of specialization even in a particular subfield. As you see people are becoming highly specialized in each subfield as it is becoming harder to get a job being only having a very high knowledge of a field or subfield like you get during your bachelor’s degrees.

I also believe that two world wars from 1915 to 1945 and another 15-20 years after that led to a time when we saw inventions in certain areas but a lot of basic research suffered due to people fighting wars and/or a lot of folks have to interrupt their education and jobs to fight wars and millions of them dying in their peak years and another factor was Europe took a long time to recover from the wars.

However, I think that there is another factor playing a role, especially in the last 30-40 years.

Here are a few excerpts from Utopia for Realists by

Rutger Bregman:

“In the 1950s, only 12% of young adults agreed with the statement “I’m a very special person.” Today 80% do, when the fact is, we’re all becoming more and more alike. Is it any wonder that the cultural archetype of my generation is the Nerd, whose apps and gadgets symbolise the hope of economic growth? “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” a former math whiz at Facebook recently lamented.

A study conducted at Harvard found that Reagan-era tax cuts sparked a mass career switch among the country’s brightest minds, from teachers and engineers to bankers and accountants. Whereas in 1970 twice as many male Harvard grads were still opting for a life devoted to research over banking, 20 years later the balance had flipped, with one and a half times as many alumni employed in finance.

Back in 1970, American stocks were still held for an average of five years; 40 years later, it’s a mere five days. If we imposed a transactions tax – where you would have to pay a fee each time you buy or sell a stock – those high-frequency traders who contribute almost nothing of social value would no longer profit from split-second buying and selling of financial assets. In fact, we would save on frivolous expenditures that aid and abet the financial sector. Take the fiber optic cable laid to speed transmissions between financial markets in London and New York in 2012. Price tag: $300 million. Time gain: a whole 5.2 milliseconds.

More to the point though, these taxes would make all of us richer. Not only would they give everyone a more equal share of the pie, but the whole pie would be bigger. Then the whiz kids who pack off to Wall Street could go back to becoming teachers, inventors, and engineers.”

When our best and brightest are applying their knowledge in a zero sum games like Wall Street and trying to become rich by keeping people longer on a website or making them click on a page something will suffer and I think that is another factor playing a big role. I know several of my friends' kids went to an Ivy League/MIT etc schools and the majority of their classmates went to either Wall Street, consulting, or a tech company like those mentioned above because of much higher pay. The incentive to go thru the pain of inventing which takes decades and the chance that you may be a complete failure is also there when you can take a shortcut and be a multimillionaire in 10 years or less.

So to summarize, I think the priorities have changed we still produce several geniuses but they are very specialized and/or are focused on industries that do not use their skills effectively. However, one-on-one education is probably the best way to produce a lot more geniuses than the current education system can produce. However, it is highly unlikely that most of the new geniuses will accomplish anything close to what was accomplished by geniuses in the 18th and 19th centuries due to above mentioned reasons.

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Feeling better and better about my decision to make summers long, boring, and lazy and send my big kids out to play in the creek or the park.

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> At least two-thirds of my sample was home-educated (most commonly until about age 12), tutored by parents or governesses and tutors. The rest of my sample had been educated in schools (most commonly Jesuit schools).

How does their education compare to other peers of their cohort? More specifically, I'm curious about what actionable advice there is for fostering an "exceptional milieu". I noticed a lot of these figures are from older generations when schools were less of a common thing. Until the 20th century, most children were either home-educated or majority home-educated (schools weren't a full-time endeavor until later). Additionally, having a governess or live-in tutor was a common indicator of status, so we'd need to dive deeper to divorce success by class (education) from success by class (socioeconomic status). Obviously, having a dedicated (in both senses of the word) tutor should lead to improvements in outcome, but this might also be pointing out that status propagates, which isn't super actionable.

> Wagner was thirteen at the time. Two years later, he was able to transcribe Mozart’s 9th symphony for piano.

> I have known quite a few talented musicians, and that just never happens.

Are your musician friends classically trained? Transcribing music by ear is actually a pretty standard part of the curriculum, even at such a young age. I recall having to do the same in my public high school's music class as homework. Granted, it was only for one instrument at a time, but it was also just classwork for a single subject. I'd expect nothing less from someone who lived and breathed music.

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I don't know how to get good data to distinguish the childhood's from these people from their peers. My impression is that the practices were fairly widespread in the upper classes, but rarely pursued this far. J.S. Mill, Pascal, and a few others were considered to have had excentric upbringings by their peers - so that level of commitment and apprenticeship was not common.

