ButWhatFor? Four for Friday | No. 039

Predicting the Unpredictable, Newton, the Worst, and Huberman

E J
May 20, 2022

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ButWhatFor? Four for Friday

One Quote

The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained.

— Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

I highly recommend the book Superforcasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner. While the book does explore the techniques and mental models of individuals that are better than average at predicting the future, it also concludes that your average expert is only ever so slightly better than a coin flip at predicting future events in their given field. 

The funny thing about that is that we often pay experts a lot of money to tell us what they think about the future. Why? Because people find comfort in pointing at someone with credentials and saying "they said so."

Not only does having an expert's voice supporting your viewpoint help you get other people on board with whatever it is that you are doing, but it also gives you a scapegoat if you are wrong in the future. 

And who doesn't love having a gold ol' scapegoat in their back pocket?

So, you are paying the expert less for the accuracy of their forecast and more for their willingness to make a forecast. Fun stuff.

But, if forecasts tend to be about as correct as calling heads on a coin toss, why do we spend so much time and effort on precise forecasts if all we are really getting is a way to point the finger somewhere else?

Daniel Kahneman (author of Thinking, Fast and Slow) points out that we can fool ourselves into thinking that the future is forecastable because the power of hindsight makes past outcomes feel so inevitable.

We then add a little bit of hubris and a dash of well-intentioned reasoning in order to trick ourselves into thinking that future events might also be inevitable if we just think about them hard enough.

Unfortunately, empirically, they aren't! 

One Long

Newton discovered the force of gravity. Einstein threw that idea out, along with uniformly flowing time. So was Newton’s work for naught? Useless? 

Au contraire. “Although there is no force of gravity,” Deutsch writes, “it is true that something real (the curvature of spacetime), caused by the sun, has a strength that varies approximately according to Newton’s inverse-square law, and affects the motion of objects, seen and unseen.” 

Keep what’s true and valuable, discard the rest, try the next thing. Once again, Newton pointed future generations in the right direction. 

Newton showed Einstein where to look and what to improve upon. Without Newton, Einstein may have spent his time making those same discoveries instead of figuring out general relativity, and Heisenberg might have spent his time figuring out general relativity instead of establishing quantum mechanics, and so on. Incomplete or even downright incorrect solutions are a necessary part of the process. 

Alchemy failed, but science prevailed.

— Packy McCormick, from Not Boring

Despite being one of the most influential scientists of all time, Sir Isaac Newton was humble enough to realize that he was “standing on the shoulders of giants,” without whom he might have never realized there was something worth studying about the universe. He was not unique in appreciating this idea.

We find the earliest recorded use of a similar phrase by John of Salisbury.  In somewhat more poetic verse, he wrote that “we are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.”

Historian David McCullough shares a similar idea. While we all love to extoll the virtues of the self-made man, McCullough suggests that “nor is there any such creature as a self-made man or woman.” We all accept that standing alongside any triumph we claim as our own are our parents, teachers, friends, and mentors. But there are also those we have never met – those who generated your customs, setup your laws, spoke your language, wrote your history, fought your wars – who are as much a part of you as anyone else.

Packy McCormick writes about the same idea here, but he dives more specifically into the importance of respecting the failures that enable future progress. It seems silly to us that Newton would be infatuated with the idea of turning lead into gold, but if he and others like him hadn't scientifically explored chemical reactions in pursuit of alchemy, chemistry as a science might have taken longer to develop. 

And, back when Newton was around, was it really that silly to think making gold from lead was possible? You need people chasing those impossible-sounding ideas. After all, the idea that you could send information through electrons to the other side of the world was insane sounding too... but people needed to think it was worth their time.

Thankfully they did, because now I can send you this newsletter. 

So, McCormick's article is an interesting read (as is his newsletter generally), and he adds a sprinkling of takeaways for the start-up community using lessons learned from failures in history.

One Short

For those of you who have started your company within the last 5 years, question what you believe to be the normal fundraising environment.  Your fundraising experience was most likely not normal and future fundraises will be much more difficult.

