Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Luck - V

You can say that successful people are intelligent, hardworking, persevering and driven but the reverse is not true - all intelligent, hardworking, persevering and driven people are not successful. The difference between the smaller set of successful people and the larger set of people with similar qualities to those associated with successful people is luck or what is commonly called 'being in the right place at the right time'.

The reason why only successful people attract attention is because of the survivorship bias - you tend to look at only the survivors of a process, not at the failures. A statement by Walt Disney seems to be popular - 'if you can dream it, you can do it'. Well, the number of people who dreamt something and didn't do it is far greater than those who did. You can't tell the difference between the two groups till you study both groups. But those who failed didn't write autobiographies. As Amitabh Bachchan says in the film Deewar, 'sapne samundar ki lahron ke tarah hoti  hain, woh hakikat ki chattanon se takarah kar toot jati hain.' (Dreams are like the waves on the ocean; they  hit the rocks of reality and break up.)

In the 1982 book In Search of Excellence (more than three million copies sold), Tom Peters and Robert Waterman identified eight common attributes of 43 “excellent” companies. Since then, of the 35 companies with publicly traded stocks, 20 have done worse than the market average. People are reluctant to acknowledge that the world is more messy than their models suggest. It is tempting to think that successful people have the controls in their hands and can tame Lady Luck. Success looks neat and tidy in hindsight.

The evaluation of the strategies and qualities of companies and individuals depends on the perception of their outcomes. As Phil Rosenzweig says in The Halo Effect: . . . and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers (highly recommended), 'if a diversification strategy succeeds,  it will be described as 'deftly maneuvering into new areas'; if it fails, it will be described as ' drifting' or 'straying from its core'. (Perhaps the failure was  due to 'causal ambiguity'. Maybe it was caused by ''idiosymcratic contingency'. The above-mentioned book says that it is the way PhDs say 'I don't know'.)

In The Black Swan, Nassim Taleb tells a story to illustrate survivorship bias, a story that had been related by the Roman orator, Cicero. One Diagoras was shown painted tablets bearing the portraits of some worshippers who prayed, then survived a subsequent shipwreck. The implication was that prayer protects you from drowning. Diagoras asked, “Where are the pictures of those who prayed, then drowned?” Those drowned believers are ignored in the analysis. Taleb writes:
Consider the thousands of writers now completely vanished from consciousness: their record does not enter analysis. We do not see the tons of rejected manuscripts because these writers have never been published...Consider the number of actors who have never passed an audition but would have done very well had they had that lucky break in life.
There is a graph called Socio-economic status (SES) gradient. The poorer you are the greater your chances of suffering from respiratory disorders, ulcers, psychiatric diseases etc.There are obvious possibilities like lack of health-care access, dangerous working conditions, lack of education etc. But the main reason seems to be due to the stress of poverty caused by psychological factors. It is also caused by  being made to feel poor.

The survivorship bias can make people feel poor. Consider a group of millionaires. They will compare themselves to over 99% of the people and feel pleased with themselves. Now put a few billionaires among them. They will start comparing themselves to the minuscule group of survivors and stop feeling so pleased. Your happiness seems to depend on your neighbour's wealth.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Luck - IV

Nassim Taleb makes a distinction between two types of occupations. Non-scalable occupations are like those of a dentist, baker,cook, etc.  where you need to invest additional time and effort for each unit of production. Scalable occupations are like those of an author, movie star, equity trader etc. where the the amount of work required doesn't increase with production. A writer, for example, has to put in the same amount of work to gain one or a million readers.

In a non-scalable occupation, the element of skill is more easily discernible. A scalable occupation is more dependant on luck and produces huge inequalities where a few can earn a lot leaving others with the crumbs even though there may not be such a wide difference between the two groups. In any individual case, it will be more difficult to decide how much of luck and how much of skill contributed to the success.

