What Matters More, Marketing or Mastery?

Last week’s guest article on hacking the system generated a frenzy of discussion. One reader commented that this was the best guest post he had ever read. Another said it was terrible and that it detracted from the entire work of this website.

I normally leave follow-up to the comments section, but this ideological rift was just too fascinating to pass up. Mostly because I think it’s ridiculous.

The split centers on two ways of approaching success. One is the marketing approach—this is the sex-scandal, shortcut the system method Maneesh wrote about. The other is about mastery, ten thousand hours and being so good they can’t ignore you. Who’s right?

Marketing and Mastery BOTH Matter

What’s ridiculous about this is that the entire debate is premised on a false dichotomy. Of course marketing matters. Life isn’t fair, and the rewards and opportunities don’t always go to the most deserving.

Similarly, mastery also matters—lasting success isn’t premised on cheap tricks alone and there’s no free lunch.

Choosing a side here is dangerous. If you ignore one half of the problem, it will be very hard to come up with an efficient solution.

Fitting into Neither Dogma

Taking on the MIT Challenge has been interesting because it doesn’t cleanly fit into either ideology. As a result narrow-thinking people from both aisles have given all sorts of bizarre criticisms, which I think reflects more on how ridiculous those dogmas are than anything I’m actually doing.

Many people from the marketing philosophy don’t understand the point of learning anything academic. In their view, the only point of an education is the benefits of a diploma, nothing you learn in school is particularly important.

People from the mastery perspective don’t understand the point of trying to learn something more quickly. I’ve gotten tons of emails telling me that the challenge cannot work, even in principle, because mastery takes years.

The truth is likely somewhere in between. Learning a computer science degree may generate a lot of waste in having concepts that I’ll never use, practically. But theoretical knowledge also allows you to understand the world better so building narrower, practical skills become easier.

Similarly, learning a degree in one year instead of four will probably have some drawbacks. But my guess is that they will be minor compared to saving 75% of the time and 99% of the financial cost.

Does Your Bias Reflect Something Deeper?

I’m not bringing this up just to make a bland observation. I feel strongly that your bias—whether you view success as marketing or mastery, is also a factor for how you view the world itself.

In this sense, the reasonable viewpoint—that both matter to a certain degree, is less widely held because of the cherished beliefs people hold about how life operates.

People who reject marketing want to view the world in terms of fairness. That people always get what they deserve and that if you want success, you need to earn it. They might be aware that life is capricious and full of injustices, but operating under that assumption is distasteful.

These are the people who complain that Maneesh didn’t deserve to DJ because he didn’t spend years practicing or that I don’t deserve to talk about learning MIT’s curriculum since I never went through the arduous application process.

Fundamentally, this attitude is toxic. Whether you ultimately feel that, in your situation, mastery or marketing is the limiting ingredient, doesn’t matter as much as how you view the world. Moralizing excessively about what you (or others) deserve is a sure way to avoid doing the things that will actually achieve it.


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