Bloomberg to the Ivy League: Consider the Other Side

“You must force yourself to consider opposing arguments. Especially when they challenge your best loved ideas.”Charlie Munger

Recently, Charlie Munger commented that when he reads the New York Times, he pays special attention to Paul Krugman—with whom he very often disagrees—in order to expose himself to opposing political and economic viewpoints. His methodology is akin to that of Charles Darwin, who described, in his autobiography, his tendency to immediately note observations that seemed contrary to his prior beliefs.

Munger is not the only one. Malcolm Gladwell, in his recent AMA, wrote:

A lot of people wondered why I went on Glenn Beck’s show. I don’t agree with a lot of what he says. But I was curious to meet him. And my basic position in the world is that the most interesting thing you can do is to talk to someone who you think is different from you and try and find common ground. And what happened? We did. We actually had a great conversation. Unlike most of the people who interviewed me for David and Goliath, he had read the whole book and thought about it a lot. My lesson from the experience: If you never leave the small comfortable ideological circle that you belong to, you’ll never develop as a human being.

You can’t really have an informed opinion if you can’t state the other side of the argument better than the smartest person who holds the opposite view.

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On May 29, former New York Mayor and Chairman of Bloomberg LP, Michael Bloomberg, gave the commencement address at Harvard. The gist of his speech was that liberal ideology has so pervaded high level American education that conservative voices are being silenced by popular fervor. His speech made some excellent points about the nature of free thought.

Modern Day McCarthyism

There is an idea floating around college campuses—including here at Harvard—that scholars should be funded only if their work conforms to a particular view of justice. There’s a word for that idea: censorship. And it is just a modern-day form of McCarthyism.

Liberal Monopoly

In the 2012 presidential race, according to Federal Election Commission data, 96% of all campaign contributions from Ivy League faculty and employees went to Barack Obama.

Ninety-six percent. There was more disagreement among the old Soviet Politburo than there is among Ivy League donors.

That statistic should give us pause—and I say that as someone who endorsed President Obama for re-election—because let me tell you, neither party has a monopoly on truth or God on its side.

Role of Universities

The role of universities is not to promote an ideology. It is to provide scholars and students with a neutral forum for researching and debating issues—without tipping the scales in one direction, or repressing unpopular views.

Requiring scholars—and commencement speakers, for that matter—to conform to certain political standards undermines the whole purpose of a university.

… As a former chairman of Johns Hopkins, I strongly believe that a university’s obligation is not to teach students what to think but to teach students how to think. And that requires listening to the other side, weighing arguments without prejudging them, and determining whether the other side might actually make some fair points.

Always remember, you must consider your own ideologies as intensely as you consider those held by others.

Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule

Herbert Simon and William Chase, in a paper from forty years ago, drew one of the most famous conclusions in the study of expertise:

There are no instant experts in chess—certainly no instant masters or grandmasters. There appears not to be on record any case (including Bobby Fischer) where a person reached grandmaster level with less than about a decade’s intense preoccupation with the game. We would estimate, very roughly, that a master has spent perhaps 10,000 to 50,000 hours staring at chess positions …

That’s the famous ten-thousand-hour rule.

Malcolm Gladwell takes this up in the New Yorker:

This is the scholarly tradition I was referring to in my book “Outliers,” when I wrote about the “ten-thousand-hour rule.” No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

The key point of The Sports Gene, a new book by David Epstein, is that the ten-thousand-hour idea must be understood as an average.

Gladwell writes:

[B]oth he and I discuss the same study by the psychologist K. Anders Ericsson that looked at students studying violin at the elite Music Academy of West Berlin. I was interested in the general finding, which was that the best violinists, on average and over time, practiced much more than the good ones. In other words, within a group of talented people, what separated the best from the rest was how long and how intently they worked (see deliberate practice). Epstein points out, however, that there is a fair amount of variation behind that number—suggesting that some violinists may use their practice time so efficiently that they reach a high degree of excellence more quickly. It’s an important point. There are seventy-three great composers who took at least ten years to flourish. But there is much to be learned as well from Shostakovich, Paganini, and Satie.

Gladwell concludes:

The point of Simon and Chase’s paper years ago was that cognitively complex activities take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed. There’s a reason the Beatles didn’t give us “The White Album” when they were teen-agers. And if the surgeon who wants to fuse your spinal cord did some newfangled online accelerated residency, you should probably tell him no. It does not invalidate the ten-thousand-hour principle, however, to point out that in instances where there are not a long list of situations and scenarios and possibilities to master—like jumping really high, running as fast as you can in a straight line, or directing a sharp object at a large, round piece of cork—expertise can be attained a whole lot more quickly. What Simon and Chase wrote forty years ago remains true today. In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals.

