Blog

Predicting the Future with Bayes’s Theorem

In a recent podcast, we talked with professional poker player Annie Duke about thinking in probabilities, something good poker players do all the time. At the poker table or in life, it’s really useful to think in probabilities versus absolutes based on all the information you have available to you. You can improve your decisions and get better outcomes. Probabilistic thinking leads you to ask yourself, how confident am I in this prediction? What information would impact this confidence?

Bayes’s Theorem

Bayes’s theorem is an accessible way of integrating probability thinking into our lives. Thomas Bayes was an English minister in the 18th century, whose most famous work, “An Essay toward Solving a Problem in the Doctrine of Chances,” was brought to the attention of the Royal Society in 1763—two years after his death—by his friend Richard Price. The essay did not contain the theorem as we now know it, but had the seeds of the idea. It looked at how we should adjust our estimates of probabilities when we encounter new data that influence a situation. Later development by French scholar Pierre-Simon Laplace and others helped codify the theorem and develop it into a useful tool for thinking.

Knowing the exact math of probability calculations is not the key to understanding Bayesian thinking. More critical is your ability and desire to assign probabilities of truth and accuracy to anything you think you know, and then being willing to update those probabilities when new information comes in. Here is a short example, found in Investing: The Last Liberal Art, of how it works:

Let’s imagine that you and a friend have spent the afternoon playing your favorite board game, and now, at the end of the game, you are chatting about this and that. Something your friend says leads you to make a friendly wager: that with one roll of the die from the game, you will get a 6. Straight odds are one in six, a 16 percent probability. But then suppose your friend rolls the die, quickly covers it with her hand, and takes a peek. “I can tell you this much,” she says; “it’s an even number.” Now you have new information and your odds change dramatically to one in three, a 33 percent probability. While you are considering whether to change your bet, your friend teasingly adds: “And it’s not a 4.” With this additional bit of information, your odds have changed again, to one in two, a 50 percent probability. With this very simple example, you have performed a Bayesian analysis. Each new piece of information affected the original probability, and that is Bayesian [updating].

Both Nate Silver and Eliezer Yudkowsky have written about Bayes’s theorem in the context of medical testing, specifically mammograms. Imagine you live in a country with 100 million women under 40. Past trends have revealed that there is a 1.4% chance of a woman under 40 in this country getting breast cancer—so roughly 1.4 million women.

Mammograms will detect breast cancer 75% of the time. They will give out false positives—say a woman has breast cancer when she actually doesn’t—about 10% of the time. At first, you might focus just on the mammogram numbers and think that 75% success rate means that a positive is bad news. Let’s do the math.

If all the women under 40 get mammograms, then the false positive rate will give 10 million women under 40 the news that they have breast cancer. But because you know the first statistic, that only 1.4 women under 40 actually get breast cancer, you know that 8.6 million of the women who tested positive are not actually going to have breast cancer!
That’s a lot of needless worrying, which leads to a lot of needless medical care. In order to remedy this poor understanding and make better decisions about using mammograms, we absolutely must consider prior knowledge when we look at the results, and try to update our beliefs with that knowledge in mind.

Weigh the Evidence

Often we ignore prior information, simply called “priors” in Bayesian-speak. We can blame this habit in part on the availability heuristic—we focus on what’s readily available. In this case, we focus on the newest information and the bigger picture gets lost. We fail to adjust the probability of old information to reflect what we have learned.

The big idea behind Bayes’s theorem is that we must continuously update our probability estimates on an as-needed basis. In their book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver and Allen Lane give a contemporary example, reminding us that new information is often most useful when we put it in the larger context of what we already know:

Bayes’s theorem is an important reality check on our efforts to forecast the future. How, for instance, should we reconcile a large body of theory and evidence predicting global warming with the fact that there has been no warming trend over the last decade or so? Skeptics react with glee, while true believers dismiss the new information.

A better response is to use Bayes’s theorem: the lack of recent warming is evidence against recent global warming predictions, but it is weak evidence. This is because there is enough variability in global temperatures to make such an outcome unsurprising. The new information should reduce our confidence in our models of global warming—but only a little.

The same approach can be used in anything from an economic forecast to a hand of poker, and while Bayes’s theorem can be a formal affair, Bayesian reasoning also works as a rule of thumb. We tend to either dismiss new evidence, or embrace it as though nothing else matters. Bayesians try to weigh both the old hypothesis and the new evidence in a sensible way.

