These last three months, for me, can be defined by one word:
For reasons both outside of and within my control, I took on far too much, tried to do too many different things, got pulled in too many different directions…
And ended up going nowhere at all.
I feel prey to that most alluring of mistakes – the planning fallacy.
One of my favorite summations of the planning fallacy comes from Nick Winter:
“When humans estimate things like how long a task will take, their average-case and best-case predictions are almost identical, and their worst-case prediction is still more optimistic than what actually happens.”
Guilty as charged.
I ran into what could only be described as an “existential crisis” inside my business this past quarter. Forces outside my control conspired to not only impact short-term revenue but to threaten our very ability to do business.
As the quote above indicates, we tend to plan for an ideal future…but that future rarely materializes. I am no exception here; I had grand plans for the quarter, most of which were already headed straight off a cliff before my work life caught fire.
The question now is, “what did we learn from that experience?”
I experimented with creating a new role for customer service in my business, and taking on that role myself.
I brought that same experimental mindset to Q1 of this year. The problem was that I wasn’t really in the “experimental stage” anymore.
Why not? Because I already knew what to focus on.
Some of those experiments succeeded, a bunch failed. The ones that worked had become ongoing commitments. My calendar was now filled with things I’d already agreed to or that had proven to produce results.
Adding more experiments on top of all that was a surefire way to become overwhelmed even if everything went smoothly. As soon as a little chaos got introduced to that system, everything fell apart.
I made a common mistake:
Seeking the golden mean.
Aristotle developed the “golden mean” as a way of living a moral life. Imagine a spectrum: on one end, you have zealous pursuers of one type of lifestyle (like strict asceticism). On the other end, you have the zealous pursuers of an opposite strategy (hedonism without any moral constraints).
Aristotle believed that either extreme would lead you astray. A better idea would be to pursue the “middle path,” neither completely abstaining nor falling into degeneracy. As long as you were careful to stick the middle, you knew you were living right.
Aristotle’s concept of the “golden mean” was extremely influential on Western Culture. You can still hear it today whenever someone talks about how “both sides” need to come together, that the truth is “somewhere in the middle.” We have an intuitive sense that if there are two highly polarized sides to a debate, they’re probably both wrong in equal measure.
Trouble is, for many problems a “middle road” strategy doesn’t get us very far. In fact, we risk getting the worst of both worlds without the advantages of sticking to one or the other.
For example, there are many situations where we can’t be sure exactly “where” the “middle of the road is.” Let’s say we want to pursue a “golden mean” in terms of our driving risk – we want to drive like a 50/50 mix of Evil Knievel and Old Fuddy-Duddy.
While the extremes in this situation may be obvious (driving a car blindfolded is pretty obviously risky), small decreases or increases in risk can be hard to detect (Exactly how risky is driving after having had a single beer?). Exactly where does the “mean” begin and end?
There is an alternative to the “golden mean,” however: the bi-modal strategy.
Bi-modal strategies, rather the trying to find a balance between competing ends of a spectrum, instead seek to invest all available resources into the ends of the spectrum, with nothing in the middle.
To use our driving example, you could stay extremely safe in some areas, while taking multiple small risks in others – with no area of your life where you take “moderate” risks. We’d drive like Evil Knievel some of the time (say, at the monster truck rally)…and like an old fuddy-duddy the rest of the time.
With this mental model in mind, let’s re-examine what happened to me this quarter.
I started off 2020 all the way in “experimentation mode.” My main business was puttering along, and I used my excess capacity to pursue some new projects. This is a good example of a bi-modal strategy.
But as time went on, I neglected to re-allocate my time and resources. Many of my “experiments” became established projects with their own demands. My existing business started to require more of my time and energy. As such, I was neither fully exploring new ideas nor fully exploiting the ideas that worked. I was stuck in the middle, trying to find a balance between two competing priorities.
Stress…and not a whole lot else.
All of this is nicely summed up by the wonderful Juhani’s Law, which states:
“The compromise will always be more expensive than either of the suggestions it is compromising.”
Lesson learned. Just as we need to routinely re-allocate our investments so that our portfolio matches our acceptable risk tolerance, so we need to routinely ask ourselves where we are, exactly, along any given spectrum…and what strategy we need to follow.
For me, this next quarter is going to be focused far more on exploiting what’s working than it will be on experimentation.
What if there was a step by step way to solving any problem?
A simple, straight-forward path to getting everything you ever wanted?
To avoiding pitfalls and obstacles? To maximizing your potential and living your best life?
It’s called the Logical Thinking Process.
It’s got five simple pieces.
Five simple ways to think more effectively and see the world more clearly.
Over the next few emails, I’m going to be showing you how you can immediately apply these steps to your own life.
Let’s talk about problems.
What is the Logical Thinking Process?
“A bad system will beat a good person every time.”
W. Edward Deming
Every human organization is a system.
This applies to “organizations” like your workplace…
But also to your relationships.
Your marriage is an organization of two. Your family is an organization of three or four or five or more.
The social groups you interact with are systems. The restaurant you order takeout from is a system….and, of course, the app you used to order is a system as well.
Systems grow in complexity as they grow in size. Changes in one part of the system affect other parts of the system. Often, these chains of causation grow so long and so complicated that the true “inciting event” may be completely invisible to us.
It’s the “butterfly effect”: we don’t see snow and know that a butterfly has flapped its wings in India. We see the effect, but we rarely understand the cause.
That doesn’t stop us from placing blame, though.
When something happens we tend to assume the cause is “proximal” – i.e., nearby. What happened immediately before our problem emerged? Surely, that must be the cause, right?
These dual tendencies – to miss the true causes of an event, and to place blame for the problems we run into – lead us to blame ourselves for most of our problems. After all, WE are the proximal cause of most of the things that happen to us.
Weigh more than I’d like? That’s my fault. I should have more willpower.
Needed to study, but didn’t? That’s my fault. Why can’t I focus?
Hurt someone I love? That’s my fault. Why am I so careless?
It’s a very, very short leap from my personal shortcomings are the source of my problems…
To I am not a very good person.
And that’s a tough place to get out of, once you’re there.
But, as Deming said: A bad system will defeat a good person every time.
It’s pointless to shame ourselves, degrade ourselves, beat ourselves up…
If we haven’t at least tried to address our problem from a systems perspective, first.
Weigh more than I’d like? Maybe if I remove trigger foods from the house…
Needed to study, but didn’t? Maybe it’s too noisy…what if I got noise-canceling headphones…?
Hurt someone I love? Is there something in our dynamic that sets me off? Could I prevent that from happening…?
That’s what the Logical System Process is all about:
We don’t focus on the person…
We focus on the systems that the person operates within.
And that makes all the difference.
What is the Logical Thinking Process, anyway?
It’s a process. You can run absolutely any problem you want through it – from purely personal issues to international.
There are five steps.
Each step has a specific purpose, and each will move you further towards solving your target problem.
The first step, the Goal Tree, is used to define a single goal we aim to achieve and what is necessary to get there.
Next is the Current Reality Tree, which explores why we have not already reached the goal. What’s in our way?
Once we define why we haven’t already solved our problem, we often discover deep and seemingly-insurmountable conflicts within us. The third step is to solve these conflicts with a Conflict Resolution Diagram.
The fourth step, the Future Reality Tree, is used to map out a strategy to achieve our goal.
Finally, the Prerequisite Tree is used to define the individual steps you need to take right now.
And that’s it.
Sometimes, you need all five steps to address a problem…
Sometimes, you’ll only need one or two.
I said these steps were simple…and they are.
That doesn’t mean that they’ll be easy, however.
Thinking logically – really examining our biases and assumptions about the world – can be difficult.
They payoffs, however, are incredible…and will radically transform your life.
Next week, we get right into things…with the Goal Tree.
This post originally appeared on the “Better Questions” email list. If you’d like to get one email like this a week, please sign up at BetterQuestionsEmail.com. Thanks!
Last week, we covered the Goal Tree – a tool designed to help us explicitly define what we want.
But things don’t usually go the way we want. What do we do, then?
The next step in the Logical Thinking Process, the Current Reality Tree, is all about defining our problems.
Before we can do that, however, let’s talk about problems a little bit.
Problems And Undesirable Effects
Problems come in all shapes and sizes. They can be personal or interpersonal, societal or internal, within our control or without.
Because of this variety, it can be hard to get a handle on what our problems really are, or if we can do anything about it.
The Thinking Process approaches this by first getting rid of the word “problems” altogether – too much baggage, too many different meanings.
Instead of problems, the LTP talks about “undesirable effects.”
An “undesirable effect” is any deviation from your critical success factors, as determined by your Goal Tree. In essence, this means that an undesirable effect is just one way in which current reality differs from your ideal reality.
There’s a couple key points here I want to highlight:
For one, defining undesirable effects as deviations from our goal tree means that undesirable effects aren’t subjective. They have nothing to do with what we should want, or what other people say is best for us.
We built the goal tree, and the goal tree is what determines our undesirable effects. So in a very real way, we choose our undesirable effects in the process of choosing our goals. Ultimately, all of this is within our control.
Secondly, undesirable effects is a useful term in that it focuses our attention on the system that produced the effect, rather than some kind of permanent trait we possess.
One of my favorite things about the LTP is that it depersonalizes the problems in our lives. We’re not blaming anyone; instead, we’re focusing on the chain of events that result in the undesirable effect. This makes difficult problems easier to address, especially when they involve other people.
Why We Build The Current Reality Tree
The Current Reality Tree is all about defining “the gap” between where we are and where we want to be.
We figure out our undesirable effects – the places where reality objectively – differs from what was in our Goal Tree – and then we break those down into root causes that produce a majority of our issues.
You may be thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, but I already KNOW what my problems are.” And you may be right!
But truly understanding the nature of our undesirable effects is harder than you might think.
Remember: reality is complex. Because effects may sometimes be far removed in time or space from the original causes, it’s often quite difficult to understand the underlying reasons our undesirable effects exist in the first place.
This leads us to waste time addressing the wrong things. It’s a bit like a doctor treating the symptoms, but not the disease – while we may feel a bit better in the short term, our underlying condition will remain until we do something about it.
The Current Reality Tree helps us get beneath the surface level and down to the disease. It allows us to make rapid progress in a very short amount of time….because we often find that one or two critical root causes are actually producing the majority of our undesirable effects!
That’s the appeal of the Current Reality Tree in a nutshell:
It allows to make massive improvement with a minimum amount of effort by focusing our efforts on the few things that really, really matter.
With that out of the way, let’s talk about creating our own Current Reality Tree!
Step By Step: Building the Current Reality Tree
Step One: Determine Your Undesirable Effects
The Current Reality Tree is going to look and act a lot like the Goal Tree – but instead of our goal at the top, we’re going to have some Undesirable Effects.
You can have as many Undesirable Effects (UDEs, or “ooh-dees”) as you like, but usually we’ll start with somewhere between 1 and 3. The more UDEs you include, the more complex the tree and the longer it’ll take!
How do we find our Undesirable Effects? Look at your Goal Tree. Remember the Critical Success Factors – the layer just below our ultimate goal? This is where we start. Which of these is NOT a reality right now? Where are we falling short, and how?
In my example, I’ll start with Critical Success Factor “Reduce Stress” from my Goal Tree.
(If you recall, “Reduce Stress” was a Critical Success Factor of my Goal to “Massively Improve My Quality of Life In 2021.”)
I’m going with my gut here, but I certainly feel stressed lately, which is a good indication that I have an Undesirable Effect here. One UDE will be enough for me right now.
Once you’ve picked out your UDEs, write them out as a complete sentence. Be specific about what’s going on, but try not to include any potential reasons or connected ideas – we just want to make our current situation and how it differs from the Critical Success Factor explicit.
I wrote: “I feel significant amounts of ‘bad stress’ related to my work.” That’s my Undesirable Effect.
Step Two: Determine 2-3 Layers of Causality.