Every year, the literary agent John Brockman asks several public intellectuals to answer some question or another, and posts it on the Internet to provoke discussion. One year he asked many scientists to give their favorite equation. Daniel Kahneman gave the following:
success = talent +luck
great success = a little more talent + lot of luck
I will just add that even the skill that one possesses is a matter of luck - it depends on the combination of genes that you are born with and the environment you are born into, both of which you cannot control.

There is also the contingency that  the society that you are born into values the talents that you process.For eg. if Tendulkar had been born in Mali with the same talent for hitting with a wooden implement a leather missile thrown at speed, he would not have become a star. He would also not have become as good as he did because he would not have had the motivation to improve his skills.He worked hard because he knew that the skills that he possessed were honoured and rewarded in the society in which he lived. (A school student said that he needs to study only till Std. X and he will become a crorepati. Why? Tendulkar studied only till Std X! This is is another type of delusion similar to thinking that if you drop out of college and have a garage, you will become a billionaire!)
Michael Sandel writes in Justice:
The successful often overlook this contingent aspect of their success. Many of us are fortunate to process, at least in some measure, the qualities that our society happens to prize. In a capitalist society, it helps to have entrepreneurial drive. In a bureaucratic society, it helps to get on easily and smoothly with superiors. In a mass democratic society, it helps to look good on television, and to speak in short, superficial sound bites. In a litigious society, it helps to go to law school, and to have the logical and reasoning skills that will allow you to score well on the LSATs.
So, while we are entitled to the benefits that the rules of the game promise for the exercise of our talents, it is a mistake and  a conceit to suppose that we deserve in the first place a society that values the qualities we have in abundance.
You may say that life is unfair, that nature distributes talents unequally and the luck of social circumstances cannot be helped. Well, nature is neither fair nor unfair; it just is. In the words of the poet A.E. Housman, it 'neither  knows nor cares'. As the philosopher John Rawls said, 'What is just and unjust is the way that institutions deal with these facts.' You cannot derive values from facts. Making this error is called naturalistic fallacy.

The philosopher John Rawls considered what formal principles of justice rational and mutually disinterested persons would choose in the original position of equality behind the veil of ignorance unaware of the talents and status they will inherit at birth. If you didn't know your own place in society, there is always the chance that once the veil is removed, you might find yourself among the least advantaged economically and/or a persecuted minority.

According to Rawls, two principles of justice would emerge from such a thought experiment. The first would be that the person would choose a society which would provide equal basic liberties for all which would take priority over considerations of social utility and general welfare. The second choice, knowing that you could be dealt a lousy hand, would be to be born in a society where the most disadvantaged are cared for.

Rawls is not suggesting a levelling equality of the type parodied in Harrison Bergerson, a short story by Kurt Vonnegut.The sociologist Andre Beteille makes a distinction between equality and universality. Universality is the idea of providing primary education and health care to all citizens irrespective of merit. It is concerned with providing the basic necessities and not with everything that human beings may desire at any point of time.

All this does not mean that hard-work, determination, punctuality, etc are not important.  What it indicates is that these qualities are not sufficient attributes for ensuring success. Many successful people have an attribution bias - they attribute their success to their skill and their failures to randomness. It is a wonder that many people seem to  be  convinced of the absurd notion that success is a simple function of individual effort. In The Blank Slate, Stephen Pinker writes about the trade-off between freedom and material equity:
The major political philosophies can be defined by how they deal with the trade-off.  The Social Darwinist right places no values on equality; the totalitarian left places no value on freedom. The Rawlsian left sacrifices some freedom for equality; the libertarian right sacrifices some equality for freedom.  While reasonable people may disagree about the best trade-off, it is unreasonable to pretend there is no trade-off.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Luck - III

According to the economist Sherwin Rosen, inequality comes about because of a tournament effect where a person who is only slightly better gets the entire jackpot while others get next to nothing. The effect of asymmetric results can also come from an initial arbitrary push ultimately giving that person cumulative advantage even when no initial skill difference is involved. The sociologist Robert Merton also showed how an initial advantage can follow a person through life which he called the Matthew effect.