Limitations of the Bayesian

Don’t walk away thinking the Bayesian approach will enable you to predict everything! In addition to seeing the the world as an ever-shifting array of probabilities, we must also remember the limitations of inductive reasoning. A high probability of something being true is not the same as saying it is true. A great example of this is from Bertrand Russell’s The Problems of Philosophy:

A horse which has been often driven along a certain road resists the attempt to drive him in a different direction. Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who usually feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken.

In the final analysis, though, picking up Bayesian reasoning can truly change your life, as observed in this Big Think video by Julia Galef of the Center for Applied Rationality:

After you’ve been steeped in Bayes’s rule for a little while, it starts to produce some fundamental changes to your thinking. For example, you become much more aware that your beliefs are grayscale. They’re not black and white and that you have levels of confidence in your beliefs about how the world works that are less than 100 percent but greater than zero percent and even more importantly as you go through the world and encounter new ideas and new evidence, that level of confidence fluctuates, as you encounter evidence for and against your beliefs.

So be okay with uncertainty, and use it to your advantage. Instead of holding on to outdated beliefs by rejecting new information, take in what comes your way through a system of evaluating probabilities.

Bayes’s Theorem is part of the Farnam Street latticework of mental models. Still Curious? Read Bayes and Deadweight: Using Statistics to Eject the Deadweight From Your Life next. 

Learning community members can discuss this on the member forum

The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters

The decisions we spend the most time on are rarely the most important ones. Not all decisions need the same process. Sometimes, trying to impose the same process on all decisions leads to difficulty identifying which ones are most important, bogging us down and stressing us out.

I remember once struggling at the intelligence agency shortly after I received a promotion. I was being asked to make too many decisions. I had no way to sort through them to figure out which ones mattered, and which ones were inconsequential.

The situation built slowly over a period of weeks. My employees were scared to make decisions because their previous boss had hung them out to dry when things went wrong. My boss, a political high flyer, also liked to delegate down the riskiest decisions. As a result, I had more decisions to make than capacity to make them. I was working longer and longer to keep up with the volume of decisions. Worse, I followed the same process for all of them. I was focusing on the most urgent decisions as the cost of the most important decisions.

It was clear to me that I wasn’t the right person to make all of the decisions. I needed a quick and flexible framework to categorize decisions into the ones I should be making and the ones I should be delegating. I figured most of the urgent decisions could be made by the team because they were easily reversible and not very consequential. In fact, they were only becoming urgent because the team wasn’t making the decisions in the first place. And because I was rushing through these decisions in an effort to put more time into the important decisions, I was making worse choices than the team would have.

As I was walking home one night, I came up with an idea that I used from the next day on, with pretty good success. I call it the Decision Matrix. It’s a decision making version of the Eisenhower Matrix, which helps you distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent. It’s so simple you can draw it on a napkin, and once you get it, you get it.

While it won’t make the decisions for you, it will help you quickly identify which decisions you should focus on.

The Decision Matrix

My strategy for triaging was simple. I separated decisions into four possibilities based on the type of decision I was making.

  1. Irreversible and inconsequential
  2. Irreversible and consequential
  3. Reversible and inconsequential
  4. Reversible and consequential

The great thing about the matrix is that it can help you quickly delegate decisions. You do have to do a bit of mental work before you start, such as defining and communicating consequentiality and reversibility, as well as where the blurring lines are.

The Decision Matrix in Practice

This matrix became a powerful ally to help me manage time and make sure I wasn’t bogged down in decisions where I wasn’t the best person to decide.

I delegated both types of inconsequential decisions. Inconsequential decisions are the perfect training ground to develop judgment. This saved me a ton of time. Before this people would come to me with decisions that were relatively easy to make, with fairly predictable results. The problem wasn’t making the decision—that took seconds in most cases. The problem was the 30 minutes the person spent presenting the decision to me. I saved at least 5–7 hours a week by implementing this one change.

I invested some of that time meeting with the people making these decisions once a week. I wanted to know what types of decisions they made, how they thought about them, and how the results were going. We tracked old decisions as well, so they could see their judgment improving (or not).

Consequential decisions are a different beast. Reversible and consequential decisions are my favorite. These decisions trick you into thinking they are one big important decision. In reality, reversible and consequential decisions are the perfect decisions to run experiments and gather information. The team or individual would decide experiments we were going to run, the results that would indicate we were on the right path, and who would be responsible for execution. They’d present these findings.

Consequential and irreversible decisions are the ones that you really need to focus on. All of the time I saved from using this matrix didn’t allow me to sip drinks on the beach. Rather, I invested it in the most important decisions, the ones I couldn’t justify delegating. I also had another rule that proved helpful: unless the decision needed to be made on the spot, as some operational decisions do, I would take a 30-minute walk first.

