Tag: Uncertainty

Preserving Optionality: Preparing for the Unknown

We’re often advised to excel at one thing. But as the future gets harder to predict, preserving optionality allows us to pivot when the road ahead crumbles.

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How do we prepare for a world that often changes drastically and rapidly? We can preserve our optionality.

We don’t often get the advice to keep our options open. Instead, we’re told to specialize by investing huge hours in our passion so we can be successful in a niche.

The problem is, it’s bad advice. We live in a world that’s constantly changing, and if we can’t respond effectively to those changes, we become redundant, frustrated, and useless.

Instead of focusing on becoming great at one thing, there is another, counterintuitive strategy that will get us further: preserving optionality. The more options we have, the better suited we are to deal with unpredictability and uncertainty. We can stay calm when others panic because we have choices.

Optionality refers to the act of keeping as many options open as possible. Preserving optionality means avoiding limiting choices or dependencies. It means staying open to opportunities and always having a backup plan.

An option is usually defined as something we have the freedom to choose. That’s a fairly broad definition. In the context of a strategy, it must also have a limited downside and an open-ended upside. Betting in a casino is not an option, for example—the upside is known. Losses and gains are both constrained. What about betting on a new tech startup? That’s an option—the upside is theoretically unlimited; the losses are limited to the amount you invest.

Options present themselves all the time, but life-altering ones often come up during times of great change. These options are the ones we have the hardest time capitalizing on. If we’ve specialized too much, change is a threat, not an opportunity. Thus, if we aren’t certain where the opportunities are going to be (and we never are), then we need to make choices to keep our options open.

Baron Rothschild is often quoted as having said that “the time to buy is when there’s blood in the streets.” That’s a misquote, however. What he actually said was “buy when there’s blood in the streets, even if the blood is your own.” Rothschild recognized that those are the times when new options emerge. That’s when many investors make their fortunes and when entrepreneurs innovate. Rothschild saw opportunity in chaos. He made a fortune buying during the panic after the Battle of Waterloo.

When we occupy a small niche, we sacrifice optionality. That means less freedom and greater dependency. No one can predict the future—not even experts—so isn’t it a good idea to have as many avenues open as possible?

The coach’s dilemma: strength vs. optionality

In Simple Rules: How to Thrive in a Complex World, Kathleen Eisenhardt and Donald Sull describe the experience of strength coach Shannon Turley. For the uninitiated, the role of a strength coach is to help athletes stay healthy and perform better, rather than teach specific skills.

Turley began his career working at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University. When he started, the football players there followed a strength program based on weightlifting alone. Athletes wore t-shirts listing their personal records and competed to outdo each other. The mantra was: get stronger by lifting more weight.

But Turley soon realized that this program was not effective because it left the athletes with limited optionality. Turley found no correlation between weightlifting prowess and competitive performance. Being able to bench press a lot of weight didn’t serve them well on the football field. As he put it, “In football if you’re on your back, you’ve already lost.” Keeping a record of what he saw, he began looking for different options for the athletes.

After gaining experience coaching in several sports, Turley realized that strength was not the most important factor for athletic success. What mattered for any type of athlete was staying free of injuries and good nutrition. Why? Because that gave athletes greater optionality.

An uninjured, healthy player could stay in each game for longer and miss fewer training sessions. It also meant less chance of requiring surgery, which many of his students faced, or of being forced to retire from competitive sports at a young age.

Turley began coaching football players at Stanford University. He implemented a program focusing on proper nutrition and flexibility exercises such as yoga—not weightlifting. He also focused on healing existing injuries that restricted athletes’ performance. One football player he worked with had ongoing back problems, so Turley designed a regime to improve that issue. It worked: the athlete never missed a game and went on to play in the NFL. Turley’s approach served to preserve optionality for his players. Even the best athlete will lose many competitions. So the more an athlete is healthy enough to participate in games, the greater the chances of those crucial successes. Turley’s experience illustrates the trade-offs between particular physical abilities and optionality.

Over-specializing in one area is highly limiting, especially if it requires extensive upkeep. Like a football player, we can retain optionality by avoiding overtly damaging risks and ensuring we stay in the game for as long as possible—whatever that game is. That might mean lifting less metaphorical weight at any one time, while also working to keep ourselves flexible.