The idea of cumulative advantage is that once a person gains a small advantage over other persons, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage. This idea applies to anyone who benefits from past success - individuals, companies, actors, etc. Disadvantages are also cumulative with an initial failure due to random reasons stalking the person for the rest of his life.

When stock markets collapsed following the bursting of the housing bubble many fresh graduates in the US got caught in the ensuing recession. They had to take up lesser paying jobs in industries that were not their first choice. When the economy started recovering a few years later, these people had to start at the bottom of the ladder if they wanted to go back to their preferred sectors and had to compete with younger fresh graduates because their experience was not relevant for the new job. Hence an event entirely outside their control has saddled them with a disadvantage that will dog them throughout their lives.

In Outliers, Malcom Gladwell writes about the concept of the 'self-fulfilling prophecy' by Richard Merton. Here is how Merton put it in his original essay:  “The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come ‘true’.  The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error.  For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning.”

For example, for admission to kindergarten, a child has to have completed a certain age so there will be a few months difference between the oldest and youngest child in the class. At that age, a few months of extra brain development is significant. The older children will be able to grasp things better and therefore perform better. The cycle of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, adds up to a significant advantage over the years. I am quite sure such a process worked to my advantage.

The self-fulfilling prophecy is related also to what Karl Popper called “The Oedipus effect” - an idea that he had discussed in The Poverty of Historicism - the influence of a prediction upon the event predicted.  He called this the ‘Oedipus effect’, because the oracle played a most important role in the sequence of events which led to the fulfillment of its prophecy.

Path dependent processes are those where initial decisions and conditions almost irreversibly affect subsequent decisions which ultimately produce an outcome. It explains how the set of decisions one faces for any given circumstance is limited by the decisions one has made in the past, even though the situation may have changed. Here the future success is determined by the past success. Thus Microsoft or QWERTY keyboard enjoy disproportionate success even though superior products exist. Economists also call it 'network externalities'. Nassim Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness:
...Brian Arthur, an economist concerned with non-linearities at the Santa Fe Institute, wrote that chance events coupled with positive feedback rather than technological superiority will determine economic superiority - not some abstrusely defined edge in a given area of expertise. While early economic models excluded randomness, Arthur explained how "unexpected orders, chance meetings with lawyers, managerial whims... would help determine which ones achieved early sales and, over time, which firms dominated."
As this Hindi song shows, some people believe that life is all about luck while some believe that life is all about planning. The truth is that both play a role in deciding one's life chances. The successful vastly underestimate the role that luck has played in their lives. Tom Peters, one of the authors of In Search of Excellence , writes in an article TOM PETERS'S TRUE CONFESSIONS, 'In McKinsey's world, all of life is one of two things: strategy or organization.' If everyone had the same opportunities that I had, I would not have got into IIMA.(No doubt you are muttering what Sherlock Holmes told Doctor Watson, 'Your grasp of the obvious amazes me.' )

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Luck - II

Although both genes and environment both interact and influence behavior, there are some situations when a powerful influence from one side of the interaction can overwhelm the influence of the other. Take for instance the side of genes. Whatever splendid environment you are born in, it will not compensate for the catastrophic consequences of a genetic disease like Tay-Sacks.Conversely some environmental effect can overcome genetic influence. Even the best possible combination of genes is not going to help if you are subjected to a prolonged period of severe protein malnutrition during childhood.

Psychologists say that birth order has an effect on effort and striving - apparently, the first-born has a stronger work ethic, makes more money and achieves more conventional success than their younger siblings. In Justice, Michael Sandel says that when he asks his Harvard class how many are first born, about 75-80% raise their hands. The results have been the same every time he has held the poll.

I would have liked to conduct such a poll in the classes I studied in if I had known about it at the time. (The study is controversial and there is no scientific consensus about it.) For the record, I am first-born. Nobody can claim that he or she can influence the order in which one is born. If something as arbitrary as one's birth order has an influence on one's tendency to work hard then even the hard work one puts in is a matter of chance.