The key to successfully employing this in practice was to make sure everyone was on same page with the terms of consequential and reversible. At first, people checked with me but later, as the terms became clear, they just started deciding.

While the total volume of decisions we made as a team didn’t change, how they were allocated within the team changed. I estimate that I was personally making 75% fewer decisions. But the real kicker was that the quality of all the decisions we made improved dramatically. People started feeling connected to their work again, productivity improved, and sick days (a proxy for how engaged people were) dropped.

Give the Decision Matrix a try—especially if you’re bogged down and fighting to manage your time, it may change your working life.

Members can discuss this article in the Learning Community. If you’re not a member, see what you’re missing.

The Disproportional Power of Anecdotes

Humans, it seems, have an innate tendency to overgeneralize from small samples. How many times have you been caught in an argument where the only proof offered is anecdotal? Perhaps your co-worker saw this bratty kid make a mess in the grocery store while the parents appeared to do nothing. “They just let that child pull things off the shelves and create havoc! My parents would never have allowed that. Parents are so permissive now.” Hmm. Is it true that most parents commonly allow young children to cause trouble in public? It would be a mistake to assume so based on the evidence presented, but a lot of us would go with it anyway. Your co-worker did.

Our propensity to confuse the “now” with “what always is,” as if the immediate world before our eyes consistently represents the entire universe, leads us to bad conclusions and bad decisions. We don’t bother asking questions and verifying validity. So we make mistakes and allow ourselves to be easily manipulated.

Political polling is a good example. It’s actually really hard to design and conduct a good poll. Matthew Mendelsohn and Jason Brent, in their article “Understanding Polling Methodology,” say:

Public opinion cannot be understood by using only a single question asked at a single moment. It is necessary to measure public opinion along several different dimensions, to review results based on a variety of different wordings, and to verify findings on the basis of repetition. Any one result is filled with potential error and represents one possible estimation of the state of public opinion.

This makes sense. But it’s amazing how often we forget.

We see a headline screaming out about the state of affairs and we dive right in, instant believers, without pausing to question the validity of the methodology. How many people did they sample? How did they select them? Most polling aims for random sampling, but there is pre-selection at work immediately, depending on the medium the pollsters use to reach people.

Truly random samples of people are hard to come by. In order to poll people, you have to be able to reach them. The more complicated this is, the more expensive the poll becomes, which acts as a deterrent to thoroughness. The internet can offer high accessibility for a relatively low cost, but it’s a lot harder to verify the integrity of the demographics. And if you go the telephone route, as a lot of polling does, are you already distorting the true randomness of your sample size? Are the people who answer “unknown” numbers already different from those who ignore them?

Polls are meant to generalize larger patterns of behavior based on small samples. You need to put a lot of effort in to make sure that sample is truly representative of the population you are trying to generalize about. Otherwise, erroneous information is presented as truth.

Why does this matter?

It matters because generalization is a widespread human bias, which means a lot of our understanding of the world actually is based on extrapolations made from relatively small sample sizes. Consequently, our individual behavior is shaped by potentially incomplete or inadequate facts that we use to make the decisions that are meant to lead us to success. This bias also shapes a fair degree of public policy and government legislation. We don’t want people who make decisions that affect millions to be dependent on captivating bullshit. (A further concern is that once you are invested, other biases kick in).

Some really smart people are perpetual victims of the problem.

Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan wrote an article called “The weirdest people in the world?” It’s about how many scientific psychology studies use college students who are predominantly Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD), and then draw conclusions about the entire human race from these outliers. They reviewed scientific literature from domains such as “visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans.”

Uh-oh. This is a double whammy. “It’s not merely that researchers frequently make generalizations from a narrow subpopulation. The concern is that this particular subpopulation is highly unrepresentative of the species.”

This is why it can be dangerous to make major life decisions based on small samples, like anecdotes or a one-off experience. The small sample may be an outlier in the greater range of possibilities. You could be correcting for a problem that doesn’t exist or investing in an opportunity that isn’t there.

This tendency of mistaken extrapolation from small samples can have profound consequences.

Are you a fan of the San Francisco 49ers? They exist, in part, because of our tendency to over-generalize. In the 19th century in Western America and Canada, a few findings of gold along some creek beds led to a massive rush as entire populations flocked to these regions in the hope of getting rich. San Francisco grew from 200 residents in 1846 to about 36,000 only six years later. The gold rush provided enormous impetus toward California becoming a state, and the corresponding infrastructure developments touched off momentum that long outlasted the mining of gold.

