Unleash Your Inner Odysseus: Frans Johansson, Nate Silver, Nassim Nicholas Taleb
From Harvard Business Review, by Kevin Evers
If one person could attest to the randomness of life, he is surely Odysseus. Cyclopes, lotus-eaters, gods, sirens, and shipwrecks—these are just a few of the challenges the Greek hero encountered while trying to return home at the conclusion of the Trojan War. Poor Odysseus: He couldn’t control his own fate. I think many of us know how that feels. In fact, if Homer were writing The Odyssey today, I bet he’d replace his gods with market forces. Bad bosses, too.
The truth is that none of us is immune to luck, good or bad. Probability says we’ll have our fair share of both. But three new books—Frans Johansson’s The Click Moment, Nate Silver’sThe Signal and the Noise, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile—offer insights on how people make the most of that randomness. Each author explores a different subject—Johansson serendipity, Silver predictions, Taleb uncertainty—and their collective wisdom is important: Although we have less control over our lives than we think we do, that’s not such a bad thing.
Let’s start with Johansson, who depicts success as extremely unpredictable, especially when market forces are at play. That is why, he says, Stephenie Meyer, a mediocre writer by her own admission, could sell more than 116 million copies of her Twilight books, to the befuddlement of English professors. She wasn’t even a fan of the vampire genre. But since literature (like many other career pursuits) is less rule-bound than sports or classical music, expertise wasn’t a prerequisite for her achievement. She didn’t need the 10,000 hours of practice it apparently takes to master a craft. Randomness leveled the playing field. Johansson contends that successes like Meyer’s are completely random. The rest of us have a hard time accepting that, so we engage in flawed analysis to try to explain—and then match—the exceptional performance. Vampire lit is the “in” thing. Sex sells. But then, millions of similar books never achieve the same stratospheric sales.
Johansson rails against this type of post hoc reasoning. Instead, he says, we should act more like Meyer, or Picasso, or companies like Pixar and Starbucks. None of them followed a preexisting plan, and that very uniqueness led them down serendipitous paths. Though not cited by Johansson, E.L. James of Fifty Shades of Grey fame is another case in point. She began writing Twilight-inspired fan fiction but found fame only after she dropped the vampires and added something unexpected—a dose of human S and M—to the mix.
Johansson’s advice is mostly spot-on: Be different. Follow your curiosity. See an opening. Try to exploit it. But his road-less-traveled stance seems a bit dreamy-eyed. All the big market smashes he cites are essentially black swans, a term Taleb uses to describe improbable events. Almost all of us—99.9%, most likely—will never come close to that level of success; instead, we struggle in our daily work lives to create things of value. So it would have been nice to learn more about how people get lucky in minor ways, too—how they secure small wins on the way to the big ones.
Stat guru Silver knows how good gamblers win, and the strategy sounds a lot like the one Johansson recommends. Take Bob Voulgaris, one of Silver’s case studies. Early on in the 2000–2001 NBA season, he placed an $80,000 bet—most of his life savings—on the Los Angeles Lakers to win the championship. Even though the team looked like a legitimate contender, the media weren’t convinced. All-star Kobe Bryant was injured, and the Lakers hadn’t played up to expectations the previous season. After seven games, the bookies lengthened the odds to 6 1/2 to 1. But the sample size (seven games) was too small to make that change. That’s when Voulgaris put his money on the line. When the Lakers won, he took home $520,000.
“Our brains, wired to detect patterns, are always looking for a signal, when instead we should appreciate how noisy the data is.”
Voulgaris now makes millions a year because he refuses to lock himself into a position. And he makes bets only when there’s a huge discrepancy between his own information and what the odds show. He’s not overconfident. He just thinks differently.
Unfortunately, Silver adds, most of us—experts included—behave less like Voulgaris and more like a drunk person. This is how it works: A drunk guy is deciding whether or not he should drive home. He figures he’s driven his car about 20,000 times in his life and has never been in a serious accident. So on the basis of his large sample size and his nearly perfect driving record, he takes the wheel. Wrong choice. His sample size was actually zero. The other 20,000 times he drove don’t count, because he was sober.
The point is that we’re really bad at making predictions because we tend to cherry-pick the data that confirm our opinion while ignoring the rest. Taleb agrees. In an excerpt posted to his website in advance of Antifragile’s release next month, he explains that our avoidance of uncertainty actually increases the occurrence of the shocks and stresses that we try so desperately to avoid. We make ourselves more fragile. His advice? Expect and embrace randomness. Cities, bodies, economies, cultures, evolution—all of these benefit from occasional shocks. In fact, that’s how organic systems work. They gain from disorder. So to become “antifragile,” we should be more open-minded and mistake-prone, which is basically what Johansson is getting at, too. Success and discovery aren’t plan-oriented endeavors. They’re the results of excessive tinkering and improvisation.
These three books should serve as a warning to all of us: Our worst enemy isn’t randomness; it’s our own hubris. Unfortunately, we don’t have absolute control over our success. But admitting this is crucial, and it helps us endure the rashes of bad luck we face. Remember: Odysseus finally made his way home. We’ll find our way, too.
A version of this article appeared in the October 2012 issue of Harvard Business Review.