Michael Buble on success

I saw Michael Buble on CBS Sunday Morning a few weeks ago.

His vision of how success works fits with mine and Nassim Taleb’s.

He said that he counts himself lucky everyday and that success was 10% talent, 40% hard work and 50% luck.

The interviewer responded, “Luck, really? But, you do have some good pipes.”

Buble responded, “So do the folks on American Idol.”

The interviewer, missed the point, and responded, “But, they don’t have several multi-platinum albums.”

Well, no, they don’t. That’s Buble’s point. Why don’t they? What makes him different from those very talented folks?

I think it is common for people to assume the equation to success is something more like 80% talent, 15% hard work and 5% luck.

I did, too, at one point. I just assumed talent would prevail.

But, I’ve been close enough to some semi-success stories to see that what often takes folks to the next level, isn’t just their talent and hard work prevailing. It takes a little luck.

I also have been close enough to see that success stories often have some unsavory trade-offs and some folks just decide it’s not worth it.

More on that in the next post.

 

 

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That’s what highly improbable events are

Ezra Klein thinks Darren Wilson’s account of the events leading up to Michael Brown’s death is unbelievable.

Klein could benefit from a basic lesson in statistics.

Highly improbable events usually appear unbelievable because they don’t happen often and don’t follow the norms. That’s what makes them highly improbable events.

Trying to make sense of highly improbable event by applying the norms of probable events is a common mistake.

It’s also an unfortunate consequence of a highly connected world that allows us to focus a great deal on highly improbable events. We see the highly improbable events so easily that we are deceived into believing that they are ordinary. We don’t often stop to consider what percentage of similar situations did not end as poorly as this one.

Nassim Taleb writes about this in his book, The Black Swan. He points out that people often delude themselves into believing that they could have predicted what turned out to be a highly improbable event, like a financial crisis, when we look back on it using 20/20 hindsight.

“…generally pathetic”

In The Chronicle of Higher Education,Tom Bartlett writes about his meeting with Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness and his latest book, Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder.

Taleb is known for his gruffness. That turns off a lot of folks. Not me. I’ve always had a penchant for substance over style and I think Taleb offers substantive observations on how the world works.

I believe a key observation from his latest book is to avoid having a single point of failure. Why? Because things fail and they fail more often than not. What thing have you seen that never fails? A single point of failure is dumb.

Engineers design their electrical and mechanical systems with redundancies to try to avoid single points of failure. Electric utility companies, for example, usually have more than one way to get power to your service drop. If one path fails, they can switch to the backup path while they’re fixing the main path. That’s one reason most folks usually don’t experience more than a few hours of electrical outages in a given year.

However, for your home, your service drop is a single point of failure. If it fails, you will be out of service until you get an electrician to fix it. Unless, of course, you’ve invested in a backup generator.

But, we rarely consider single points of failure in our social systems. Central planning is a single point of failure, yet many folks tend to support moving things in that direction whether the topic is health care, education or charity.

For example, I often hear folks advocate a single, national K-12 education standard. What if that standard fails? The answer they give is easier said than done, fix it. How do we fix something that has no competing models to learn from?

Below are a couple of my favorite passages from Bartlett’s piece on Taleb.

It would be for the greater good if more of us shared Taleb’s view on economists. Bartlett describes it as such:

He saves his iciest hate for economists. Taleb has no use for the “charlatanic” field, comparing economic research to medieval medicine. Economists are, in his estimation, weak, ignorant, fearful, and generally pathetic.

This is a good observation. Entrepreneurs and innovators have generated the wealth that’s made our standard of living so much better than our ancestors, not economists.

Here’s another interesting passage:

Taleb is a professor of risk engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Despite his wall of degrees (he has an M.B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and a doctorate from the University of Paris), he believes that universities propagate “touristification,” another term he coined, a phenomenon that occurs when what should be an exciting exploration turns into a programmatic exercise. It’s better to be an adventurer than a tourist. Education isn’t the only result of this modern sin; gym machines and “the electronic calendar” fall short as well.

How do we waste less genius?

About 51 minutes into this EconTalk podcast with Jonah Lehrer about creativity, the discussion turns to how we get these ages of excess geniuses, or periods where there seems to be a high number of geniuses.  Lehrer says:

Well, the last part of the book, I focus on so-called Ages of Excess Genius, these periods throughout history, like ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence, Elizabethan England, where you don’t just get one genius–you get this sudden cluster or clot of geniuses. You get Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, John Donne, Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon. The list goes on and on. Basically all these geniuses living in the same zipcode at the same time. It is quite eerie, and befuddling.

One explanation he offers:

T. S. Elliot had this great line, when he was trying to explain it in England; his version of the story was there wasn’t somehow this sudden flourishing of talent or genius in the 1580s in London; they simply found ways to waste less genius, to waste less human capital. So, that was his explanation. I think that when you look at these Ages of Excess Genius, that does seem to be one thing they all have in common. Which is, in general, they found ways to waste less human talent. Often by improving the educational system.

Personally, I think it has more to do with what we consider genius and how their ideas get transmitted. I know many people who have demonstrated genius , but will never be known for it.

They never sought to be known for it. They didn’t write down their findings or ideas, it never occurred to them that they were all that smart. To them, it seemed like common sense.

I believe what we recognize as genius is conveniently in a form that is easy to recognize as genius. But, I think that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Toughen up

1. Milton Friedman’s comment, “Capitalism is a profit and loss system. Profit encourages risk-taking. Loss encourages prudence.”

2. Nassim Taleb, author of the Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, released the prologue of his new book on Anti-Fragility online. In it, he expounds on Friedman’s point:

Which brings us to the largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” Some become antifragile at expense to others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm from them.

In the housing crisis, losses were spread to other parties — investors in mortgages and ultimately to taxpayers — while the upside was retained by the bankers. This caused the bankers to exercise less prudence. How many lottery tickets would you buy if someone else was paying? Likely many more than you would buy on your own.

Then Taleb makes an even more important point:

And such antifragility-at-the-cost-of-fragility-of-others is hidden — given the blindness to antifragility by the Soviet-Harvard intellectual circles, this asymmetry is rarely identified and never taught.

Very few people see this. They even blame the problems on capitalism, never realizing that  spreading losses across taxpayers is not capitalism.

3. A blog post from the Wall Street Journal: Half of U.S. Lives in Household Getting [Federal Government] Benefits.  And, we’re not talking about benefits like driving on Federally-funded roads or sending a child to a public school that receives some Federal funds. No. We’re talking about getting a direct benefit from the government.

I’m guessing that Friedman and Taleb would suggest that this doesn’t end well.

Friedman might say that we are removing losses and therefore, removing prudence. Taleb might say that we are letting people gamble without having “skin in the game”.

Ultimately, this leads to folks taking risks they wouldn’t take if they had to pay the loss. This is dangerous itself. But, it also leads to something else that is even more dangerous. The loss of resilience, hardiness, grit and adaptability.

Why I may throw my vote away: Part II

I wrote about why I may throw my vote away here.  On his blog, Zombiehero posted the video below of Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, on CNBC’s Squawk Box agreeing with me.

In the video, Taleb explains why he supports Ron Paul. The key point is at the 6:40 mark when the host asks Taleb what kind of chances does he give Ron Paul?  Taleb responds:

I don’t think in terms of chances. I’m supporting him, regardless of the chances. Whether he has 1% or 99%, I’m supporting him, because we have no other solution…it’s my duty as a citizen, as a person who lives here, as a taxpayer who doesn’t want to be hoodwinked….in the long run, by bureaucrats.