But for most of the actual rushers, those hoping for gold based on the anecdotes that floated east, there wasn’t much to show for their decision to head west. The Canadian Encyclopedia states, “If the nearly 29 million (figure unadjusted) in gold that was recovered during the heady years of 1897 to 1899 [in the Klondike] was divided equally among all those who participated in the gold rush, the amount would fall far short of the total they had invested in time and money.”

How did this happen? Because those miners took anecdotes as being representative of a broader reality. Quite literally, they learned mining from rumor, and didn’t develop any real knowledge. Most people fought for claims along the creeks, where easy gold had been discovered, while rejecting the bench claims on the hillsides above, which often had just as much gold.

You may be thinking that these men must have been desperate if they packed themselves up, heading into unknown territory, facing multiple dangers along the way, to chase a dream of easy money. But most of us aren’t that different. How many times have you invested in a “hot stock” on a tip from one person, only to have the company go under within a year? Ultimately, the smaller the sample size, the greater role the factors of chance play in determining an outcome.

If you want to limit the capriciousness of chance in your quest for success, increase your sample size when making decisions. You need enough information to be able to plot the range of possibilities, identify the outliers, and define the average.

So next time you hear the words “the polls say,” “studies show,” or “you should buy this,” ask questions before you take action. Think about the population that is actually being represented before you start modifying your understanding. Accept the limits of small sample sizes from large populations. And don’t give power to anecdotes.

Why Honor Matters

Quick — who’s your favorite character in The Godfather?

The most popular answer to this question surprised me. About half the people who are asked pick Sonny: Santino Corleone.

“Everyone loves Sonny,” writes Talmer Sommers in his book Why Honor Matters.

Sonny is a hothead. He’s the oldest of the Godfather’s three children and arguably the most unstable, impulsive, and violent. The guy is a moral sewer — he cheats on his wife, speaks out of turn, and almost goes out of his way to find violence. He single-handedly almost brings the whole family from the apex to ruin. He’s the reason his father gets killed. In the end, it’s his impulsive behavior that gets him killed at the tollbooth.

And yet we love Sonny. Sommers argues, “we love him for his passion, courage, guts, integrity, and most of all for his loyalty to his family.”

When he learns that his sister has been abused by Carlo, her husband, Sonny loses his temper. There is no hesitation. No deeper consideration. He just hops in his car, heads straight for Carlo, and gives him the beating we all know he deserves. “When it comes to defending his family,” Sommers writes, “Sonny doesn’t calculate the best move, the most profitable move … Sonny just acts out of stubborn passion and a sense of honor.”

Honor might be about business for Michael, the cold calculating brother, but for Sonny it’s deeper. It’s personal.

But what is honor? A word? A tangible thing with value? A shared belief?

Honor can be a verb (“Honor thy mother and father”), a noun (“We must preserve the family honor”), an adjective (honor society), and a form of address (“Your honor, I object”). … Honor spins a dizzying web of values, virtues, codes, commandments, and prohibitions that are constantly changing and evolving. And honor makes no pretense to universality. The honor of the Mafia is different from the honor of hockey teams.

So, our definition of honor can change over time and depend on context. Furthermore, our cultural attitudes toward honor are all over the map. Sommers writes:

When it comes to honor we’re positively schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have deep nostalgia for the honorable way of life. … But at the same time, we find many aspects of honor to be absurd, petty, and morally reprehensible. After all, doesn’t honor lead to blood feuds, pointless duels, vigilantism, revenge, racism, nationalism, terrorism, bullying, and violence against women? Isn’t one of the signs of civilizations progress that we’ve put honor in the rearview mirror and replaced it with a commitment to dignity, equality, and human rights?

Nobody teaches us about honor. Sommers was trained in the Western ethical tradition in school, “which meant that [he spent his] time engaging in debates between harm-based theories (such as utilitarianism) and dignity- or rights-based theories (from Locke, Kant, and John Rawls).”

Then he stumbled upon so-called honor cultures, “societies where honor was a central part of their value system.” He writes,

To my surprise these cultures had a starkly different way of understanding responsibility and its connection to freedom. Like most philosophers in my area, I was obsessed with questions about how we can be truly free in a world governed by the laws of nature. How can we blame, praise, and punish people for actions that didn’t originate in them, but were caused by factors that might trace back all the way to the big bang? Honor cultures didn’t struggle with this problem, because they didn’t think a strong form of free will was necessary for holding people responsible for their actions. They didn’t regard the absence of control as an excuse for behavior. In honor cultures, you can get blamed for actions that weren’t intentional, for actions committed by relatives, ancestors, or other members of your group.