If you are post-Series A and pre-product market fit, don’t expect another round to happen at all until you have obviously hit product-market fit. If you are pre-series A, the Series A Milestones we publish here might even turn out to be a bit too low.

If your plan is to raise money in the next 6-12 months, you might be raising at the peak of the downturn.  Remember that your chances of success [in fundraising] are extremely low even if your company is doing well.  We recommend you change your plan.

Remember that many of your competitors will not plan well, maintain high burn, and only figure out they are screwed when they try to raise their next round.  You can often pick up significant market share in an economic downturn by just staying alive.

With public markets declining steeply in the last few months, early-stage investors are resetting their valuation expectations and pulling term sheets left and right. This is causing some panic in the start-up world, especially among companies that were expecting to raise cash in the next 6 - 12 months.

Y Combinator, a start-up foundry / accelerator, recently sent out a list of things to remember in an economic downturn. A quick review of Twitter reactions shows that a lot of founders or outsiders view the advice as comical and self-serving... after all, assuming start-ups survive, if Y combinator can scare founders into taking money at lower valuations, it benefits them.

Unfortunately, Y Combinator is just trying to help its founders, many of whom grew up in one of the most founder-friendly fundraising environments ever, survive in a new world where investors have much more influence than they did the last five years.

And for the average person, its a good reminder that good times do not always last and that having plans B, C, and D for not great, not good, and bad times is important. 

One Extra

Being aware of these things is so important... because if I said, hey, you're gonna walk through my house and I'm gonna jump out and scare you at some point - yeah, I probably wouldn't be able to do it because you'd be aware.

...

If you don't know what it is, it's like, that is enough to make you fall whereas, if you say, "Hey listen, after you get a good, big dopamine hit, you're not gonna feel fired up three hours later. That's when you gotta put in the work. Be aware of the fact that you won't feel like doing it... You got all your dopamine and you already used it and you need to let that thing rebuild, but you can still go get a good workout and you can go still complete the task and go still write."

...

I think that's what's nice about what you're informing us of - is people can now go, "Oh I know what this is - this isn't me being a wimp - this isn't me, you know, not wanting to do this - it's my own natural hormones that are doing this thing making me feel this way. And I can just work through them.

— Jocko Willink

Jocko Willink and Echo Charles had Andrew Huberman on their podcast a few weeks back - and it is a fairly technical discussion.

They dove into how your body responds to things like sunlight (and specifically low-angle sunlight from the rising sun, which your body is programmed to respond to differently than just normal sunlight... pretty interesting), changes in temperature (your body likes to fall asleep as the temperature gets cooler while a slightly rising temperature prompts your body to naturally wake up), dopamine and adrenaline. 

It is a long one - over five hours - and it's probably one of those podcasts you could play in the background while you are doing other things and still get good information out of it. It was full of a lot of details that at least my mind kind of ignored as too technical, but occasionally Jocko breaks it all down into short summaries of "and this is the takeaway in plain language," which is useful to store in the back of your head.

Why? As Jocko highlights in the quote I pulled above, just being aware of how your biology / internal chemistry is wired can help you use those things to your advantage or notice when they are working against you. You don't need to understand the why and how. Only remembering the triggers and associated results is good enough in most cases. 

For example, something that stood out to me was that when a person first wakes up, your brain responds to light as a trigger to clean out whatever hormones are in your body that prompt you to feel sleepy. This takes some time. This is why people like coffee in the morning - it kicks you into feeling awake.

However, while caffeine will help you feel more alert, it also stops your body from cleaning out that sleepy-feeling hormone. So once the caffeine wears off, you feel tired again because all of those hormones are still floating around telling you to be tired. 

Takeaway - don't drink caffeine right away in the morning. 

Those same hormones also respond to exercise - exercise prompts your body to clean them out as well. This is why it can be good to exercise first thing in the morning as opposed to the afternoon. You get the benefit of the hormones that make you tired disappearing more quickly and your body temperature rises, which as we mentioned above, prompts your brain to wake up and start preparing for the day.

So - there is a lot more in that podcast, and I bet every person will take something different away while listening to it, so it is worth a listen.

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Have a great weekend,

— EJ

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