The tyranny of small decisions

Few people would deliberately lock themselves into an undesirable situation. Yet we often make small, rational decisions that end up removing options over time. This is the tyranny of small decisions. Economist Alfred Kahn identified the concept in 1966. Kahn begins the article with a provocative thought experiment:

Suppose, 75 years ago, some being from outer space had made us this proposition: “I know how to make a vehicle that could in effect put 200 horses at the disposal of each of you. It would permit you to travel about, alone or in small groups, at 60 to 80 miles an hour. But the costs of this gadget are 40,000 lives per year, global warming, the decay of the inner city, endless commuting, and suburban sprawl.” What would we have chosen collectively?

Put that way, the answer, of course, is no—we wouldn’t choose the advancement of transportation technology if we could immediately see the grievous cost. But we have said yes to that exact offer over time through a million small decisions, and now it is difficult to back out. Most of the modern world is built to accommodate cars. Driving is now the “rational” choice, no matter the destructive effect. Sometimes it feels as though we have no other option.

Kahn’s point is that small decisions can lead to bad outcomes. At some point, alternatives disappear. We lose our optionality. It is easy to see the downsides of big decisions. The costs of smaller ones can be more elusive. In a market economy, Kahn explains, change is the result of tiny steps. Combined, they have a tremendous cumulative effect on our collective freedom. Day to day, it is hard to see the path that is forming. At some point, we may look up and not like where we are going. By then it is too late. Kahn writes:

Only if consumers are given the full range of economically feasible and socially desirable alternatives in a big discrete bundle will misallocation of resources due to the tyranny of small market-determined decisions be broken.

The tragedy of the commons is another such instance of the power of small decisions. Garett Hardin’s parable illustrates why common resources are used more than is desirable from the standpoint of society as a whole. No one person makes a single decision to deplete the resources. Instead, each person makes a series of small choices that ultimately cause environmental ruin. In the original example where villagers are freely able to graze their animals on common land, having access to it gives everyone a lot of options for raising animals or farming. Once the pasture is exhausted from everyone putting too many animals out to graze, however, everyone loses their optionality.

Optionality can be a matter of perspective

As Seneca put it, “In one and the same meadow, the cow looks for grass, the dog for a hare, and the stork for a lizard.” Where some people only see blood in the streets, other people see a chance to succeed.

Preserving optionality can be as much about changing our attitudes as our circumstances. It can be about learning to spot opportunities—and to make them. Optionality is not a new concept. A portion of the Old Testament dating back to between 450 and 180 BCE declares:

Invest in seven ventures, yes, in eight; you do not know what disaster may come upon the land. If clouds are full of water, they pour rain on the earth. Whether a tree falls to the south or to the north, in the place where it falls, there it will lie. Whoever watches the wind will not plant; whoever looks at the clouds will not reap . . . Sow your seed in the morning, and at evening let your hands not be idle, for you do not know which will succeed, whether this or that, or whether both will do equally well.

In today’s world, optionality can be integrated into a number of different areas of our lives by looking for ways to prepare for a variety of possible events, instead of optimizing for the recent past.

Keeping our options open means developing generalist skills like creativity, rather than specializing in one area, like a particular technology. The more diverse the knowledge and skills you can draw on, the better positioned you are to take advantage of new opportunities.

It means not relying on a single distributor for your company’s product or having the supply chain for an entire industry dependent on one country. You can’t make your decisions solely on how the world was yesterday. Preserving optionality means you may take a short-term hit in sales by funding diversity, but the result is you will be much better positioned in the future to keep your business going when circumstances change.

It means not relying on a single energy source to power the vehicles that move us and the goods we need around. Building our society around oil—a finite resource—is limiting. Developing multiple forms of sustainable energy creates new options for when that finite resource is depleted.

Or consider the lean startup methodology. Building a minimum viable product means having the flexibility to pivot or change plans. No demand? No problem! Just try something else. Lean startups iterate until they find product/market fit. Many founders keep their teams as small as possible. They avoid fixed costs and commitments. They keep their options open.

The lean startup methodology recognizes that a new company cannot make a grand plan; it needs to adapt and evolve. As Steve Jobs understood, most customers don’t know they will want something until they have tried it. It’s hard to prepare for changing customer desires without optionality. If a company is flexible, they can adapt to the information they receive once a product hits the market.

