Sexy Stephen Dubner

My friend Laura Beth Nielsen at the American Bar Foundation has a theory that people who are good at one thing are good at everything. Since she shared it with me, I have thought often about whether it is true. I tend to believe it, with the important qualification that the right kind of practice is critical to being good at anything. It may well be that people who are good at one thing have learned how to do the right kind of practice, not just for that task, but more generally.

Dubner is a case study of someone who has had success doing two very different things. His prowess as a writer/journalist is well documented. Much less well known is that earlier in life he was a rock star. He always claimed that, but I had never seen much tangible evidence. His former bandmate in Sexy Stephen is on the far rightThe Right Profile, Jeffrey Dean Foster (still making some excellent music), finally provides the smoking gun evidence that proves Dubner was a rock ‘n’ roll heartthrob: it takes the form of this promo shot taken shortly after the band was signed by Clive Davis to Arista Records. That is sexy Stephen on the far right.

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  1. Mack says:

    I would strongly disagree, if the assertion is that a person who is good at something is automatically, or natively, good at everything (or even any other thing).

    It’s likely true that an intelligent person, especially one with good study habits, has a head start when trying to break into a new field or a different realm of knowledge. But that’s a long way from being good at everything, and it especially doesn’t make their opinions on matters outside their specialty worth more than anyone else’s.

    I’ve often referred to this as “doctor’s disease”, but it’s not limited to doctors or to other professionals like lawyers, it’s just more common there, as though social status itself confers special powers.

    I’ve seen countless examples in my working life of people who exhibit this delusion — for example, that because they’re very good at their jobs, they’re qualified to run the company, or even manage a small group. It’s also gives us the odd notion that celebrities have a special insight into politics, etc. The Peter Principle was popular for a reason — it struck a chord in people, played to a type we all know.

    You’ve seen it too: everyone else’s job looks easy from the outside. How many times have we heard someone, even ourselves, ask “how hard could that be?” Turns out, easy at a superficial level, not so easy in the details.

    So, in my opinion, busted. And the sooner they get over it the better.

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  2. Mack says:

    I would strongly disagree, if the assertion is that a person who is good at something is automatically, or natively, good at everything (or even any other thing).

    It’s likely true that an intelligent person, especially one with good study habits, has a head start when trying to break into a new field or a different realm of knowledge. But that’s a long way from being good at everything, and it especially doesn’t make their opinions on matters outside their specialty worth more than anyone else’s.

    I’ve often referred to this as “doctor’s disease”, but it’s not limited to doctors or to other professionals like lawyers, it’s just more common there, as though social status itself confers special powers.

    I’ve seen countless examples in my working life of people who exhibit this delusion — for example, that because they’re very good at their jobs, they’re qualified to run the company, or even manage a small group. It’s also gives us the odd notion that celebrities have a special insight into politics, etc. The Peter Principle was popular for a reason — it struck a chord in people, played to a type we all know.

    You’ve seen it too: everyone else’s job looks easy from the outside. How many times have we heard someone, even ourselves, ask “how hard could that be?” Turns out, easy at a superficial level, not so easy in the details.

    So, in my opinion, busted. And the sooner they get over it the better.

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  3. Rachael says:

    I wonder if we could get Dubner to pose like that today? It seems doubtful.

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  4. Rachael says:

    I wonder if we could get Dubner to pose like that today? It seems doubtful.

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  5. slow_day says:

    Interesting. I have friend who is a well-respected psychologist that recently discussed leading a double-life as a punk rocker by night while he was working on his PhD; arguing his dissertation and presenting papers by day. Now, he gives all the appearance of a good Catholic family man and carries himself well professionally.

    Does that mean he is good at “everything”? I think the illusion follows well, and that this is a matter of perception. An individual who absorbs him or her self in the moment, and has the forethought and imagination to “be” whatever he or she desires completely at the given time, can pull off this illusion quite well. Most of us in our distracted, fragmented lives try but have difficulty doing this, so it appears, as Mack suggests, easy, while in reality it is not.

    I like to think, however, that personalities that can pull off this slight-of-mind vs. slight-of- hand trickery are best at fooling themselves. Of course, in that sense, we are all as guilty as they are. So, to all who can achieve this grande illusion, my hat’s off to you, Dubner included. When I grow up I want to be just like you. ;)

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  6. slow_day says:

    Interesting. I have friend who is a well-respected psychologist that recently discussed leading a double-life as a punk rocker by night while he was working on his PhD; arguing his dissertation and presenting papers by day. Now, he gives all the appearance of a good Catholic family man and carries himself well professionally.

    Does that mean he is good at “everything”? I think the illusion follows well, and that this is a matter of perception. An individual who absorbs him or her self in the moment, and has the forethought and imagination to “be” whatever he or she desires completely at the given time, can pull off this illusion quite well. Most of us in our distracted, fragmented lives try but have difficulty doing this, so it appears, as Mack suggests, easy, while in reality it is not.

    I like to think, however, that personalities that can pull off this slight-of-mind vs. slight-of- hand trickery are best at fooling themselves. Of course, in that sense, we are all as guilty as they are. So, to all who can achieve this grande illusion, my hat’s off to you, Dubner included. When I grow up I want to be just like you. ;)

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  7. bens says:

    cueing peroration on comparative advantage in 3, 2, 1….

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  8. bens says:

    cueing peroration on comparative advantage in 3, 2, 1….

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