A Culture of Prediction

Imagine that you are an alien who has landed on Earth by accident. You have the ability, through technology, to look just like a human and to speak any language with basic fluency, but otherwise you know absolutely nothing about any human culture.

You would be absolutely terrified, and rightly so!

I mean, humans sometimes kill each other, right? But what’s more, this doesn’t always seem to be bad! In fact, sometimes we throw people parades for it! Imagine you had no context to understand why. What if you did one of the things that made it okay – even celebrated – to kill you?

The point is that cultural knowledge is a big aspect of safety, in general. It’s not always about life and limb. Think about working with people you’ve been with for at least 10 years, in a company that you’ve been employed by for equally long. You can predict the responses to your actions there much more accurately than when it’s your first day with a brand new job. The (local) cultural knowledge gives you a certain security in your actions.

I once had a conversation with a young man online that had asked for advice about things “every man should do before he’s 30.” I gave him numerous suggestions, and one of them was to attend church, if he hadn’t already. He (and several others) took a good bit of offense to that, as if I were suggesting that they needed to find religion or become born again.

That wasn’t my intent; I wasn’t proselytizing. But the fact that he balked so severely was proof that I was right. If you live in a culture where literally hundreds of millions of people go into the same building every week to discuss their deeply-held values, it would be smart of anyone to go in and listen to that discussion. It doesn’t matter if you don’t intend to share those values (or even if you do share them, but for different reasons, or whatever). What matters is that an enormous part of the culture of America is influenced by that sub-culture, and you’re a fool if you don’t try to give an open ear and open mind to the ideas believed in by like a hundred million of your countrymen.

And not for nothing, but it is impossible – 100% impossible – to craft a coherent argument against something if you aren’t at least as familiar with the source material as those who agree with it. You can scream and wail into the void/internet, you can bounce your ideas off the walls of the echo chamber and score cheap points with people who already agree with you, but you will never ever ever create so much as an ounce of substantial argument if you refuse to engage with what you’re arguing against.

You know why? Because a good persuasive argument relies a great deal on being able to predict the other person’s response to your first point, so you can lead the conversation along the channels of logic and away from fallacy. But if you can’t predict how someone will react to even your first word, you can’t do that.

Culture is prediction, and prediction is power. Pay attention to culture, even if it’s not your own.

Locked Up

Many years ago, my grandfather attempted to throw away an old refrigerator.

It didn’t go well. He lived in South Philadelphia and the local garbage collectors wouldn’t take it. So this huge hunk of metal was sitting on the curb for a few weeks, and the local police threatened my grandfather with a fine if he didn’t remove it. But he had nowhere to take it and no way to get it there, so he got clever.

He went down to the local hardware store and bought twenty-five cents worth of chain and a fifty-cent padlock, and locked the refrigerator up to the telephone pole it was next to. Sure enough, the next morning it was gone.

A similar story about my father: some time in the 70’s, when my father was a young man, he had a job for a short while as a vacuum cleaner salesman. He was very good, but he had a very unusual technique. Instead of selling door-to-door in nice suburban neighborhoods with demonstrations of the device’s effectiveness, he would instead go into very bad neighborhoods and tell people that the vacuums were stolen and he needed to unload them. He changed nothing else – he sold the same product for the same price. But he’d sell out in an hour instead of a day.

I think the lesson here is that dishonest people are often more vulnerable to being fooled. If you’re the kind of person who’s willing to steal from others, sometimes you end up stealing a broken refrigerator. If you’re the kind of person eager to buy stolen merchandise, then sometimes you end up buying a retail vacuum cleaner you probably didn’t need at it’s normal market price.

It’s easier for someone who wants to get one over on you to feed your vices than to manipulate your virtues. Give yourself over more to virtue than to vice, and you also won’t get tricked as often.

Managing Exceptions

Most companies are robust enough that a single employee taking a single sick day doesn’t cause the company to go into bankruptcy. Imagine then that the CEO of the company said “hey, since an employee taking a sick day and contributing nothing to the operations of the company for an entire day didn’t do any damage, that means we can operate entirely without employees! Everyone take off!”

There’s a gap in there somewhere, right?

This is somehow related to the “heap problem,” where if you have a million pennies all piled together it’s definitely a “heap,” and if you take one away it’s still a “heap,” so if “heap – 1 = heap” then literally any number of pennies is a heap. So if “Company Success – One Sick Day = Company Success,” then a company should be successful even if every employee takes every day off.

So why isn’t that true? Well, there are two ways to think about it:

The first way is to say that there actually is some minor damage caused even by a single employee taking a single sick day, and while a company can absorb some damage without major disaster, there’s definitely a threshold where the damage becomes too severe. (For instance, consider the difference between a single employee missing a day and a strike.) If we think of it this way, the formula looks more like “100% Company Success – One Sick Day = 99.9% Company Success” and anything below 95% starts to hurt. But I don’t actually think this is the correct solution.

