Thinking about shit on a long drive.

hwy11I pulled over to snap that. Damn.

On this five hour drive, I thought about a lot of things.

First, live in the moment. I could have saved a vacation day, but instead I wanted to drive through the pretty mountains, and I regret nothing. I’ll figure out work later.

One of the things that came up was what I would name my dog that I might get, but probably not until I am set up. I decided I would need two dogs. One would be Stringer, and the other would be Wallace. That way, when looking for Wallace, I could look at Stringer and say “Yo String, where Wallace at?”

When I was finished thinking about that, I started thinking about something that has been on my mind a lot recently. This question posed in Peter Thiel’s book “Zero to One”. It goes:

Tell me something that is true that very few people agree with you on

I am honestly stumped. The reason is that I don’t think I have really ever thought for myself. I have been getting close lately, maybe, but probably those times were just indigestion, upset stomach or diarrhea–easily remedied with Pepto Bismol.

For a long time I have believed that I should probably not say anything I don’t know for sure for fear of being wrong. This is a good strategy, it keeps you in the bounds of honesty most of the time, with some degree of error. It is a poor strategy if you factor in signalling.

There is a saying my former coworker likes to say about our previous  boss:

Often wrong, but never in doubt

So the problem is that overconfidence is a dominant strategy in a lot of deals in business or dating or making friends. People love the shit out of confidence. Everyone talks about it as if it is well defined and easy to spot.

Part I So here is my idea: there are people that have gamed the confidence signal, and it is one of the biggest problems in society.

You could also just say: “Overconfidence is bad”… and then I look like an idiot for stating the obvious. So if I throw in the term “gaming” and “signalling” : PRESTO! I am smrtr looking. See, I can game signals too.

The obvious ideas are often the ones that are most taken for granted…also a dumb thing to say re: vagueness. But O well, we will have to make do with my inept communication skills. (FYI: You want someone to kill it w/smart, read that Martha Nussbaum paper in my last post. I still get Die Schmetterlinge when I think of that essay).

Think of a scenario in which there is a confident person opting for a contract. There is also a less confident person opting for the same contract. The contract is a misguided rfp for some cost/benefit analysis. The client doesn’t understand the question he is posing. The confident person doesn’t either, but the less confident person does. Who gets the contract?

The confidence person knows that if (s)he waves hands, speaks vaguely, and never falters, (s)he stands a good chance of getting the contract. Often wrong, but never in doubt.

Things that happen:

  • The client feels smart for engaging consultants
  • The client starts to see what he was looking for
  • The client’s doubts are put to rest due to confidence of the consultant

The less confident person is worried about misleading the client, and has to point out that the client is posing a poor question.

Things that happen:

  • The client gets confused, doesn’t like feeling dumb
  • The client doesn’t want to hear the details, because that is the consultant’s job
  • The client is put off by the uncertainty of the less confident consultant, has less confidence himself as a result

The confident consultant gets the project, lots of money gets wasted and two people who don’t understand the problem agree to use flawed and useless methods to solve it.

Now, obviously the above situation is a construction and would never happen in real life. And obviously if this same thing were to occur over and over, there would be reputation etc… to correct for wrongness. Because obviously, when it is all said and done, the client will be able to recognize good work from bad work.

And obviously confidence is always a good thing.

But just described was overconfidence, not confidence. The issue is that nobody can tell the difference at the point of decision. The people that might tell the difference come off as less confident. Because there is a blurred line between uncertainty and un-confidence.

Perhaps the more fair scenario would pit two equally smart consultants against each-other, and each would understand the rfp is flawed. In that case confidence would win, and the money would be allocated correctly. The more confident person would reach consensus with the less confident person and the client would choose the one who seems more competent (confident).

But what work would be carried out? Would the confident consultant then try to break down and explain the complexities to the client, or would the confident consultant just eat the risk of the uncertainty…and how risky is that if the client cannot evaluate the quality of the work properly? Lots of unknowns to play with in these scenarios.

The core question is: what is a better strategy in the face of uncertainty, confidence or caution? Confidence sells. And in a world with tournament sorting, what you get at the top depends on how you measure people. Rigor in methods is one correction for this, as rigor makes the steps of analysis well defined, but rigor is hard, and people that are often wrong, but never in doubt have a vested interest in avoiding rigor.

