Standard Stories Continued

Standard Stories Continued

“Is there anything wrong with standard stories?” asks Quassim Cassam in Vices of the Mind. “That depends,” he continues, “on one’s view of their two most striking theoretical commitments, individualism and their psychologism: they focus on a small number of individuals (‘designated actors’) and attribute the outcomes they want to explain to the psychology of these individuals.”
In almost any movie we see (I am particularly thinking about Disney movies here) there is a pretty small cast of characters. There are a handful of main characters who interact and drive the story forward, and then a few surrounding characters like co-workers, cousins, or fellow train passengers who are just in the background and don’t really contribute to the story. Standard stories flatten the world, and relying on them too much to understand our own worlds isn’t realistic because we have so many more people who play prominent roles in our lives, or who play important roles at different times, but are not consistently a main character in the story.
Cassam continues, “standard stories are, in this sense, personal and they have plots like those of a novel or a play. According to structuralism that is the fundamental problem. Because of their focus on individuals and their idiosyncratic psychologies standard stories forget that individuals only exist within complex social structures.” The narratives we create in our own minds and the stories we create for movies and television ignore the complex social structures (or at least fail to directly consider them) that drive a lot of our behavior and psychology. We attribute a great amount of influence and power to individual level decision-making. Specific character traits are elevated, describing and defining everything we need to know about an individual, and the correct set of thoughts and traits is all a character in a standard story needs in order to succeed and reach happily-ever-after. Again, this flattens our reality. The real world has complex social structures, institutions, and systems that are not always transparent, hard to navigate, and can limit many of the decisions in our lives.
Finally, Cassam writes, “what that means is that in many cases it isn’t individuals’ psychologies that explain their actions but the constraints imposed by the structures within which they operate.” Standard stories work well in our Western Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic  (WEIRD) culture in the United States. It highlights the power and possibility of the individual, elevating our decision-making, our hard-working ethos, and our beliefs that our thoughts and actions are what determine our success or failure in all that we do. Unfortunately, the world is more complex than what we see in standard stories. We become over-reliant on explanations for the world based on individuals and their psychologies, and don’t spend enough time thinking deeply about the structures and systems within which we live. Success in a standard story is incredibly rewarding, after all, it is all about you. However failure in such a story is crushing, because it doesn’t acknowledge the factors that limited your ability and decision-making. Standard stories place any failure entirely within the individual. they are simplified ways to understand the world, but are also inaccurate and leave us with a flattened understanding of what our existence is truly like.
Aspiration Rules

Aspiration Rules

My last post was all about satisficing, making decisions based on alternatives that satisfy our wants and needs and that are good enough, but may not be the absolute best option. Satisficing contrasts the idea of maximizing. When we maximize, we find the best alternative from which no additional Pareto efficiencies can be gained. Maximizing is certainly a great goal in theory, but in practice, maximizing can be worse than satisficing. As Gerd Gigerenzer writes in Risk Savvy, “in an uncertain world, there is no way to find the best.” Satisficing and using aspiration rules, he argues, is the best way to make decisions and navigate our complex world.

 

“Studies indicate that people who rely on aspiration rules tend to be more optimistic and have higher self-esteem than maximizers. The latter excel in perfectionism, depression, and self-blame,” Gigerenzer writes. Aspiration rules differ from maximizing because the goal is not to find the absolute best alternative, but to find an alternative that meets basic pre-defined and reasonable criteria. Gigerenzer uses the example of buying pants in his book.  A maximizer may spend the entire day going from store to store, checking all their options, trying every pair of pants, and comparing prices at each store until they have found the absolute best pair available for the lowest cost and best fit. However, at the end of the day, they won’t truly know that they found the best option, there will always be the possibility that they missed a store or missed a deal someplace else. To contrast a maximizer, an aspirational shopper would go into a store looking for a certain style at a certain price. If they found a pair of pants that fit right and was within the right price range, then they could be satisfied and make a purchase without having to check every store and without having to wonder if they could have gotten a better deal elsewhere. They had basic aspirations that they could reasonably meet to be satisfied.

 

Maximizers set unrealistic goals and expectations for themselves while those using aspiration rules are able to set more reasonable, achievable goals. This demonstrates the power and utility of satisficing. Decisions have to be made, otherwise we will be wandering around without pants as we try to find the best possible deal. We will forego opportunities to get lunch, meet up with friends, and do whatever it is we need pants to go do. This idea is not limited to pants and individuals. Businesses, institutions, and nations all have to make decisions in complex environments. Maximizing can be a path toward paralysis, toward CYA behaviors (cover your ass), and toward long-term failure. Start-ups that can satisfice and make quick business decisions and changes can unseat the giant that attempts to maximize every decision. Nations focused on maximizing every public policy decision may never actually achieve anything, leading to civil unrest and a loss of support. Institutions that can’t satisfice also fail to meet their goals and missions. Allowing ourselves and our larger institutions to set aspiration rules and satisfice, all while working to incrementally improve with each step, is a good way to actually move toward progress, even if it doesn’t feel like we are getting the best deal in any given decision.

