Predictable Outcomes

Predictable Outcomes

“In many domains people are tempted to think, after the fact, that an outcome was entirely predictable, and that the success of a musician, an actor, an author, or a politician was inevitable in light of his or her skills and characteristics. Beware of that temptation. Small interventions and even coincidences, at a key stage, can produce large variations in the outcome,” write Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge.

 

People are poor judges of the past. We lament the fact that the future is always unclear and unpredictable. We look back at the path that we took to get to where we are today, and are frustrated by how clear everything should have seemed. When we look back, each step to where we are seems obvious and unavoidable. However, what we forget in our own lives and when we look at others, is how much luck, coincidence, and random chance played a role in the way things developed. Whether you are a Zion Williams level athlete, a JK Rowling skilled author, or just someone who is happy with the job you have, there were plenty of chances where things could have gone wrong, derailing what seems like an obvious and secure path. Injuries, deaths in our immediate family, or even just a disparaging comment from the right person could have turned Zion away from basketball, could have shot Rowling’s writing confidence, and could have denied you the job you enjoy.

 

What we should recognize is that there is a lot of randomness along the path to success, it is not entirely about hard work and motivation. This should humble us if we are successful, and comfort us when we have a bad break. We certainly need to focus, work hard, develop good habits, and try to make the choices that will lead us to success, but when things don’t work out as well as we hoped, it is not necessarily because we lack something and are incompetent. At the same time, reaching fantastic heights is no reason to proclaim ourselves better than anyone else. We may have had the right mentor see us at the right time, we may have just happened to get a good review at the right time, and we maybe just got lucky when another person was unlucky to get to where we are. We can still be proud of where we are, but we shouldn’t use that pride to deny other people opportunity. We should use that pride to help other people have lucky breaks of their own. Nothing is certain, even if it looks like it always was when you look in the rear view mirror.
Luck & Success - Joe Abittan

Luck & Success

I am someone who believes that we can all learn from the lessons of others. I believe that we can read books, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, and receive guidance from good managers and mentors that will help us learn, grow, and become better versions of ourselves. I read Good to Great and Built to Last from Jim Collins, and I have seen value in books that look at successful companies and individuals. I have  believed that these books offer insights and lessons that can help me and others improve and adopt strategies and approaches that will help us become more efficient and productive overtime to reach large, sustainable goals.

 

But I might be wrong. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman directly calls into question whether books form authors like Jim Collins are useful for us at all. The problem, as Kahneman sees it, is that such books fail to account for randomness and chance. They fail to recognize the halo effect and see patterns where none truly exist. They ascribe causal mechanisms to randomness, and as a result, we derive a lesson that doesn’t really fit the actual world.

 

Kahneman writes, “because luck plays a large role, the quality of leadership and management practices cannot be inferred reliably from observations of success.” Taking a group of 20 successful companies and looking for shared operations, management styles, leadership traits, and corporate cultures will inevitably end up with us identifying commonalities. The mistake is taking those commonalities and then ascribing a causal link between these shared practices or traits and the success of companies or individuals. Without randomized controlled trials, and without natural experiments, we really cannot identify a strong causal link, and we might just be picking up on random chance within our sample selection, at least as Kahneman would argue.

 

I read Good to Great and I think there is a good chance that Kahneman is correct to a large extent. Circuit City was one of the success stories that Collins touted in the book, but the company barely survived another 10 years after the book’s initial publication. Clearly there are commonalities identified in books like Good to Great that are no more than chance, or that might themselves be artifacts of good luck. Perhaps randomness from good timing, fortunate economic conditions, or inexplicably poor decisions by the competition contribute to any given company or individual success just as much as the factors we identify by studying a group of success stories.

 

If this is the case, then there is not much to learn from case studies of several successful companies. Looking for commonalities among successful individuals and successful companies might just be an exercise in random pattern recognition, not anything specific that we can learn from. This doesn’t fit the reality that I want, but it may be the reality of the world we inhabit. Personally, I will still look to authors like Jim Collins and try to learn lessons that I can apply in my own life and career to help me improve the work I do. Perhaps I don’t have to fully implement everything mentioned in business books, but surely I can learn strategies that will fit my particular situation and needs, even if they are not broad panaceas to solve all productivity hang-ups in all times and places.
Luck & Stories of Success

Luck & Stories of Success

There are some factors within individual control that influence success. Hard work is clearly important, good decision-making is important, and an ability to cooperate and work well with others is also important for success. But none of these factors on their own are sufficient for success, at least many prominent thinkers and researchers seem to agree that they are not sufficient. One very successful researcher who would agree that these character, personality, or individual traits are not enough is Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize winning professor from Princeton.