To kick things off, I’m going to try and dig down 2-3 layers of causality for each Undesirable Effect I chose.
To do this, ask yourself “Why?” Why does this undesirable effect exist?
While this may seem simple, be careful here. What we want to do is make our logic “tight” – that means not skipping any steps in the chain of causality.
For example, let’s say we were breaking down the UDE “Molly and I rarely hang out.”
I wouldn’t want to skip straight to “She has to work.” Lots of people with plenty of time to hang out also have to work. So what’s really going on here?
By adding in the intermediate steps we initially jumped over, the chain of causation becomes much clearer:
“Molly and I rarely hang out.” Why? “Molly isn’t available to hang out when I call her.” Why? “Molly only has free time on Tuesday nights.” Why? “Molly has to work every other night of the week.” Why? “Molly has bills that she needs to pay, and her job doesn’t pay her much…”
This chain paints a very different picture than our first one!
This careful attempt to list out all the logically necessary steps in a chain may seem like a pain in the butt, and I won’t lie – it can be difficult. But it’s also incredibly valuable.
The reason that so many of our problems in life seem intractable or impossible to solve is exactly because we often skip over so many determining factors when we analyze the problem. Every single intermediate step in a chain provides us an opportunity to break it – and thus, to solve previously “unsolvable” problems.
For now, just focus on getting 2-3 layers of causation down the sequence – but try and make sure not to skip any intermediate steps.
Also, keep in mind that one entry on your tree might have multiple contributing factors. Look at my first attempts at this step as an example:
One of the causes of my UDE is “Money is Tight.” That makes sense – when money is tight, paying bills can be difficult and my stress levels go up.
My first attempt at digging deeper into the causation of “Money is Tight” was “Revenue is stuck at 120k,” which also makes sense. After all, if we made more money, money wouldn’t be so tight…right?
While that reasoning is correct, after some thought I realized that revenue alone wasn’t sufficient to cause “Money Is Tight.” After all, even if my revenue stayed at 120k, if I kept all that money I wouldn’t have any money problems at all!
No – revenue by itself isn’t sufficient. “Money is Tight” has to be caused by a combination of “Revenue being stuck at 120k” AND “Profit margin being low.” Neither one of these can cause this UDE on their own…they’re BOTH necessary for the problem to occur.
Feel free to break up your UDEs into a many contributing factors as is necessary. Don’t worry if you don’t get them all right away – building an accurate Current Reality Tree will take some time and thought, and you’ll be revising all along the way.
Step Three: Build our your initial structure.
Once we’ve got our first few layers of causation down, it’s time to start building our the structure of the tree.
I prefer to hang my notes on a whiteboard, but you could do it on a wall, on a big piece of paper, on your desk, or in a notebook.
If you can, pick a surface you can draw safely on.
Put your Undesirable Effects at the very top, then arrange your notes in order below. Group “like” effects and causes together. Don’t worry too much about getting the structure right yet – you’ll be adding to this tree quite a bit, and moving things around is perfectly normal.
Here, you can see my initial notes stuck onto the whiteboard in roughly the right order:
Step Four: Improve The Logic Of The Clusters.
It’s strange how often a simple change in perspective can shift how we see things.
Now that your notes are hung up, do you see any way to improve the logic of your tree?
Is the meaning of each statement clear?
Are there any “compound ideas” – statements that contain an if-then relationship? If so, break them up into separate entities.
Are there any intermediate steps missing?
Are the causes enough, by themselves, to result in the effect? Are we missing anything?
Step Five: Build your cause and effect chains downward.
Pick one of the clusters you’ve created and start digging deeper into it’s chain of causation.
For each Post-It, ask yourself: “Why does this exist?”
The answers to that question become your next row of notes…and so on, until you find you can’t dig any further.
A quick word on this: theoretically, you should be able to follow ANY Undesirable Effect all the way down it’s chain of causation to the Big Bang and the formation of the universe. After all, that’s where all this started!
But knowing all that isn’t really going to help us much. So: when do we stop digging down through our chains of causation?
A good rule of thumb is to stop digging when you start to reach things that are out of your span of control or sphere of influence.
Let’s examine these two concepts for a moment, because they’re really important.
Your span of control is all the stuff that you have direct control over. If you decide to change it, you can change it. Your diet is within your span of control, while your genes are not.
Your sphere of influence is all the stuff that you can influence, but need to work with other people in order to truly change. For example, while you may not have control over the policies at work, you have influence over them: you could build a plan to change them, gather support from your coworkers and lobby your boss.
If the UDE you’re addressing is personal, you might stop digging when you hit a cause that is outside your span of control. If you’re building a Current Reality Tree for use within your company, you might stop when you hit causes that are outside your sphere of influence.
This is probably going to be the most time-consuming part of this process. It’ll take a while to work through your various branches…and you’ll want to stop, take stock and ensure you’re not skipping over any intermediate steps as you go. Sometimes you get this done in a single session, sometimes it takes multiple sessions.
Repeat this process until you get to the lowest level of causation within your span of control or sphere of influence for each branch…and then, move on to the next step.
Here’s my Current Reality Tree, built out about as far as I could take it:
Step Six: Connect Your Entities With Arrows of Causation.
Once you’ve got enough pieces to work with, start connecting them with arrows to show their cause and effect relationships.
The arrows should flow upwards, culminating in the Undesirable Effect at the top.
We can visually express different kinds of relationships with different types of arrows:
One plain arrow flowing into a given effect means that a single cause produced that effect.
Multiple plain arrows flowing into a single effect means that multiple causes are contributing to that effect.
Multiple arrows flowing into a single effect, joined by an oval, means that all causes are required to produce the effect.
For example, to produce a fire we need wood and a source of ignition. Without either one, that fire isn’t getting lit. If we were to diagram this out, “Lit Fire” would be at the top. “Wood” and “Source of ignition” would be on the layer below it, each with an arrow pointing upwards towards “Lit Fire.” We would then circle both arrows at their tips to show that they are both necessary.
This is a great time to look for two important elements: lateral connections and negative reinforcing loops.
Lateral Connections are connections between different branches of our tree. Do any causes in one cluster lead to effects in another? Are there any obvious places where the “branches” of your tree intersect? Finding these connecting nodes is important, because they provide useful places to focus when we’re looking for solutions that will solve multiple issues at once.
Negative reinforcing loops are causes and effects that feedback on one another, sending us into a “death spiral” of ever-worsening results. An example might be “I’m extremely hungry” and “I don’t want to cook.” Let’s examine that a bit.
“I’m extremely hungry…so…”
“I don’t have any energy…so…”
“I don’t feel like cooking…so…”
“I don’t have any food to eat…so…”
“I’m extremely hungry.”
Each element of the loop feeds into the next, making it very hard to break out of.
While our example here is a little silly, negative reinforcing loops are EXTREMELY damaging, and are often hiding in plain sight. Finding one in your tree provides a high-leverage point of change – break the loop and massive change will follow.
Whenever you spot a negative reinforcing loop on your tree, make sure to mark it somehow. I like using blue marker for my regular causal arrows and red marker for my negative loops, since it stands out. However you mark them, keep an eye out for negative reinforcing loops of any kind!
Here’s my tree, with causal arrows added:
Step Seven: Scrutinize the entire tree.
Take a step back (literally!) and take in the entire tree.
Much like the Goal Tree, one of the strengths of these tools is that extremely complex and abstract problems are made visible. Seeing something physically manifested can often bring out insights you wouldn’t have otherwise been aware of.
Feel free to spend time sitting with and thinking about your tree. Sometimes additional causes will occur to you that will force you to reorganize or re-think parts of your tree. That’s great!
Our goal here isn’t speed – it’s clarity. Working to keep our thought process clear and logical will ensure that when we move on to the final step in the process we get the absolute best results possible.
That brings us to….
Step Eight: Identify Which Critical Root Causes To Attack.
Here we are – the culmination of the entire Current Reality Tree:
Identifying the highest-leverage Root Causes to work on.
Remember that Critical Root Causes are the lowest levels of causation on our tree that are within our span of control or sphere of influence. They are the deep roots of our surface-level Undesirable Effects.
Scanning your tree will often reveal that only a handful of Critical Root Causes are producing most of your Undesirable Effects, especially if Negative Reinforcing Loops are involved. These are obvious places to focus.
You might also ask yourself which of your Critical Root causes have the most potential for improvement. Are any easier to address than others? Are there any you KNOW how to fix, or any that you’re confident you can get rid of? All of these might factor into your decision of what to work on.
In my example, the Current Reality Tree revealed single Critical Root Cause that was behind nearly ALL of my Undesirable Effects! Negative Reinforcing Loops were causing greater and greater problems across multiple branches of my tree…even ones that seemed unrelated.
I dig into my specific tree, what I found there, and how I identified my most important Critical Root Cause in this video:
Summing It All Up
There’s no getting around it – building out a complete Current Reality Tree can take a lot of work, especially if you started off with a bunch of Undesirable Effects.
But it’s an illuminating and highly valuable experience.
So often, we attempt to solve problems that we’re profoundly unclear on…and that can lead to wasted effort, frustration, and painfully slow progress.
Getting clear on not just our Undesirable Effects, but the most effective ways to deal with them can be the key to solving the “unsolvable…”
And doing it in record time.
However, just diagnosing the gap isn’t enough…
Now, we have to figure out how to close that gap.
Next week, we begin that process with perhaps the most famous Logical Thinking Process tool:
Interested in a simple yet massively transformational practice you can immediately apply to your own life?
Then this week’s email is for you. 🙂
Where can I Gemba Walk in my own life?
If you’re at all like me (and you probably are, since you’re here), you set some goals for 2021.
In all likelihood, you’re going to struggle to achieve those goals. I know I will. After all, if our goals were easy to achieve we’d have achieved them already!
The good news is that there are a few simple processes that can make that struggle much less intense.
Today, I’m going to share one that’s had a profound effect on my own life:
The Gemba Walk.
Gemba is a Japanese word meaning “the real place” – as in, “this is where the real work happens.”
A Gemba Walk is a process first codified by Taiichi Ohno, and executive at Toyota behind much of what today is known as “Lean” manufacturing.
In a manufacturing context, a Gemba Walk meant “walking the plant floor, observing production, and interacting with employees” to identify and solve problems. That’s an extremely simple concept, but it was highly transformative in practice.
Gemba Walks have three critical components:
Presence: the leader literally walks the floor, observing the work area in person. Gemba Walking is rooted in direct observation. We’re not thinking about where things ought to be, or how they ought to work; we’re paying attention to what is happening in practice.
Asking Why: Identifying problems is one thing; solving them is another. As students in my Difference Engine seminar will remember, multiple problems can be solved in one fell swoop by finding and addressing root causes or surface-level problems. The simplest way to find the root cause is to continuously ask why something is happening until you can’t get any further.
Process, Not People: Gemba Walking is never about blaming the individual. It’s not about one particular person’s performance. Why? Because an individual’s performance (assuming they deserve to be there in the first place) is more a product of the system they’re put into than it is their individual work ethic or ability. Blaming someone solves nothing; addressing the underlying causes affecting their performance is the only way to see real improvement.
What does a Gemba Walk look like outside of the factory? Let’s explore an example from my own life.
I’ve been developing the habit of cleaning my desk before I leave work each day.
In the beginning this was simply for peace of mind; I prefer a tidy desk, especially in the morning, when I tend to be most productive.
It’s a simple process: before I leave work I spend 5 minutes moving mail off my desk and onto a chair, putting pens away, arranging notebooks, putting books back on shelves, etc.
After the 7th consecutive day of moving mail off of my desk and onto a chair, however, it occurred to me that I could transform this cleaning process into a Gemba Walk by adding one additional step:
Why am I moving this mail off my desk every day?
Well…because I don’t have a mailbox, someone slides new mail under my door.
And I don’t want to leave it there, because I’ll step on it. Since I see it on my way to the desk when I come in each morning, I just….put it on the desk.