 

The aspiration rules we use can still be high, demanding of great performance, and drive us toward excellence. Another key difference, however, between the use of aspiration rules and maximizing is that aspiration rules can be more personalized and tailored to the realistic circumstances that we find ourselves within. That means we can create SMART goals for ourselves by using aspiration rules. Specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound goals have more in common with a satisficing mentality than goals that align with maximizing strategies. Maximizing doesn’t recognize our constraints and challenges, and may leave us feeling inadequate when we don’t become president, don’t have a larger house than our neighbors, and are not a famous celebrity. Aspiration rules on the other hand can help us set goals that we can realistically achieve within reasonable timeframes, helping us grow and actually reach our goals.
A Leadership Personality

A Leadership Personality

I find personality trait tests misleading. I know they are used by companies in hiring decisions and I know that Big 5 Personality Traits have been shown to predict political party support, but I still feel that they are misapplied and misunderstood. Specifically, I think that the way we interpret them fails to take context into consideration, which may make them next to useless. Gerd Gigerenzer considers this lapse in our judgement when thinking about the way we discuss and evaluate leadership personalities.

 

In Risk Savvy he writes, “leadership lies in the match between person and environment, which is why there is no single personality that would be a successful leader at all historical times and for all problems to solve.” A military general might make a great leader on the battlefield, but they may not be a great leader in a public education setting. A surgeon leading a hospital during the times of the American Civil War might not make a good leader at Columbia University Medical Center today, and the leader who thrives at a prestigious New York City medical center might not make a great leader at Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. Leadership is in many ways context dependent. The problems that a leader has to address may call for different approaches and solutions, which may be supported or sabotaged by particular personality types. Someone who is an outgoing socialite may be the right type of leader in New York City, but might be bored in Rural Nevada and may come across as overbearing to those who prefer a rural lifestyle. What Gigerenzer suggests may be the most important quality for a leader is not some form of leadership personality, but the right experiences and the right ability to apply particular rules of thumb and intuition to a given problem.

 

If the appropriate leadership personality is so context dependent, it may also be worth asking if our personality in general is context dependent. I have not studied personality and personality tests deeply enough to have any true evidence to back me up, but I would expect it to be. Dan Pink in When shows that we are the most productive and have the most positive mood about 4 hours after waking, and have the least amount of energy and worst mood around mid day (or 8 to 10 hours after we wake up). It seems to me that my performance on a personality test would be different if I was taking it at the peak of my day versus during the deepest trough. Also, I would expect my personality to manifest differently in an online multiple choice test relative to an unexpected car emergency, or during a game of cards with my old high school best friends. To say that I have one personality that shines through in all situations seems misleading, and to say that I have a particular level of any given personality trait that remains constant through the day and from experience to experience also seems misleading.

 

Gigerenzer’s quote above is about leadership and the idea that there is no single personality trait that applies to good leaders. I think it is reasonable to extend that assumption to personality generally, assuming that our personality is context dependent and being successful as individuals also involves rules of thumb based on experiences. What is important then is to develop and cultivate experiences and rules of thumb that can guide us toward success. Incorporating goals, feedback, and tools to help us recall successful approaches and strategies within a given context can help us become leaders and can help us succeed regardless of what a personality test tells us and regardless of the context we find ourselves in.
A Useful Myth

A Useful Myth

Autonomy, free will, and self-control combine to create a useful myth. The myth is that we control our own destinies, that we are autonomous actors with rights, freedoms, and the opportunity to improve our lives through our own effort. The reality is that the world is incredibly complex, that we don’t get to chose our genes, our parents, or the situations in life that we are born and raised within. A huge number of factors based on random chance and luck contribute to whether we are successful or not, but nevertheless, the belief that we are autonomous actors with control over our own free will is still a useful myth.

 

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer writes, “people who report more internal control tend to fare better in life than those who don’t. They play a more active role in their communities, take better care of their health, and get better jobs. We may have no control about whether people find our clothes or skills or appearance attractive. But we do have control over internal goals such as acquiring languages, mastering a musical instrument, or taking responsibility for small children or our grandparents.”

