I’m always very hesitant to believe in causative theories for why things happen in complex systems. It’s become so clear to me how good I am at rationalizing and creating patterns where none exist.
I was listening to an episode of Planet Money and they gave the example of financial news. If the market is up, all the analysts go find very convincing reasons why. If the market is down they’re able to find equally convincing reasons why.
And yet, over a long period of time, no one consistently beats the market, which would be the true sign of someone actually understanding the system.
Instead of looking for causative factors then, I find myself subscribing more and more to the black box theory.
In complex systems, you can’t actually understand what’s going on in the inside, you can only control the inputs and observe the corresponding outputs.
There are a lot of traditional eastern medicine practices like acupuncture that no one really understands the mechanism for, but it’s quite clear that they do help people achieve their desired outcome.
There are also some more modern Western “practices” - like Modafinil – that fall into the same category. No one understands the mechanism behind Modafinil, but if you’ve taken one, there’s no doubt about what outcome it produces.
Justin Hayes of Superhuman Pursuits recently told me the story of how he tore up his knee in his early 20s and went on a quest to figure out and learn everything he could about fitness and mobility.
He learned from all the leaders in the field and then stepped back and said, “what do these guys have in common?”
Even though they seemingly disagree with each other on lots of points, all of their systems work to achieve the desired outcome. So, he identified the inputs that all of them had that were the same. By focusing on those inputs, he solved his knee pain.
I think that’s the best method for achieving any desired outcome in a system where the cause and effect aren’t obvious.
I read a lot of histories and biographies and I’m always looking for what the common inputs are among people I look up to.
And then I’ll try some things out and see if they work for me. After I listened to Einstein’s biography, I started going on long walks. I like long walks a lot now when I want to clear my head.
I’m listening to the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich now and it’s striking how deliberate and calculated Hitler is in comparison to the bumbling allied leaders in the pre-war period.
I realized that it’s hard to imagine any great leader rushing around and acting emotionally. They’re all very deliberate and systematic.
I’ve always liked the story of Lincoln writing a letter Meade after Meade had defeated Lee at the Battle of Gettysburg. Meade had refused Lincoln’s please to pursue Lee after the battle, a move that many believe would have ended the American Civil War.
I can’t imagine the rage that most people would have felt in Lincoln’s position. Though he relieved Meade of his command, the tone of the letter is entirely civil. Lincoln describes himself not as infuriated, but as “distressed immeasurably.” He closes the letter by saying:
I beg you will not consider this a prossecution, or persecution of yourself As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.
So I’ve been consciously trying to move slower and more deliberately lately.
To a large extent, though I think what goes into your black box is just a product of your environment and not something you consciously control.
That’s why everyone likes to say that we are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with or that we are all products of our environment. By changing who you hang out with, you change the system inputs in ways you don’t understand, but that definitively, and in my experience, profoundly, affect the outcomes.