Most societies throughout history have been on the side of honor, the exceptions being the “WEIRD (Wester, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies.”

Sommers was drawn to the courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, and sense of purpose and meaning that exist within honor-based cultures. He regards these as “attractive values and characteristics, important for living a good life.” He also says that he has “come to believe that the Western liberal approach to ethics is deeply misguided. The approach is too systematic, too idealized and abstract—incapable of reckoning with the messy complexity of the real world.”

***

The rest of the Why Honor Matters goes on to offer a defense of honor. Sommers’ ultimate conclusion is that “honor systems flourish only when they’re effectively contained. Fortunately, honor can be contained; we can restore honor into a larger value system while at the same time limiting its potential abuses.”

5 Mental Models to Remove (Some of) the Confusion from Parenting

Just a few days ago, I saw a three-year-old wandering around at 10:30 at night and wondered if he was lost or jet-lagged. The parent came over and explained that they believed in children setting their own sleep schedule.

Interesting.

The problem with this approach is that it may work, or it may not. It may work for your oldest, but not your youngest. And therein lies the problem with the majority of the parenting advice available. It’s all tactics, no principles.

Few topics provoke more unsolicited advice than parenting. The problem is, no matter how good the advice, it might not work for your child. Parenting is the ultimate “the map is not the territory“ situation. There are so many maps out there, and often when we try to use them to navigate the territory that is each individual child, we end up lost and confused. As in other situations, when the map doesn’t match the territory, better to get rid of the map and pay attention to what you are experiencing on the ground. The territory is the reality.

We’ve all dealt with the seemingly illogical behavior of children. Take trying to get your child to sleep through the night—often the first, and most important, challenge. Do you sleep beside them and slowly work your way out of the room? Do you let them “cry it out?” Do you put them in your bed? Do you feed them on demand, or not until morning? Soft music or no music? The options are endless, and each of them has a decently researched book to back it up.

When any subsequent children come along, the problem is often exacerbated. You stick to what worked the first time, because it worked, but this little one is different. Now you’re in a battle of wills, and it’s hard to change your tactics at 3:00 a.m. Parenting is often a rinse and repeat of this scenario: ideas you have about how it should be, combined with what experience is telling you that it is, overlaid with too many options and chronic exhaustion.

This is where mental models can help. As in any other area of your life, developing some principles or models that help you see how the world works will give you options for relevant and useful solutions. Mental models are amazing tools that can be applied across our lives. Here are five principle-based models you can apply to almost any family, situation, or child. These are ones I use often, but don’t let this limit you—so many more apply!

Adaptation

Adaptation is a concept from evolutionary biology. It describes the development of genetic traits that are successful relative to their performance in a specific environment—that is, relative to organisms’ survival in the face of competitive pressures. As Geerat Vermeij explains in Nature: An Economic History, “Adaptation is as good as it has to be; it need not be the best that could be designed. Adaptation depends on context.”

In terms of parenting, this is a big one: the model we can use to stop criticizing ourselves for our inevitable parenting mistakes, to get out of the no-point comparisons with our peers, and to give us the freedom to make changes depending on the situation we find ourselves in.

Species adapt. It is a central feature of the theory of evolution—the ability of a species to survive and thrive in the face of changing environmental conditions. So why not apply this basic biological idea to parenting? Too often we see changing as a weakness. We’re certain that if we aren’t absolutely consistent with our children, they will grow up to be entitled underachievers or something. Or we put pressure on ourselves to be perfect, and strive for an ideal that requires an insane amount of work and sacrifice that may actually be detrimental to our overall success.

We can get out of this type of thinking if we reframe ‘changing’ as ‘adapting’. It’s okay to have different rules in the home versus a public space. I am always super grateful when a parent pacifies a screaming child with a cookie, especially on an airplane or in a restaurant. They probably don’t use the same strategy at home, but they adapt to the different environment. It’s also okay to have two children in soccer, and the third in music. Adapting to their interests will offer a much better return of investment on all those lessons.

No doubt your underlying goals for your children are consistent, like the desire of an individual to survive. How you meet those goals is where the adaptability comes in. Give yourself the freedom to respond to the individual characteristics of your children—and the specific needs of the moment—by trying different behaviors to see what works. And, just as with adaptation in the biological sense, you only need to be as good as you have to be to get the outcomes that are important to you, not be the best parent that ever was.

