On deaf ears


**UPDATE** 2017/03/25

I just read this blog post which talks about problem formation…it’s related to what I wrote about towards the end of this post.

Quote: “Finding a good formulation for a problem is often most of the work of solving it.”

Original post starts here…

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the power of prophecy and the curse so that the prophecy would always fall on deaf ears. Experienced people are like Cassandra.

In this book there is a line:

“Being smart is learning from your mistakes, being wise is learning from the mistakes of others…”

Most of the language we have is very negative and pejorative towards the listener, I did a cursory search for synonyms to ‘heedless’, ‘inattentive’, ‘myopic’…, and most of the language frames people who do not listen as deficient in some way. But it takes two to tango. Good teachers are people that can pass knowledge to almost anyone, regardless. Maybe most people are bad teachers?

Then again…Is it the way the advice is given, or is life the only possible teacher?


Try to picture this setting: a group of economics students gathered to hear about work after graduation. The room they gathered in was outdated and windowless, evoking a bomb shelter or a prison because there is a strong sense that aesthetics are not worth money…but I digress.

I remember a key piece of advice…I’m ruminating on it now, about a decade later.

“You’re going to find that when you enter the workforce, the way people think in the real world is about a decade behind.”

Poor Cassandra. I heard you, but I did not listen. But wait…what was I supposed to do about that?

It’s  not very actionable. I have no way to make people think better. Also, given the opportunity, I would amend the advice to say “In the workforce people don’t want you to solve contrived exercises, they want answers…but in the real world the questions people care about are about a decade behind what you are learning.”

There was a lot of academic work that is completely useless, and never will be useful. It has to be that way, because these people are testing the waters of what is possible.

Behavioural economics is very useful, and practical, but ‘real world’ is mostly clueless about the lessons of behavioural economics. Also, we are now counting the decades since these ideas made their debut. So to me…these are the questions that people out there are starting to find important…but academics have been toiling with this soil for a long time.

I recently finished reading The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis. Spoiler alert, the book is about  behavioural economics (sort of). Riddled throughout are some of the best descriptions and key insights of behavioural economics around. So I hope that this book becomes very popular. And I hope it causes people to pick up Daniel Kahneman’s book. And Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstien’s book, and Dan Ariely’s books…and the books by Shiller and Akerlof. Just to name a few…but I would be happy if people just read the Undoing Project.

And that’s where I want to end the discussion about behavioural economics and get it out of the way. Because I took many things from the Undoing Project, but I already knew about that stuff…and there some more interesting lessons to draw from the story.

For one, it humanised the people in the textbooks. The story is one of two men: Amos Tversky and Daniel Khaneman.

Tversky was always missing in my mind. As a student I would read his name, but never think about him. There are videos of Khaneman on YouTube, so you take the ideas, and you see him talking about them, and you start to get the roots of the ideas. Try finding a video of Tversky. Kahneman is the living legend. He is where all of the attention goes. Lewis’ book tells a totally different story, and the names became people.

On another level…this book has got me thinking. In-and-of-itself the story is full of insights. I don’t know if Michael Lewis set out to write a critique on our society, or if that critique just flows from the tragic nature of the story. Regardless, the critique is there for the careful reader.

Lessons of The Undoing Project:

Our society is anti-collaboration.

Individualism is so ingrained in our beliefs that we force the square peg into the round hole. Without giving too much away, these two men were genius as a pair, and it is only through the collaboration that they started an intellectual revolution. But the world forced them to be individuals. And in that process, it destroyed the relationship.

There is a lot of time in the book talking about how people assigned credit for the research. When asked, Kahneman and Tversky did not know how much of an idea belonged to one or the other, they could not separate that out so neatly…because they engaged in dialogue…

Think about it…who contributes more: someone posing a question or someone answering a question? Especially if the question has never been asked? It seems that people value the answering person more than the asking person.

Think of this “There are no stupid questions”… It’s a common quip, but it’s probably complete bullshit. There are stupid questions.

Here’s a vignette:

Imagine a Ferris wheel. Around the Ferris wheel there are signs everywhere  that say “$1 to ride.” There is also a very friendly carny who makes eye contact with each person and announces “Only $1 to take a ride” to each individual person as they draw closer to the Ferris Wheel.

One of the people in line, after immediately being told “$1 for a ride” then asks: “How much is a ride”

That is absolutely a stupid question, and a stupid person…or a troll.

We don’t value good questions very highly, we don’t view them as innovation. At least not in formal settings like performance reviews.

In the book, one of the things that “broke up” the collaboration was an award. It was society saying that Tversky is the real genius, he carried Kahneman. Externally, people are not supposed to care about these sorts of things, adults are supposed to be confident with the insider knowledge of “what really happened”. So…we are supposed to not care about external validation…and somehow, at the same time, we honour individuals with awards as if the awards are meaningful… silly.