I don’t like having it on the desk, but I’m afraid that if I put it away somewhere I’ll forget about it. So it stays on my desk.
My schedule is pretty packed lately, so I haven’t had much time at work to do anything outside of my scheduled tasks. That means that the mail on my desk piles up over time.
When the pile stresses me out, I move it to the chair, because the chair is still in view.
Asking “why” something is happening can reveal a series of interlocking causes beneath the surface of even the simplest problem.
For the above, I pinpointed two primary issues:
There was no time scheduled to deal with my mail;
There was no dedicated place to put the mail.
Putting some mail time on my calendar on Fridays took care of problem number one; buying a wire basket took care of problem number two.
What’s the value of a process like this?
For one, performing regular Gemba Walks through the various parts of your life can be deeply transformative.
We don’t realize the effect these “little nuisances” have on us. These little problems all take a toll on our cognitive capacity.
Secondly, fixing these issues not just at the surface-level but at their root, can have significant second-order effects that we don’t anticipate.
I am extremely bad at processing my mail. I pay bills late, ignore tax notices, accidentally throw away checks.
Fixing my mail problem will lead to increased income over time, since I’ll be paying fewer late fees and interest. My overall stress levels will decline, since I’ll actually be on top of my taxes instead of waiting until the last possible second… And I’ll feel happier and more productive on average.
Gemba Walks are a way of practicing systems thinking.
They teach us to deal with problems not just as they present themselves to us, but as the final manifestation of a web of systems interactions. They teach us that the “little things” are often symptoms of larger, more serious issues…and that it’s pointless to blame ourselves without addressing the systems we’re enmeshed in.
Making a regular practice of improving our lives from the group up is what Gemba Walks are all about.
And that’s something that I, at the very least, need more of.
The article does a good job of pointing at some of the more problematic aspects of online “productivity” culture. This section, in particular, forms the basis of my own productivity system (lovingly named Personal DanBan), as does Gemba Walking. I’m hoping to make a course on that system this year.
“Consider instead a system that externalizes work. Following the lead of software developers, we might use virtual task boards, where every task is represented by a card that specifies who is doing the work, and is pinned under a column indicating its status. With a quick glance, you can now ascertain everything going on within your team and ask meaningful questions about how much work any one person should tackle at a time. With this setup, optimization becomes possible.”
This post is about the election, but it is NOT about politics.
I would really, really appreciate it if you would give this one a read.
Grab a coffee, get a quiet place, and give me a bit of your time. Even if you’re sick of the news by now.
If you like it, please do me a favor and share it with someone who’d like it.
OK? OK. 🙂
—- Should I extend empathy to my enemies? —-
“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
It’s been quite the week, eh?
Emotions have run high during this election. The electorate is more driven, more engaged, and more motivated than ever before (at least, as measured by voter turnout, which sites at a record high of 72.1% as of this writing).
As a result, the reaction to the A.P.s call for a Biden victory was also extremely strong.
I am not going to talk about the election itself, or the decision to call the race despite the Trump administration’s legal challenges, in this email. If you’ve been repeatedly “doomscrolling” or “joyscrolling” over the past few days, this is something different.
I want to talk about us.
You know. The People.
I want to talk about what this election – and our politics in general – is doing to us.
And I want to start with empathy.
It wasn’t long after the A.P. announced their results that I started seeing reactions like these all over Twitter:
(Below are a few random samples from my timeline)
It’s very clear that many on the left don’t feel empathetically inclined to those who support or voted for Trump.
For many who remember the feeling of disillusionment that followed the 2016 election – and the mockery that came after…
…2020 feels like a time to even the score.
They don’t deserve empathy because they would never give it to us.
Let me make an argument:
This is completely the wrong way to go.
I know emotions are high, and changes are that if you’re a Biden voter, you’re not feeling particularly forgiving.
And if you’re a Trump voter, you probably don’t think “the left” has any empathy in them, anyway.
Wherever you fall on that spectrum, give me this email to make my case. Let’s start at the beginning:
What is empathy?
Empathy is Not Sympathy
Empathy is a form of perspective-taking.
Former FBI hostage-negotiator Chris Voss defines empathy to his students as “the ability to recognize the perspective of a counterpart, and the vocalization of that recognition.”
It’s critical to understand that when we discuss empathy, we do not mean “sympathy,” which is feeling someone else’s feelings.
Neither is empathizing the same as agreeing. Empathy does mean that we accept or validate another person’s thoughts or feelings. We don’t even need to understand why the person feels the way that they do.
The core element of empathy is presence. We are truly present, here, in the moment, aware of what the other person is experiencing. We try to perceive it as clearly as possible, without judgement, and reflect that perception back.
So…if empathy is not agreement or understanding, why is it so important?
1. Empathy is the beginning of all communication; 2. Empathy is tactically effective; 3. We need it ourselves.
Failure to Communicate
If you deeply disagree with a great number of your fellow Americans (as I do, on any number of issues)…
The uncomfortable fact remains that they still…you know…get to vote. The virtues of democracy – and it’s endless frustrations – all stem from the fact that we need to accommodate one another. The minority often has power enough to make any change you care about difficult.
And while Joe Biden and the Democrats may be riding high at this very moment, they will still have to get things done. They’ll need the support of Congress, and, sooner or later, they will need the support of some Republicans.
If you care about societal change, you need to convince people to support you.
In other words, you need to communicate.
And all communication begins with empathy.
Note that I didn’t say empathy improves communication, or that it makes communication more effective. Communication literally begins with empathy…and can’t exist without it.
Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Nonviolent Communication, puts it this way:
“When we stay with empathy, we allow speakers to touch deeper levels of themselves….
When people are upset, they often need empathy before they can hear what is being said to them. “
You may disagree with someone’s political beliefs. You may think that all of their suppositions are incorrect. You may think their beliefs are dangerous, or harmful.
But if your goal is to convince them of this fact, you will need to truly hear and reflect back their needs. They will have to feel understood before they can actually hear what you are saying.
If you’ve had an uncomfortable or confrontational political argument lately, this is why. There is little to no actual communication taking place. There is no exchange of ideas, or evaluation of evidence.
Instead, we desperately seek to be understood. We seek a sense of connection and empathy…
But if communication is important to you – and it should be – then it has to start with empathy.
Communication begins with empathy…
But influence is strengthened by it.
If your goal is to “move the needle” of our democracy – to build a coalition, launch a movement, pass a law, or right a wrong – then empathy will be one of the primary tools you use.
Salesmen and women have known this for centuries. In any sales training you ever take, what’s the very first thing you do?
It isn’t list your product features. It isn’t finding the prospect’s pain.
It’s building rapport.
It is a core element of human nature that we’re far more likely to work with people we like, and whom we believe are like us. And empathy gives us a tactical advantage in building that impression.
Let’s return to Chris Voss. Voss was a hostage negotiator for the FBI, and has spent years training people in negotiation tactics. He’s hardly the touchy-feely type. And yet, Voss begins his negotiations in the exact same way laid out in Nonviolent Communication – with empathy.
“Tactical empathy is understanding the feelings and mindset of another in the moment and also hearing what is behind those feelings so you increase your influence in all the moments that follow.
“It all starts with the universally applicable premise that people want to be understood and accepted. Listening is the cheapest, yet most effective concession we can make to get there.
“By listening intensely, a negotiator demonstrates empathy and shows a sincere desire to better understand what the other side is experiencing.”
Communication begins with empathy…but influence is strengthened by it. Once people hear what you say, we still need them to change their behavior. It’s one thing to rail on about racists and socialists, but if you actually care about the problems of the world than we need people to do something different. And changing the behavior of humans is notoriously difficult.
Want your kid to stop finger-painting the walls?
Figure out what their needs are through deep listening and tactical empathy.
Want your uncle to stop sharing articles about vaccines during Thnaksgiving?
Figure out what his needs are through deep listening and tactical empathy.
Once someone feels heard and understood, their defenses come down. They open up – even if just a little bit – to new ideas and experiences. Fight or flight is replaced by receptiveness to influence.
Will you always be successful? Of course not.
But will you do FAR more good in the world? Yes.
And that’s what this is all about, right?
It’s not about winning the argument.
It’s about changing the world.
Finally, there is an even deeper-seated reason we should extend empathy to those we disagree with:
We need it ourselves.
I think often about the James Baldwin quote at the beginning of this email…
“Only if we face these open wounds in ourselves can we understand them in other people.”
Baldwin certainly had more than his share of “open wounds.” He wrote vividly about race, homosexuality, about living in a society that didn’t “see” him.
Ultimately, the practice of empathy is just as much about facing our own wounds as it is about recognizing the wounds of others. And right now there is precious little of that to go around.
I think one of the reasons our public discourse has become so toxic – and why we have become increasingly polarized, with our political positions drifting further and further apart – is that we are all desperately seeking empathy. We need to feel seen, heard, understood; we are social animals by nature, and the feelings of isolation and alienation that are typical of of our current society are experienced as distress.
We feel like we’re under attack all the time, which makes us angry. And the less we feel heard, the angrier we get. The angrier we get, the less capable we are of feeling empathy.
Rosenberg acknowledges this directly:
“It is impossible for us to give something to another if we don’t have it ourselves. Likewise, if we find ourselves unable or unwilling to empathize despite our efforts, it is usually a sign that we are too starved for empathy to be able to offer it to others.”
Like a playground fight:
You hit me, so I hit you, so you hit me…
On and on until everyone’s got a bloody nose and two black eyes.
Ultimately, we need to give empathy because we need to receive empathy.
Which means that someone needs to go first.
Someone needs to be the one to stop the cycle of recrimination and anger. Someone needs to be the one to stop and listen.
And no – you shouldn’t have to be the one to go first. Those other people should have already done it..
And yes – you have every right to be angry over what they said to you in the past. Over how you were treated. It was unfair, and unjust.
And yes – the other side has acted badly in the past. You have been mischaracterized. Words have been put in your mouth. None of that was right.
But the fact remains that unless someone goes first, you will never get what you need.
You won’t be able to communciate.
You won’t be able to persuade.
You won’t be understood.
Children are obsessed with “fairness” – with evening the score, with everything being equal.
“He hit me, so I hit him” is the oldest moral code known to man – “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” is deep inside our collective subconscious. But just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s effective.
It won’t make the world a better place. And it certainly won’t advance YOUR agenda over anything except the shortest of terms.
Get rid of fairness. Get rid of what you “shouldn’t have to” do. Get rid of the past.
If you want to make the world a better place, you will need to start with empathy.
Extend empathy to Trump supporters who told you “Fuck Your Feelings” for the last four years.
Extend empathy to the Biden supporters who called you a racist for the last four years.
My crime was naively wandering into the world of online conspiracies, believing I could set things right with “better information.”
Here’s the story:
A mixed martial arts account I followed on Instagram posted a story about a California law called “SB-145.”
The post claimed that SB-145 “legalized pedophilia” as long as the criminal was “within 10 years of the age of the victim.”
If that sounds insane to you, that’s because it is.
Who would pass such a law?
Who could possibly benefit politically from such a thing?
Why wouldn’t every single TV station and newspaper be screaming about it?
The experience was very similar to the one I described in Just Perfect, where I wrote about the Kevin Carter story:
“We are much less likely to give it the scrutiny it deserves when it reinforces our preconceived notions about how the world works.
…to create any narrative – be it historical, or social, or personal – we must first sand down the edges of reality.
The problem with the internet is that in all it’s chaos, it’s very easy to miss the narratives…
And mistake them for reality.
So the next time you find yourself immersed in something that seems too good to be true, too perfect, too chef’s kiss….
‘Is this real?
Or is it Just Perfect?’”
After a brief Google search, I discovered a few things:
– SB145 in no way legalizes sex with minors. Sex with any minor remains illegal in California.
– Existing law in California already gave prosecutors some leeway in deciding whether to charge offenders with a felony or a misdemeanor in cases where vaginal penetration was present.
