Distillation Effect

The Distillation Effect

Start with 1728 (12^3) people and let them learn widget-making in 144 groups of 12, for 3000 hours. Then take the top talent in each group and make 12 groups of 12, and again let them engage in an arms race for 3000 hours. Then take the final top 12 and throw in another 4000 hours. With two levels of distillation, you’ve got yourself a widget-making dream team — or a fine scotch. A team that will be leaving the remaining 1716 far, far behind. You can watch this process accelerated and live today on America’s Got Talent and American Idol. Imagine the same process playing out more slowly over 20 years. What does that transformation look like?

That is what is scarce: collective attention. That’s what creates the 10,000 hour staircase-of-opportunities that Gladwell talks about. Information may want to be free, but live attention from other humans never will be (AI is a different story).

A note of irony here: Gladwell was also among the first to stumble across the importance of such dream-team crucibles, in The Tipping Point. Today, researchers like Duncan Watts have pointed out that viral effects don’t necessarily depend on particularly talented or connected “special” people (the sort Gladwell called “mavens” and “salesmen”). But “special” people do have a special role in shaping culture. It is just that their most important effect isn’t in popularizing things like Hush Puppies, but in actually creating their own value. New kinds of music, science, technology, art or sporting culture.

This is the signal in the noise, and here is the lesson. Information work in any domain is like weight training: you only grow when you exercise to failure. The only source of weight to overload your mental muscles is other people. And the only people who can load you without either boring you or killing you are people of approximately the same level of talent development. And that leads to the question: what happens when you hit the top crucible of 12 in your chosen field? Where do you go when there are no more levels (or if you’ve reached the highest level you can, short of the top)? That brings us to the next two numbers in our story: how you innovate and differentiate as a creative.