“Wealth is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot of options.”

— Chris Rock

Ultimately, preserving optionality means paying attention and looking at life from multiple perspectives. It means building a versatile base of foundational knowledge and allowing for serendipity and unexpected connections. We must seek to expand our comfort zone and circle of competence, and we should take minor risks that have potentially large upsides and limited downsides.

Paradoxically, preserving optionality can mean saying no to a lot of opportunities and avoiding anything that will prove to be restrictive. We need to look at choices through the lens of the optionality they will give us in the future and only say yes to those that create more options.

Preserving your optionality is important because it gives you the flexibility to capitalize on inevitable change. In order to keep your options open, you need diversity. Diversity of perspective, thought, knowledge, and skills. You don’t want to find yourself in a position of only being able to sell something that no one wants. Rapid, extraordinary change is the norm. In order to adapt in a way that is useful, keep your options open.

The Probability Distribution of the Future

The best colloquial definition of risk may be the following:

“Risk means more things can happen than will happen.”

We found it through the inimitable Howard Marks, but it’s a quote from Elroy Dimson of the London Business School. Doesn’t that capture it pretty well?

Another way to state it is: If there were only one thing that could happen, how much risk would there be, except in an extremely banal sense? You’d know the exact probability distribution of the future. If I told you there was a 100% probability that you’d get hit by a car today if you walked down the street, you simply wouldn’t do it. You wouldn’t call walking down the street a “risky gamble” right? There’s no gamble at all.

But the truth is that in practical reality, there aren’t many 100% situations to bank on. Way more things can happen than will happen. That introduces great uncertainty into the future, no matter what type of future you’re looking at: An investment, your career, your relationships, anything.

How do we deal with this in a pragmatic way? The investor Howard Marks starts it this way:

Key point number one in this memo is that the future should be viewed not as a fixed outcome that’s destined to happen and capable of being predicted, but as a range of possibilities and, hopefully on the basis of insight into their respective likelihoods, as a probability distribution.

This is the most sensible way to think about the future: A probability distribution where more things can happen than will happen. Knowing that we live in a world of great non-linearity and with the potential for unknowable and barely understandable Black Swan events, we should never become too confident that we know what’s in store, but we can also appreciate that some things are a lot more likely than others. Learning to adjust probabilities on the fly as we get new information is called Bayesian updating.

But.

Although the future is certainly a probability distribution, Marks makes another excellent point in the wonderful memo above: In reality, only one thing will happen. So you must make the decision: Are you comfortable if that one thing happens, whatever it might be? Even if it only has a 1% probability of occurring? Echoing the first lesson of biology, Warren Buffett stated that “In order to win, you must first survive.” You have to live long enough to play out your hand.

Which leads to an important second point: Uncertainty about the future does not necessarily equate with risk, because risk has another component: Consequences. The world is a place where “bad outcomes” are only “bad” if you know their (rough) magnitude. So in order to think about the future and about risk, we must learn to quantify.

It’s like the old saying (usually before something terrible happens): What’s the worst that could happen? Let’s say you propose to undertake a six month project that will cost your company $10 million, and you know there’s a reasonable probability that it won’t work. Is that risky?

It depends on the consequences of losing $10 million, and the probability of that outcome. It’s that simple! (Simple, of course, does not mean easy.) A company with $10 billion in the bank might consider that a very low-risk bet even if it only had a 10% chance of succeeding.

In contrast, a company with only $10 million in the bank might consider it a high-risk bet even if it only had a 10% of failing. Maybe five $2 million projects with uncorrelated outcomes would make more sense to the latter company.

In the real world, risk = probability of failure x consequences. That concept, however, can be looked at through many lenses. Risk of what? Losing money? Losing my job? Losing face? Those things need to be thought through. When we observe others being “too risk averse,” we might want to think about which risks they’re truly avoiding. Sometimes the risk is not only financial. 

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Let’s cover one more under-appreciated but seemingly obvious aspect of risk, also pointed out by Marks: Knowing the outcome does not teach you about the risk of the decision.

This is an incredibly important concept:

If you make an investment in 2012, you’ll know in 2014 whether you lost money (and how much), but you won’t know whether it was a risky investment – that is, what the probability of loss was at the time you made it.