– This meant that gay teens, having sex underage, would always be charged with felonies, while heterosexual teens could receive leniency if the court felt it was called for. SB-145 sought to remedy this.
– The 10 year age gap is in the law to make sure it doesn’t get applied past a certain age range, regardless of the particulars of the situation.
My “crime” – for which I was harassed, bullied, stalked, etc – was posting the text of the bill in question on the original post.
Now, maybe you think SB-145 is a terrible idea. Maybe you think it’s great.
Maybe you think the age range should be larger, or smaller, or shouldn’t be there at all.
These are all perfectly reasonable positions to hold. Debate is the lifeblood of democracy, and should be encouraged.
What isn’t a valid position to hold is that all interpretations of reality are equal, and any rebuttal of your position is evidence of a satanic conspiracy to kidnap your children.
Irrationality is not new.
Mob mentality is not new.
In-group thinking and “logic-proof compartments” are not new.
What is new is the extent to which the internet makes irrationality viral.
Case in point:
After my comment on the original post because a flash-point for harassment, I blocked the account in question and everyone involved.
Done and done, right?
People found my comment, then created fake accounts to make wild allegations on my personal profile.
Other people – unconnected in any way – saw these comments, then commented on them, raising their visibility.
Still other people saw those comments, and soon there was a post on Reddit, asking about the “allegations” against me.
“I can’t find anything on Google,” one post read. “Does anyone know anything? It’s really disturbing, if true.”
Disturbing, if true.
People responded, expressing dismay, wondering if I was secretly a monster this whole time.
Because there must be something to it, right?
After all, there were all these comments…
…And where there’s smoke, there must be fire.
See what happened here?
An idea, with zero evidence, zero connection to reality…
Had somehow manifested itself into reality.
If I hadn’t taken steps to remove the content in question, it would still be out there…
Providing a form of “evidence” to those who sought it out.
Smoke, implying fire.
From this irritating, idiotic, and frustrating experience…
I learned a secret of Power.
Here it is:
You can gain power by becoming expensive to deal with.
Michael Korda wrote about this in his manual of “corporate warfare”, conveniently titled Power:
“A person who has required the reputation for being hysterical, thin-skinned and oversensitive will usually get a raise or a larger office more easily than a placid worker, for the excellent reason that no on wants to provoke a nasty scene….
When you’ve got treat somebody with kid gloves all the time, you pay more attention to them than you would to somebody else, and in the long run, they get more.”
True of the individual…and doubly true of the mob.
Irrationality, mob mentality, herd dynamics…
Whatever you want to call it, it spreads because regular people choose to do and say nothing.
Because it’s simply too expensive.
Most people are simply trying to live their lives. They don’t want to be stressed, or worried, or looking over their shoulders all the time.
Commenting on someone’s online profile may not seem like a big deal; amplified across dozens or hundreds of accounts, it can be terrifying. It is a “tax” on speech – making it just painful enough to speak up or speak out that regular people choose to look the other way.
In the incredible Among The Thugs, Bill Buford describes how large, unruly gangs of soccer “hooligans” would get to games via train, despite not having any money:
They’d simply make it difficult to make them pay.
“They’d scream, holler, and make a fuss. They’d crowd into trains in large throngs, so that it was impossible to pick out any individual. Instead of handing over a ticket when asked, they’d make a game of handing over something else – a sock, some belly-button lint, a cigarette – until the ticket-taker simply moved on…
‘[The gangs] had learned two principles about human nature—especially human nature as it had evolved in Britain.
The first was that no public functionary, and certainly not one employed by British Rail or London Transport, wants a difficult confrontation—there is little pride in a job that the functionary believes to be underpaid and knows to be unrewarding and that he wants to finish so that he can go home.
The second principle was the more important: everyone—including the police—is powerless against a large number of people who have decided not to obey any rules.
Or put another way: with numbers there are no laws.“
To be clear:
I don’t think I’m “better” than these people.
I don’t think I’m “above” irrationality or the rush of the mob.
We all get fired up by misleading news stories, share articles we haven’t read, form opinions on things we barely understand.
But we have an ethical responsibility to resist, as much as possible, the lure of the irrational.
The alternative is not simply misinformation…
It is destruction.
Eugene Ionesco knew this.
The avant-garde playwright had watched his homeland of Romania fall under the sway of fascism.
He wrote vividly about the experience in his haunting play, Rhinoceros.
In Rhinoceros, Berenger, the everyman main character, watches in horror as the citizens of his small town all gradually transform into rhinoceroses.
BERENGER: [He opens the staircase door and goes and knocks at the landing door; he bangs repeatedly on it with his fist.] There’s a rhinoceros in the building! Get the police!
OLD MAN: [poking his head out] What’s the matter?
BERENGER: Get the police! There’s a rhinoceros in the house!
VOICE OF OLD MAN’S WIFE: What are you up to, Jean? Why are you making all that noise?
OLD MAN: [to his wife] I don’t know what he’s talking about. He’s seen a rhinoceros.
BERENGER: Yes, here in the house. Get the police!
OLD MAN: What do you think you’re up to, disturbing people like that. What a way to behave! [He shuts the door in his face.]
The horror is magnified by the fact that nobody seems particularly upset about this transformation.
The intellectuals rationalize and explain it.
The religious adopt a posture of resignation.
The political assure him that there are “good points on both sides.”
DUDARD: Oh stop thinking about it. Really, you attach too much importance to the whole business. Jean’s case isn’t symptomatic, he’s not a typical case—you said yourself he was proud. In my opinion—if you’ll excuse me saying this about your friend—he was far too excitable, a bit wild, an eccentric. You mustn’t base your judgments on exceptions. It’s the average case you must consider.
BERENGER: I’m beginning to see daylight. You see, you couldn’t explain this phenomenon to me. And yet you just provided me with a plausible explanation. Yes, of course, he must have been in a critical condition to have got himself into that state. He must have been temporarily unbalanced.
At some point, the balance is tipped; people switch from explaining and excusing the rhinoceroses to accommodating them.
Bewilderment becomes resignation, which becomes acceptance.
Before long, only Berenger is left. The streets are overrun:
BERENGER: There’s a whole herd of them in the street now! An army of rhinoceroses, surging up the avenue…! [He looks all around.] Where can I get out? Where can I get out? If only they’d keep to the middle of the road! They’re all over the pavement as well.
Where can I get out?
Where can I get out?
Of course, by then, it’s too late.
With numbers, there are no laws.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Nowhere is it written that we have to give in to our worst impulses:
Our tendency to trust what’s in print (regardless of who wrote it…)
Our tendency to jump to conclusions (regardless of whether we understand the issue…)
Our tendency to dehumanize our intellectual opponents (regardless of whether we know them or not…)
Our tendency to lose ourselves…
And become the rhinoceros.
Nowhere is it written that it must be so.
How do we resist?
How do we fight?
How do we retain what makes us reasonable, what unites us as citizens, what makes us human?
For one, we can simply hold ourselves to a higher standard.
To stop, as I have, sharing articles we haven’t read completely.
We can require a higher level of journalistic integrity from our news sources.
We can keep an open mind, especially on complex issues.
To admit, without shame, that the world is complicated and that we’re probably wrong.
But I also think we need to admit that these conversations –
the important ones, like the one we’re having right now, you and I –
These conversations can’t happen on social media.
Every aspect of the online experience makes deep and reasonable conversation unlikely, if not impossible.
These platforms pretend to be the “town square,” a place for people to meet, exchange ideas, and debate…
But they aren’t.
At worst, they are Skinner Boxes, rewarding our very worst tendencies.
They are the city streets upon which the rhinoceroses trample each other.
We can do better. Be better.
Build something better.
This is me, trying to build something.
A place for thought.
For becoming a better person.
For intellectual humility.
Is it working?
I don’t know.
But I am trying.
And you can do the same.
Could be a conversation at the dinner table…
Could be a text-chain with friends…
Could be a book you pass to a colleague…
Or holding yourself to a higher standard when you debate politics.
You make your way to your desk, shoulders back, conscious of your posture, your smile, keeping a brisk, “can do” attitude about you.
You look out.
They’re all spread out. Some have their heads down. Others are lounging with their feet outstretched, sending an unmistakable message:
“We don’t want you here.”
Some have piercings. Others seem quiet. Still others look ready to go, but not wanting to seem too eager. Can’t know what the others would say, after all.
A pencil, restlessly tapping.
One whispers to another. They laugh.
If I don’t turn this class around, you think, none of these kids are going to graduate.
How do you do it?
Every year, all across the country, teachers –
(You know, that profession that we all agree is critical for the functioning of a healthy democracy? The one we can’t manage to pay very much?)
– face situations like this one.
It’s scary, and frustrating, and difficult, and rewarding – all at the same time.
But really, this situation isn’t much difficult from ANY situation where we need to change things for the better.
You come in with high hopes. You KNOW there’s a gap between where things are and where they should be.
Imagine you’re this new teacher. You’ve got this room full of vaguely-threatening, disrespectful, unmotivated kids. You know for a fact that if you fail them – if you can’t make this happen – they’ll all be worse-off.
How do we go about making a change?
First things first – we need to know how we’re being graded. We need a measure.
It might be scores on a standardized test.
It might be their grade point average.
It might be improvement in reading.
While some measures might be better than others, we need a measure, regardless.
Once we’ve determined a measure, we need to understand what our current score is. In other words, we need a baseline.
If we have an objective standard we’re trying to meet, we need to know how far off we are.
Once we know how we’re being measured, and we know where we currently stand…
We need to know where we’re going.
In other words, we need a standard.
What does our score need to be to qualify as a success?
Are we far behind? Just a tad off?
Knowing which it is will determine a lot about how we proceed.
1. Defining the measure;
2. Establishing a baseline;
3. Setting a standard…
…is the starting point of all improvement.
It’s not just a way of trying to improve a class, but the exact same framework you’d use to start a business, perfect your physique, learn a language, or colonize Mars.
Is the starting point of everything.
The foundation of all success.
And we can summarize it in one word:
I’d like to switch subjects for just a moment, to:
(And yes – I bet you know where this is going…)
The birth of scientific forestry.
The 18th century in Europe was one of rationalization.
Everywhere, science and mathematics were being applied to traditional practices. The hope was that, by applying reason and modern knowledge to time-honored ways of doing things, progress could be accelerated.
Scientific Forestry was the name for this process of rationalization as applied to traditional forestry practices.
If you were a landholding noble in the 17th century, forests were incredibly important. Wood was the primary fuel source, important not just for heating your keep in the winter but also as an engine of war. Fire was necessary for metal smelting, not to mention crafting arrows.
Imagine that your neighbor, the Duchess of Flapjack, had been making sorties into your territory. War seems to be on the horizon. It’s critical that you begin to marshal your forces and make preparations.
A steady supply of wood will be instrumental to your success. But how much wood can you expect from the nearby forests this year?
This question of wood production was incredibly difficult to answer. Oftentimes the exact outline of a forest was unclear. How big was it, exactly? What kind of trees were in it?
Local people had a rough idea – one that perfectly suited their traditional uses of that particular resource – but nothing approaching the accuracy required by local government.
Enter scientific forestry.
Assayers were dispatched to establish the exact boundaries of a forest. Tree counters wandered around, marking trees and making exact tallies. Experiments were conducted to figure out how many cords of wood could be expected from a certain species of tree over a given period of time. “Top Producers” were ascertained.
For the forest scientists (Forstwissenschaftler) the goal was always to “deliver the greatest possible constant volume of wood.”
A measure was defined (cords of wood produced…)
A baseline was recorded (historically, the forest produces X cords of wood…)
And a standard was established (could we somehow engineer an increase to 2X cords of wood?)
Entities were named, scored, measured and tallied.
The chaos of the forest became legible.
It is through these layers of abstraction – these human categorizations – that an incredibly complex reality becomes real to us for the first time. We are literally able to see the trees within the forest.