Velocity

There is a difference between speed and velocity. With speed you move, but with velocity you move somewhere. You have direction.

As many have said of parenting, the days are long but the years are short. It’s hard to be focusing on your direction when homework needs to be done and dinner needs to get made before one child goes off in the carpool to soccer while you rush the other one to art class. Every day begins at a dead run and ends with you collapsing into bed only to go through it all again tomorrow. Between their activities and social lives, and your need to work and have time for yourself, there is no doubt that you move with considerable speed throughout your day.

But it’s useful to sometimes ask, ‘Where am I going?’ Take a moment to make sure it’s not all speed and no direction.

When it comes to time with your kids, what does the goal state look like? How do you move in that direction? If you are just speeding without moving then you have no frame of reference for your choices. You might ask, did I spend enough time with them today? But ten minutes or two hours isn’t going to impact your velocity if you don’t know where you are headed.

When you factor in a goal of movement, it helps you decide what to do when you have time with them. What is it you want out of it? What kind of memories do you want them to have? What kind of parent do you want to be and what kind of children do you want to raise? The answers are different for everyone, but knowing the direction you wish to go helps you evaluate the decisions you make. And it might have the added benefit of cutting out some unnecessary activity and slowing you down.

Algebraic Equivalence

“He got more pancakes than I did!” Complaints about fairness are common among siblings. They watch each other like hawks, counting everything from presents to hugs to make sure everyone gets the same. What can you do? You can drive yourself mad running out to buy an extra whatever, or you can teach your children the difference between ‘same’ and ‘equal’.

If you haven’t solved for x in a while, it doesn’t really matter. In algebra, symbols are used to represent unknown numbers that can be solved for given other relevant information. The general point about algebraic equivalence is that it teaches us that two things need not be the same in order to be equal.

For example, x + y = 5. Here are some of the options for the values of x and y:

3 + 2

4 + 1

2.5 + 2.5

1.8 + 3.2

And those are just the simple ones. What is useful is this idea of abstracting to see what the full scope of possibilities are. Then you can demonstrate that what is on each side of those little parallel lines doesn’t have to look the same to have equal value. When it comes to the pancakes, it’s better to focus on an equal feeling of fullness then the number of pancakes on the plate.

In a deeper way, algebraic equivalence helps us deal with one accusation that all parents get at one time or another: “You love my sibling more than me.” It’s not true, but our default usually is to say, “No, I love you both the same.” This can be confusing for children, because, after all, they are not the same as their sibling, and you likely interact with them differently, so how can the love be the same?

Using algebraic equivalence as a model shifts it. You can respond instead that you love them both equally. Even though what’s on either side of the equation is different, it is equal. Swinging the younger child up in the air is equivalent to asking the older one about her school project. Appreciating one’s sense of humor is equivalent to respecting the other’s organizational abilities. They may be different, but the love is equal.

Seizing the middle

In chess, the middle is the key territory to hold. As explained on Wikipedia: “The center is the most important part of the chessboard, as pieces from the center can easily move to either flank with great speed. However, amateurs often prefer to concentrate on the king’s side of the board. This is an incorrect mindset.”

In parenting, seizing the middle means you must forget trying to control every single move. It’s impossible anyway. Instead, focus on trying to control what I think of as the middle territory. I don’t mind losing a few battles on the fringes, if I’m holding my ground in the area that will allow me to respond quickly to problems.

The other night my son and I got into perhaps our eighth fight of the week on the state of his room. The continual explosion makes it hard to walk in there, plus he loses things all the time, which is an endless source of frustration to both of us. I’ve explained that I hate buying replacements only to have them turn up in the morass months later.

So I got cranky and got on his case again, and he felt bad and cried again. When I went to the kitchen to find some calm, I realized that my strategy was all wrong. I was focused on the pawn in the far column of the chess board instead of what the pieces were doing right in front of me.

My thinking then went like this: what is the territory I want to be present in? Continuing the way I was would lead to a clean room, maybe. But by focusing on this flank I was sacrificing control of the middle. Eventually he was going to tune me out because no one wants to feel bad about their shortcomings every day. Is it worth saving a pawn if it leaves your queen vulnerable?

The middle territory with our kids is mutual respect and trust. If I want my son to come to me for help when life gets really complicated, which I do, then I need to focus on behaviors that will allow me to have that strategic influence throughout my relationship with him. Making him feel like crap every day, because his shirts are mixed in with his pants or because of all the Pokemon cards are on the floor, isn’t going to cut it. Make no mistake, seizing the middle is not about throwing out all the rules. This is about knowing which battles to fight, so you can keep the middle territory of the trust and respect of your child.