 

This quote shows why the idea of internal control and agency is such a useful myth. If we believe we have the power to shape our lives for the better, then we seem to be more likely to work hard, persevere, and stretch for challenging goals. A feeling of helplessness, as though we don’t have control, likely leads to cynicism and defeatism. Why bother trying if you and your actions won’t determine the success or failure you experience in life?

 

This myth is at the heart of American meritocracy, but it is important to note that it does appear to be just a myth. EKGs can detect electrical activity in the brain and predict an action before a person becomes aware of a conscious desire to perform an action. Split brain experiments and the research of Kahneman and Tversky show that our brains are composed of multiple competing systems that almost amount to separate people and personalities all within our singular consciousness. And as I wrote earlier, luck is a huge determining factor in whether we have the skills and competencies for success, and whether we have a supportive environment and sufficient opportunities to master those skills.

 

Recently, on an episode of Rationally Speaking, Julia Galef interviewed Michael Sandel about our meritocracy. One fear that Sandel has about our system of meritocracy is that people who succeed by luck and chance believe that they succeeded because of special qualities or traits that they possess. Meanwhile, those who fail are viewed as having some sort of defect, a mindset that people who fail or live in poverty may come to believe is true and embrace, thus creating another avenue for defeatism to thrive.

 

If internal control is a useful myth, it is because it encourages action and flourishing for individuals. My solution therefore is to blend the two views, the view of internal agency and the view of external forces shaping the future we have. These are contradictory views on the surface, but I believe they can be combined and live in harmony (especially given the human ability to peacefully and ignorantly live with contradictory beliefs). We need to believe we have agency, but also believe that success is essentially a matter of luck and that we are dependent on society and others to reach great heights. This should encourage us to apply ourselves fully, but to be humble, and take steps to help ensure others can also apply themselves fully to reach greater levels of success. When people fail, we shouldn’t look at them as morally inept, as lacking skills and abilities, but as people who happened to end up in a difficult place. We should then take steps to help improve their situations and to give them more opportunities to find the space that fits their skills and abilities for growth and success. Internal control can still be a useful myth if we tie it to the right structures and systems to ensure everyone can use their agency appropriately and avoid the overwhelming crush of defeatism when things don’t go well.
Missing Feedback

Missing Feedback

I generally think we are overconfident in our opinions. We should all be more skeptical that we are right, that we have made the best possible decisions, and that we truly understand how the world operates. Our worldviews can only be informed by our experiences and by the information we take in about events, phenomena, and stories in the world. We will always be limited because we can’t take in all the information the world has to offer. Additionally, beyond simply not being able to hold all the information possible, we are unable to get the appropriate feedback we need in all situations for comprehensive learning. Some feedback is hazy and some feedback is impossible to receive at all. This means that we cannot be sure that we have made the best choices in our lives, even if things are going well and we are making our best efforts to study the world.

 

In Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler write, “When feedback does not work, we may benefit from a nudge.” When we can’t get immediate feedback on our choices and decisions, or when we get feedback that is unclear, we can’t adjust appropriately for future decisions. We can’t learn, we can’t improve, and we can’t make the best choices when we return to a decision-situation. However, we can observe where situations of poor feedback exist, and we can help design those decision-spaces to provide subtle nudges to help people make better decisions in the absence of feedback. Visual aids showing how much money people need for retirement and how much they can expect to have based on current savings rates is a helpful nudge in a situation where we don’t get feedback for how well we are saving money. There are devices that glow red or green based on your home’s current energy usage and efficiency, providing a subtle nudge to remind people not to use appliances at peak demand times and giving people feedback on energy usage that they normally wouldn’t receive. Nudges such as these can provide feedback, or can provide helpful information in the absence of feedback.

 

Sunstein and Thaler also write, “many of life’s choices are like practicing putting without being able to see where the balls end up, and for one simple reason: the situation is not structured to provide good feedback. For example, we usually get feedback only on the options we select, not the ones we reject.” Missing feedback is an important consideration because the lack of feedback influences how we understand the world and how we make decisions. The fact that we cannot get feedback on options we never chose should be nearly paralyzing. We can’t say how the world works if we never experiment and try something different. We can settle into a decent rhythm and routine, but we may be missing out on better lifestyles, happier lives, or better societies if we made different choices. However, we can never receive feedback on these non-choices. I don’t know that this means we should necessarily try to constantly experiment at the cost of settling in with the feedback we can receive, but I do think it means we should discount our own confidence and accept that we don’t know all there is. I also think it means we should look to increase nudges, use more visual aids, and structure our choices and decisions in ways that help maximize useful feedback to improve learning for future decision-making.
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.
Imagining Success Versus Anticipating Failure

Imagining Success Versus Anticipating Failure

I am guilty of not spending enough time planning what to do when things don’t work out the way I want. I have written in the past about the importance of planning for failure and adversity, but like many others, I find it hard to do and hard to get myself to sit down and think seriously about how my plans and projects may fail. Planning for resilience is incredibly important, but so many of us never get around to it. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, helps us understand why we fail to plan for failure.