Heinrich Cotta – the father of scientific forestry – had a word for this new, abstracted forest entity: the Normalbaum.
Cotta and his followers used this layer of abstraction to apply scientific principles to the management of natural resources. Thinking in terms of Normalbaum – of, not a tree, with all it’s inherent complexity, but of a number on a spreadsheet – allowed a kind of “forest accounting” to emerge.
As Tore Frängsmyr, J.L. Heilbron, and Robin E. Rider write in The Quatifying Spirit of the 18th Century:
”The annual accounting of the bureaucrat had to be linked with a long-term plan of resource management based on scientific principles. One prominent Forstwissenschaftler , Friedrich von Burgsdorf, called the common problem “keeping the forest’s books,” and defined procedures to follow in terms of the quantities of interest to forestry science. The bond between forestry science and cameralism was the conversion from an amount of wood to its value. From that point, the practitioners could go their separate ways, the cameral official to the preparation of the Geld-Etat , or monetary budget, and the forestry scientist to the Forst-Etat , the budget that compared the yield to what the forest could bear over time.“
It is hard to underestimate what a revolution this was – and what a monumental effect it had on forestry the world over.
Once mathematical abstractions made the forest and it’s output legible, forest scientists began to experiment with different methods of management.
Undergrowth and brush were cleared away.
Insects that damaged valuable tree species were eradicated.
Less-productive trees were replaced by better-producing ones.
And, finally, trees were planted in grids to allow easier access and better care.
Germany (where Cotta’s teachings were implemented) experienced record yields. Their wood production dwarfed that of neighboring states, and provided a lasting economic benefit.
Scientific forestry became the dominant model of natural resource management the world over. Many of Cotta’s principles are still in use today.
Historian Henry Lowood observed (as quoted by James Scott in Seeing Like a State):
These innovations “produced the monocultural, even-age forests that eventually transformed the Normalbaum from abstraction to reality. The German forest became the archetype for imposing on disorderly nature the neatly arranged constructs of science. Practical goals had encouraged mathematical utilitarianism, which seemed, in turn, to promote geometric perfection as the outward sign of the well-managed forest; in turn the rationally ordered arrangements of trees offered new possibilities for controlling nature.”
In the beginning, there was the forest;
In the end, there was the Normalbaum.
The abstraction had become reality.
We will finish the story of the Normalbaum next week…
For now, let’s return to the concept of Legibility.
The universe that surrounds us is infinitely complex.
Through interaction, even seemingly simple systems can take on breath-taking levels of dynamic variance.
In other words:
The world is fucking confusing.
Without legibility, this world is too complex to affect, too complicated for man or woman to master.
It’s a world that is, at it’s depth, religious; dominated by old gods.
The application of abstraction is, in this sense, mankind’s greatest skill. Simplification begets pattern recognition; pattern recognition begets improvement.
It is for this reason that legibility is the foundation of all improvement, all creation, all invention, all progress.
To close the loop on our well-meaning new teacher:
How do we improve the performance of the class?
Well, first, we probably want to figure out their names.
You’ll probably make a seating chart, and ask everyone to stay in the same seat all year. That way, you’ll memorize their names faster.
Makes the class a little less intimidating.
Maybe you have a conversation with each student individually.
What struggles are they facing?
What are they good at? What’s hard for them?
The picture becomes a bit clearer for each student. You have a little more context now. A little more understanding.
You check with an administrator. It turns out, each of them needs a minimum 3.0 GPA to graduate this year.
That’s your measure. Now you know how progress will be judged.
You go around to each of their teachers, tallying their existing grades and doing some math. You figure out everyone’s existing GPA. The class average is only a 2.0.
That’s your baseline. That’s where you’re starting from.
You now know that for each kid to graduate, they’ll need to raise their individual GPAs to 3.0. You resolve not to let a single kid fail.
That’s your standard.
All attempts at improvement must start with legibility.
You can’t get the kids to graduate without learning their names.
O! Wanderers in the shadowed land Despair not! For though dark they stand, All woods there be must end at last, And see the open sun go past: The setting sun, the rising sun, The day’s end, or the day begun. For east or west all woods must fail. J. R. R. Tolkien
You wake suddenly into a room you do not recognize.
This is not your bed.
Not your dresser.
Not your table.
The floor is rough-hewn wood. There are windows, but they are opaque. Light filters through, but nothing of the environment is visible.
You blink; you give yourself a moment to collect your thoughts, to remember. Nothing comes.
You cautiously place a foot on the floor: cool, smooth, unfamiliar.
You tiptoe to the bedroom door.
The knob is large, brass. It looks ancient.
Above the door knob is a large brass plate. In it’s center there is a keyhole. You bend down.
You close one eye and peer out.
What’s on the other side of the door?
Forest forever, in every direction.
For all our pretending…
Our intellectual strutting and preening, Our claims of omnipotence and rationality, our technological marvels and accomplishments…
The world is as uncertain as ever.
Whenever humanity’s understanding seems to encroach, fast and sure, onto the ends of the universe… I try to remind myself of the scale of what we’re discussing.
I think about chess.
Chess has 16 pieces per player and 64 spaces.
The rules are defined.
Everything that needs to be known is known.
But there are more potential games of chess than there are subatomic particles in the universe. It is infinite…
Despite its simplicity.
That’s been my biggest takeaway from studying game theory, risk, and COVID-19 these past few months:
The universe of unknown unknowns is impossibly vast…
Even if we understand the pieces.
Even if we think we understand how they all fits together.
I’ll give you one more example, before we head off into the forest in search of practical solutions… Isaac Newton published the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica in 1687. In it, he proposed three laws of motion:
1: An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by a force.
2: The vector sum of the forces on an object is equal to the mass of that object multiplied by its acceleration.
3: When one body exerts a force on a second body, the second body simultaneously exerts a force equal in magnitude and opposite in direction on the first body.
We’ve had 333 years to sit and think about these laws.
In that time, we’ve managed to invent computers with computational powers exceeding anything a human being is capable of.
With these tools – Newton’s Laws and our computers – we can precisely model the movements of bodies through space.
If we know their starting points and their velocities, we can perfectly plot the paths they’ll take. We can literally calculate their future.
Of course, for each body we add into the problem, the calculations get more complex. Eventually the system interactions become so intricate that it is impossible to calculate. It becomes chaotic, non-repeating.
How many bodies does it take for the problem to become incalculable?
With our 333 years of pondering Newton’s Laws?
With our super-powerful computers?
With all the human knowledge in all the world?
How many bodies?
The door swings open.
It creaks, briefly, but the sound fades, absorbed into the thick, humid air.
Tress in every direction. They are massive, towering things.
Sun filters through the pine needles and dapples the ground like so many little spotlights. It’s not morning, but it’s hard to tell exactly where the sun is overhead.
The trees seem to come straight up to the door. There’s room to walk, but only just. It should feel oppressive, like they are crowding you. Instead, it feels like you’ve interrupted a conversation.
You step out; the forest floor is soft and dry. As you look around, the door behind you swings shut.
You reach out, but it latches. You try to open it but it’s locked.
You take a breath and hold it.
The sweet taste of undergrowth, copper in the soil, a sense memory of an old Christmas tree.
Which way do you go?
Complexity at the root of the universe.
So uncertainty is at the root of the universe.
So anxiety is at the root of the universe.
Anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction to the impossible task of trying to understand and predict a chaotic infinity of possibilities…
With a very limited, very non-infinite mind.
Despite that fact, we all have to wake up each day and do what needs to be done; to honor our commitments to ourselves and one another.
How do we navigate an uncertain world?
We choose the best path we can with the minimum amount of anxiety.
We use simple systems that allow us to quickly compare risks across categories.
We acknowledge our tendency to endlessly re-think, re-play, and re-consider our decisions…
And figure out how to let go.
We do the best we can, while minimizing our chances of losing too much.
Exactly how you can use these ideas to get a simple, practical estimate of how much risk you are willing to take on…
And to use that estimate to help you make the everyday decisions that affect your life.
You walk until you get tired.
Something’s wrong, but you’re not sure what.
You don’t know where you are, so you could’ve chosen any direction at all.
You decided to simply go wherever the forest seems less dense, more open.
After a while (hours? days?) the trees have gotten further and further apart.
The slightly-more-open terrain has made walking easier.
You’re making more progress; towards what, you don’t know.
Every now and then you reach out to touch one of the passing trees; to trail your fingers along its bark.
The rough bumps and edges give you some textural variation, a way of marking the passing of time.
You look up. The sun doesn’t seem to have moved.
The sunlight still dapples. It’s neither hot nor cold. It isn’t much of anything.
Then you realize:
You haven’t heard a single sound since you’ve been out here.
Not even your own footsteps.
Every good heuristic has a few components:
A way to search for the information we need…
A clear point at which to stop…
And a way to decide.
Let’s take each of these in turn.
We’ve discussed the “fog of pandemic” at length over the past few months.
With so much information, from so many sources, how do we know what to trust?
How do we know what’s real?
The truth is,
In the moment, it is impossible to determine what’s “true” or “false.” As a group we may slowly get more accurate over time. Useful information builds up and gradually forces out less-useful information.
But none of that helps us right here, right now – which is when we have to make our decisions.
So what do we do?
We apply a heuristic to the search for information.
What does this mean?
Put simply: set a basic criteria for when you’ll take a piece of information seriously, and ignore everything that doesn’t meet that criteria.
Here’s an example of such a heuristic:
Take information seriously only when it is reported by both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.
Why does this work?
1. These are “credible” sources that are forced to fact-check their work.
2. These sources are widely monitored and criticized, meaning that low-quality information will often be called out.
3. These sources are moderate-left (NYT) and moderate-right (WSJ). Thus, information that appears in both will be less partisan on average.
While this approach to vetting information might be less accurate than, say, reading all of the best epidemiological journals and carefully weighing the evidence cited….
Have you ever actually done that?
Has anyone you know ever done that?
Have half the people on Twitter who SAY they’ve done that, actually done that?
Our goal is not only to make the best decisions possible…
It’s to decrease our anxiety along the way.
Using a simple search heuristic allows us to filter information quickly, discarding the vast majority of noise and focusing as much as possible on whatever signal there is.
You don’t have to use my heuristic; you can make your own.
Swap in any two ideologically-competing and well-known sources for the NYT and the WSJ. Specifically, focus on publications that have:
– A public-facing corrections process – A fact-checking process – Social pressure (people get upset when they “get it wrong”) – Differing ideological bents – Print versions (television and internet tend to be too fast to properly fact-check)
Whenever a piece of information needs to be assessed, ask:
Is this information reported in both of my chosen sources?
If not, ignore it and live your life.
When do you stop looking for more information, and simply make a decision? This is a complicated problem. It’s even got it’s own corner of mathematics, called optimal stopping.
In our case, we need a way to prevent information overload…the constant sense of revision that happens when we’re buffeted by an endless stream of op-eds, breaking news, and recent developments.
The key to reducing the amount of anxiety caused by the news is to slow it’s pulse.
If we control the pace at which information flows into our lives, we control the rate at which we need to process that information and reduce the cognitive load it requires.
My preferred pace is once a week.
I get the paper every Sunday. I like the Sunday paper because it summarizes the week’s news. Anything important that happened that week shows up in the Sunday paper in some shape or form.
The corollary is that I deliberately avoid the news every other day of the week.
No paper, no radio, no TV news, nothing online.
This gives me mental space to pursue my own goals while keeping me informed and preventing burnout.
Presuming that we’re controlling the regular pulse of information into our lives, we also need a stopping point for decision making.
Re-examining your risk management every single week is too much.
Not only is it impractical, it predisposes us to over-fitting – trying too hard to match our mental models to the incoming stream of data.
My recommendation for now is to re-examine your COVID risk management decisions once a month.
Once a month is enough to stay flexible, which I think is necessary in an environment that changes so rapidly.
But it’s not so aggressive that it encourages over-fitting, or causes too much anxiety.