To continue the analogy, it may rain tomorrow, or it may not, but nothing that happens tomorrow will tell you what the probability of rain was as of today. And the risk of rain is a very good analogue (although I’m sure not perfect) for the risk of loss.

How many times do we see this simple dictum violated? Knowing that something worked out, we argue that it wasn’t that risky after all. But what if, in reality, we were simply fortunate? This is the Fooled by Randomness effect.

The way to think about it is the following: The worst thing that can happen to a young gambler is that he wins the first time he goes to the casinoHe might convince himself he can beat the system.

The truth is that most times we don’t know the probability distribution at all. Because the world is not a predictable casino game — an error Nassim Taleb calls the Ludic Fallacy — the best we can do is guess.

With intelligent estimations, we can work to get the rough order of magnitude right, understand the consequences if we’re wrong, and always be sure to never fool ourselves after the fact.

If you’re into this stuff, check out Howard Marks’ memos to his clients, or check out his excellent book, The Most Important Thing. Nate Silver also has an interesting similar idea about the difference between risk and uncertainty. And lastly, another guy that understands risk pretty well is Jason Zweig, who we’ve interviewed on our podcast before.

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If you liked this article you’ll love:

Nassim Taleb on the Notion of Alternative Histories — “The quality of a decision cannot be solely judged based on its outcome.”

The Four Types of Relationships — As Seneca said, “Time discovers truth.”

Certainty Is an Illusion

We all try to avoid uncertainty, even if it means being wrong. We take comfort in certainty, and we demand it of others, even when we know it’s impossible.

Gerd Gigerenzer argues in Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions that life would be pretty dull without uncertainty.

If we knew everything about the future with certainty, our lives would be drained of emotion. No surprise and pleasure, no joy or thrill— we knew it all along. The first kiss, the first proposal, the birth of a healthy child would be about as exciting as last year’s weather report. If our world ever turned certain, life would be mind-numbingly dull.

The Illusion of Certainty

We demand certainty of others. We ask our bankers, doctors, and political leaders (among others) to give it to us. What they deliver, however, is the illusion of certainty. We feel comfortable with this.

Many of us smile at old-fashioned fortune-tellers. But when the soothsayers work with computer algorithms rather than tarot cards, we take their predictions seriously and are prepared to pay for them. The most astounding part is our collective amnesia: Most of us are still anxious to see stock market predictions even if they have been consistently wrong year after year.

Technology changes how we see things – it amplifies the illusion of certainty.

When an astrologer calculates an expert horoscope for you and foretells that you will develop a serious illness and might even die at age forty-nine, will you tremble when the date approaches? Some 4 percent of Germans would; they believe that an expert horoscope is absolutely certain.

But when technology is involved, the illusion of certainty is amplified. Forty-four percent of people surveyed think that the result of a screening mammogram is certain. In fact, mammograms fail to detect about ten percent of cancers, and the younger the women being tested, the more error-prone the results, because their breasts are denser.

“Not understanding a new technology is one thing,” Gigerenzer writes, “believing that it delivers certainty is another.”

It’s best to remember Ben Franklin: “In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

The Security Blanket

Where does our need for certainty come from?

People with a high need for certainty are more prone to stereotypes than others and are less inclined to remember information that contradicts their stereotypes. They find ambiguity confusing and have a desire to plan out their lives rationally. First get a degree, a car, and then a career, find the most perfect partner, buy a home, and have beautiful babies. But then the economy breaks down, the job is lost, the partner has an affair with someone else, and one finds oneself packing boxes to move to a cheaper place. In an uncertain world, we cannot plan everything ahead. Here, we can only cross each bridge when we come to it, not beforehand. The very desire to plan and organize everything may be part of the problem, not the solution. There is a Yiddish joke: “Do you know how to make God laugh? Tell him your plans.”

To be sure, illusions have their function. Small children often need security blankets to soothe their fears. Yet for the mature adult, a high need for certainty can be a dangerous thing. It prevents us from learning to face the uncertainty pervading our lives. As hard as we try, we cannot make our lives risk-free the way we make our milk fat-free.

At the same time, a psychological need is not entirely to blame for the illusion of certainty. Manufacturers of certainty play a crucial role in cultivating the illusion. They delude us into thinking that our future is predictable, as long as the right technology is at hand.

