Competence is fractal. Plus transgenic trees.

Imagine being hired at your dream company. Finally, you move from the current pond limiting your potential to an ocean of new possibilities and challenges. You’d get to learn from the smartest people you ever hoped to meet, and challenge yourself in ways you never thought possible.

And yet, after a while, you’d find yourself shocked that in your new peer group not everybody is the smartest fish in the sea. Some of your new colleagues would be less driven, less experienced, or less capable even than you!

How can that be? In my dream job, a pinnacle of workplaces, and the awesomest place on the planet earth™️?

I came to the conclusion that competence is fractal. Companies, rooms (and reservoirs) have a different average competence. But inside those, the competence is distributed unequally – there are people less competent, average, and spectacularly capable. You can also keep “zooming”, and any subset will have a similar distribution.

In the 1960s, Benoit Mandelbrot has observed the same property of chaotic events in financial markets. Inspired by this behavior, he continued the work on what he later named Fractals.

8 MANDELBROT SET IMAGES ideas in 2021 | fractals, benoît mandelbrot, fractal  art
A “Mandelbrot Set” – a particular fractal. Click for a trippy fractal video.

Assuming your dream workplace will be full of superstar players may be caused by the over-prescription of Gaussian distribution. As Nassim Taleb points out in Black Swan, the Gaussian curve only works for properties physically limited to a certain range – like height. In my experience, competence is not such a phenomenon.

Any room you enter will have a broad distribution of competence, and I like to focus on 2 particular consequences:

  1. It’s better to enter the rooms where I have more to learn, but will be at the lower end of distribution at the beginning,
  2. I have every right to be at this lower end. Somebody has to.


I know right? Always a good time to talk about trees.

Transgenic Chestnuts

Richard Powers’s “Overstory” inspired me to write about trees previously. One of the heroes of the book is American Chestnut, an iconic and once plentiful tree that sadly is not around anymore. As the Sierra club recounts in “The Demise and Potential Revival of the American Chestnut”:

Between 1904 and 1940, some 3.5 billion American chestnut trees, the giants of the Appalachian hardwood forest, succumbed to a fungal blight called Cryphonectria parasitica.

From the same article I learned that thanks to genetic engineering, there is hope:

The fungus in question attacks only the trunk of mature American Chestnut trees. Roots of these once ubiquitous giants are constantly (100 years later!) producing offshoots, which meet their gruesome fate after few years but still are able to pollinate. The American Chestnut Foundation has a blight-resistant, genetically engineered specimen (“Darling 58”) that could mate and produce healthy (and genetically diverse) offspring of the currently attacked millions of wild trees. Wild.

Aside: The same Nassim Taleb praising Mandelbrottian distribution over the Gaussian one is a huge opponent of GMOs. His argument is that there is too much we don’t know about their interaction with the environment.

Hungry Trees

Yes, more trees. this time swallowing trespassing signs. Because we shouldn’t be telling trees what to (or not to) do.

Go for a walk (preferrably in the forest)

“It’s a Superpower’: How Walking Makes Us Healthier, Happier and Brainier” (The Guardian)

One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes.

Read more about the benefits of walking on