Politicians, top CEOs, and many other people down the line are people who win tournaments. They nearly all have a slimy, impersonal vagueness about them. That is also a mechanism for confidence, you don’t have to doubt vague statements, they can almost always be rationalized.

I think I have more or less said what I need to on that topic. There is another dimension that effects this sort of view. The desire to be agreeable.

Part II of stuff I am right about, and other people are wrong. Positive thinking is bullshit.

This is nuanced. There is a lot of evidence to support positive thinking in terms of problem solving and personal mental health that we are going to conveniently brush aside. The reason I bring it up is more to do with incorrect application of positive thinking.

If something is messed up, and you want to say: “This is messed up” Or “Game over man, game over”, people don’t want to hear that shit. They want to hear “Keep your stick on the ice”. People want to feel good, they don’t want to feel bad, even if feeling bad is the most appropriate and most useful way to feel about something. (As an aside, I can’t help think about this #unlikelylifelessons)

In pop culture today, a lot of art is missing, because art makes you think: “What the fuck?” The feeling of WTF is uncomfortable, if only mildly uncomfortable. And in the internet of today, what I am talking about is: “What in the actual fuck?” because WTF is a watered down meaningless statement, like epic or that’s awesome or bacon. Dumb people have this word/phrase now, and there is no getting it back.

The allusion above I am trying for is the value in having your ideas challenged. WTF means your expectations were something else. How that relates to positive-thinking-is-bullshit (PTisBS), is that people expect cheeriness. People want PT but it isn’t necessarily the best medicine. And in a world of tournaments structures, NT won’t get the attention it is due due to BS expectations.

In the case of the two consultants, the client doesn’t want to hear: “What you are asking for is impossible”. The confident consultant is a positive thinker, and has all sorts of “Yes we can” to throw around. By now, it’s easy to see that the confident consultant may be called a yes-(wo)man. Which everyone agrees is not good.

Folded into all of this is the desire for consensus, which everyone agrees is needed to move on. To which I ask the question: “Is the best team for solving a problem the team that always agrees with anything any member says?” To which I answer the stick-man question with: fuck no.

If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding. Meat time. The meat of this post is how of often I find myself having to just let people have their beliefs, and how much better it works to not challenge those beliefs. And how much closer I feel to an original thought when I let my mind go into the what-in-the-actual-fuck regions of my brain. Because ultimately all I have talked about is conforming to expectations. People expect confidence, and people expect positive thinking. The world is set up like a tournament, and it makes no sense. This is not the best way to do things, but it is the way we end up doing things. I call bullshit on the whole thing.

I originally had more in this post, those are now new posts:

Welp. Seeyah later.


Martha Nussbaum is a wonderful person

The full paper is here
Today, Americans are often are embarrassed by deep grief and tend
to give Stoic advice too freely. A colleague in my university lost his son:
a young man, troubled, who died either of a drug overdose or by suicide.
I wrote him, saying that I thought this was the worst thing that could
happen to someone and he had my sympathy. This man, whom I do not
know very well, wrote back immediately, thanking me and saying, “I
really dislike this American stuff about healing.” (He is an American.)
I inferred from that response that many other messages he had received
had talked about healing, and he had gotten fed up with them. I am
with him: it seems a deeply inappropriate way to think of the tragic
death of a child.
So I would like to see psychology think more about positive pain,
that is, the grief that expresses love, the fear that expresses a true sense
of a threat directed at something or someone one loves, the compassion
that shares the pain of a suffering person, the anger that says, “This
deeply wrong and I will try to right it.”
I will add a little.
I have often found that people are insincere. It is one of the greatest discomforts I have in dealing with others. The common person I run into is a coward and morally inept. I know this because I am a coward and morally inept, but I think I’m less so because I have observed people grease their way through social situations without the slightest mark of doubt on their face.
In all fairness, I suppose not all people are written in their face. Or are they? You can’t fake a smile, we know that much.
In any case, honest sympathy for another is different than following the scripted expectations. Nussbaum nailed it, people are embarrassed, and instead of being human, people follow the script. Being human is a rare experience, but it is the key to love. No humanity is found in a script, its barbarous. It’s found when somebody risks saying the wrong thing in an attempt to say what matters.