There is also a scene in which Stanford University hired Tversky, with the deliberate strategy of getting “two for the price of one”… At this time, Kahneman went to a much lower ranked school (UBC in Vancouver), and the collaboration suffered a long commute and unworkable logistics. There was no way to keep the two together, it was not seen as valuable.

Now…the simple elitism of intellectuals, and the prestige of certain schools, is what incentivized Tversky to leave Kahneman ‘behind’. So it is not as if the world forced this outcome…but certainly, the incentives to split-up the team were the most common incentives out there. In other-words, we don’t have systems to incubate people as groups, and we have active systems to poach key team members out of productive collaborations.

Odd people do great things.

This one is probably more familiar…there is something about geniuses. There are very popular perceptions of these people as “off”.

Tversky had a habit of just stripping down to his underwear and going for a run whenever the urge to run arose. He would just up and leave social gatherings once he bored of them, same with movies. He cared little about what people thought of him. …so it seemed. However it is revealed in the book that he was driven to be very aggressive in the Israeli army because he was afraid that he would be considered weak. He volunteered to jump out of planes first…stuff like that, motivated by an insecurity.

Kahneman was a Jewish child who survived the holocaust in France. He grew up hiding from people, and basically didn’t have friends. He talks about having a very rich mental life, he retreats into his mind. His interactions with other people were always based on confusion…and yet he would become, arguably, the most famous/influential social scientist in the world…Think about that, a person who had great difficulty basically interacting with people would turn out to understand human behaviour better than any other person on the planet.

These men lived very turbulent lives, especially when they were young, they were often caught up in war and battlefields.

So what is the critique?

Basically that society today wants people to be ‘normal’…but what do ‘normal’ people ever accomplish? You rarely hear about the well-adjusted genius who was completely unremarkable.

Perhaps because nobody truly is normal.

But then, think about all of the gatekeeping we do…if you want to get into a top college, you must conform to the ‘ideal’ we have for a student. You need top grades, X hours of extra-curricular, etc…etc…

You want a prestigious job? You have to pass the interview…which have criteria that are very similar.

In other-words, when we search for competence, we rely on filters that are based on “average” or “above average” types of performance…We don’t know how to find genius. It tends to happen. But it tends to break the rules about how we are supposed to find talent. Micahel Lewis’ earlier work “Moneyball” is a story all about how those normal filters undervalued talent in baseball players because of what seemed “normal”.

And yet…what are almost all of our policies with respect to education or talent building? They relate back to a related set of ideas: “Individuals are the basic unit of talent” and “Answering questions is how we measure individual ability” and it all just seems very hostile towards finding potential in people that are weird.

Which brings me to the last thing I want to take from the Undoing project:

The stars had to align for the genius of the work to happen. Even though they shouldn’t have to.

When I was reading the book, and they describe how the collaboration between Kahneman and Tversky started up…it seemed like it was basically a very unlikely event. It happened because of odd circumstances.

They were both in this odd place (post-WW2 Isreal), where the society was very unique in ways that are better documented in the book. But an example of this is the fact that academic psychologists (all of them) were expected to contribute to the effectiveness of the military or government or whatever…things like that don’t happen in most systems.

The two individuals were nearly opposites in humour and temperament. Tversky was brash, confident, and loved argument. Kahneman was quiet, doubted himself, and avoided conflict. They met when Tversky gave a guest lecture in Kahnemans classroom, and Kahneman dismissed Tversky’s ideas. So they started out antagonistic to one another. In fact, it seemed like a very uncharacteristic move by Tversky started the collaboration. He seemed to respect Kahneman’s dismissal of his work…that alone, while it may seem insignificant, is remarkable. Tversky’s normal behaviour, as he was described, made him out to be a guy that knew he was right, and wanted you to know it as well. What happened on that day for this guy to be open to criticism? Especially the type that doesn’t offer a concrete counter-point, but merely dismisses the ideas? …the stars aligned that day.

Michael Lewis claims that they fell in love…not in a amorous way, but in the way that they would rather interact with eachother than most of the wider world. They stole away time together, and they had deep conversations. They complemented one-another in non-standard ways. Contemporaries seemed to recognise that there was a special, privileged relationship between the two men.

Our society doesn’t really foster intellectual dependence. Perhaps the only realm where we see dependence developed at all is in team sports…and we probably do a bad job of it even there (we idolise stars, for example). And yet…the genius was in the collaboration. It was the team as a whole, not the individuals. It seems likely that both men would have had mildly successful careers on their own, but instead they worked together, and they changed the world.


To come full circle. The book raises questions about the nature of genius…can we/ will we learn from it OR is this another Cassandra-like paradox?

I think the common rebuke to many of the points might be something along the lines of: “our systems have to be results-driven in some way, otherwise we are just wasting money” etc… Because what gets measured gets managed, and we don’t know how to measure better questions.










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