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The Hero License

Mustafa Sultan
Mustafa Sultan
I’ve been mulling over the Secrets of Great Families (found on Chris Lovejoy’s newsletter).
It’s easy to dismiss the achievements of great families as nepotism 101. And no doubt that’s partly true (see George Bush Sr and George Bush Jr). Probably some genetics too. But there are lots of great families, with descendants who have almost no contact and loose genetic linkage.
So what gives?

The Hero License
Consider the Bohr family—
Niels Bohr developed the modern understanding of the atom, for which he won the Nobel Prize in Physics. His father, Christian Bohr, discovered the Bohr effect in hematology. His brother, Harald Bohr, was both a great mathematician in his own right, and one of Denmark’s top football players; he led the team to a silver medal in the Olympics, and “when he defended his doctoral thesis the audience was reported as having more football fans than mathematicians”. Niels’ son Aage Bohr won another Nobel Prize in Physics, his other son Ernest Bohr was another Olympic athlete, and his grandson Tomas Bohr was another physics professor.
At least part of the answer could be the Hero License; the belief that you too can be a hero. For the majority of the world — becoming a great isn’t even on our radar. So we never try.
But if like Sir George Darwin — your father was the Charles Darwin, It’s probably within your mental frame to think you too can propose great ideas. Same with George Bush Jr.
Eliezer Yudkowsky sometimes talks about the idea of a Hero License - ie, most people don’t accomplish great things, because they don’t try to accomplish great things, because they don’t think of themselves as the kind of person who could accomplish great things. I don’t run for President, partly because I rationally conclude I won’t win, but partly because I’m not cool enough to be President and I know it. Presidents are some different species with whiter teeth and better smiles than me, and I couldn’t set out to become one any more than I could set out to become a dolphin.
Mindset x Physical
The link between mindset and physical real life stuff is extraordinary (must listen: Huberman Lab Show Podcast). Take the Milkshake Study (aptly named Mind Over Milkshakes).
Half the group are told they have just indulged in a high calorie dessert shake. The other are told they have had a diet shake. Both are given the exact same 400 calories milkshake.
Result: Ghrelin (the hunger hormone) is suppressed 3x more in the dessert group.
Or consider the Hotel Study. Two groups exercise the exact same amount. Congratulate one group and tell them that they’re very active. Tell the other group they are minimally active.
Result: The congratulated group improve in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and BMI.
Or two groups get the same sleep. Tell one they slept very well. Tell the other they didn’t. Slept well team perform better on cognitive tests.
I am Enough
I’m not proposing having positive affirmation post it notes on your bathroom mirror (“I am enough. I am strong. I am capable”). But—
It seems like having these heroes around you makes becoming one an achievable goal — and positively imprints on your mindset and physiology.
I interviewed Deena Shakir (an Iraqi-American Partner at Lux Capital)—
My parents are both immigrants from Iraq and made their way to the states in the seventies. And that was really, a big part of my identity growing up was knowing in the wake of war after war, sanctions and 9/11—
The serendipity of my existence and my birth in the Bay Area and not Baghdad. And that really drove a lot of my early ambitions and is a driving force for me in terms of thinking about my north star of impact and also why I work as hard as I do just realising the chance that I have and that I can’t, uh, I can’t lose it.
In my own smaller way — I look up a lot to my dad’s journey from Pakistan to becoming a Consultant in the UK. Alone in 80s England and at his first job interview — the panel concluded: “We like you, but we’d prefer a white doctor”. In comparison for me — life seems like it’s on easy mode.
It feels like ‘just’ becoming a Consultant in the UK would be a bit of an L. Especially if he did the same thing living 4000 miles away with 1/10th of the opportunities.
(Funnily enough, I met the doctor who had interviewed him last year. We actually got on really well).
Delusionaly Positive
I have a love-hate relationship with being radically honest — but I think it’s rarely useful to give someone negative feedback (unless specifically requested).
The Harvard Business School’s April 2019 cover story agrees. Giving people negative feedback (or shitting on their dreams) is almost completely useless — instead, it works better to compliment what they’re already doing well.
In other words, each brain grows most where it’s already strongest. As Joseph LeDoux, a professor of neuroscience at New York University, memorably described it, “Added connections are therefore more like new buds on a branch rather than new branches.” Through this lens, learning looks a lot like building, little by little, on the unique patterns already there within you.
In this video, Nathaniel Drew speaks about what he’s learnt from living in the US, Mexico and Europe. He mentions that Americans are comically optimistic when discussing your goals. To Europeans, this can come across as fake (OH REALLY!? That’s AWESOME).
But with mindset being so important — and there already being so many negative vibes in our surroundings, I think it pays to be positively delusional about your own and others’ potential. Even if it’s a placebo. Placebos still work.
Cool Links
I’ve long had a pet peeve in interview podcasts/shows. I hate when the host breaks the fourth wall and refers to ‘the audience’. E.g. “Can you tell the audience a bit about yourself?” or “Can you explain X for the audience?”.
In my opinion, a good interview feels like you’re a fly on the wall. Even as an interviewer, my goal is always to forget that there’s an audience listening. For it to feel like a conversation rather than a performance.
To this end, I’m trying to 1) avoid asking questions I already know the answer to, and 2) to at all times — ask questions I’m curious about, not what I think other people will find interesting.
Recent Podcasts
Building Strava for Health — Mehdi Yacoubi (CEO & Co-Founder Vital)
With warmest wishes,
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Mustafa Sultan
Mustafa Sultan @mustafasultan

Thoughts on healthcare, human optimisation and productivity. A little taste of what I'm thinking and reading about.

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