We are treating our risk management like long-term investments.
Check on your portfolio once a month to make sure things are OK, but put it completely out of your head the rest of the time.
You walk on, always following the less-wooded trail.
The trees are more sparse now.
It’s easier to walk, easier to make your way.
Eventually, you come to a clearing.
Your legs ache. You find a small log and sit down, taking a breath.
The air is warm. It hangs over you.
You breathe again.
Your eyes close.
Maybe you sleep.
You’re not sure.
None of it seems real.
Maybe you’re still dreaming.
But maybe you aren’t.
You could lie down, here. The ground is soft. There’s a place to comfortably lay your head. It would be easy enough to drift away. It would be pleasant.
Or, you could push on.
Maybe progress is being made.
Maybe it isn’t that far.
But maybe it is.
We come now to the final stage of our process – deciding.
We’ve set parameters for how we’ll search for information…
And rules for how we’ll stop searching.
Now we need to use the information we take in to make useful inferences about the world – and use those inferences to determine our behavior.
This stage has a bit more steps to it.
Here’s the outline:
1. Get a ballpark risk estimate using micromorts for your state. 2. Play the common knowledge game. 3. Establish the personal costs of different decisions within your control. 4. Choose the decision that minimizes the chances of your worst-case scenario.
Let’s break each of these down in turn.
1. Get a ballpark risk estimate using micromorts for your state.
I’ve actually built you a handy COVID-19 Micromort Calculator that will calculate your micromorts per day and month based on your state’s COVID-19 data.
But if you don’t want to use my calculator, here’s how to do this on your own:
– Find the COVID-19 related deaths in your state for the last 30 days. Why your state? Because COVID-19 is highly variable depending on where you live.
– Find the population of your state (just google “My State population” and it should come right up).
Take a look at the list and figure out how much risk we’re really talking about. For example, the risk level in the image above is 4.63 micromorts – let’s round that to 5. That means that I have about as much risk of dying from COVID-19 as I would of dying during a scuba dive, and more risk than I’d take on during a rock climb.
It’s also riskier than would be allowed at a workplace in the UK.
However, it’s less risky than going under general anesthetic, or skydiving.
Keep in mind, however, that these risks are per day.
Comparing apples to apples, I can ask:
“My COVID-19 risk is equivalent to the risk of going scuba diving every single day. Is that an acceptable risk level for me?”
2. Play the common knowledge game.
Now that we’ve got a rough estimate of risk, let’s think about other people. You know.
Statistical risk matters, obviously.
But COVID-19 has a unique property:
If I’m riding a motorcycle, my risk does not increase if other people ride motorcycles, too.
For COVID-19? The actions of others have a big effect on my personal risk level.
This is where the common knowledge game comes in handy.
We need to weigh what we think other people will do.
As an example:
My own state, Connecticut, has seen declining case numbers of COVID-19 for a few months now. That gradual decline has led to a loosening of restrictions and a general increase in economic activity.
And that’s great!
But when it comes to sending our child to school next year, I’m still extremely worried.
Because I’m assuming that other people will see the declining case count as an indication that they can take on more risk.
What happens when people take on more risk in a pandemic?
Case numbers go up.
I ran into a similar issue early in the pandemic with regards to where I work.
I have a small office in a building downtown.
My room is private but other people share the space immediately outside my door. Throughout the highest-risk days of the pandemic, when everyone else was staying home, I kept coming into the office to work.
Because everyone else was staying home.
They reacted rationally to the risks, and so my office building was empty. Since it was only me, my personal risk remained low.
Now that risk levels are lower, people have started coming back to work…
Which means I am now more likely to work from home.
My actual risk remains the same, or higher, since more people have COVID-19 now than they did in the beginning.
But because case counts are declining, people feel safer and are more likely to come into the office, increasing my exposure.
Statistical risk matters…
But so does what other people do about that risk.
While our micromort number is extremely useful, we need to run it through a filter:
How do I think the people around me will react to this level of risk?
What is “common knowledge” about our risk level?
What are the “missionaries” (news sources that everyone believes everyone listens to) saying, and how will that affect behavior?
Factor this into your decision-making.
You keep moving.
Little by little, the ground becomes a trail, and the trail becomes a path.
Have other people been this way?
It’s hard to tell.
Maybe just deer.
But it’s a path. A way forward.
You think you detect some slight movement in the sun overhead.
Maybe, just maybe, time is passing after all.
With the path, there’s something to cut through the sameness – some way to judge distance.
Forward movement is forward movement.
You keep moving.
And then, something you never expected:
One to the left, one to the right.
They each gently curve in opposite directions. You can’t see where they lead.
Something touches your back.
Wind? you wonder. Was it always there?
Which way do I go?
3. Establish the personal costs of different decisions within your control.
We’ve thought about risk, and we’ve thought about how other people will react.
Let’s take a moment to think about costs.
Every decision carries a cost.
It could simply be an opportunity cost (“If I do this, I can’t do this other thing…”)
Or the cost could be more tangible (“If I don’t go to work, I’ll lose my job.”)
One of the things that’s irritating about our discourse over COVID-19 is the extent to which people seem to assume that any action is obviously the right way to go…while ignoring it’s costs.
Yes, lockdowns carry very real costs – economic, emotional, physical.
Yes, not going into lockdowns carries very real costs – hospitalizations, deaths, economic losses.
Even wearing masks – something I am 100% in favor of – has costs. It’s uncomfortable for some, hampers social interaction, is inconvenient, etc.
We can’t act rationally if we don’t consider the costs.
So let’s do that.
Think through your potential outcomes.
You could get sick.
You could die.
There’s always that.
Maybe the kids miss a year of school.
What would the emotional repercussions be?
Could you lose your job?
Have trouble paying bills?
What if there are long-term health effects?
What if the supply chain gets disrupted again…what if food becomes hard to find?
Think everything through.
Feel free to be dire and gloomy here…we’re looking for worst-case scenarios, not what is likely to happen.
Once you’ve spent some time figuring this out, make a quick list of your worst-cases.
Feel them emotionally.
We’re not looking to be most rational here. We’re getting in touch with our emotional reality.
We’re not saying, “What’s best for society? What do people want me to do?”
Which of these scenarios would cause me the most regret?
Regret is a powerful emotion.
It is both social and personal. In many cases, we would rather feel pain than regret.
“Tis better to have loved and lost, than to have never loved at all.”
Rank your potential outcomes by “most regret” to “least regret.”
Which one is at the top?
Which outcome would you most regret?
THAT’S your worst-case scenario.
4. Choose the decision that minimizes the chances of your worst-case scenario.
Once you know:
– your rough statistical risk (micromorts) – how other people will react (common knowledge game) – and your own worst-case scenario (regret)
…You can start putting a plan in place to minimize your risk.
Here we are utilizing a strategy of “MinMax Regret.”
The goal is not to say “how can I optimize for the best possible scenario”….
…Because that’s difficult to do in such uncertain times.
It’s much easier to simply cover our bases and make sure that we do everything in our power to protect ourselves.
Thinking about your worst case scenario from Step 3, what can you do to ensure it doesn’t happen?
What stays? What goes?
Visiting your parents?
Play dates for the kids?
What are you willing to give up in order to ensure the highest regret scenario doesn’t happen?
My own worst-case scenario?
Getting someone in a high risk category (like my Mom, or my son, who has asthma) sick.
What am I willing to give up to avoid that?
Eating at restaurants is out…
But we’ll get take out and eat outside.
Business trips are out. Easy choice.
I wear a mask.
I haven’t visited my mom, even though we miss her.
Can’t get her sick if we don’t see her.
But I visited my grandmother by talking to her through her window, with a mask on.
I’m not saying these decisions are objectively right or wrong…
But they were consistent with my goal:
Avoid the regret of getting the vulnerable people I love sick.
Once you’ve thought this through…
What’s my current risk?
How will other people react?
What’s my worst case scenario?
What am I willing to give up to minimize the possibility of that happening?
…Set up some ground rules.
What you’ll do, what you won’t.
What you’ll avoid, what you’ll accept.
And then don’t think about it at all until next month.
Give yourself the unimaginable relief…
How long has it been?
Time seems to have stopped.
Or perhaps, moved on.
You keep walking, mostly as a way of asserting control.
My choice. Keep walking.
The path curved for a bit, then it straightened back out.
Slowly, but surely, it got wider and wider…the edges of the forest on either side drifting further and further apart.
It was like a curtain drawing back.
Your eyes were on the road, but as you look up now you realize…. You’re not in the forest anymore.
You’re not even on the path.
It’s open, all around.
Wide, impossibly wide. The sky and the earth touch each other.
Right here, at the beginning of our penultimate COVID-19 email…
I’d like to take a moment to mourn.
It’s very possible you haven’t taken a moment to let it all settle in.
What we’ve lost.
For us, it was Dolly, the wonderful woman who knit my kids caps in the winter and always had a kind word for me.
It was the end of Max’s pre-school year – the sudden vanishing of his friends, teachers, and daily schedule.
It was the loss of Oliver’s birthday party. He loves parties. He’s turning 6 and it feels like a very big deal to him. He doesn’t quite get why no one can be there to celebrate.
It was the surprise 40th birthday party my wife had planned…
The ability for my wife to go to the gym (or, indeed, have any time to herself at all)…
The tension we feel now when a neighbor’s kid comes over to play.
There’s no sense time.
It’s everywhere, constantly.
We’re always afraid, or unsure, or angry, or judgmental, or worried.
For you, it might have been a friend or loved one.
Or your job.
Or your health.
Or maybe it was just the ability to duck out to the store for a few minutes.
To grab a bite to eat and chat with your server.
Whether you measure the cost in lives,
or economic impact,
or disruption of everyday routines,
or the pervasive anxiety and loss that now seem woven into the very fiber of everyday life…
The cost of the Coronavirus pandemic has been high.
And while the actual virus has not been evenly distributed…
There isn’t anyone who hasn’t paid part of that cost.
And I could see you reading this series of emails we’ve been working on and coming away pretty bummed out about the future.
After all, the case we’ve been building has been fairly pessimistic in regards to our ability to understand what we’re going through.
In Bad Priors, I wrote that people primarily understand probabilities by referring to their past experiences (called “priors”).
In Map Meets Territory, I argued that base rates (the average outcomes of similar events) often provide a better view on how the world really works than priors do.
In 8 Months To Live, we complicated that picture a bit by pointing out that individuating data is necessary…even if it sometimes throws us off track.
In No Basis, we discussed the different between risk (where the probabilities are known) and uncertainty (where they aren’t). We also explored ways in which our use of both priors and base rates can lead us astray when the underlying relationships between things change over time.
How should we make decisions? By using statistical analysis for situations of risk, and game theory for situations of uncertainty.
In The Beauty Contest, we discussed one such application of game theory: the common knowledge game, where we act based on what we believe other plays believe.
That begged the question of how we know what other people believe.
In Missionaries, we discussed the role of “common knowledge,” and how injections of information by well-known public authorities can have widespread effects on seemingly-stable systems.
By that point, we’d covered both decision-making tool sets: statistical analysis (priors and base rates) and game theory (common knowledge games being just one example). We then addressed the core problem behind all of this: how can we tell if what we’re facing is risk, or uncertainty?
In False Positive, we discussed zero-risk illusion (where a sense of certainty leads us to overlook probabilities, as with medical testing) and the calculable-risk illusion (where we think we know the odds, but don’t know what we don’t know…as in the “Turkey Problem.”)
In Monty Hall, we brought all of these ideas togethers to discuss the “Monty Hall Problem,” a fascinating riddle that combined probability, statistical analysis, game theory, and, of course, our tendency to confuse which is which.
In All In Our Heads, we finally got around to discussing the virus itself. I argued that part of why COVID-19 is so frustratingly hard to understand is that we mistake the very-public scientific process (which is self-destructive), with “getting it wrong.”
The problem isn’t lack of information, but having too much information with no widely-accepted criteria for choosing what to believe.