And re: Wagner. That's interesting. What percentage of musically obsessed fifteen-year-olds do you think is able to transcribe a symphony after two years of classical training? I might overestimate how uncommon that is.

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I have no idea what percentage can do that. I'm just relying on my own anecdotal evidence. Our schools had quality music programs, and that was schoolwork assigned after 4-5 years of classical training (~10th grade). I would hardly call any of that musical interest an obsession since it's one hour of class a day plus practice outside of school. I stopped taking music classes in 10th grade.

Having said all that, I think I've found a jumping-off point for that question. If you're familiar with American education, there's a standardized curriculum at the highest level called Advanced Placement (AP) courses. These are one-year courses typically taken in 11th and 12th grade, and they can be thought of as a type of Honors program. One available AP course is AP Music Theory, and music transcription is a section of that class. There's a sample exam online [1], including audio prompts [2] and a scoring rubric [3]. 18.7% of students get a "perfect" (the bins are pretty large) score [4]. This is a very, very rough back-of-the-envelope guesstimate, but I'd say that a fifth of musically-inclined 17-18-year-olds can transcribe a symphony after at least one year of classical training (we don't know how many years of music students enter this course with).

[1] https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/courses/ap-music-theory/exam

[2] https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/courses/ap-music-theory/exam/music-theory-audio-prompts-2022

[3] https://apcentral.collegeboard.org/media/pdf/ap22-sg-music-theory.pdf

[4] https://apstudents.collegeboard.org/about-ap-scores/score-distributions

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That's great, that means it likely has slightly less to do with raw talent than I thought. Though, it feels like, from those numbers, Wagner is still in the top 1/1000th of the population, on raw musical ability. But there's a lot of people in that bucket.

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A lot of the exceptional people in history were allowed to be exceptional because they grew up in elite families in very exceptional societies: e.g. Bertrand Russell and Virginia Woolf (and many others) very near the center of intellectual life in England at the height of the British Empire.

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Very interesting and as a father of 5 still fairly small very helpful.

Your final point about how you view the children is something that I believe very much. I can't understand people who have children just to send them away all the time. What's the point if you aren't going to spend time with them?

I think the 'idle' time is very significant and hard to obtain without a more radical break with society than we have made to date. I believe it was your countryman S. Kierkegaard(I think you said Dane but my memory is imperfect and my phone a limited tool for checking references) who said that the best cure for the modern world was to 'create silence',, without silence, and pause, and idleness our capacity for action is progressively eliminated.

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Five is a bunch, man.

I'm Swedish but I live in Denmark, so I know my Kierkegaard. I find silence to by very important. I lived for almost five years without internet in my mid-twenties, which was formative. And I still need to unplug for a few months now and then to process what I'm going through. Otherwise I drift. To me it feels like interacting with the world is about building potential energy; silence releases it.

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I used to be almost completely unplugged but then I got very sucked in and haven't been able to get out. Anyway, just found your substack and really like it so far.

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As a parent I think a lot about how modern electronic media, games etc interact with this. Are they just a time sink that detracts from the creative boredom kids need to have to develop themselves? Do we need to cut them off from computer entertainment, with all the negative social consequences that are likely to ensue from when they can't do what all their friends are doing? Or are there some upsides?

By upsides I think of things like:

-- Minecraft giving them a broad range of ways to imagine things they could build

-- Civilization, the Paradox games, etc teaching them a lot about history, politics, logistics etc

And probably I could think of others. Special pleading or is there something real there?

And speaking of what their friends are doing: how many of these exceptional people had significant numbers of same-age or near-same-age friends, vs spending all their social time with adults or just being oddball introvert loners? How lonely were their childhoods, and how much typical peer-group socialization did they get?

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On the last question: not so much peer-group socialization on average. Some where in schools, but tended to be outsiders / sick a lot etc.

I have mixed feelings about computers etc. We don't use it much in my family, though me and the five year old do go on Wikipedia rabbit holes etc. I tend to think apprenticeship and curation there, too. The internet is a wonderland, but <5 percent of current population knows how to use it properly, so you can't trust 1) that ppl will figure it out on their own and 2) that they will learn it by imitation.

There seems to be a lot of ppl who learn valuable lessons from games, especially multiplayer games where they need to coordinate and solve tasks etc. Never been an interest of mine, but I meet a lot of smart ppl that seems to have got a sort of education out of it. I do some consulting stuff sometimes, and I notice with delight how there is a class of really nerdy startup which I sometimes interact with where it feels like they're just a bunch of gamers who are repurposing Discord etc to now play they game of just building a brilliant product. So... I don't know.

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