Tangent: if one couple chooses not to have kids, no big deal. If every couple chooses not to have kids, we go extinct. So why shouldn’t we encourage every single couple to have kids?

Let’s create a term “X-Action.” An “X-Action” is anything that would be devastating to the whole if every member did it, but in small doses isn’t just not harmful – it’s beneficial.

“Not having kids” is an X-Action. If no one had kids, species ends. If some people don’t have kids, then we end up with a diverse and specialized human population that can support numerous different micro- and macro-configurations to meet societal needs at any given time.

“Having a lazy day” is an X-Action. If you had nothing but lazy days, your life would be in shambles. But having one every now and then actually improves your life, keeping you in good spirits and recharged for the work you do in the rest of your life.

And “taking a sick day” is an X-Action. If everyone did it every day, the company would go under. But in small doses, it’s actually helpful, because it prevents sickness from spreading when it occurs and gives employees a buffer so that they can be their best selves when they are at work. A company might crash and burn if everyone took them every day, but a company is definitely better if they have a 2-3% sick day rate than if they had a 0% sick day rate because no one ever took them under any circumstances.

So it’s not just that some things are “always bad, but in small doses not so bad that we have to worry about them.” It’s that some things are “bad in big doses, but good in small doses.”

There’s a difference between those categories. For instance, “murder” is not an X-Action. If everyone was murdering all the time, society would collapse. But even a little bit of murder is bad. Murder is something we should strive to have 0% of as much as the costs for such progress are reasonable.

(Why make that disclaimer? Because you could achieve 0 murder by pre-emptively jailing every single citizen, but that wouldn’t be a “reasonable cost” for a murder rate of zero.)

One of the challenges in life as well as in organizational design is being able to mentally separate those two categories. Lots of managers think “sick days” are like that second category, instead of the first one. I myself am guilty of thinking of “lazy days” in that second category, and feeling guilty when I have one. But recognizing which things, bad in large doses, are actually good in small ones can take tremendous weight off your shoulders.

Learning Zone

If something is too hard or too easy, you learn nothing.

I cannot learn to mountain-climb by starting with a solo summit of Everest. In fact, I will die a horrible death.

But I also cannot learn to mountain-climb by just walking up my slightly-sloped front lawn over and over again. I will learn nothing.

Too hard is the danger zone. Too easy is the comfort zone. But juuuuuuust right is the learning zone.

But really, that just means that too easy and too hard are both the danger zone. Because few things are more dangerous than coasting through life without learning anything.

Remember: all self-improvement is uncomfortable. You are shedding weakness and ignorance and failure; extracting those things from yourself is not painless. If you’re looking for comfortable learning, you’re looking for entertainment. That has it’s place, but don’t think you can improve your life from it.

The Road You’re On

Want to know a sure way to crash? Drive while never taking your eyes off the rear view mirror.

To put it another way – you can’t make choices in the past. “Playing the hand you’re dealt” doesn’t mean “accept everything that happens to you.” It means that you can only start not accepting it right now – not 5 years ago or 5 minutes ago. You can make infinite choices in the future and literally zero in the past.

Missed your exit? There will always be more, and you can make the active choice to take the next one. What you can’t do is go backwards and take the one you missed. Drive on the road you’re on.

The Silver

There are many contests in life that only have a prize for first place. When two teams go to the Super Bowl, only one gets the ring. When you watch the first place runner cross the finish line fractions of an inch ahead of you, it can feel pretty demoralizing.

It shouldn’t.

There may only be an official prize for first place in many contests. But there is an unofficial – yet very important – prize for second in all contests: the knowledge that you rule.

Consider for a moment the gap in ability between Usain Bolt (who won the Gold Medal in the men’s 100-meter dash in the 2016 Olympics) and Justin Gatlin (who won the Silver Medal). Their speeds were 9.81 seconds and 9.89 seconds, respectively. A gap of eight one-hundredths of a second. Now think about the gap between Gatlin’s time, and your best time running one hundred meters. My guess is that the gap between Gatlin’s time and yours is much much larger than the gap between Gatlin’s time and Bolt’s.

Which means Gatlin might have been stinging right after the race. He might have had a strong desire to work on improving himself to close that gap. He may even have felt discouraged that all that work didn’t get him the gold. But he would be wildly, incredibly foolish to think that he wasn’t a good athlete.

I mean, he was literally faster than every human on Earth except one. He rules.

And so do you. Getting so close the finish line and not getting first place might be a gut punch. But it’s also an incredibly strong signal that you should race again, and soon. For you to have come all that way was not wasted time nor effort – it was a trial run that showed you that you are absolutely capable.

