James Altucher podcast: Gary Gulman and better, same, and worse

Gary Gulman was a guest on James Altucher’s podcast. I’ve seen him at the Comedy Cellar a couple times and really enjoyed his sets. In the most recent set I saw, he talks about a Netflix documentary about the team that came up with the postal code abbreviations for each state. He goes into great great detail of mundane things. I like it1.

James mentions a concept he heard about picking people in your field. Have someone around that’s better than you, have someone around that’s the same as you, and have someone around that’s worse than you. (At that certain skill, not as a human being.) Gary Gulman finds it interesting and says it sounds about right. He has a lot of comedians he looks up to and then the ones about the same to be depressed together with.

In my life, I’ve seen the importance of each of these sets of people2.

I’ve had cases where I’ve been around people that were much better developers than I was3. It was inspiring and a great way to know what’s possible. It’s that idea that nobody was running 4-minute miles and thought only like gazelles could do it. Then Robert Bannister broke that barrier and a bunch of other people broke it the following year, knowing it was possible. Having people around that will show you what you can do is important.

Right now I’m helping a friend learn web development. On the feel-good side, it’s rewarding to see that I’m really, actually able to help someone. It’s nice to be able to answer questions and know he’s thankful for it. And then it’s super rewarding seeing him update his site on his own with a little JavaScript that I know he’s learning on his own. On the practical side, it gives me empathy for a beginning developer which is valuable since I design developer tools. And it helps me solidify my knowledge.

Senior year in EE, I was in a class that was half undergrads and half grad students. One of the grad students was named Ram and he made everything seem easy. He’d get stuck on figuring out some value for IC layouts. Stuck in the sense of someone spilling a can of soda and not really cleaning it up properly and then you step in that spot and need a little extra mustard when lifting your foot up then you’re done with it. Ram would pause, open his post-it flagged textbook exactly to the spot, do the hand motion indicating speed reading, nod, and then continue, no longer stuck.

I would then stay at the computer lab for 3 more hours working on the same problem. It’s great to have people around the same skill level because you can complain together about how Ram is fucking up the curve and we can’t compete with someone named after a computer component.

  1. Something I don’t like: I’m writing on a flight and we just hit turbulence and the attendant started speaking super freaking fast. You gotta put the slower speakers on this thing.

  2. In trying to improve as a writer, I don’t really know many writers. I’m not surrounded by them. I know of writers that are better than me. But not really any that are the same or worse.

  3. At work, I’m surrounded by extremely bright people. Every day can feel like imposter syndrome at its highest level. There are a lot of people saying everyone has imposter syndrome. Even Barack Obama. I like that people are talking about it more, but I don’t think everyone successful has it. I’ve definitely met very smart people who knew it through and through pretty much to the core. I don’t think Brock Lesnar ever thinks “I don’t belong here”. Masters of Doom talks about John Carmack recognizing that John Romero was a better programmer and wanted to learn from him. But it doesn’t sound like he didn’t think he belonged. Ok, so my two examples are 1.) a former UFC and WWE champion and 2.) one of the most influential programmers ever who can present on stage for an hour without moving his feet. I don’t have a point anymore.