 

Kahneman’s research, the portion which won him the Nobel Prize was conducted with Amos Tversky, was incredibly successful and influential within psychology and economics. But remembering the lessons he learned from his own research, Kahneman writes the following about his academic journey and the studies he shares in his book:

 

“A recurrent theme of this book is that luck plays a large role in every story of success; it is almost always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome. Our story was no exception.”

 

In anything we do, a certain amount of luck is necessary for any level of success, and much of that luck is beyond our control. Some songs really take off and become major hits, even if the song is objectively not as catchy or as good as other songs (is there any other way to explain Gangnam Style?). Sometimes a mention by a celebrity or already famous author can ignite the popularity of another writer, and sometimes a good referral can help jump-start the popularity of a restaurant. We can work hard, put our best product forward, and make smart choices, but the level of success we achieve can sometimes be as random as the right person telling another right person about what we are doing.

 

Timing, connections, and fortunate births are all luck factors that we don’t control, but that can hugely influence our stories. Being born without a disability or costly medical condition can allow you to save for a rainy day. Being born in a country with functioning roads and postal services can allow you to embark on a new business venture. And happening to have a neighbor who knows some body who can help your kid get into a good college can allow your child and family to move up in ways that might have otherwise been impossible.

 

There are certain things we can do to prepare ourselves to take advantage of good luck, but we need to recognize how important luck is. We have to acknowledge it and remember that our stories are full of luck, and that not everyone has a story with as equally good luck as we do. We can’t assume that our success was all due to factors relating to our good personal traits and habits (a cognitive error that Kahneman discusses in his book). To fully understand the world, we have to look at it objectively, and that requires that we think critically and honestly about the good luck we have had.

Credit for Being Who You Are

It is easy to look at other people and compare ourselves to them and feel either vastly superior or completely inadequate. But whether we feel better than someone else or worse than another person, we should recognize that these comparisons are generally meaningless. There are some people who do incredible things in the world, and others who we think could do more, but it is often the case that the individuals themselves have less control over how amazing and impressive they are than we (and they) believe.

 

For someone who is successful, it is easy and tempting for them to take all the credit. Surely they had to make smart choices and work hard to get to the place they are, and surely their success feels as if it has been earned. Simultaneously, we can apply this filter to someone who has not become our picture of success. They were lazy and didn’t make smart choices, and also deserve the place where they have landed.

 

For both successful and unsuccessful people, this perspective can be turned around. The successful person was the beneficiary of good luck, of a supportive and loving family, and maybe even inherited some wealth to help them along the way. The person who didn’t succeed maybe just didn’t get the lucky break, didn’t have someone in their life to help encourage and inspire them, and maybe had other challenges we don’t know about. For the successful person, maybe they would still be successful even if they were lazy and made poor choices. Perhaps the person we think of as a failure would have still failed even if they had worked hard and made smart choices.

 

I like to think through these exercises to remind myself that what I think of as success and failure, and what I see in my own life outcomes and the outcomes of other people are not always the results of individual actions, choices, and will power. Comparing ourselves to those who are successful and those who have failed doesn’t really give us a good picture of who is a valuable person. We all have different advantages and all face different forms of adversity. There are a lot of factors we can’t control, and we can’t take full credit for being either successful or for failing to reach the highest rung on the ladder.

 

Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, bringing a bit of a Stoic perspective to his readers:

 

“The only reason, for example, that you are not a rattlesnake is that your mother and father weren’t rattlesnakes. You deserve very little credit for being what you are—and remember, the people who come to you irritated, bigoted, unreasoning, deserve very little discredit for being what they are.”

 

We didn’t pick our genes, we didn’t pick our families, and we can’t always control our thoughts and personalities. We can certainly do the best we can with what we have, but we shouldn’t judge ourselves too harshly (or praise ourselves unduly) because we are not like someone else. To be where we are today was in many ways a lucky result, and we will never know exactly what extra pushes we received that others did not, or what extra advantages others had that we missed out on. All we can do is try to engage with the world in a meaningful way, and try to help those who didn’t get the advantages that we had.

Timing Impacts Test Scores and Life Outcomes

“Indeed, for every hour later in the day the test were administered, scores fell a little more. The effects of later-in-the-day testing were similar to having parents with slightly lower incomes or less education – or missing two weeks of school a year.”

