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Sunday BS #3 12.09.21
Behavioural Science Curios
Welcome to Sunday BS!
On Friday, I was supposed to record A Load of BS podcast with Gerald Ashley. Gerald has a storied financial markets career behind him and is also a published author on BS with deep focus on risk and uncertainty and 2-speed change (i.e. incremental vs. disruptive).
Despite decent combined brain power at the start line, we couldn’t get Gerald’s microphone and speaker to connect to the recording software. We postponed.
It made me think of our system fragility. In opposition to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of antifragility which describes an entity that is strengthened by stress. A fragile object, system or being, fractures. A durable object maintains its integrity. An antifragile object may break now, but you can bet it will bounce back from the experience stronger than ever.
We tend to believe that greater connectivity (e.g. email, our networks, computers, WhatsApp), more data and more choice make us increasingly resilient and efficient. Actually, they skate on thin ice, revealing unpredictable and potentially damaging fragility. The systems that we rely on daily for nearly all our work and interaction are really held together by no more than a piece of string. The more reliant on abstruse technology we become, the more vulnerable we are and, in extremis, the more we are exposed to external attack.
Which is a rather over-dramatized version of Friday morning with Gerald. Below is Gerald’s own visual interpretation of events.
A little more on this subject below, since I’ve started. Here are three thoughts.
1) COVID antifragility
The modern world may increase technical knowledge, but it will also make things more fragile. Global connectivity is an economic boon but it’s a highly fragile state. The pandemic highlighted this immediately as lockdown collapsed the world’s supply chains. Governments were forced to backtrack progress by forcibly disconnecting us all (i.e. stay at home, go nowhere). Zoom made us resilient, but not antifragile.
While human life over the long run contains definite, malleable antifragile properties (our continued existence, evolution, culture, ideas, revolutions, political systems, technological innovation, cultural and economic success, corporate survival, bacterial resistance), the COVID pandemic (black swan event) reminds us of our fragility and that fragility - antifragility is a non-stop continuum. We fracture and we heal. We can bat the virus away, but not necessarily ever beat its mutations. The coronavirus certainly has antifragility in its makeup; it is the classical Hydra, the Greek mythological creature that has numerous heads. When one is cut off, two grow back in its place. It thrives under strain and shock.
In the long run, we hope we can overcome this vulnerability; that our system regenerates and we are more robust to face down the next random shock, stressor or volatility. We don’t know when it will come, we have no idea what it will look like and we don’t know its impact. So how do we prepare, and what exactly for? The uncertainty, the inability to model everything, is uncomfortable to accept.
A willingness to learn from mistakes, to change course and to avoid dogma will get us a long way.
2) The risk of coddling
In 2015, American social psychologist and Professor of Ethical Leadership in the Stern School of Business at NYU Jonathan Haidt, wrote an article in The Atlantic titled ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, in which he decries the over-protectionism of students from words and ideas they don’t like.
This student movement has terrified teachers from speaking freely for fear of causing microaggressions (e.g. asking an Asian American or Latino American “Where were you born?,” is strictly verboten because this implies that he or she is not a real American). Trigger warnings must be issued if something in a course might cause a strong emotional response (e.g. The Great Gatsby shows misogyny, Medea murders her sons, problematic sex between Romeo and Juliet?).
While the aim is to turn campuses into ‘safe spaces’, Haidt’s concern takes us back to antifragility. One might argue that coddling reduces antifragility. The Socratic teaching tradition encourages critical thinking, it forces us to question our own unexamined beliefs. This can be uncomfortable and challenging, but it brings understanding. It makes us stronger, it prepares us better to emotionally and intellectually engage with the world around us.
There is a more than acceptable counter argument here; clearly ‘what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger’ is not universally applicable. Haidt’s critics accused him of condoning, even encouraging, school bullying and workplace sexism; oversimplifying the supposed resilience these traumatic experiences can bring.
This criticism is to misquote Haidt. He rather says:
“Surely people make subtle or thinly veiled racist or sexist remarks on college campuses, and it is right for students to raise questions and initiate discussions about such cases. But the increased focus on microaggressions coupled with the endorsement of emotional reasoning is a formula for a constant state of outrage, even toward well-meaning speakers trying to engage in genuine discussion.”
Not everything makes us stronger, but seeking to eliminate all confrontation and conflict, all that is incommodious, seeking to bend the world to our own desires without debate, is not the path to happiness and survival.
3) Birds and frogs
"Never hire an A student unless it is to take exams," is one of many provocative and amusing Nassim Taleb aphorisms. It does receive criticism, often from sensitive A students with high badge value careers.
But to dig deeper, Taleb is not denouncing education. He says:
"School success is predictive of future school success. You hire an A student if you want them to take an exam, but you want other things like street smarts. This gets repressed if you emphasise too much education… education is the enemy of entrepreneurship."
Progressive employers, quite rightly, now look far beyond paper qualifications (medicine etc. excepted!) to recruit new hires.
Too much education is less the issue; rather too narrow education. Students should be encouraged from a young age to explore and test multiple subjects and activities; go broad before going deep. ‘Test and Learn’, ‘Fail Fast’ and ‘Be Foolish’ are the antifragile properties of a good mind, indeed of entrepreneurship.
Mathematical physicist Freeman Dyson presents a poetic comparison of the ‘A student’ and the ‘Always student’ as the difference between focused frogs and visionary birds. “Birds fly high in the air and survey broad vistas of mathematics out to the far horizon. They delight in concepts that unify our thinking and bring together diverse problems from different parts of the landscape. Frogs live in the mud below and see only the flowers that grow nearby. They delight in the details of particular objects, and they solve problems one at a time.”
The world is both broad and deep and we need birds and frogs together to explore it properly.
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Have a great week!