I heard a BBC podcast which suggests that social conditions a couple of generations ago could affect your health. How? The egg that formed you was formed in your mother's ovary when she was a foetus in your grandmother's womb. The health of this egg depends on your grandmother's diet. So your health depends on how women were treated in your society a couple of generations ago.          

Not only the economic capital but also the social capital of family members - the relationships that they have built over the years - aid in one's education and career.  The social capital of a plumber is less influential than that of a doctor in any part of the world so which social stratum you are born in is by no means immaterial even in the most meritocratic societies. The social and economic conditions that you find yourself in matter big-time.

In his retirement speech, Tendulkar talked of the large number of people who helped him in various ways. In the absence of such a nurturing and supportive environment he would not have achieved as much as he did. Jeb Bush, whose father and brother were US presidents and whose grandfather was a  rich Wall Street banker and a US  senator, once said about having such a family lineage, 'I think overall its a disadvantage.' Most people would give their right arm to have such a disadvantage. As Malcolm Gladwell says in Outliers:
People don't rise from nothing.  We do owe something to parentage and patronage.  The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves.But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up.  The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.
A report in the NYT says that a large-scale research study found that social mobility hadn’t changed much over time. When you look across centuries, at social status broadly measured — not just income and wealth, but also occupation, education and longevity — social mobility is much slower than many thought.  This is true whether you consider capitalism, democratization, mass public education, the decline of nepotism, redistributive taxation, the emancipation of women, or even, as in China, socialist revolution.

Then there are the unexpected accidents that keep happening. You may fall sick before an exam or interview. A trivial injury may turn into a life threatening condition as happened to this journalist. You may be standing on the side of the road and a vehicle may hit you. (There are maniacs on Indian roads so this is by no means rare.) There is a long running study of Harvard graduates extending over decades which shows chance events changing lives in unexpected ways.

Happy B'day dear Kesu

Hi Friends,

This is a post from Jaya. Those who are reading Kesu's blog would definitely know me (Kesu's wife). Today is Kesu's birthday  and I take this opportunity to write a few words about Kesu in this post. Firstly, wish you a very happy Birthday dear Suresh. You have always been such a wonderful life partner with whom I would share anything and everything. You are a  genius, matured, patient, loving, caring ... the list is endless... husband.  Love u lots!

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Luck - I

Some in the upper strata of society lose no opportunity to say that their success is entirely due to their hard work and luck has nothing to do with it, that everyone can achieve their dreams. They will give the credit for their success to factors like passion, hard work, skill, focus, and having great ideas. These answers will get plenty of air-time since they make for more inspiring stories than any credit given to luck or privilege. Saying that everything is within your control is an appealing story but that doesn't mean it is true.

When I hear statements like 'you can be whatever you want to be', 'Champions are not born, they are made', 'the only person standing between what you are and what you want to be is you', etc. I get the feeling that these people are living on  a different planet from the one I occupy. It is often seen that the advantages that give us a head-start and the accidents that open up avenues play a huge part in our lives. Small, random, initial advantages can balloon into huge ones. Nick Cohen writes in You Can't Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom about many of the super-rich:
...they are unshakable in their belief that they are entitled to their wealth, and have every moral right to resist attempts to reduce it. It never occurs to them that they are lucky...To outsiders their luck seems self-evident. Yet nowhere in the recorded utterances of the plutocracy does one find a glimmer of an understanding that time and chance played a part in their good fortune.
The same book quotes the Russian oligarch Mikail Khodorkovsky before his fall from grace, 'If a man is not an oligarch, something is not right with him. Everyone had the same starting conditions, everyone could have done it.' Every one had the same starting conditions? This guy must have been hallucinating when he said that. As somebody said, 'You cannot make your opportunities concur with the opportunities of people whose incomes are ten times greater than yours.'

