125 - Nine Tiny Thoughts from September and October



These tiny thoughts—most of them the words and ideas of luminaries in their fields—cover the themes of cognition, perception, and intuition; holding an opinion; and working with others.

In a way, these are places my mind has been these last two months. I treat these as open-ended prompts for my life. I hope they trigger in you something useful.

THEME 1: Kahneman on Cognition, Perception, and Intuition

**Judgments of Probability and Judgments of Quality **

Judgments of probability are hard. But judgments of quality we’re good at.

We get stumped when asked to make explicit the _probability _of an outcome X in the future. But switch the emphasis from probability to quality (or intensity) and the answer comes much easier.

Instead of asking: how likely is the investment to succeed on a scale from one to seven?

Ask: how promising is the investment on a scale from one to seven?

_Likely _demands a probabilistic judgment; _promising _provokes an intensity judgment;

We naturally use intensity scales with a sense of confidence. We find ourselves capable of matching across scales. We can easily answer questions like, How tall a building in the city you live in would have to be to be as tall as that man is intelligent?

  • From the ideas of Daniel Kahneman

Why Can You See Better Than You Can Think?

‘Perception is something that we share with other animals. It’s got, you know, many millions of years to develop and to develop beautifully, because we’re not all that better in our perception than cats or other mammals. In fact, you know, we’re inferior to birds in many ways. Cognition has had much less time to develop, and it’s a work in progress in terms of evolution.’

  • Daniel Kahneman

Feed Your Intuition before Asking It a Question

‘The problem with the intuitive judgment is that it’s too fast and we form intuitions very quickly, and in the unstructured interview, and there are data on this, the interviewers tend to form an intuition very quickly and they spend the rest of the interview justifying their first impression, so basically the rest of the interview adds very little information.’

  • Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman has been saying for years that our belief-making works backward. We form beliefs and then construct reasons that back them up. We don’t first find reasons and then stitch them together into a belief.

This means that sometimes we lack useful information to construct an argument for our decisions. Some other times, we do but we let it pass because we’re busy looking for reasons that justify our first impressions.

The time spent looking for reasons that justify our first impressions is time taken away from evaluating the set of information that exists and is available. Don’t let your intuition guide you before you have gathered all relevant and available information. Don’t form a generalized overall impression based on a narrow dimension judged early.

In other words, feed your intuition before asking it a question.

THEME 2: Holding an Opinion

Opinion and Evidence

‘Whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.’

  • Bertrand Russell

Few have arguments about whether night will follow day. Not because it has been like that for millennia. That’s not a good explanation. But the laws of physics can explain precisely why night follows day. The explanation can meet with all the criticisms people have.

Not every topic has similarly good explanations. On any such topic there may be an equally compelling alternative explanation. Competing explanations point to opinions, not knowledge. When you’re holding an opinion, don’t expect to be immunized by criticism. If criticism of your opinion vexes you, consider it a sign that your belief is deeper than the supporting evidence for it.

Evangelists Are Racked with Doubt

‘You are never dedicated to something you have complete faith in. No one is fanatically shouting that the sun is going to rise tomorrow. They know it's going to rise tomorrow. When people are fanatically dedicated to political or religious faiths or any other kinds of dogmas or goals, it's always because these dogmas are in doubt.’

  • Robert Pirsig

**Avoiding Intellectual Dishonesty **

‘One way to avoid intellectual dishonesty is to maintain a slight positive pressure in the opposite direction. Be aggressively willing to admit that you're mistaken. Once you've admitted you were mistaken about something, you're free. Till then you have to carry it.’

  • Paul Graham


Behavior and Performance

_‘We very quickly separate on behavior. Performance is something that we will give more time; behavior we won’t. And that’s because behavior is a choice, not a skill set. When you come in as a new leader, everybody’s watching not just what you’re doing but [also] what you’re not doing. So if you’re not moving on things that people, that everybody is seeing, your leadership brand is already in question because apparently you’re blind and apparently you’re hesitating or you’re tolerant of behavior that you shouldn’t be tolerant of.’ _

– Frank Slootman

Influence and Hierarchy

If you can’t convince people in your organization, you’re likely to remain a prisoner of hierarchy. Your ability to influence others will be a function of your designation. Continue this way long enough and you may end up questioning your ability, instead of your ability to influence.

Your ability to influence those you work with is often the unlock to your ability to make an impact.

A Lesson Not Worth Learning

Work happens in community with your colleagues, customers and the broader industry, and that community will endeavor to teach you lessons that change your beliefs. When I left Yahoo, my Director asked me to explain my decision, and I ranted at him that I was disappointed by the lack of effort within my team. Several of my colleagues accomplished so little in a year that I was able to reimplement their work, running faster and using significantly less memory, in a weekend. This wasn’t because I was experienced or exceptional–I would generally say that I was neither–simply because I maintained a fairly moderate level of effort. This was, from my point of view, a major failing. My Director disagreed. Instead, he argued, you need all types of people in an organization. You need folks who push hard, but also those who are willing to maintain the boring pieces at a slow pace. Rather than a failed organization, this was good governance.

  • Will Larson

Horses for courses

Why do we keep going back to rules? History has something for us here.

Let’s start with horses. Horses were the main form of human transportation for the first five millennia. If at any time during this period you wanted to maintain a cavalry ready for battle, you probably needed to have rules for everything to do with how horses were handled.

Here’s Hastings talking horses.

_The horse was the dominant form of human transportation for about 5,000 years, domesticated in Kazakhstan, 3000 BC. So for 5,000 years, if you wanted to make a contribution to personal transportation, it was a better saddle, better breeding, better hooves. _

If your job was to keep horses in top shape in 1890, you probably had a fat book of best practices to turn to. And it would’ve been stupid, after having access to all that centuries-old wisdom, to then just go on and do your thing. Like feed tofu to horses.

_And then in one generation, from 1900 to 1930, everything changed with the internal combustion engine. _

In the snap of a cosmic finger, now you gotta leave those poor thoroughbreds, gotta fold the cavalry, gotta fire those horse-minders, and burn that fat book of rules for horse-keeping. At that point, it didn’t look like there was gonna be a starring role for horses in the future.

So: it is the mid-1900s. You’ve left horses. You’re running an automobile factory. You probably need a new set of rules to ensure you don’t go out of business. You want consistency in output. The work is rinse-and-repeat, variations mean defects, and compliance brings consistency. Investing in doing the same thing better matters because the thing you’re going to do is going to last. Cars are here to stay.

But no! Only a few decades have passed. You’ve barely settled into your role (compared to the equine era) that electric vehicles surface. All those damn rules you had in place to make internal combustion engines faster, better go out the window.

Now you’re pulling out hair. What do you do? Make new rules for EVs or…

…realize that innovation is happening faster than ever? Figure that the nature of work has moved from brawn to the brain. Where before work was rinse and repeat, now more and more it is experiment and create.

Adam Grant: it’s a lot easier to shape culture through who you let in the door than through trying to radically change people’s behaviors.

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