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Posts tagged with humility

I’m bored of #ff meaning follow Fridays. Let’s do Failure Friday instead and talk about things we’e failed at.

  • I failed an arithmetic test.
  • I failed judo class.
  • I failed to attract interest with my CV.
  • I failed to be married or have a stable job by my 30th birthday.
  • I failed an entrance exam.
  • I failed most of my writing assignments.
  • I lost an important contest.
  • I lost a race. Badly.
  • I lost a client I thought I had secured.
  • I failed a client I thought I could help.
  • I failed to get paid what I thought I was worth.
  • I failed to be honest in a romantic relationship.
  • I failed to do anything cool for a few years.
  • I couldn’t walk on a mountain because I was so out of shape.
  • I failed to wear sunscreen.
  • I failed to read the prospectus.
  • I failed to get into my preferred university.
  • I failed to get someone to fall for me.
  • I didn’t know what I wanted or how to get it.
  • I failed to keep in touch with old friends.
  • I failed to impress people.
  • I failed to advocate for myself.
  • I failed to do things on time.
  • I lost Other People’s Money.
  • I failed to come up with good ideas.
  • I failed to give it my all.
  • I failed to lose weight.
  • I failed to meet expectations.
  • I failed to look “put together”.
  • I failed to stay organised.
  • I failed to Get Things Done.
  • I failed to cook a good dinner.
  • I failed to recognise the obvious signs.
  • I failed to learn what I was trying to learn.
  • Things did not go according to plan.

NB: I don’t intend Failure Friday as a pity party. It just bugs me when people try to act flawless and successful. Infinitely wise with inerrant self-command. Even apparent failures are successes in disguise. Sorry stories modulate into major key as the lessons learned were invaluable rungs on the ladder of upward progress so in the end it all worked out for the best.

What is that? You’ll probably just make people who are already down feel worse by doing that. And not make anyone feel better.




Matt Ridley has written an entertaining book: The Rational Optimist, detailing all the ways in which life is great for rich people. (By rich people I mean the fraction of humans who make ≥5 figure salaries in $.)

For example Louis XIV had a hundred chefs make him 100 meals and throw away the 99 he didn’t want, but nowadays a New York City “peasant” has even more choice of dinner consumption, without needing to be king. (I’m not sure if this applies to the poorest person in NYC or the poor ones who can’t make it in … which is why I’m restricting the statement to ≥$10000 earners. Although maybe Mr Ridley would argue that even a subsistence farmer today has it better than Les Hommes de Cro-Magnon.)

But so, uh, why is this an interesting book? Nobody writes a book called Hey, did you know the sky is blue? Except at sunset when it’s pink or when it rains it’s grey. Isn’t that interesting?! Because everybody already knows that. The fact that Mr Ridley can sell a "provocative" book full of amazing facts and viewpoints about how prosperous we are sends a grave message the opposite way.

Why is it that we need a book from Mr Ridley to remind us how good we’ve got it?




I might be exaggerating a little if I say things like

  • We’re taught to measure our personal worth against exam scores;
  • We’re taught that there is One Competition and those who win the tournament get the goodies;
  • We’re taught that the children of Tiger Moms go to Yale and then Harvard Law and then become McKinsey consultants and then go on to head large corporations or i-banking or essentially win at life and rule the world in myriad ways;
  • We’re taught that the rest of us suck.

But I wouldn’t be completely making sh_t up. Those messages, or something like them, ∃ in the culture I come from and maybe in the culture you come from as well. Peter Thiel described a tournament to get into an Ivy League school, followed by a harder tournament to get into Stanford Law, followed by a harder tournament on Wall Street, … and left out of his story the 99.99% of us who didn’t even make it to the first tournament.

What about the supermajority? I’m pretty sure a hundred weak people can lift more weight than the strongest man on Earth. And I’m even more sure that the 50 smartest people on the planet can’t run Wall Street by themselves—let alone all the shops, shipyards, data centres, and engineering the runways of the airstrips to a millimetre of precision, that make up the economy.

 

So what about the rest of us? How much sense does it make to see the world in Thiel’s terms—the best versus the rest?

Well basic economics 101 tells us that a modern economy is made up of many specialised actors. The people who bend the tubes to make neon lights don’t know much about sewing shoes or sourcing the material for shoes, and none of those people know—or should know—how to do Ruby on Rails or Haskell.

