But What For Newsletter - No. 015

This is Water, Superforecasting, Earnestness, Live Life as an Experiment, the Reasonable Optimist and Sharing Standards

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

This is Water by David Foster Wallace

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches – the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story thing turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish.

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

Superforcasting, by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner [Book]

  • Takeaway: Don’t let what you want the future to be color what you think it will be

You might think the goal of forecasting is to foresee the future accurately, but that’s often not the goal, or at least not the sole goal. Sometimes forecasts are meant to entertain. Think of CNBC’s Jim Cramer… Sometimes forecasts are used to advance political agendas and galvanize action - as activists hope to do when they warn of looming horrors unless we change ways. There is also dress-to-impress forecasting - which is what banks deliver when they pay a famous pundit to tell wealthy clients about the global economy in 2050. And some forecasts are mean to comfort - by assuring the audience that their beliefs are correct and the future will unfold as expected.

And Galen was untroubled by doubt. Each outcome confirmed that he was right, no matter how equivocal the evidence might look to someone less wise than the master. “All who drink of this treatment recover in a short time, except those whom it does not help, who all die,” he wrote. “It is obvious, therefore, that it fails only in incurable cases.”

We rarely seek out evidence that undercuts our first explanation, and when evidence is shoved under our noses we become motivated skeptics - finding reasons, however tenuous, to belittle it or throw it out entirely. Recall Galen’s sublime confidence that his wonderful treatment cured everyone who took it except the “incurable cases” who died. That was pure confirmation bias: “If the patient is cured, it is evidence my treatment works; if the patient dies, it means nothing.”

But another mental process is likely at work, as well. Formally, it’s called attribute substitution, but I call it Bait and Switch: when faced with a hard question, we often surreptitiously replace it with an easy one. “Should I worry about the shadow in the long grass?” is a hard question. Without more data, it may be unanswerable. So we substitute an easier question: “Can I easily recall a lion attacking someone from long grass?” That question becomes a proxy for the original question and if the answer is yes to the second question, the answer to the first also becomes yes.

  • Takeaway: Success comes from caring about solving a meaningful problem for others

Earnestness sounds like a boring, even Victorian virtue. It seems a bit of an anachronism that people in Silicon Valley would care about it. Why does this matter so much?

When you call someone earnest, you're making a statement about their motives. It means both that they're doing something for the right reasons, and that they're trying as hard as they can. If we imagine motives as vectors, it means both the direction and the magnitude are right. Though these are of course related: when people are doing something for the right reasons, they try harder.

  • Takeaway: Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want

What I learned went well beyond the confirmation of an idea. What I learned is the power of framing, of thinking about life as an experiment.

Because when we live life as an experiment, we are far more willing to take risks, to acknowledge failure, to learn and develop. That’s what experiments are all about: discovery and growth. There is no real failure in an experiment because it’s all data. If something doesn’t work, that’s simply data that leads to changing behavior to see if something else does work.

When we’re experimenting, we’re willing to do all sorts of things we might be embarrassed to do otherwise. Like ask for something when we don’t particularly “deserve” it. Or say something in a conversation that might create a breakthrough (or might appear dumb). If it’s an experiment, then taking a risk is the win — whether it pans out or not.

And in those situations when it does pan out, we might just walk away with more than a good education. We might walk away with an extra 20% in our pockets.

  • Takeaway: Stay positive about the future, but also be realistic about the timing and trajectory of the path along the way

These two parts of the reasonable optimist might seem contradictory.

How can you be a glum pessimist with realistic views of how messy and painful the world is and a blissfully unaware optimist who knows things will get better?

A lot of it comes down to timing.

A realistic optimist is someone who knows that what happens in any given day, month, or year will be surprising, disappointing, difficult, and mostly out of your control. But they know with equal confidence that what happens in any given decade or generation is likely to be pretty good, bending heavily toward progress.

Progress happens when people learn something new. And they learn the most, as a group, when stuff breaks and gets painful.

So the reasonable optimist expects the world to break all the time. But they know – as a matter of faith – that if they can survive the day-to-day fractures they’ll capture the up-and-to-the-right arc over time.

  • Takeaway: Standardize what you can so that you have the energy to focus on new things

An interesting and relatively early example comes from the auto industry. In the early 1900s, the car industry was small, and fragmented. Cars were expensive, bespoke, and mostly made for rich hobbyists. Even small industries can go through boom and bust cycles, and one early cycle was driven by the classic bugaboo of small businesses: supplier concentration and working capital risk. Since every car company used unique designs, they ordered unique parts. But cars are full of essential parts: if you have everything you need to build a car, except the axles, or the spark plug, or a particular screw, you have lots of expensive inventory on the books and no cars to sell.

So, in 1905 a group of car company representatives formed the Society of Automotive Engineers. Their goal was to agree on the dimensions and quality of the basics: tires, screw threads, lock washers, etc. In many cases, they didn’t narrow things down to one model, they just picked the most popular 20% or so of designs and made those the acceptable ones. This improved the economics for both the carmakers themselves and their suppliers: car companies could expect backup suppliers if their main provider failed, and suppliers had backup customers, too. Even though the largest car companies didn’t participate in early standardization efforts, overall adoption of the standards exceeded 90% within a decade.

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.15, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: Some things cannot be rushed, so don’t try to rush them

When the man who was seeking his advice then said, “What I’d like to know is how, even if my brother is unwilling to be reconciled with me, I may remain in accordance with nature,” Epictetus replied: Nothing great comes into being all at once, for that is not the case even with a bunch of grapes or a fig.

If you tell me now, “I want a fig,” I’ll reply, “That takes time.” Let the fig tree first come into blossom and then bring forth its fruit, and then let the fruit grow to ripeness. So if even the fruit of a fig tree doesn’t come to maturity all at once and in a single hour, would you seek to gather the fruit of a human mind in such a short time and with such ease? Even if I were to promise you that myself, it is more than you can expect.

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

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