Our existence begins with a genetic lottery. Only one out many sperms in an ejaculate can fertilize an egg. It is estimated that the set of people allowed by our DNA far exceeds the set of actual people. In The Extended Phenotype by Richard Dawkins, I came across a poem by Aldous Huxley:
A million million spermatozoa, 
All of them alive:
Out of their cataclysm but one poor Noah
Dare hope to survive.
And of that billion minus one
Might have chanced to be
Shakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne -
But the One was Me.
Shame to have ousted your betters thus.
Taking ark while the others remained outside!
Better for all of us, forward Homunculus,
If you'd quietly died!
If you are lucky to be born on the right side of the social  and economic divide, you can think of Gabbar Singh in the movie Sholay putting a gun under the chin of one of his henchmen, pulling the trigger, seeing that nothing had happened and saying, 'Bach gaya saala.'  The lottery starts before the moment of conception. What happened to your forefathers, the country and culture in which you are born etc. make a big difference to how you end up. Richard Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow:
Your parents had to meet, and the conception of each was as improbable as your own. And so on back, through your four grandparents and eight great grandparents, back to when it doesn't bear thinking about. Desmond Morris opens his autobiography, Animal Days (1979), in characteristically arresting vein:
Napoleon started it all. If it weren't for him, I might not be sitting here writing these words...for it was one of his cannonballs, fired in the Peninsular War, that shot off the arm of great-great grandfather, James Morris, and altered the whole course of my family history.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The feeding conundrum

Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth. - Sherlock Holmes

Watch this brief video before you proceed further. (It is critical that you watch the video before you read the post.) In one of my early posts, I had written:
At times I am so lost in my thoughts that I fail to notice the nurse giving me feeds through the feeding tube. When Jaya asks me about the feeding I stare blankly at her and she has to get the details from the nurse. Even I am surprised that I did not notice something so obvious. 
I came across a study which throws light on why I missed something so obvious. Since the experiment was first published in 1999, it has become one of the  most widely demonstrated and discussed studies in all of psychology. It won the psychologists, Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons  the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004. It illustrates a situation where people are misled into thinking that they know something that they actually don't.

The psychologists made a short film of two teams of people moving around passing basketballs. One team wore white shirts and the other wore black.Many people were shown the clip and asked to count the number of passes made by the players wearing white while ignoring the passes made by the players wearing black. The subjects counted the number of passes fairly accurately but that was not the point of the experiment.

Half-way through the video, a female student wearing a gorilla suit walks into the scene, stops among the players, faces the camera, thumps her chest and walks off.The amazing fact is that roughly half the number of people in the study did not notice the gorilla! They were so busy doing the task assigned to them that they did not notice any other happening. The experiment has been repeated many times, under different conditions in many countries but the results are always the same: about half the people fail to notice the gorilla.

This error of perception due to lack of attention to an unexpected object is called 'inattentional blindness'. It is called 'inattentional' because the blindness results not from any damage to the visual system but  because people are devoting their attention to one aspect and miss other aspects that they are not expecting. They are taken aback when their error is pointed out.

When the experiment was repeated without the task of having to count the passes, everyone spotted the gorilla easily - their brain was not busy doing another activity. The gorilla study illustrates the powerful illusion of attention.  Looking directly at something is no guarantee that you will see it. You may miss it if your brain is busy doing something else. That is why driving while talking on the cell-phone is so dangerous. The psychologists write in The Invisible Gorilla (a description of the experiments mentioned in the book can be found at their website www.theinvisiblegorilla.com):
As the gorilla experiment has become more widely known, it has been used to explain failures of awareness,from the concrete to the abstract, in diverse domains. It's not just limited to visual attention, but applies equally well to all of our senses and even to broader patterns in the world around us. The gorilla is powerful because it forces people to confront the illusion of attention.It provides an effective metaphor precisely because the illusion of attention has such broad reach.
It is plausible to now think that missing noticing the feeding being given to me  was not unusual. My brain was busy thinking of something and was not paying attention to the surroundings.Most of the seeing is not done by the eyes but by the brain.

PS: I had to think of a title that was related to the post yet did not give any clue about the contents of the post otherwise you may spot the gorilla. Once you know about the existence of the of the gorilla, you cannot avoid seeing it. And yes, I did not spot the gorilla. Neither did Jaya.