 

The quote above is from Dan Pink’s book When in a section where he wrote about researchers who studied test scores for children in relation to the time of day that tests were administered. School children performed better on tests when they took place early in the day, and worse on tests when they came later. The difference was not enormous to the point where students were passing with flying colors in the morning and failing in the afternoon, but it was meaningful.

 

I find this incredibly interesting for a couple of reasons. The first is that I think 8 hour work-days are horrible, and the second is that I think we ascribe our success or failure in life to our own efforts far more than what we should.

 

Starting with the first point, if I were suddenly named king in the United States, my first act would be reduce the standard workday to 6 hours instead of 8. Most American’s no longer work at a factory where they need to be active on a line pushing a button or hammering a nail in order for widgets to be produced. When that was the case, 8 hour workdays may have been necessary, but in a knowledge economy where our main output comes from our mind and not our hands, 8 hour workdays likely harm our work more than they allow us to produce meaningful outputs. My big fear is that increased time outside of work will lead to more urban sprawl and longer commutes for people rather than to more valuable time spent in communities or with family.

 

Ultimately, however, I think giving us more time for sleep, for exercise, and for family will help us be better people. I believe that many people claim to be more busy than they actually are at work, and often spend a lot of time focusing on low value tasks that keep them busy but don’t provide much benefit for anyone. Shortening the work day would force people to be better schedulers and to use their time more wisely, and would hopefully create a happier workforce and nation.

 

Second, it is important to recognize that simply the time at which students took a test impacted the score they got. The test in some ways is measuring their knowledge, but it clearly is also measuring endogenous factors unrelated to their learning. We are grading and scoring our students in ways that can be influenced by meaningless factors beyond the students’ control.

 

I think this example is revealing of a basic fact of our lives. We feel like we are in control and as if the outcomes that people experience are directly related to their own effort and skill. However simply the time of day can have a big impact on our achievements, regardless of our skill or effort. Beyond test scores, perhaps you had a job interview in the afternoon, and both you and the interviewer were a little less sharp than you would have both been at 10 a.m. for an interview. You might not come across as the best candidate, and the time of day may be the biggest factor that prevented you from getting the job. In many ways small factors like timing can shape our lives in ways that we can’t even imagine. Sometimes luck is just as important as our skill and effort, and we should recognize that when we think about where we are and how we got to the point we are at.

Crafting Stories

Our brains are awesome at pattern recognition. It helps us drive down the freeway and know when traffic is going to come to a stop, it helps us identify fresh bananas and avoid overly ripe ones, and it gives us the ability to do complex mathematics. The brain evolved to recognize and identify patterns in nature so that we could adapt and adjust to the world around us and live in societies with other people and their pattern recognizing brains.

 

Today however, our brains’ pattern recognition can get us in trouble. In our daily lives we encounter a lot of randomness. We have a lot of experiences and face a lot of situations that truly don’t have any meaning behind them, but just happened to happen. Whether it was our toast getting knocked off the counter, seeming to hit every red light on our way to work, or someone not texting us back, we have a lot of daily experiences that our brain will attempt to find patterns between to find meaning where there isn’t any (or at least isn’t any substantial meaning).  Being aware of our brain’s pattern recognition engine and its desire to create a story between random events is important if we want to be able to react to the world in a reasonable way and to draw reasonable conclusions about the world around us.

 

Ryan Holiday writes about the danger of creating unrealistic stories from the standpoint of our own egos in his book Ego is the Enemy. Holiday writes, “Crafting stories out of past events is a very human impulse. It’s also dangerous and untrue. Writing our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story – and turns us into caricatures…” Holiday was writing about the way we look at success in the lives of other people and the way we think about where we are going and how we have gotten to where we are today. We often see a clear path looking backward that really didn’t exist when the journey began. We likely fail to see the doubt, the uncertainty, and the luck that just happened to bounce along and open a new path for ourselves or someone else. We create a narrative that highlights our good decisions, downplays our errors, and makes our journey through life seem like an inevitable trajectory and not like a rocky forest path that just happened to wind up where it did and not someplace else.

 

Its likely that none of us will stop telling our life in the form of a story or that we will ever be able to turn our brain’s pattern recognition engine off to stop the stories, but we need to be aware of the fact that we do this. Our perceptions of the world will always be limited, which means the stories we tell will never truly represent the reality of the world around us. We also have strong incentives to tell a story that gives meaning to things without any meaning, like the person who cut us off on the freeway leading to the accident was clearly an immoral person who victimized me, the innocent and pure driver who didn’t deserve such misfortune. Our stories will also likely create positive groups that we belong to and out-groups that are somehow less virtuous than our group. Our stories will feature us as prime actors driving our life forward, when we know that sometimes we just bump into good fortune or receive an opportunity without truly doing anything to deserve the opportunity. Ultimately, our stories are likely to be tools to inflate our ego and our status, are likely to jumble together patterns that the brain perceived from nothing, and to include only slivers of reality from our singular perspective. The stories are not real, so we should question them and be aware of when we are trying to make decisions based on the story of our lives that we tell ourselves.