So maybe being ‘a natural’ means you’re on the lower end of the average.

(Update: I’m not sure how to think about this stuff. What I do believe is something along the lines of: (1) We’re born with different innate talent or physical attributes that sometimes no amount of “hard work” can overcome; (2) having a growth mindset and a little bit of grit makes a big difference (call this tenacity for short, it helps but it’s not everything); and (3) deliberate practice makes a difference but it won’t, for instance, make you taller. In short, you can tilt the odds in your favor and how many hours that takes may be a function of what you’re born with. )

Still curious?
How Do Excellent Performers Differ from the Average?
What separates those who accomplish outstanding feats from those who don’t?

What’s on Malcolm Gladwell’s Bookshelf

What we’re reading says a lot about who we are – or who we want to be. In a new feature in the Globe and Mail, Jane Mount asks 100 writers, artists, and foodies to describe what the books that inspire them.

I wanted to highlight Malcolm Galdwell’s and Jennifer Egan’s.

First up is Gladwell:

I’m in the middle of writing my new book, which is about power. I’m very interested in the strategies we use to keep people who are powerless in check. And the ways in which the powerless fight back. So I started reading about crime. I’ve probably acquired 150 books for this project. I haven’t read all of them, and I won’t. Some of them I’ll just look at. But that’s the fun part. It’s an excuse to go on Amazon. The problem is, of course, that eventually you have to stop yourself. Otherwise you’ll collect books forever. But these books are markers for the ideas that I’m interested in. That’s why it’s so important to have physical books. When I see my bookshelf expanding, it gives me the illusion that my brain is expanding, too.

Texas Tough: The Rise of America’s Prison Empire

Texas Tough, a sweeping history of American imprisonment from the days of slavery to the present, explains how a plantation-based penal system once dismissed as barbaric became a template for the nation.

On the Rock 2008: Twenty-Five Years in Alcatraz : the Prison Story of Alvin Karpis

Anyone interested in reading about old school gangsters — as opposed to this generation’s wannabe “gangstas” — and prison life in general, will find this the best book you’ve probably never heard of.

Armed Robbers In Action: Stickups and Street Culture

By analyzing the criminals’ candid perspectives on their actions and their social environment, the authors provide a fuller understanding of armed robbery. They conclude with an insightful discussion of the implications of their findings for crime prevention policy.

The Illusion of Free Markets: Punishment and the Myth of Natural Order

The Illusion of Free Markets argues that our faith in “free markets” has severely distorted American politics and punishment practices.

Popular Crime: Reflections on the Celebration of Violence

With Popular Crime, James takes readers on an epic journey from Lizzie Borden to the Lindbergh baby, from the Black Dahlia to O. J. Simpson, explaining how crimes have been committed, investigated, prosecuted and written about, and how that has profoundly influenced our culture over the last few centuries—even if we haven’t always taken notice.

The Business of Crime: Italians and Syndicate Crime in the United States

A definitive history of organized crime in America.

Ride the Razor’s Edge

The story tracks the deeds and misdeeds of Cole Younger and his brothers James, John, and Bob, and tells the story of a troubled state during the late 1800s. From their Civil War battles against the Union with William Quantrill and his band of guerrillas, to the raid in Lawrence, Kansas, to their first bank robbery in Liberty, Missouri, the Youngers were both heroes and foes of their state.

Black Mafia

But They All Come Back: Facing The Challenges Of Prisoner Reentry

[D]escribes the new realities of punishment in America and explores the nexus of returning prisoners with seven policy domains: public safety, families and children, work, housing, public health, civic identity, and community capacity. Travis proposes a new architecture for our criminal justice system, organized around five principles of reentry, that will encourage change and spur innovation. It is a Herculean synthesis and an invaluable resource for anyone interested in prisoner reentry and social justice.

American Mafia: A History of Its Rise to Power

Organized crime—the Italian American kind—has long been a source of popular entertainment and legend. Now Thomas Reppetto provides a balanced history of the Mafia’s rise—from the 1880s to the post-WWII era—that is as exciting and readable as it is authoritative.

A Family Business

* * *

I found Jennifer Egan’s bookshelf a little more interesting.