Now let’s step away from the Olympics for a moment, and look at the world the rest of us live in. The Olympics are WAY higher-stakes than what you or I did recently that landed us in second place. Come in second at the Olympics, and you can’t compete again for years – and many don’t compete again at all. But if you miss your shot at a job you were interviewing for, a contract you were trying to land, a person you were trying to ask out – you can have a dozen more chances this month. And remember that you’ve already proven that you’re of incredibly high skill; 99th percentile stuff.

If you try out for contest after contest after contest in a particular sphere and you consistently land in 175th place, then maybe that thing isn’t for you. But if you’re landing in #2? You’re right there! Just do it a few more times – maybe even once – and you’ve got it. People who are bad at things don’t win silver medals for them.

Now, let me add a bit of tactics onto my mentality lesson here: responding to your silver is how you get your gold. When I was a teenager and played video games with other teenagers, a common phrase was “almost had it.” That’s what you’d say when you were so close to beating that last boss, he had a millimeter left on his health bar, and then you slipped and he got you. You’d say “almost had it.” Only there were two ways to say it: one kid would smash their controller on the ground and stomp their foot and say “almost had it” like the universe cheated them out of something they deserved. The other kid tightened their grip and grinned, eyes boring into the screen as they restarted, leaning forward into their next round as they said “almost had it,” like another man in another time said “Eureka.”

Guess which kid won on their next play through?

The person who doesn’t get the job reaches out, has great conversations anyway with those people, stays connected, suggests ways to collaborate in the future, builds a relationship that will create referrals and contacts well down the line (and hey, even potentially another swing in the future). The person who loses a contract bid to another rep studies everything about that rep’s style and their company’s offering to improve their own. The person who strikes out on the date request is charming and gracious about it, impressing other people with their poise and setting up future interest. You don’t lose, you get closer.

If you approach your Silver performance with the keen eye of a student, humble and willing to take every opportunity to learn, to advance, to still find advantage in the scenario you created instead of treating it as a binary, all-or-nothing situation – if you do all of that, do you really think you can’t find eight one-hundredths of a second worth of improvement in there? That’s all it takes to get the Gold next time.

You Can’t Help Everyone

I think concentrated help is better than dispersed help.

I think if you had a thousand dollars that you wanted to give away, giving all of it to one person is better than giving a dollar to each of a thousand people.

First and foremost, giving a dollar to each of a thousand people carries tremendous deadweight costs in terms of your effort. Giving isn’t instantaneous and neither is helping. It takes the same amount of time to give a person a dollar or a thousand dollars, so giving one dollar to each of a thousand people takes a thousand times as long as just giving one person the lump sum.

But beyond that, a dollar just isn’t that impactful to most people. I actually think a dollar helps people less than 1/1000th of $1,000, as counter-intuitive as that seems. But here’s why – if I give you an extra dollar, your life will not change in the slightest. (I’m assuming, of course, that “you” live in a western, first-world country like me. If you live somewhere very different, this statement could be very wrong, but the point I’m making will still stand in the end, you’ll see.) You might barely notice or remember. At best, it would go in a vending machine or stuffed into a spare corner of your car. There’s virtually no problem you could have where one dollar would mark the difference between solving it or not. In econ-speak, there are very few cases on the margin where a lone dollar would change anything. Which means that, for most of those thousand people, I might as well have given them nothing.

But $1,000? That can change someone’s whole month. That can be making rent or not. That can be a wonderful Christmas for some kids that wouldn’t otherwise get one. That can be the medicine someone needs this month. In other words, a thousand bucks can really be a blessing.

So when you concentrate it, you do much more than a thousand times more good, because you’re doing good at all versus probably not.

Now, think about how you can help people. Whatever it is you’re good at contributing that people might need. There’s an impulse of fairness in most of us that calls for us to try to “spread the love” as much as we can. But that impulse can lead us to some bad ends – imagine a village of a hundred starving people. You have just enough food to stave off starvation for one person. You could get out a scalpel and divide that morsel a hundred ways, but then a hundred people would still stave, because 1% of “enough” isn’t enough. Once something falls beneath the “actual help threshold,” then it doesn’t matter how many people receive it.

It doesn’t matter how many people you insufficiently help. It matters how many you actually help.

So when you’re looking to help someone, start by helping one person as much as you can. Get them right again, in whatever way you can. That guy throwing starfish back into the ocean when there were millions on the beach? That makes more sense than moving every starfish a millimeter closer to the water – where they’ll still die.

The impulse of fairness comes from an understandable, if misguided, place. It comes from a desire to not have to make hard decisions. If I only have food for one person, letting everyone starve by splitting it up at least absolves me from making the horrible decision of who to save. Most people couldn’t make that sort of decision and still sleep at night.

But the alternative is a hollow sense of fairness and a starved village.