Enjoyment

Philosopher W.V. Quine wrote a letter to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two. In his letter the philosopher writes about cultivating curiosity, striving for a job that you enjoy as much as your leisure time after the job, and building meaningful friendships.  His letter is brief, but is full of wisdom that is easy to comprehend and powerfully reinforced in his writing.

 

In the first part of his letter he writes, “enjoy what you are doing, what you are seeing as fully as you can find anything in it to enjoy.”  When I first read this section I  thought about my “Luck Diary” that began after listening to an episode of Smart People Podcast.  I had listened to an interview with Richard Wiseman who wrote a book about the science of luck, and one of his recommendations was to keep a journal of ones lucky experiences from each day. The journal reminds me of what good things happen each day, so that I go to bed focused on positive events rather than the negative. It also helps me be thankful for experiences that I have on a daily basis, and for all the good things that happen to me in general.

 

I think that Quine’s message in the quote above is very similar to Bruce Benderson’s message in my previous post about finding enjoyment in all that we do.  Quine is encouraging everyone to find even the smallest pieces of the mundane tasks and chores of life that are enjoyable, and to savor those enjoyable pieces.  Quine continues on to encourage us to look for careers where the mundane tasks that we dislike are at a minimum so that we can enjoy the work we do almost as much as we enjoy our leisure time after work.  This strategy may make it a little easier to find the pieces that you enjoy, and focus on your luck for being around things that are enjoyable.

Advantages From Birth

When I was at the University of Nevada for my undergrad, I spent a semester studying Education. From a class titled Teaching Multicultural Diversity I learned just how important family support and social economic status can be for an individuals health, development, and academic success.  The statistics were hard to accept and fully believe, especially as an insecure college student who wanted to believe that all of the good things I did came as a result of my own hard work and not the fortune of others.  I was reminded of everything I learned in that class when  I came across the following quote from George Saunders in a letter he wrote to James Harmon for Harmon’s book, Take My Advice, “A fortunate birth, in other words, is a shock absorber”.
Saunders in his letter asks the reader to participate in a thought experiment.  He writes about two babies born at exactly the same time, but to very different families; one born to a wealthy and supportive family and the other born to a broken family of drug addicts. He asks us to imagine this scenario acted out a million times, and then asks us to imagine the future for all of the babies born to the “in-tact families” relative to the future of the babies born into broken homes.  What he explains is that both sets of babies will face many of the same challenges, but that the babies born to the supportive families will always have a level of support and comfort to help them bounce back, learn quicker, and receive better care than the other babies.  His ultimate point is that a fortunate birth can set up a life filled with advantages, and that no baby ever does anything to deserve a fortunate or unfortunate birth.
What I learned in my education class supported Saunders’ thought experiment. The biggest shock for me was this, the vocabulary for children entering first grade can vary from 10,000 words to 1,000 words.  What creates this 9,000 word gap has nothing to do with a child’s intelligence or aptitude, but more often than not the single deciding factor between a high and low vocabulary is a home filled with books.  Children with parents who read to them and send them to kindergarten will be closer to the 10,000 word vocabulary, while children whose parents do not buy them books and instead leave  them with  the television enter school with a vocabulary closer to 1,000 words.  If you read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, he introduces the idea that birth plays an important factor in future athletic, academic, and even musical success.  A child who enters school with a 10,000 word vocabulary will receive more praise for their good reading skills, and as a result will continue to challenge themselves with reading and learning. Meanwhile, the child who entered school with 1,000 words will struggle and not receive additional attention for their strong academic skills, which in the end will leave them discouraged. This is the idea behind early childhood development for Gladwell. A lucky birth (good timing allowing a young athlete to be more developed at age 5, or being born into a home filled with books) can allow a child to receive not just more support from their family, but from society.
When we look at others who maybe are not as successful as us, I think it is worth remembering this idea.  We did not all have the same supportive parents and backgrounds. Sometimes the help we receive from family and our social economic surroundings allows us to overcome obstacles that others cannot. While it is difficult to accept and truly understand this, it will help us connect with more people and make a positive impact on the planet.