Role Models, Talent Clusters and Affirmative Action: What Have People Who Look Like You Done Before?

Although humans blindly copy success through the emotion of awe, they don’t just copy any old successful person. They blindly copy successful people they think they could become. And this is where identity comes in and role models become highly political. Because now who is successful says things about the fairness of our society and why we and our group do or do not succeed in certain areas. Before we wade into the question of affirmative action, let’s take a look at how awe and identity lead to a phenomena that Dan Coyle, the author of the superb book The Talent Code, refers to as talent clusters.

Well, talent clusters emerge because someone succeeds in an area of life and then people who identify with them rush into that industry. Here’s just a few examples.

These talent clusters are often pioneered by someone breaking out. How many Russian female tennis players were there before Anna Kournikova? But, then, afterwards lots of young Russian girls saw Kournikova’s success and though that could be me! Hollywood actress, Tippi Hedren, visited a Vietnamese refugee camp and saw an industry where immigrants with little to no English skills could easily make a good living. Pretty soon, other Vietnamese immigrants heard about this and wanted in on the action.

There are lots of talent clusters all over the world in lots of different areas but maybe my absolute favorite was started by Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad. Better known as ABBA.

When ABBA set the world of pop music on fire, they also inspired their fellow Swedes to think that they too could make pop music. While some Swedes are the faces of this pop revolution like Swedish House Mafia, Avicii and Ace of Base, the majority are behind the scenes writing the world’s most famous pop songs. Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time, Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl, The Weeknd’s I Can’t Feel My Face, Lady Gaga’s Poker Face and Maroon 5’s Moves Like Jagger were all written by Swedes. Why Sweden? Because after ABBA, the next generation knew they could. ABBA changed what Swedish people believed was possible for Swedish people.

And that brings us to one of America’s favorite unproductive arguments: affirmative action. There’s a logic to affirmative action. If you want to have Swedish music producers in the next generation, then you need an ABBA to show its possible. And so, why not have government pluck out underrepresented groups and give them an extra leg up so they can inspire the next generation of people who look like them? Well, that’s one approach. The Japanese, however, chose another.

From 1638 to 1868, Japan isolated itself from the world. The punishment for emigration was death and contact between the Japanese and outsiders was limited to trade with the Dutch and the Chinese on one small island. And then, US Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Tokyo Harbor on big black ships. The sense of awe the Japanese felt is captured in a Japanese depiction of those ships.

Pretty quickly, the Japanese decided they wanted what the foreigners had and so they went out into the world to copy the best of the West and bring it back to Japan. Knowing they had to inspire the next generation, they gave them role models to look up to. Did the Japanese government insist that the West practice affirmative action and give Japanese children a leg up in succeeding in Industry?

Nope. Instead, they used America’s heroes to inspire Japanese children. As Thomas Sowell explains in Black Rednecks White Liberals “Textbooks issued by the Japanese government held up Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln as models for the young to imitate, even more than Japanese heroes.” Now, the tide has turned. Just as Japan had to reinvent its culture to suit the Industrial Age, America (and the world) have to reinvent their cultures to suit the Information Age. There is no better historical example of a culture retooling itself to a new environment than what the Japanese did in the Meiji Restoration. Are the Japanese my heroes? You could say that. Really though, that group of humans are my heroes because they did it best. Our job is to stand on the shoulders of the Japanese of the Meiji Restoration, Ben Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Russian female tennis players, Vietnamese Nail Salon Owners, African-American NBA players and all the Swedes that ABBA inspired and figure out how to do all these things better. And one overwhelming conclusion comes from drawing all these lessons and the lessons of talent, innovation, individual excellence and cultural excellence together: if you can learn one thing, you can learn anything. The core problem won’t be solved by government quotas. It will be solved by confronting the real enemy: how we identify ourselves.

The modern world and the history books are full of role models for whatever we want to do. But to take advantage of all those role models, we have to redefine how we view ourselves. Just listen to what Maya Angelou has to say about the words of Terence, a Libyan who became a slave who became a great Roman playwright.


You may not think Maya Angelou and I look like each other. That’s your opinion. For me, I see a lot of the humanity in her that I see in myself. That’s why I consider Maya Angelou a role model and this honey badger doesn’t care whether you think we look alike or not. That’s your issue not mine.

Who are your role models? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.


  1. Adam N. A. Reply

    I remember the tidbit about the only foreign trade between the Japanese empire and Europe being with the Dutch from Gulliver’s Travels, a book I read based on the anecdote of the Laputians you brought up on the podcast. So, I just wanted to thank you for getting me to listen to that audiobook.

    Also, I am a fan of ABBA to an unhealthy degree, so imagine my surprise to see Hunter bringing them up. Them being the cheesiest band ever created and myself being fairly cheesy, I believe I was conceived to the tune of ABBA, as I am a superstitious native and can think of no other explanation. To anyone intending to get into listening to ABBA, don’t let the upbeat sounds fool you, instead, try listening to the lyrics some time, they are surprisingly deep (and a bit depressing, so I recommend dipping your toes in first, and not going too deep down that rabbit-hole). Anyway, that’s my cultural confession. Egyptian 23 year old amateur video game-developer, still listening to a Swedish pop band from the 70’s in 2017. Thanks for reading!

  2. GregTHEferret Reply

    Henry Rollins is a big role model of mine. Saw him on HBO when I was around 11-12 and I just had to know more about this man. I’m nearing 30 and I still find myself reaching for his books for advice and good entertainment. I even wrote him a letter when I was 17 and he wrote me back.

  3. Miller Reply

    “It’s so strange, when you’re down
    And lyin’ on the floor
    How you rise, shake your head
    Get up and ask for more”
    – ABBA – When All is Said and Done

    ABBA had their white belt in Mixed Mental Arts for sure

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