Risk and Uncertainty

Two magnificently dressed young women sit upright on their chairs, calmly facing each other. Yet neither takes notice of the other. Fortuna, the fickle, wheel-toting goddess of chance, sits blindfolded on the left while human figures desperately climb, cling to, or tumble off the wheel in her hand. Sapientia, the calculating and vain deity of science, gazes into a hand-mirror, lost in admiration of herself. These two allegorical figures depict a long-standing polarity: Fortuna brings good or bad luck, depending on her mood, but science promises certainty.

Fortuna, the wheel-toting goddess of chance (left), facing Sapientia, the divine goddess of science (right).
Fortuna, the wheel-toting goddess of chance (left), facing Sapientia, the divine goddess of science (right). Source: Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

This sixteenth-century woodcut was carved a century before one of the greatest revolutions in human thinking, the “probabilistic revolution,” colloquially known as the taming of chance. Its domestication began in the mid-seventeenth century. Since then, Fortuna’s opposition to Sapientia has evolved into an intimate relationship, not without attempts to snatch each other’s possessions. Science sought to liberate people from Fortuna’s wheel, to banish belief in fate, and replace chances with causes. Fortuna struck back by undermining science itself with chance and creating the vast empire of probability and statistics. After their struggles, neither remained the same: Fortuna was tamed, and science lost its certainty.

certainty_risk_uncertainty
Source: Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions

We explore more of the difference between risk and uncertainty, but the diagram above helps simplify things.

The value of heuristics

The twilight of uncertainty comes in different shades and degrees. Beginning in the seventeenth century, the probabilistic revolution gave humankind the skills of statistical thinking to triumph over Fortuna, but these skills were designed for the palest shade of uncertainty, a world of known risk, in short, risk. I use this term for a world where all alternatives, consequences, and probabilities are known. Lotteries and games of chance are examples. Most of the time, however, we live in a changing world where some of these are unknown: where we face unknown risks, or uncertainty. The world of uncertainty is huge compared to that of risk. … In an uncertain world, it is impossible to determine the optimal course of action by calculating the exact risks. We have to deal with “unknown unknowns.” Surprises happen. Even when calculation does not provide a clear answer, however, we have to make decisions. Thankfully we can do much better than frantically clinging to and tumbling off Fortuna’s wheel. Fortuna and Sapientia had a second brainchild alongside mathematical probability, which is often passed over: rules of thumb, known in scientific language as heuristics.

How decisions change based on risk/uncertainty

When making decisions, the two sets of mental tools are required:
1. RISK: If risks are known, good decisions require logic and statistical thinking.
2. UNCERTAINTY: If some risks are unknown, good decisions also require intuition and smart rules of thumb.

Most of the time we need a combination of the two.

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Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions is a great read throughout.

The Ability To Focus And Make The Best Move When There Are No Good Moves

“The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modalities for making sense of the world.”

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Decisions, where outcomes (and therefore probabilities) are unknown, are often the hardest. The default method of problem-solving often falls short.

Sometimes you have to play the odds and sometimes you have to play the calculus.

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

— Peter Thiel

And this quote from The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz:

I learned one important lesson: Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same. … I don’t believe in statistics. I believe in calculus.

People always ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO. In the rest of this chapter, I offer some lessons on how to make it through the struggle without quitting or throwing up too much.

… I follow the first principle of the Bushido—the way of the warrior: keep death in mind at all times. If a warrior keeps death in mind at all times and lives as though each day might be his last, he will conduct himself properly in all his actions. Similarly, if a CEO keeps the following lessons in mind, she will maintain the proper focus when hiring, training , and building her culture.

It’s interesting to me that the skill that stands out to Horowitz is one that we can use to teach how to think and one Tyler Cowen feels is in short supply. Cowen says:

The more information that’s out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.

Nassim Taleb on the Notion of Alternative Histories

We see what’s visible and available. Often this is nothing more than randomness and yet we wrap a narrative around it. The trader who is rich must know what he is doing. A good outcome means we made the right decisions, right? Not so quick. If we were wise we would not judge the quality of a decision on its outcome. There are alternative histories worth considering.

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Writing in Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, Nassim Taleb hits on the notion of alternative histories.