Some people who research expertise also have developed a theory of 10,000 hours. If you practise something for 10^4 hours—so five years of work experience or ten years as a very, very consistent hobby—then you become awesome at it. A related theory is that if I have been doing something for a year or two and Peter Thiel tries to compete with me on it, I will still win regardless that he’s a chess master and a Stanford Law graduate and handsome and so on.

In other words, ∃ an equally or more compelling narrative than the A Player narrative: about everybody being different and that being okay and in fact more efficient.

Viewing education as a signalling mechanism to rank a one-dimensional hierarchy of best to worst people is one possibility—and one that BCG possibly uses to its advantage in applying profitable friction to the large companies who for some reason decide that some A+++ 24-year-olds know how to run their business better than they do. (Ooh, I really wanted to work in ‘fiction’ and ‘friction’ somehow. Too bad I was never a good enough student or I could have worked it.) But the dominant messages I hear from people who went into highly-paid frictional professions—accounting, law, consulting, finance—are that they want their kids to “find their own path”—i.e., do something with a tangible contribution to the society. Not necessarily fundraising for Laotian villagers, but something profitable that measurably increases the wealth of their community.

image

So the “everyone is a special individual” message doesn’t just come from warmhearted Kindergarten teachers wearing seashell necklaces. If specialisation, difference, and diversity are more important than uniformly learning

  • the same parts of history,
  • the same mathematics,
  • and being compared to each other on a fabricated 7-dimensional scale (grades)
  • to see if we can get to be included in the golden inner circle of whatever mysterious ritual the white-shoe white-collar firms perform to add an order of magnitude more value to their customers per employee,

— then the hard-nosed economists are also telling us the same message. Maybe it is not about me being better than you and worse than Peter Thiel, but rather a high-dimensional poset network of symplectic skills and attributes, mostly not substitutable by smart people over dumb people and yet all worth pursuing as they complementarily add size to the world GDP.




After talking to a number of PhD students, I’ve come to conclude two things. First, that many (especially in “genius disciplines” like maths or physics) are motivated by the goal of being the smartest human who ever lived—“the next Einstein”, or Feynman, or Grothendieck—not like the humans themselves, but rather like the symbols: revolutionary rarities who personally transformed some small corner of the world.

Second, I’m tentatively concluding that base hits are “actually the way forward”—that is, that home-run projects become magnum opi that never get finished because they’re not perfect, or the passionate ego-drive weakens, or the idea of expressing the ultimate moral worth of one’s psyche through academic paper-writing does not lead to successful ideas. Maybe the cure to cancer doesn’t come from a flash of insight but from a more mundane process of trying this, then that, then another thing. The dissertation that gets done comes from a concrete plan, consisting of steps, which lead to a sequence of words on a page.

The revolution, if it happens, is more likely to come from a sequence of papers which actually get written, than from an unhatched geniusling that doesn’t get written. And let’s face it: most of us aren’t geniuses, nor would we want to be, but we’re still interested in being productive.

 

In business one can think about base hits as well. My first business was a base hit. I didn’t sell for a jillion dollars, I just gave myself and some other people jobs for a number of years and didn’t fail. Which was my goal at the outset: not to be unprofitable. My plan was to copy an idea I had seen work somewhere else, make a few tweaks, and do it.

OK, so maybe it turned out to be more of a bunt and I should go for a double next time. But at least I wasn’t trying to dream up a revolutionary mobile app that will change the world, justifying paying $250k to various programmers as justified on a massively outsized conception of the “genius” of my “idea”, and ending up with something looking suspiciously like a mashup of Foursquare, Linkedin, OKCupid, and airplane reservations.

I definitely keep my left eye on acquisition prices as a way to gauge interesting spaces to enter—but I’m also thinking about what are the things I can accomplish, with the team I could reasonably assemble, the skills & knowledge I actually have, and the hours I’m actually going to want to work. What are the high-probability base hits I could string together to get from here to there?

(Just to give an example, I will not be founding the next Heroku. That got a nice bid, but the founders were engineers who knew a lot about hardware. That’s not me.)

Maybe Citadel wasn’t built from a “genius” signal using all the latest machine-learning hoopla, but from a smart (and obsessive) kid making trades he thought he could win on, and not making the other trades. And then building from there. Learning what’s a good opportunity, how long it takes to scope out a trade, how much research can reasonably be done in a month, and so on.

In short, maybe all of the “homeruns” I can think of, are actually just a sequence of small steps definitively forward.

