I’ve recently finished reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s first book Fooled by randomness. It’s not long or difficult, but it’s episodic and easily pick upable and put downable. And so I’ve put it down a lot – and picked it up again a lot – for a few months.
Anyway when I came across the following passage I made a note to say something about it if I got the time. Here’s a whole self contained section – at pp. 102-3 of the paperback I have.
One day a friend of my fatherof the rich and confident varietycalled during his New York visit (to set the elements of pecking order straight, he hinted right away during the call that he came by Concorde, with some derogatory comment on the comfort of such method of transportation). He wanted to pick my brain on the state of a collection of financial markets. I truly had no idea nor had made the effort to formulate any, nor was I remotely — interested in markets. The gentleman kept plowing me with questions on the state of economies, on the European central banks; these were precise questions no doubt aiming to compare my opinion to that of some other “expert” handling his account at one of the large New York investment firms. I neither concealed that I had no clue, nor did I seem sorry about it. I was not interested in markets (“yes, I am a trader”) and did not make predictions, period. I went on to explain to him some of my ideas on the structure of randomness and the verifiability of market calls but he wanted a more precise statement of what the European bond markets would do by the Christmas season.
He came away under the impression that I was pulling his leg; it almost damaged the relationship between my father and his rich and confident friend. For the gentleman called him with the following grievance: “When I ask a lawyer a legal question, he answers me with courtesy and precision. When I ask a doctor a medical question, he gives me his opinion. No specialist ever gives me disrespect. Your insolent and conceited twenty-nine-year-old son is playing prima donna and refuses to answer me about the direction of the market”.
This made me think of the interminable stupidities of meetings where one is enjoined to engage in doing some group thinking (is group thinking an oxymoron?) about something or other. This could be at an organisational ‘retreat’ (the only thing I have been known to avoid by feigning death – they’re particularly poisonous with a dishonest boss, but they’re almost always bad) or some kind of ‘brainstorming session’. I’ve got nothing against brainstorming, but remember hearing a management guru saying that if you went away to do it – if you set a schedule to do it – chances were you weren’t doing it. He suggested that if you were into brainstorming, it would be best to do it for an hour or less per week, in such a way that people were encouraged to bring thoughts they had over the week to the session, rather than imagine it all emerged in the virginal vacuity of a retreat.
Anyway, in such group thinking there is almost invariably some form imposed on the session. It might be that one is setting a vision or a mission or some other religious thing (not sure why they leave genuflection out – I suspect they don’t – they just don’t call it that). I recall one bit of group thinking I attended where consultants were working on a think tank and wanted to deal with unemployment. So they said consultant like things like “What are the drivers of unemployment” and then once we know that we’ll tackle the problem at source.
Another category of question like this – of a missionary variety – is ‘what is this organisation about?’ what do we do. Answers like ‘whatever makes the most money without breaking the law or doing stuff that makes us feel bad’ are regarded as somewhere between frivolous and evil. Now of course it is not unknown that questions like ‘what do we do?’ can lead to enlightening answers, but I suspect this is rare. What does happen is that people become very serious in answering the question and proceed to behave as if they really were making decisions that will guide the organisation and yet they’re doing it almost entirely without context. In other words, I would have thought the question ‘what is it that we do?’ makes a whole lot more sense when asked in the context of deciding on some major project in which case ‘what is it we do?” is really asking – “is this really in our skill set or strategic aspiration?” It’s a concrete question and so capable of some productive response.
The alternative is that one mooches around at a retreat with as little as possible in one’s head and dreamily legislates for the organisation of which one is a part by way of an almost contextless discussion which is often brought to resolution by quite extraneous factors – like arriving at some words that a a couple of people who’ve been disagreeing with each other can live with or just plain exhaustion and the desire for some result – or just the end of the meeting.
Likewise with the consultants (who didn’t know any economics to speak of) were sorting out unemployment, they behaved as if understanding ‘drivers’ meant that you could control those ‘drivers’. Economics, amongst other things is the result of a long tradition of trying to think about such things, but in its time on earth it has become less naive than the consultants. It might ask as a matter of curiosity and positive economics ‘what are the drivers’ but the important stuff is then trying to work out how one can get some purchase on it all with policy. And it doesn’t follow that if you figure out the drivers, you can do that.
In any event, when the consultants were talking about the ‘drivers’ of unemployment, I was like Taleb – silent and bemused. I’m only going to think about something from the perspective of wondering what purchase I might ever have on it. What contribution I can bring and useful thing we are seeking to do. A couple of questions might occur to me. Like these: Is there something about this situation that might give me some chance to come up with something worthwhile here – that is something better than what’s going down already? And: What particular things might we be able to do differently that could help this situation. In other words, the process is improvisational, protean, opportunistic. It’s not mechanical.
Taleb made money in the markets and it was beyond the comprehension of his interlocutor that he didn’t do it by imposing some mechanical process on the exercise. I am reminded of the way Nietzsche begins Beyond Good and Evil. “Supposing truth to be a woman: What?”
Postscript: a better example of the kind of thing I’m talking about is a search for ways to cut red tape which begins by asking ‘what red tape is most of a problem for business?’ This is a worthwhile question, but there’s a naive assumption that the most propitious place to go hunting is where business finds it worst. Well it seems reasonable and it’s an assumption. What you’re really trying to do is find the lowest hanging fruit – the stuff you can do that leads to the greatest reduction in red tape with the least pain and effort. And a lot of the most vexing areas for business – tax being a classic example – are as bad as they are because they’re complex and contested and that makes progress much more difficult than elsewhere. That doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth invstigating and looking for improvements there as anywhere else. But it’s a naive syllogism to say that the greatest gains will come from where there are the greatest problems.