When you can help, just pick the person closest to you and help. Like anything, you’ll get better at helping the more you do it. That means you’ll get better at putting your help where it’s most needed. But in the short term, getting started there is like getting started at anything at all – just do it. Just start. Someone needs your help, someone nearby. Go for it.

Ruling Class

I think the people who impose the most rules on themselves are the most free.

It takes extreme discipline to live a free life. If you don’t impose rules on yourself, someone else will impose them on you. The world is like a maze, and unless you make your life too big to fit in it, you’ll get trapped in it.

Sometimes I hear this lament from certain people about how they’d like to just chuck it all and go live in the mountains somewhere. Personally, I think that’s awesome – I want to do that. But these people seem to think it’s easy. As if “living in the mountains somewhere” would somehow take less discipline than living their current life.

You can take a day off from work. You can’t take a day off from your own survival. When you’re every piece of your own life, you can’t falter. You need rules to live by.

Not doing that is turning over some of the framework for your life’s decisions to others. Some level of that may be necessary, but do it deliberately if you must do it at all.

Tongue Lashing

The other day in the store I witnessed an impromptu parenting moment and was, to put it mildly, unimpressed.

The woman had with her two children, looked to be about 10 and 8, both boys. The older boy said something quite unflattering and downright mean to the younger boy. The vicious statement he made also included a particularly unpleasant slur.

The adult’s response was swift but, in my opinion, quite misguided. Her response was: “Don’t use that word!”

That’s it. Then she went back to her errands.

Now, I’m not going to criticize the overall moment, devoid of context. I’m a parent, and I know a lot could be going on there. But I’ll happily criticize the general sentiment that I seem to see so oft-repeated, which is that there is such a thing as “bad words.”

People teach that to their kids as a very foolish shorthand for “don’t be mean.” But that’s not the lesson the kids learn, and it’s not the lesson they carry into adulthood. The lesson they carry into adulthood is that if you want to be mean, you also have to solve a puzzle – different words are worth different points, and your goal is to maximize offense and insult without going over the line.

We teach kids that certain words are off-limits instead of teaching them empathy, decorum, and self-control. And in doing so, we also create vulnerability to those same words in these kids – they grow up thinking that certain words are exceptions to the “sticks and stones” rule.

Yes, words – all words – have the power to hurt an undisciplined or vulnerable mind. And no, the fact that words only hurt certain people is not an excuse to use them, claiming “it’s their fault that they weren’t tougher.” We should, always, be kind. And some words in particular carry an awful lot of historical baggage that may make us more aware of their use.

But I posit that we teach the wrong lessons around this, and that we can do better.

If I put a chip in the mind of every human on Earth that completely prevented the use of certain words, and in so doing managed to eliminate a list of all harmful slurs (imagining for a moment that such a list could even be agreed upon), I would have done absolutely nothing to decrease the levels of racism, sexism, or other prejudice that exists in the world. I would not even have eliminated the tools of the “ists” of the world, for the very second they realized they couldn’t employ their previously favored slurs there would be a mad and unholy race to pick the best (worst?) replacement.

A generation of empathetic, kind, morally-upright people wouldn’t use those terms no matter how widely available and free of social consequence they were. We create social consequences for words instead of intent and actions and it makes us do crazy things, like firing one media law professor for discussing a First Amendment case about racial slurs or even firing a business communication professor who was teaching about the Chinese language for using a Chinese word that sort of sounded like an English racial slur.

Those schools fired those teachers, but I don’t blame the schools. The schools are simply responding to incentives from their customer base, as all businesses do. No, the blame lies solely with us for raising children this way. For slacking off in our lessons about politeness and kindness and empathy so that instead we’ve taught that all the bad in humanity is somehow bundled up with certain specific combinations of letters.

I don’t want my children to never use slurs. I want them to never say sentences where such slurs are appropriate components. I want them to never feel in their heart like such a sentence bears value to their hearts and the hearts of humanity. I can say vile, hurtful things in sentences composed of words that, individually, would be appropriate for any kindergarten classroom. That doesn’t make those things okay to say – they are poison for my soul if I let them reside in any mind, my own included.

Make no mistake – that lesson is the harder one to teach. Dealing with anger, pain, or jealousy in a healthy way, being compassionate to other humans (even those that are not compassionate to you) and understanding the eternal importance of even, civil discourse are all great challenges to developing minds and the mentors helping them to grow. But we mustn’t shirk those duties, and we certainly can’t be fooled – as I believe many of us have been – by the idea that policing a subset of those words will do the aforementioned for us. We have fallen into the false belief that if we simply impose enough social consequences on certain words, then people will automatically become the moral beacons we should have been raising all along.

Words are a symptom; an outpouring of what is in our minds and our hearts. A holy tongue cannot be attached to an unholy soul, but a holy soul will not seek poison for its tongue, even if it’s available.