Emma has always been my favourite Jane Austen novel. A lot of people tend to like Emma – she’s such a winningly flawed person. One thing that surprises me about Austen is that her characters are very inflexible; nobody changes that much. Emma might be the slight exception, but she still stays Emma in the end, even if she’s a little bit wiser. You could almost say that Austen deals in types, which normally is a very dangerous practice and doesn’t lead to anything interesting. Yet her work is stupendous. Her novels work themselves out with a tremendous clarity that feels mathematical or geometric. It’s very spare; there’s nothing extra. Her books shouldn’t work, but they do, and better than almost anyone else’s.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote has become so entranced reading tales of chivalry that he decides to turn knight errant himself. In the company of his faithful squire, Sancho Panza, these exploits blossom in all sorts of wonderful ways. While Quixote’s fancy often leads him astray—he tilts at windmills, imagining them to be giants—Sancho acquires cunning and a certain sagacity. Sane madman and wise fool, they roam the world together-and together they have haunted readers’ imaginations for nearly four hundred years

The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

First published in 1962, this wonderfully provocative book introduced the notion of “pseudo-events” — events such as press conferences and presidential debates, which are manufactured solely in order to be reported — and the contemporary definition of celebrity as “a person who is known for his well-knownness.”

Don Juan

Byron’s exuberant masterpiece tells of the adventures of Don Juan, beginning with his illicit love affair at the age of sixteen in his native Spain and his subsequent exile to Italy. Following a dramatic shipwreck, his exploits take him to Greece, where he is sold as a slave, and to Russia, where he becomes a favorite of the Empress Catherine who sends him on to England.

The Golden Notebook

Anna is a writer, author of one very successful novel, who now keeps four notebooks. In one, with a black cover, she reviews the African experience of her earlier years. In a red one she records her political life, her disillusionment with communism. In a yellow one she writes a novel in which the heroine relives part of her own experience. And in a blue one she keeps a personal diary. Finally, in love with an American writer and threatened with insanity, Anna resolves to bring the threads of all four books together in a golden notebook.

Good Morning, Midnight

No one who reads Good Morning, Midnight will ever forget it.

Emma

Sparkling comedy of provincial manners concerns a well-intentioned young heiress and her matchmaking schemes that result in comic confusion for the inhabitants of a 19th-century English village. Droll characterizations of the well-intentioned heroine, her hypochondriacal father, plus many other finely drawn personalities make this sparkling satire of provincial life one of Jane Austen’s finest novels.

Middlemarch

[A] complex look at English provincial life at a crucial historical moment, and, at the same time, dramatizes and explores some of the most potent myths of Victorian literature.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman

A forerunner of psychological fiction, and considered a landmark work for its innovative use of narrative devices, Sterne’s topsy-turvy novel was both celebrated and vilified when first published. Originally released in nine separate volumes, it is in effect an exercise about the difficulties of writing. Impossible to categorize, it remains a beguiling milestone in the history of literature.

Germinal

Germinal is generally considered the greatest of Emile Zola’s twenty novel Rougon-Macquart cycle. Of these, Germinal is the most concerned with the daily life of the working poor. Set in the mid 1860′s, the novel’s protaganist Etienne Lantier is hungry and homeless, wandering the French countryside, looking for work. He stumbles upon village 240, the home of a coal mine, La Voreteux. He quickly gets a job in the depths of the mine, experiencing the backbreaking work of toiling hundreds of feet below the earth. He is befriended by a local family and they all lament the constant work required to earn just enough to slowly starve. Fired up by Marxist ideology, he convinces the miners to strike for a pay raise. The remainder of the novel tells the story of the strike and its effect on the workers, managers, owners and shareholders.

Invisible Man

The nameless narrator of the novel describes growing up in a black community in the South, attending a Negro college from which he is expelled, moving to New York and becoming the chief spokesman of the Harlem branch of “the Brotherhood”, and retreating amid violence and confusion to the basement lair of the Invisible Man he imagines himself to be.

Underworld

Underworld is a story of men and women together and apart, seen in deep, clear detail and in stadium-sized panoramas, shadowed throughout by the overarching conflict of the Cold War. It is a novel that accepts every challenge of these extraordinary times.

The Transit of Venus

It tells the story of two orphan sisters, Caroline and Grace Bell, as they leave Australia to start a new life in post-war England. What happens to these young women–seduction and abandonment, marriage and widowhood, love and betrayal–becomes as moving and wonderful and yet as predestined as the transits of the planets themselves.

The House of Mirth

Wharton’s first literary success, set amid fashionable New York society, reveals the hypocrisy and destructive effects of the city’s social circle on the character of Lily Bart. Impoverished but well-born, Lily must secure her future by acquiring a wealthy husband; but her downfall — initiated by a romantic indiscretion — results in gambling debts and social disasters.

Still curious? Check out My Ideal Bookshelf.

Source

Overconfidence is the disease of the expert

If incompetence is the disease of the novice, overconfidence is the disease of the expert.

This brief clip, which is part of a much longer CSPAN interview with Malcolm Gladwell, discusses overconfidence. Everyone should watch this.

Incompetence irritates me, but overconfidence scares me. Incompetent people rarely have the opportunities to make mistakes that greatly affect things. But overconfident leaders and experts have the dangerous ability to create disaster.