That’s led many of us to simply tune-out, or pick whatever interpretation of the data best fits our desired outcome.
Where does this all leave us?
Should we, as I implied in our last email, simply throw up our hands and go to the beach?
If not, when CAN we go to the beach again?
Is there a way of navigating the anxiety, of taking back control over our lives…
Or is it just loss after loss until there’s nothing left?
Because let’s be very, very real for a moment:
Lives are not the only thing we can lose.
Schadenfreude is pleasure derived from the misfortune of another. One of the disturbing effects of COVID-19 has been the way that it has encouraged schadenfreude to make inroads into American life. Do you recognize this guy?
If you recognized him, it’s probably from one of dozens of social media posts that went viral about his death.
His name was Richard Rose.
Rose made several sarcastic, snarky, anti-mask posts on his Facebook timeline.
He then contracted the disease…
…And passed away.
He was 37.
Facebook left his profile up “as a memorial.” Predictably, these last posts now serve as places for people to dunk on Rose post-mortem:
It’s the same on Twitter and Instagram.
Let’s be clear:
1.) I think mask-wearing is an obvious and low-cost way to hopefully lessen the spread of COVID-19.
2.) I’m very tired of the “anti-masker” discourse and find their argument unconvincing.
But you know what else I am?
Mad as hell.
You know what Richard Rose was?
Go through his posts. Scroll down a bit further on the page.
What’s he doing?
Posting dumb-ass memes.
Making corny jokes.
Sharing pictures of nights out with his friends.
Talking about NASCAR.
Are some of his posts tasteless? Yeah.
Do I disagree with most of them? Sure.
Was this guy wrong about a lot of stuff? Probably.
But you know what?
All of us are wrong.
You know who else thought that masks wouldn’t help to fight COVID-19?
The WHO and the CDC.
You know, the “experts” all of us “right thinking” people put our trust in.
They explicitly stated that masks wouldn’t help to fight the spread of coronavirus.
And yeah, maybe Richard Rose didn’t listen to the same experts you do, or watch the same news channels, or read the same papers.
Maybe he didn’t update his priors when he should have.
But I can absolutely guarantee that every single one of us is doing the exact same thing about something.
Maybe not to the same degree. Maybe not about the same issues.
But we’re all doing it.
We’re all wrong.
And you know what?
None of us deserve to die for it.
And Richard Rose didn’t.
He was a 37 year old man.
He had friends.
He had a life.
He had value.
The moment you fall into the trap of hoping – just a little bit – that the other side “gets what’s coming to them…”
That they “learn their lesson…”
And “pay for their mistakes…”
The moment you start wanting to “own the libs…”
Or “shut up the Trumpers…”
More than you want to save lives?
The moment you start caring more about being right than about being human?
You throw away the only tool for change we really have:
Empathy is how we bridge the gap.
Empathy is how we work together to solve problems.
Empathy is how we discover – and fight for – shared values.
Without empathy, there is no “us.”
There is no country.
There is no “greater good.”
There’s just our party vs. their party.
Our numbers vs. their numbers.
And then every conversation looks like this:
What if they had “One foot in the grave?”
Not to be insensitive.
Give up the work of empathy and you start to believe that life matters less if you’re old…
Or you’re fat…
Or you’re a minority…
Or you’re from the wrong part of the country.
The wrong party.
The wrong side of the debate.
The wrong side of history.
You want the country to be less polarized?
You want to push back in the other direction?
Start caring about people more than you care about being right.
Stop treating being wrong as a cardinal sin when THEY do it, and as a simple mistake when WE do it.
Stop dancing on graves and start helping.
Because we can’t do this alone.
The virus can take your life.
But your empathy? Your humanity?
You have to give that away.
Let’s talk numbers.
Despite all my discussion of the self-destructive nature of scientific knowledge..
Of the massive influx of noise into the system…
Of the layer upon layer of game theory and statistics and yadda yadda yadda…
We all still have to decide what we’re going to do.
How we’re going to live.
How much risk to take on.
Do I send the kids back to school?
Is it OK to go to the movies?
We don’t get to opt-out just because it’s hard.
And I think we can all agree:
If the “authorities” were going to swoop in and figure this out, they’d have done it by now.
No one’s coming.
We’re on our own.
This responsibility to constantly choose – to make what feels like they COULD be life or death decisions – can be anxiety-inducing.
Even if you think the whole thing is overblown, navigating the topsy-turvy terrain of our all-new-everyday-lives is exhausting.
Let’s talk strategy.
By the end of these emails, I’m going to try and leave you with a:
1. Simple 2. Concrete 3. Specific 4. Data-driven
…plan for wading through the endless sea of information and planning your OWN Coronavirus mitigation strategy.
To do that, I need to spend a little bit of time introducing you to three more (last!) important concepts:
And MinMax Regret.
Heroin on Mount Everest
Let’s start with a coin flip.
If you flip a coin 20 times, what are the odds you’ll get 20 heads?
It’s about one in a million.
This is a very useful little number.
We each take on roughly a one-in-a-million chance of dying simply by getting out of bed. On average, each person has about a one in a million chance of not making it to suppertime.
That one-in-a-million chance of dying?
That’s a micromort.
Now, your individual risk varies, of course; it changes depending on which country you’re in (it’s actually higher in the US), how old you are, your health, and so on.
But as a unit of risk, it provides a useful jumping off point.
If every assumes about one micromort of risk per day, we can compare the fatality rates of different activities in micromorts.
It becomes a level playing field where assessing risk is easier.
Eating 40 tablespoons of peanut butter in a sitting? One micromort.
You also take one additional micromort for every two days you live in New York City or Boston.
Driving a car gets you one additional micromort for every 100 miles. A motorcycle? That’s 17 micromorts per 100 miles.
Skydiving adds approximately eight to nine micromorts per jump.
Running a marathon? Roughly 7 micromorts per run.
Going swimming? That’s actually 12 micromorts.
Playing American Football gets you 20 micromorts.
Using heroin? 30 micromorts per injection.
Giving birth is worth 170 micromorts.
Scaling Mt. Everest? A whopping 40,000 micromorts.
Of course, your circumstances affect your individual risk.
But calculating individual risk is incredibly complicated.
Micromorts provide us a fast, easy way of comparing risk levels. If you’re an avid football player but would never THINK of injecting heroin, micromorts provide an easy way of comparing the two.
They also provide a useful way of cutting through the statistical noise surrounding COVID-19.
We’ll get to those calculations in a bit…
But even after we tally up our micromorts, we may still have questions:
Are cases going up because of testing, or spread?
Are deaths really surging, or is this a backlog of unreported cases?
Are hospitals getting paid for every COVID-19 death they report?
These are all totally legitimate, interesting questions.
The problem is, neither you nor I have any reliable way of finding out…
And we need to make decisions affecting our safety, and the safety of others…
That brings us to heuristics.
Close Enough For Government Work
My Dad had a saying:
“Close only counts in grenades and horseshoes.”
His point was that “kind of” being right wasn’t enough. Accuracy counts.
And he was right.
As we’ve seen, it’s impossible to have a perfect understanding of what COVID-19 does, or the risks it poses.
Sure, a consensus is slowly forming.
But the consensus has been wrong in the past, and it would be intellectually irresponsible to suggest that we’ve definitely got it right now because “this time it’s different.”
Yes, we need to pay attention to what the experts say. Doctors, epidemiologists, statisticians – these people bring decades of knowledge to bear on a complicated problem.
But complicated problems are just that: complicated.
The good news is that, despite my Dad’s advice, close does count…a lot.
We don’t need a perfect understanding of the future to manage our risk.
After all, we do this every day with our investments.
You split your savings between bonds and stocks, money market and securities. You keep some of it in cash.
You don’t do this because you know what the stock market is going to do. The future is always uncertain.
But we can be certain about that uncertainty.
We don’t have to know exactly what’s going to happen to know that anything could happen. Every day, we accept our inability to predict the future and adjust our strategies accordingly.
How? We use heuristics. Rules of thumb.
For investing, it’s “invest more in bonds as you get closer to retirement.”
Simple, straight forward, no crystal ball necessary.
And, there’s research that shows that general rules of thumb (or “heuristics”) perform just as well or better than complicated mathematical decision models that try to predict the future.
In cognitive science there is something known as the “accuracy-effort tradeoff.”
The basic idea is that accuracy takes effort. There’s a cost to going for perfect accuracy.
That may seem counter-intuitive, so let’s use a familiar example:
You’re playing baseball.
You’re out in left field.
The batter hits the ball up into the air. It’s headed in your direction.
How should you figure out the best place to run to, in order to catch the ball?
Complex mathematical equations are probably the most accurate way of predicting the path of a flying object.
We could model the arc of the baseball, given enough time and effort.
But that’s the thing: that accuracy requires time and effort.
And since baseball players are not likely to be able to do differential calculus in their heads during a game…
How do we figure out where the ball is headed?
We use heuristics. Rules of thumb.
The baseball problem, for example, is solved using the Gaze Heuristic:
Fix your gaze on the ball, start running, and adjust your running speed so that the angle of gaze remains constant.
Studies show that people using the gaze heuristic will consistently end up at the exact spot where the ball hits the ground.
Not bad, eh?
But here’s an element of this you may have missed:
We require zero knowledge of the variables affecting the ball to use the Gaze heuristic.
We don’t need to know how hard the ball was hit, or the wind speed, or the weather.
We simply look, apply the rule, and act.
And surprisingly accurate.
Yes, we can get more accurate if we measure everything exactly and do the math.
But that requires effort. And if we can still get a good result from the heuristic, our rule of thumb ends up being the most efficient choice.
Even though there’s not a feasible way for us to truly understand everything about COVID-19…
If we wise up to the fact that COVID-19 is a situation of uncertainty (where the odds and risks are unknown)…
Rather than buying into the media narrative that it’s a situation of risk (where we totally are getting the odds right this time, even though we got it wrong literally every other time)…
We can still make rational decisions about how much risk we’re willing to take on.
Just stop trying to do the math, and start using heuristics.
Worse Than Death
If we accept that using heuristics can help us make rational decisions under uncertainty…
How do we do that, exactly?
First, we need to figure out what we’re up against.
What are our risks? What are our potential payoffs?
One of the critical insights we get from game theory is that rational actors can have very different ideas on what the “best” and “worst” outcomes of a game are.
You might, for example, prioritize personal liberty over physical well-being (Ben Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”)
Someone else might think that wearing a mask is a small price to pay for even a marginal decrease in risk to their community (JFK: “Ask not what your country can do for you…”)
Both of these people can be perfectly rational, despite having very different conclusions.
In game theoretical terms, rational doesn’t mean “I agree with your evaluation of payoffs and risks.”
It means your actions are consistent with your evaluations.
Everything comes down to what we value.
What do you value?
Let’s make a list of some of the possible risks of COVID-19.
Death is an obvious one.
Even if you think COVID-19 is overblown media hype – let’s say, no more dangerous than the average flu…
There’s still a chance you could die. After all, the flu can kill you, right?
Death is the risk that gets all the press because…well. It’s kind of an all-or-nothing sort of deal.
When you’re dead, you’re dead. You’re out of the game.
Are there other risks to COVID-19?
You could get someone else sick.
Even if you’re very unlikely to die from COVID-19, you could pass it someone who is.
How would you feel if you knew that someone died because of you – even if it was an accident?
Maybe you feel responsibility for that. Maybe you don’t.
How would you feel if it was someone you knew?
A son or a daughter?
I’m not saying these risks are likely – I’m just saying they exist.
What other risks are there?
It’s unclear what the long-term consequences of COVID-19 are.
Some say there are no long-term consequences.
Others complain of symptoms lasting months, or of structural damage to the lungs that could pose a problem for the rest of your life.
This is highly uncertain, of course. Just like everything else.
But the risk is there. So it goes on our list.
Hospitalization is a risk.
There’s a significant economic impact to going to the hospital.