 

He writes, “The successful execution of a plan is specific and easy to imagine when one tries to forecast the outcome of a project. In contrast, the alternative of failure is diffuse, because there are innumerable ways for things to go wrong.”

 

Recently, I have written a lot about the fact that our minds understand the world not by accumulating facts, understanding data, and analyzing nuanced information, but by constructing coherent narratives. The less we know and the more simplistic the information we work with, the more coherent our narratives of the world can be. When we have less uncertainty, our narrative flows more easily, feels more believable, and is more comforting to our mind. When we descend into the particular, examine complexity, and weigh competing and conflicting information, we have to balance substantial cognitive dissonance with our prior beliefs, our desired outcomes, and our expectations. This is hard and uncomfortable work, and as Kahneman points out, a problem when we try to anticipate failures and roadblocks.

 

It is easy to project forward how our perfect plan will be executed. It is much harder to identify how different potential failure points can interact and bring the whole thing crashing down. For large and complex systems and processes, there can be so many obstacles that this process can feel entirely overwhelming and disconnected from reality. Nevertheless, it is important that we get outside of our comfortable narrative of success and at least examine a few of the most likely mistakes and obstacles that we can anticipate. Any time that we spend planning ways to get the ship back on course if something goes wrong will pay off in the future when things do go wrong. Its not easy because it is mentally challenging and nebulous, but if we can get ourselves to focus on the likelihood of failure rather than the certainty of success, we will have a better chance of getting to where we want to be and overcoming the obstacles we will face along the way.
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.
Tall Poppy Syndrome

Tall Poppy Syndrome

“There is unevenness, you know, when some objects rise conspicuous above others,” Seneca wrote in Letters From a Stoic.

 

I’m pretty fascinated with a concept that is known as Tall Poppy Syndrome and is often strongly expressed in Australia and New Zealand (so I understand – I haven’t been there myself to experience the culture fist hand). The idea is this:

 

A tall poppy that rises higher than the rest, that stand out above the others, is more likely to be decapitated than any other poppy. The poppy that is taller than the rest is not an admirable and praiseworthy poppy, it is risking itself and is likely to become a target. It is the first to be cut down because it is the most visible and easiest to see. An average poppy among a sea of poppies is likely to be left untouched and unbothered while the towering poppy next door is likely to have its top chopped off.

 

The idea is a warning against our ego and an argument in support of modesty. It is a polar opposite of current conceptions of the American Dream. Rather than standing out, boasting successful achievements, and always trying to have more, Tall Poppy Syndrome sends a message that it is better to do well, but not to do too well. As Seneca says, when some objects conspicuously rise above others, they create unevenness.

 

The potential of unevenness, or inequality, is an argument in favor of Tall Poppy Syndrome. The United States has never embraced a Tall Poppy Syndrome mindset, and instead we have developed a culture that tells us it is best to standout in all that we do. Have bright, fashionable clothing. Drive a fancy sports car. Own a big home to show your wealth and success. Inequality is a feature, not a bug, within the American system.

 

Today that inequality is reaching boiling points. Racial inequality (particularly within in policing and opportunity for advancement) is fueling protests. Increases in economic inequality has heightened tensions in the United States since the 2008 financial crisis. And as long as I can remember, social cohesion has clashed with our desire to stand out and be ourselves, producing visible and difficult cultural conflicts over gay marriage, free speech, and whether it is acceptable to wear baggie jeans.

 

There may be times where Tall Poppy Syndrome is limiting and reduces innovation and GDP growth. But its absence, and an all out push to stand out as an individual, can have its own consequences. Donald Trump doesn’t become president in a society that strongly discourages status seeking behavior via Tall Poppy Syndrome. In a culture that is all about economic success, bragging about attention and popularity, and ostentatious wealth, Trump and everything he represents, can rise to the top without fear of being cut down and outcast.

 

I don’t think Tall Poppy Syndrome is a perfect solution to the challenges America faces today, but I do think we need to limit the extent to which we worship the eccentric, ego driven entrepreneurs who have developed some of our best tools and technologies, and who to this point have represented the pinnacle of American success. Encouraging more settling at a certain point, more efforts to create a rising tide to lift all boats, rather than encouraging the tall poppy, might be necessary for our country to move forward on more even footing.