Still curious? Watch the full 57 minute interview. Gladwell is a staff writer at the New Yorker and the best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What the Dog Saw.

David And Goliath: The Art And Science Of The Underdog

“You can compensate for talent with effort (and strategy).”

In his 2009 New Yorker article, How David Beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell points to a group of ill-trained female basketball players, who, despite facing more talented competition, advanced to the California state championship.

The story is about more than pure luck, it is about strategy.

In order to beat superior opponents, the women upended the notions of how defense should be played — they played a full-court press, which is basically unheard of because it is so physically taxing and, well, a lot of hard work.

Underdogs win more than we think. They often do this by replacing ability with effort and figuring out new ways to play the game.

Not content with an article on the subject, Gladwell has spent the last three years “investigating, and expanding on, these ideas: moving from basketball to warfare, to crime-fighting, to invention.”

In this interview, he sits down with The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson to talk about the art and science of the underdog.

If you look at wars between Davids and Goliaths, which we define as countries where one country is at least ten times bigger than its opponent, and you look at the last four hundred years or so of those kinds of battles, Goliath wins something like 66 percent of the time, which is astonishing. 34 percent of the time someone who is one tenth the size of their opponent wins. … but the more interesting thing is in those instances where the David refuses to fight by the same rules as Goliath, in other words refuses to fight in a conventional war, they win the majority of the times.

Gladwell is onto something.

In his book How the Weak Win Wars, Political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft looked at every war fought over the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 percent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. In conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful as its opponent—in terms of armed might and population—the weaker side prevailed almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said, and picked up five smooth stones. He decided to wage an unconventional battle.

What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Arreguín-Toft discovered another interesting point: over the past two centuries the weaker players have been winning at a higher and higher rate. For instance, strong actors prevailed in 88 percent of the conflicts from 1800 to 1849, but the rate dropped very close to 50% from 1950 to 1999.

What explains these results?

After reviewing and dismissing a number of possible explanations for these findings, Arreguín-Toft suggests that an analysis of strategic interactions best explains the results. Specifically, when the strong and weak actors go toe-to-toe (effectively, a low n), the weak actor loses roughly 80 percent of the time because “there is nothing to mediate or deflect a strong player‘s power advantage.”

In contrast, when the weak actors choose to compete on a different strategic basis, they lose less than 40 percent of the time “because the weak refuse to engage where the strong actor has a power advantage.” Weak actors have been winning more conflicts over the years because they see and imitate the successful strategies of other actors and have come to the realization that refusing to fight on the strong actor’s terms improves their chances of victory.

But not everyone wants to risk losing unconventionally. The theory goes that if you compete conventionally and lose, tough luck, but if you compete unconventionally and lose, well, you might lose your job. This might be a reason that competition between lopsided opponents is so, well, lopsided. As the famous economist John Maynard Keynes said: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

Still curious? Check out my post on strategy and pick up a copy of How the Weak Win Wars.

What’s The Difference Between a Puzzle and a Mystery?

An eloquent explanation on the difference between mysteries and puzzles by Gregory Treverton:

There’s a reason millions of people try to solve crossword puzzles each day. Amid the well-ordered combat between a puzzler’s mind and the blank boxes waiting to be filled, there is satisfaction along with frustration. Even when you can’t find the right answer, you know it exists. Puzzles can be solved; they have answers.

But a mystery offers no such comfort. It poses a question that has no definitive answer because the answer is contingent; it depends on a future interaction of many factors, known and unknown. A mystery cannot be answered; it can only be framed, by identifying the critical factors and applying some sense of how they have interacted in the past and might interact in the future. A mystery is an attempt to define ambiguities.

We may like puzzles better, but the world increasingly offers mysteries.

In a 2007 New Yorker article “Open Secrets,” written by Malcolm Gladwell expands on the distinction:

The problem of what would happen in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein was, by contrast, a mystery. It wasn’t a question that had a simple, factual answer. Mysteries require judgments and the assessment of uncertainty, and the hard part is not that we have too little information but that we have too much.

Gladwell goes on to show how understanding the difference between puzzles and mysteries can lead us to interpret the same facts differently. “If you sat through the trial of Jeffrey Skilling,” Gladwell writes, “you’d think that the Enron scandal was a puzzle.” But Enron wasn’t really a puzzle it was a mystery.

In his book, Boombustology, Vikram Mansharamani sums up the Enron situation:

…the truth about Enron’s transactions was openly reveled in public filings and all it took was a diligent Wall Street Journal reporter to unveil the issues at hand. The needed capability was not the ability to find particular information, but rather the skill to assemble disparate data point into a clear image of the whole. The problem is not one of inadequate information, but instead one of too much information overwhelming the processing capabilities…