Maybe your insurance covers it, maybe it doesn’t. Maybe you have money saved up, maybe you don’t.
Time off work might be an issue for you.
Add that to the list.
I’m sure you can think of some more. Add those to the list as well.
Of course, we have to weigh the risks of reacting to COVID-19, as well.
Lockdowns bring their own risks. Lack of exercise, lack of social interaction, depression.
All those go on the list.
There’s the economic impact.
You might have lost your job. Or you might be right on the edge.
Others might lose their jobs as well. A staggering number already have, with US jobless numbers for May rumored to be near 20%.
That’s a lot of desperate people.
Add it all to the list.
We could keep going, but I think you get the picture:
No matter what we do, there will be serious consequences.
There’s always an opportunity cost.
How do we choose?
Game theory’s goal is always to analyze the potential strategies in any game, finding the ideal solution.
But in some games, finding the ideal solution is difficult because the outcomes depends on what the other players do.
If you’re uncertain about how the other players will act, how do you choose the path forward?
The two most common game theory strategies are:
Maximax, where you take the action with the highest potential payoff (i.e., you maximize your maximum return.)
This strategy generally correlates with the highest risk, but it’s got the highest possible reward, too.
Maximin is a strategy where you maximize your minimum payoff. You cap your downside, knowing that even in the worst case scenario, you’ll get something decent.
This strategy reduces your potential losses, but at the cost of losing out on big payoffs.
Both of these strategies are all about the numbers.
For purely rational people, they make a lot of sense.
But we aren’t purely rational, are we?
We’ve got emotions to deal with.
We’re loss averse – meaning we feel more pain when we lose a dollar than we feel joy when we gain a dollar.
Luckily, there’s a strategy that incorporates that human messiness into a nice little package:
MinMax regret is unlike the other strategies we’ve discussed so far, in that it isn’t concerned with the raw numerical values of your payoffs.
Instead, MinMax regret seeks to minimize the maximum amount of regret you’d feel.
Regret is a little more nuanced that pure mathematical payoffs.
For example, you may feel that a certain investment is riskier than you’re comfortable with.
But how would you feel if your friends were already invested?
What if they all get rich, and you were the only one who stayed out?
Sometimes, the regret you’d feel being the only one missing out on a massive payday is actually worse than the potential monetary loss.
Regret, in a game theoretical sense, is the difference between the decision you made and the optimal decision you could have made.
There’s an opportunity cost to everything we do…and that needs to get factored in.
Let’s bring this back to COVID-19.
We’ve made a giant list of all of our risks…
Death, hospitalization, feeling ill, getting someone else sick, losing a job, someone else losing their job.
Let’s leave our “objective” assessments to the side for the moment…
And really feel these alternatives.
Visualize the scene. Get the details right.
What is it like?
What’s going through your mind?
Spend too much time thinking about this statistic or that statistic…
And you lose touch with the lived reality of what we’re talking about.
None of us are going to live through a statistic.
ALL of us are experiencing the lived reality of COVID-19.
We’ll also have to live through the repercussions of whatever we do.
Maybe the guilt of getting someone else sick.
Or the shame of having been wrong.
Or the frustration at taking every precaution and still getting the disease.
Or the anger of sacrificing, only to find out that it all meant nothing.
Risk is a situation in which the variables (how likely a scenario is to happen, what we stand to lose or gain if it does) are known.
When we face risk, our best tool for decision-making is statistical analysis.
Imagine playing Russian Roulette; there’s one gun, one bullet, and 6 chambers. You can calculate your odds of success or failure.
Uncertainty is a situation in which the variables are unknown. Imagine a version of Russian Roulette where you don’t get to know how many bullets there are, or even how many chambers in the gun.
Not only can you not calculate your odds in this scenario, trying to do so will only give you a false sense of confidence.
When we face uncertainty, our best decision-making tool is game theory.
Mistaking risk for certainty is called the zero-risk illusion.
This is what happens when we get a positive result on a medical test, and convince ourselves there’s no way the test could be wrong.
Because the world is infinitely complex, we can’t always interact directly with the thing we care about (referred to as the underlying). But there’s a more subtle (and often more damaging) illusion to think about: Mistaking uncertainty for risk. This is known as the calculable-risk illusion.
Because the world is infinitely complex, we can’t always interact directly with the things we care about (referred to as the the underlying.)
For example, we may care about the health of a company – how happy their employees are, how big their profit margin is, how much money they have in savings.
But it’s hard to really get a grip on all those variables.
To get around problems like this, we often look at some other metric (referred to as the derivative) that we believe is correlated with the thing we care about.
For example: we care about the health of the company (the underlying). But because that’s so complex, we choose to pay attention to the stock price of the company instead (the derivative). That’s because we believe that the two are correlated: if the health of the company improves, the stock price will rise.
The relationship between the underlying and the derivative is called the basis.
But the world is complicated. We often DON’T really understand the basis. Maybe we mistook causation for correlation. Or maybe we DID understand the basis, but it changed over time.
The problem is that re-examine our assumptions about how the world works.
This puts us in a situation where we mistake uncertainty for risk. We think we have enough information to calculate the odds. We think we can use statistical analysis to figure out the right thing to do.
The problem is that we often don’t have enough information. This is the “Turkey Problem”: every single data point tells us the farmer treats us well. And that’s true…right up until Thanksgiving Day.
We cruise along, comforted by seemingly-accurate mathematical models of the world…only to be shocked when the models blow up and everything falls apart.
Common knowledge games are situations in which we act based on what we believe other people believe.
Like a beauty contest where voting for the winning contestant wins you money, it’s not about whom you like best (first-order decision making)… Or whom you think other people like best (second-order decision making)…
But whom you think other people will think other people like best (third-order decision making).
As in the case of the eye-color tribe, a system’s static equilibrium is shattered when public statements are made.
Information is injected into the system in such a way that everyone knows that everyone else knows.
Our modern equivalent is the media. We have to ask ourselves where other people think other people get their information.
Whatever statements come from these sources will affect public behavior… …Not because any new knowledge is being created, but because everyone now knows that everyone else heard the message.
(This, by the way, is why investors religiously monitor the Federal Reserve. It’s not because the Fed tells anyone anything new about the state of the economy. It’s because it creates “common knowledge.”)
Whew! That’s a lot of stuff.
Let’s try to bring all these different ideas together in one fun example:
The Monty Hall Problem.
Monty Hall was famous television personality, best-known as the host of the game show Let’s Make a Deal.
Let’s Make a Deal featured a segment that became the setting for a famous logic problem…
One that excellently displays how our maps can become disconnected from the territory.
The problem was popularized Marilyn vos Savant in a British Newspaper. Here’s the problem as she formulated it:
Suppose you are on a game show, and you’re given the choice of three doors.
Behind one door is a car, behind the others, goats.
The rules are that you can pick any door you want, and you’ll also get a chance to switch if you want.
You pick a door, say number 1, and the host, who knows what’s behind the doors, opens another door, say number 3, which has a goat.
He says to you, “Do you want to pick door number 2?”
Is it to your advantage to switch your choice of doors?
Take a minute to think it through and come up with your own answer. Let’s start by asking ourselves:
Is this a scenario of risk or uncertainty?
The answer is risk.
We know the odds, and can calculate our chances to win. That means statistical analysis is our friend.
So how do we calculate our odds?
The typical line of reasoning will go something like this:
Each door has a 1/3 probability of having the car behind it.
One door has been opened, which eliminates 1/3 of my chances.
Therefore, the car must be behind one of these two doors. That means I have a 50/50 chance of having picked the right door.
That means there’s no difference between sticking with this door or switching.
While this conclusion seems obvious (and believe me, this is the conclusion I came to)…
It turns out to be wrong. 🙂
Remember our discussion of medical tests?
To figure out how to think about our risk level, we imagined a group of 1,000 people all taking the same tests.
We then used the false positive rate to figure out how many people would test positive that didn’t have the disease.
Let’s apply a similar tool here.
Imagine three people playing this game. Each person picks a different door. I’ll quote here from the book Risk Savvy, where I first learned about the Monty Hall Problem:
Assume the car is behind door 2.
The first contestant picks door 1. Monty’s only option is to open door 3, and he offers the contestant the opportunity to switch.
Switching to door 2 wins.
The second contestant picks door 3. This time, Monty has to open door 1, and switching to door 2 again wins.
Only the third contestant who picks door 2 will lose when switching.
Now it is easier to see that switching wins more often than staying, and we can calculate exactly how often: in two out of three cases.
This is why Marilyn recommended switching doors.
It becomes easier to imagine the potential outcomes if we picture a large group of people going through the same situation.
In this scenario, the best answer is to always switch. Here’s an interesting twist, though:
Should you actually use this strategy on Let’s Make a Deal?
This is where the calculable-risk illusion rears it’s ugly head.
In the beginning of our discussion, I said the Monty Hall Problem was an example of risk. Our odds are calculable, and we understand the rules.
That’s why statistical analysis is helpful.
But reality is often far more complicated than any logic puzzle.
The question we need to ask in real life is: Will Monty ALWAYS give me the chance to switch?
For example, Monty might only let me switch if I chose the door with the car behind it.
If that’s the case, always switching is a terrible idea!
The real Monty Hall was actually asked about this question in The New York Times.
Hall explicitly said that he had complete control over how the game progressed, and that he used that power to play on the psychology of the contestant.
For example, he might open their door immediately if it was a losing door, might offer them money to not switch from a losing door to a winning door, or might only allow them the opportunity to switch if they had a winning door.
Hall in his own words:
“After I showed them there was nothing behind one door, [Contestants would think] the odds on their door had now gone up to 1 in 2, so they hated to give up the door no matter how much money I offered. By opening that door we were applying pressure.”
“If the host is required to open a door all the time and offer you a switch, then you should take the switch…But if he has the choice whether to allow a switch or not, beware. Caveat emptor. It all depends on his mood.”
You can see this play out in this specific example, taken again from Risk Savvy:
After one contestant picked door 1, Monty opened door 3, revealing a goat. While the contestant thought about switching to door 2, Monty pulled out a roll of bills and offered $3,000 in cash not to switch.
“I’ll switch to it,” insisted the contestant.
“Three thousand dollars,” Monty Hall repeated, “Cash. Cash money. It could be a car, but it could be a goat. Four thousand.”
The contestant resisted the temptation. “I’ll try the door.”
“Forty-five hundred. Forty-seven. Forty-eight. My last offer: Five thousand dollars.”
“Let’s open the door.” The contestant again rejected the offer.
“You just ended up with a goat,” Monty Hall said, opening the door.
And he explained: “Now do you see what happened there? The higher I got, the more you thought that the car was behind door 2. I wanted to con you into switching there, because I knew the car was behind 1. That’s the kind of thing I can do when I’m in control of the game.“
What’s really happening here?
The contestant is committing the calculable-risk illusion.
They’re mistaking risk for uncertainty.
They think the game is about judging the probability that their door contains either car or goat.
But it isn’t.
The game is about understanding Monty Hall’s personality.
Whenever we shift from playing the game to playing the player, we have made the move from statistical analysis to game theory.
Instead of wondering what the probabilities are, we need to take into account:
1. Monty’s past actions, his personality, his incentives (to make the TV show dramatic and interesting)…
2. As well as what HE knows (which door has a car behind it)…
3. And what HE knows WE know… (that he knows which door has a car behind it)
4. And how that might change his behavior (since he knows we know he knows where the goals are, and he expects us to expect him to offer money if we picked the right door, he might do the opposite).
The map-territory problem can get us if we refuse to use statistical analysis where it’s warranted..
And when we keep using statistical analysis when it isn’t.
Now that we’ve seen some of these ideas in action, it’s FINALLY time to start addressing the root cause of all these emails:
The Coronavirus Pandemic.
We’ll be bringing all these mental models to bear on a tough problem:
How do I decide what to do, when so much is uncertain? And WHY is all of this so hard to understand?