Inversion

Sometimes it’s not about providing solutions, but removing obstacles. Sociologist Kurt Lewin observes in his work on force field analysis[1] that reaching any goal has two components: augmenting the forces for, and removing the forces against. When it comes to parenting, we need to ask ourselves not only what we could be doing more of, but also what we could be doing less of.

When my friend was going on month number nine of her baby waking up four times a night, she felt at her wits’ end. Out of desperation, she decided to invert the problem. She had been trying different techniques and strategies, thinking that there was something she wasn’t doing right. When nothing seemed to be working, she stopped trying to add elements like new tactics, and changed her strategy. She looked instead for obstacles to remove. Was there anything preventing the baby from sleeping through the night?

The first night she made it darker. No effect. The second night she made it warmer. Her son has slept through the night ever since. It wasn’t her parenting skills or the adherence to a particular sleep philosophy that was causing him to wake up so often. Her baby was cold. Once she removed that obstacle with a space heater the problem was resolved.

We do this all the time, trying to fix problem by throwing new parenting philosophies at the situation. What can I do better? More time, more money, more lessons, more stuff. But it can be equally valuable to look for what you could be doing less of. In so doing, you may enrich your relationships with your children immeasurably.

Parenting is inherently complex: the territory changes almost overnight. Different environments, different children—figuring out how to raise your kids plays out against a backdrop of some fast-paced evolution. Some tactics are great, and once in a while a technique fits the situation perfectly. But when your tactics fail, or your experience seems to provide no obvious direction, a principle-based mental models approach to parenting can give you the insight to find solutions as you go.

[1] Lewin’s original work on force field analysis can be found in Lewin, Kurt. Field Theory in Social Science. New York: Harper and Row, 1951.

Strategy vs. Tactics: What’s the Difference and Why Does it Matter?

In order to do anything meaningful, you have to know where you are going.

Strategy and tactics are two terms that get thrown around a lot, and are often used interchangeably in numerous contexts. But what exactly do they mean, what is the difference, and why is it important? In this article, we will look at the contrast between strategy and tactics, and the most effective ways to use each.

While strategy and tactics originated as military terminology, their use has spread to planning in many areas of life. Strategy is overarching plan or set of goals. Changing strategies is like trying to turn around an aircraft carrier—it can be done but not quickly. Tactics are the specific actions or steps you undertake to accomplish your strategy. For example, in a war, a nation’s strategy might be to win the hearts and minds of the opponent’s civilian population. To achieve this they could use tactics such as radio broadcasts or building hospitals.  A personal strategy might be to get into a particular career, whereas your tactics might include choosing your educational path, seeking out a helpful mentor, or distinguishing yourself from the competition.

We might have strategies for anything from gaining political power or getting promoted, to building relationships and growing the audience of a blog. Whatever we are trying to do, we would do well to understand how strategy and tactics work, the distinction, and how we can fit the two together. Without a strategy we run the risk of ambling through life, uncertain and confused about if we are making progress towards what we want. Without tactics, we are destined for a lifetime of wishful thinking or chronic dissatisfaction. As Lawrence Freedman writes in Strategy: A History, “Without a strategy, facing up to any problem or striving for any objective would be considered negligent. Certainly, no military campaign, company investment, or government initiative is likely to receive backing unless there is a strategy to evaluate…. There is a call for strategy every time the path to a given destination is not straightforward.” And without tactics you become dependent on pure luck to implement your strategy.

To achieve anything we need a view of both the micro and the macro, the forest and the trees—and how both perspectives slot together. Strategy and tactics are complementary. Neither works well without the other. Sun Tzu recognized this two and a half millennia ago when he stated, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy are the noise before defeat.” We need to take a long-term view and think ahead, while choosing short-term steps to take now for the sake of what we want later.

The Relationship Between Strategy and Tactics

Any time we decide on a goal and invest resources in achieving it, we are strategizing. Freedman writes:

One common contemporary definition describes it as being about maintaining a balance between ends, ways, and means; about identifying objectives; and about the resources and methods available for meeting such objectives. This balance requires not only finding out how to achieve desired ends but also adjusting ends so that realistic ways can be found to meet them by available means.

