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Personal Spectrums

This has been an amazing week. I met over 50 other student entrepreneurs at Ebootcamp, spent a week in California, got a job offer, and spoke one on one with two billionaires. I’ve been very lucky to with these things, as these are not exactly the typical experiences of a 22 year old senior. And it all happened in one awesome week.

I want to focus on my interactions with the two billionaires and a few lessons I drew from that. The first thing I noticed from interacting with each of them (Peter Thiel and Vinod Khosla) was that I am taller than both of them. The second thing I noticed is just how normal they were. After talking with each of them, it was clear that they were exceptionally smart but still relatively normal people.

One thing that’s interesting about interacting with these people is that you can relate to them on a spectrum you (or I, at least) never thought possible. As I’ve interacted with more and more slightly famous people over the past two years, I’ve come to the realization that every one of the famous people you look up to or are impressed with are completely normal people. My hypothesis for this “surprise” revelation (which really shouldn’t be a surprise if you think about it) is that meeting someone in person involves a collision of two different personal spectrums of experience.

For example, Peter Thiel is literally 200,000 times wealthier than I am. He has accomplished far more than I am likely to accomplish in my career, and many regard him as a visionary.  Before this week, I only related to him in an abstract sense through reading his essays and learning about his various companies, investments and projects. In a career and wealth sense, Thiel is so far beyond my experience and spectrum of experience that it makes him hard to relate to. You can’t imagine having that kind of wealth or influence until you have it. If my idea of making a lot of money (right now) would be making $50k a year, we operate on vastly different planes of experience.

Meeting someone in person removes this abstract separation. Even though in a career and wealth sense I am miles removed from Theil’s status, as a person we are more similar than we are different. A good analogy I recall from Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan is that of wealth and height. If you were to average the heights of everyone in the world, it would follow a normal distribution and would result in a few outliers who were 7-8 feet tall. That would be unusual, and remarkable, but still within the realm of your experience. You can mentally understand how being 2-3 feet taller would affect your life and relate to it on some level. Tall people create a sense of surprise, but not one of awe or long-term admiration.

This is completely different with wealth. Mentally, it is just not possible for us to process the fact that someone like Peter Thiel has as much personal wealth as several countries, or the bottom 5% of the US population – over 5 million people. This type of wealth and career success is so far removed from my (and others) experience with the world that it is difficult to realistically conceive of. Thus, there’s this feeling of awe and extreme respect that makes the famous seem so different from us, as if we couldn’t imagine being in their shoes. Because, literally, we couldn’t.

Meeting these people in person helps you mitigate this effect – you are, in a sense, humanizing them. When you meet someone in person, no matter their station in life they can only be so different than you. They still experience human emotions, have human physical needs and talk in a common language. You come to realize that you share far more with them than not: something that’s difficult to realize and conceptualize about someone that you only read about. Relating to them on a human spectrum, rather than artificially comparing yourself to them on a wealth/career spectrum, makes a world of difference. It’s something I’ve started to think about as I slowly come in contact with more individuals like this.

Like I referenced in an earlier post, there’s also a staircase of emotions and expectations that go along with meeting some of these people.  I was thinking yesterday about the first time I met Justin Goldman, a fantastic mentor who really got me started and helped me figure out to do with all this startup stuff. Now Justin is a great guy and has had some moderate successes, but he’s not a household name (nothing wrong with that). Yet before our first meeting (as a college sophomore) I remember being extremely nervous. I drove into the city an hour early, paid extra money to park in a garage rather than look for a spot and possibly be late for our lunch meeting, overdressed, and was generally just nervous and unsure of myself. Yet just 1.5 years later, meeting with far “bigger” names doesn’t inspire the same reaction. Since that first meeting, I’ve had countless conversations, read hundreds of books and blog posts, and generally become a much more experienced individual. All that translates to an increased level of confidence and a realization that I’m not so different from the most famous individuals out there – at least that’s how I’ve come to think of it.

This is a really long-winded way of getting to the point I really want to make: people are people. Whether or not someone is absurdly wealthy, famous, intelligent or not you can always relate to them on some level. Knowing this, and receiving the confidence bump that comes with this realization, is something worth working towards. It helps put things in perspective. After I met with Vinod, a few of my friends were saying how cool it was that I got his card. Realizing he’s another human, just one with a few more successes under his belt, helps keep my perspective in check. Yea, he’s wealthy and intelligent. But on another level, it was just one conversation among two people. And that’s something I never would have understood a year ago.