 

In writing I find myself looking more and more for base hits as well. When I first started isomorphismes.tumblr.com, I had very, very high hopes for how awesome the material would be. (I won’t admit how high.) But now after posting 250 short bits of mathematics, I’m much more focussed on

  • write everything down somewhere, perhaps for later;
  • publish 2-3 things a week;
  • try to make them not suck.

I still think that after some unspecified amount of time, I may be able to string together a more magnum-opusy kind of work—once the pieces (short blog posts) are mostly there on the cutting-room floor. But that’s much more like stringing together a series of base hits than genius-ing out the heartbreaking work I would like to imagine I’ll create.

But what’s my rush? I’m accumulating tumblr followers every day, I’m plugging away at the craft, I’m putting out material. Looking back over a year of following that formula, I’ve put out a surprising amount of text and have a surprising number of subscribers. It’s kind of like the short-term/long-term fallacy working in reverse (working in my favour). ∫short term adds up to more than I thought it would.

Maybe Elliott Smith or Conor Oberst didn’t succeed because they were inspired geniuses who one night invented one of the best songs ever. But instead, first they learned to play the guitar, then they wrote one song when it occurred to them, then they wrote another. That’s the way Phillip Glass describes his own journey in the biopic about him.

 

Elon Musk and Larry Summers take a contrary perspective. @elonmusk says “I don’t know why all these entrepreneurs are trying to solve small problems”. Larry Summers says “It’s just as hard for an economist to think about important problems as about unimportant problems. The intellectual effort is the same, it’s just the output that’s better.”

Well, maybe they know better than I do. I still suspect in the day to day it’s about “What is the paper I can write, rather than the paper I’d like to be able to write” or “What are the practical steps I can take today to get closer to my business goal?” rather than “What do I wish for?”.

I can’t prove I’m right, this is just where my thoughts are at the moment. I think there’s a cult around genius and a cult around business superstars. Both of which do harm by increasing people’s appetites for success—feeding ambition, feeding vanity, feeding swagger, feeding overexuberance, feeding bad investments—above what’s reasonably achievable in a succession of 3,500 days.




Robin or Ram?
The Wrestler

hi-res




Jo Ann Beard:

[My day jobs were] Secretary and glorified secretary. For a while in my early forties I had a job stapling. It was actually fun but then it started bothering my back.

I worked once for a woman who was younger than me; she had me doing things like bringing her bagels and guarding her car when it was illegally parked. I liked her quite a lot and liked the job too, mainly because I could smoke while I guarded the car. Then she ran across a piece I had published in The New Yorker and almost had a coronary. She couldn’t adjust her idea of who this person she saw every day was. It’s like a box of paperclips had started talking to her. She just kept staring at me all day, and her friends kept coming by and laughing at her. To them this was high hilarity, that their colleague had underestimated her box of paperclips. At the end of the day she called me into her office and said: “You don’t know it, but The New Yorker is a big deal.”

I might be making it sound bad, but it was actually pretty great, all of it. The cigarettes, sitting on a fire hydrant in the sunshine, this woman’s genuine desire to let me in on my good fortune.




Have you ever noticed that professors never call another professor “a genius”, but regular businessmen (who own a bakery, a winery, a taxicab company, a janitorial supply company, a waste disposal company; welders, machinists, real estate agents, demolitionists) will regularly put up someone they’ve worked with as “a genius”?

  • She’s a genius at marketing.
  • She’s a genius when it comes to working with the county government; she knows all the ins and outs.
  • She’s a genius at design. If it weren’t for her, my store layout would be terrible. Every problem that came up, she had thought of in advance.

Come to think of it, I can’t remember ever hearing any professors use the word "genius". I think it’s because [a] they think they are geniuses, and [b] they think ‘genius’ is validation. Such a high compliment mustn’t be handed out too lightly.

edit: I may have to amend this claim. Some professors who do not have big egos might use the word “genius” as well. I still contend that academics use it more sparingly than other people.







who see beautiful things in humble places where others see nothing.

canary-inacoalmine




  • If you’re beautiful, you worry people talk to you because of your looks.
  • If you’re on top, you fear losing it all.
  • If you start a business, you notice that it’s less profitable than Microsoft.
  • If you write a book, you see that your work pales next to the classics.
  • If you get a Ph.D., you won’t get published in major journals.
  • If you get published in major journals, you won’t get a Nobel prize.
  • If you were born rich, you think your experience is less authentic or deserved.