In The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire, Edward N. Luttwak writes that strategy “is not about moving armies over geography, as in board games. It encompasses the entire struggle of adversarial forces, which need not have a spatial dimension at all….” When you think about winning a war, what does it mean to actually win? History is full of examples of wars that were “won” on paper, only to be restarted as soon as the adversary had time to regroup. So being precise in your goal, to encompass the entirety of what you want to achieve, is necessary to articulate a good strategy. It’s not about success in the moment, but success in the long term. It’s the difference between the end of WWI and WWII. World War I was about winning that war. World War II was about never fighting a war like that again. The strategies articulated and pursued by the Treaty of Versailles and the Marshall Plan were full of markedly different tactics.

In Good Strategy, Bad Strategy, Richard Rumelt writes: “The most basic idea of strategy is the application of strength against weakness. Or if you prefer, strength applied to the most promising opportunity…A good strategy doesn’t just draw on existing strength; it creates strength.” Rumelt’s definition of strategy as creating strength is particularly important. You don’t deplete yourself as you execute your strategy. You choose tactics that reinforce and build strength as they are deployed. Back to winning hearts and minds – the tactics require up-front costs. But as they proceed, and as the strategy unfolds, strength and further support are gained by having the support of the local population. A good strategy makes you stronger.

“Grand strategy is the art of looking beyond the present battle and calculating ahead. Focus on your ultimate goal and plot to reach it.”

― Robert Greene, The 33 Strategies of War

The Components of Strategy

The strategic theorist Henry Mintzberg provides a useful approach to thinking about strategy in adversarial situations. According to Mintzberg, there are five key components or types:

  1. Plan: A consciously chosen series of actions to achieve a goal, made in advance.
  2. Ploy: A deliberate attempt to confuse, mislead or distract an opponent.
  3. Pattern: A consistent, repeated series of actions that achieve the desired result.
  4. Position: A considered relationship between an entity (organization, army, individual etc) and its context.
  5. Perspective: A particular way of viewing the world, a mindset regarding actions that lead to a distinct way of behaving.

Geoffrey P. Chamberlain offers a slightly different perspective on the components of strategy, useful when the strategy is more about a personal goal. He identifies seven parts:

  1. A strategy is used within a particular domain.
  2. A strategy has a single, well defined focus.
  3. A strategy lays out a path to be followed.
  4. A strategy is made up of parts (tactics).
  5. Each of a strategy’s parts pushes towards the defined focus.
  6. A strategy recognises its sphere of influence.
  7. A strategy is either intentionally formed or emerges naturally.

According to Rumelt, a strategy must include “premeditation, the anticipation of others’ behavior, and the purposeful design of coordinated actions. As a general rule, strategy is more important in situations where other parties have the potential to thwart or disrupt actions, or where our plans are at risk if we don’t take meaningful steps to achieve them. Good strategy requires us to both focus on a goal, and anticipate obstacles to reaching that goal.  When we encounter obstacles, we may need to employ what Freedman calls “deceits, ruses, feints, manoeuvres and a quicker wit”—our tactics.

“The skillful tactician may be likened to the Shuai-Jan. Now the Shuai-Jan is a snake that is found in the Ch’ang mountains. Strike at its head, and you will be attacked by its tail; strike at its tail, and you will be attacked by its head; strike at its middle, and you will be attacked by head and tail both.”

— Sun Tzu, The Art of War

A Few Words on Tactics

Even the most elegant, well-planned strategy is useless if we do not take thoughtful steps to achieve it. While the overall goal remains stable, the steps we take to achieve it must be flexible enough to adjust to the short-term realities of our situation.

The word “tactic” comes from the Ancient Greek “taktikos,” which loosely translates to “the art of ordering or arranging.” We now use the term to denote actions toward a goal. Tactics often center around the efficient use of available resources, whether money, people, time, ammunition, or materials. Tactics also tend to be shorter-term and more specific than strategies.

Many tactics are timeless and have been used for centuries or even millennia. Military tactics such as ambushes, using prevailing weather, and divide-and-conquer have been around as long as people have fought each other. The same applies to tactics used by politicians and protesters. Successful tactics often include an ‘implementation intention’—a specific trigger that signals when they should be used. Simply deciding what to do is rarely enough. We need an “if this, then that” plan for where, when and why. The short-term nature and flexibility of tactics allow us to pivot as needed, choosing the right ones for the situation, to achieve our larger, strategic goals.

If you don’t have a strategy, you are part of someone else’s strategy.”

— Alvin Toffler

Conclusion

Although often regarded as interchangeable, strategy and tactics are somewhat different, though complementary concepts. According to the skilled strategist Sun Tzu, strategy is about winning before the battle begins, while tactics are about striking at weakness. Both are ancient concepts that have come to be an essential part of numerous disciplines and offer endless new ways of thinking.