Taleb argues that we should judge people by the costs of the alternative, that is if history played out in another way. These “substitute courses of events are called alternative histories.”

Taleb writes:

Clearly, the quality of a decision cannot be solely judged based on its outcome, but such a point seems to be voiced only by people who fail (those who succeed attribute their success to the quality of their decision).

[…]

One can illustrate the strange concept of alternative histories as follows. Imagine an eccentric (and bored) tycoon offering you $ 10 million to play Russian roulette, i.e., to put a revolver containing one bullet in the six available chambers to your head and pull the trigger. Each realization would count as one history, for a total of six possible histories of equal probabilities. Five out of these six histories would lead to enrichment; one would lead to a statistic, that is, an obituary with an embarrassing (but certainly original) cause of death. The problem is that only one of the histories is observed in reality; and the winner of $ 10 million would elicit the admiration and praise of some fatuous journalist (the very same ones who unconditionally admire the Forbes 500 billionaires). Like almost every executive I have encountered during an eighteen-year career on Wall Street (the role of such executives in my view being no more than a judge of results delivered in a random manner), the public observes the external signs of wealth without even having a glimpse at the source (we call such source the generator.) Consider the possibility that the Russian roulette winner would be used as a role model by his family, friends, and neighbors.

While the remaining five histories are not observable, the wise and thoughtful person could easily make a guess as to their attributes. It requires some thoughtfulness and personal courage. In addition, in time, if the roulette-betting fool keeps playing the game, the bad histories will tend to catch up with him. Thus, if a twenty-five-year-old played Russian roulette, say, once a year, there would be a very slim possibility of his surviving until his fiftieth birthday— but, if there are enough players, say thousands of twenty-five-year-old players, we can expect to see a handful of (extremely rich) survivors (and a very large cemetery).

[…]

The reader can see my unusual notion of alternative accounting: $ 10 million earned through Russian roulette does not have the same value as $ 10 million earned through the diligent and artful practice of dentistry. They are the same, can buy the same goods, except that one’s dependence on randomness is greater than the other.

Reality is different than roulette. Consider that in the example above, while the result is unknown you know the odds, most of life is dealing with uncertainty. Bullets are infrequent, “like a revolver that would have hundreds, even thousands, of chambers instead of six.” After a while you forget about the bullet. You can’t see the chamber and we generally think of risk in terms of what is visible.

Interestingly this is the core of the black swan, which is really the induction problem. No amount of evidence can allow the inference that something is true whereas one counterexample can refute a conclusion. This idea is also related to the “denigration of history,” where we think things that happen to others would not happen to us.

Decisions Under Uncertainty

If you’re a knowledge worker you make decisions every day. In fact, whether you realize it or not, decisions are your job.

Decisions are how you make a living. Of course, not every decision is easy. Decisions tend to fall into different categories.  The way we approach the actual decision should vary based on category.

Here are a few basic categories that decisions fall into.

There are decisions where:

  1. Outcomes are known. In this case, the range of outcomes is known and the individual outcome is also known. This is the easiest way to make decisions. If I hold out my hand and drop a ball, it will fall to the ground. I know this with near certainty.
  2. Outcomes are unknown, but probabilities are known. In this case, the range of outcomes are known but the individual outcome is unknown. This is risk. Think of this as going to Vegas and gambling. Before you set foot at the table, all of the outcomes are known as are the probabilities of each. No outcome surprises an objective third party.
  3. Outcomes are unknown and probabilities are unknown. In this case, the distribution of outcomes are unknown and the individual outcomes are necessarily unknown. This is uncertainty.

We often think we’re making decisions in #2 but we’re really operating in #3. The difference may seem trivial but it makes a world of difference.

Decisions Under Uncertainty

Ignorance is a state of the world where some possible outcomes are unknown: when we’ve moved from #2 to #3.

One way to realize how ignorant we are is to look back, read some old newspapers, and see how often the world did something that wasn’t even imagined.

Some examples include the Arab Spring, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the financial meltdown.

We’re prepared for a world much like #2 — the world of risk, with known outcomes and probability that can be estimated, yet we live in a world with a closer resemblance to #3.

Read part two of this series: Two types of ignorance.

References: Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature (Joy and Zeckhauser).

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