Everyone has a Buzz Lightyear in their life.
I’m not talking about the newest movie that replaces Tim Allen as the original voice of Buzz—a movie that I have no intention of watching. I mean we all know someone who is mistaken about their own significance and abilities. It’s not that they aren’t significant or talent, but that they are mistaken about the nature or magnitude of their talents.
In the first Toy Story, When Buzz arrives, Andy’s other toys are immediately impressed with his gadgets and looks. Woody is not fooled. He sees that Buzz still thinks he is something other than a toy, so he challenges Buzz to fly. Astonishingly, he pulls the feat off (with the help of a bouncy ball, Hot Wheels racing track, and his pack being snagged by the ceiling fan). And suddenly, Woody is dethroned as Andy and everyone else’s favorite. In the next few scenes, the other toys go to Buzz for answers, from weightlifting to fixing their parts. (We will come back to this later.)
Randomness, survivorship bias, and skill
Before Nassim Taleb became an author, he was an options trader on Wall Street for 18 years. His insight into luck, or as he would classify it, randomness, uncertainty, and probability, comes from firsthand experience. His first book, Fooled By Randomness, is a meditation on the nature of randomness and how to live with uncertainty. I’m planning on reading his other books, too, with an eye on Antifragile next.
In Fooled By Randomness, Taleb claims that “at any point in time, the richest traders are often the worst traders… the most profitable traders are likely to be those that are best fit to the latest cycle” (74). That’s because the richest traders are often the riskiest. They play the high-risk, high-reward game. Sometimes it pans out, and when it does, they become incredibly rich incredibly fast. They often fail to learn that the market is cyclical, with major crashes occurring both cyclically and randomly. The random crashes he calls “Black Swans.” In other words, the richest traders get lucky.
No one wants to recognize the role luck plays in their major successes, but when sudden losses occur, no one wants to claim responsibility. This is the basis for survivorship bias. It occurs when someone attributes their “success” (which they gained by luck) to their abilities and skills or some kind of special insight. This is exactly what happened to Buzz Lightyear after his “falling with style” incident. People who are susceptible to being fooled by randomness fall into this trap.
But this is where we should start to feel comforted a little. Though someone may become incredibly rich through luck, they don’t tend to keep it for very long, and they become fragile because they are at the mercy of fortune. Taleb puts it this way: “things that come with little help from luck are more resistant to randomness” (10). According to his math, a janitor who wins the lottery shouldn’t expect to keep winning even if he lives for another 1000 years. However, the people who are unlucky in life in spite of their skills will eventually rise. Taleb’s favorite example seems to be the contrast between a dentist and a trader. We can expect the dentist to have more wealth in a few decades than a Wall Street trader or, at the very least, be more resistant to randomness.
Don’t envy the lucky.
Pick your gurus wisely
It’s scary to think that most of the successful people we see in any industry are there by accident. Perhaps scarier if you are one of those successful people, because you have more to lose, which may be completely beyond your control. Is there a way to minimize randomness so we can come closer akin to a “meritocracy” where true talent is recognized and rightly praised? I doubt it. But there’s another aspect of survivorship bias Taleb touches on that is useful. It involves alternative histories.
Remember in Toy Story that Buzz Lightyear wasn’t the only one fooled by his luck; the other toys were fooled by it, too. For a while Buzz enjoyed the status as a “guru” of sorts to the other toys because of his happy accident of “flying.” Survivorship bias also fools onlookers as well as those who are fortunate enough to have luck. The way to gain clarity is through studying alternative histories, or by factoring into the equation everyone who didn’t succeed at the same task.
When someone feels a calling to a profession like acting, all they see at first are A-list stars. Some of these A-listers feel the need to give advice to others looking to earn their way into the film industry. Most of the advice takes the form of harmless platitudes like never give up, follow your passion, etc., etc., etc., blah, blah, blah. However, for anyone interested in stability, it may not be suited to a career in acting. Most actors are waiters. But this fact is ignored because we only see the people who’ve reached the top. And the thing is, the A-listers rarely stay at the top for longer than 20 years. Your immediate desire to rattle off names of people who have been relevant for more than 20 years shows you’ve failed to take into consideration all the A-listers who haven’t been relevant; there are many, many more who haven’t than that have.
Pick older gurus that have lived with randomness and gained from it over the long term.
Living with uncertainty
Here’s a quick recap.
None of us know what will happen a year from now. So, does that mean we shouldn’t plan for the future? The short and brutal answer is, No. We shouldn’t. The more careful answer is that we should plan for possible futures. We can accomplish this by developing useful skills, capitalizing on luck, and embracing uncertainty.
Luck, as a long-term strategy for life and a career, is risky and fosters fragility. However, we all rely on a little bit of luck to get ahead. Don’t count on luck, but don’t count it out either.
If you like ideas—especially mathematical ones—that are eloquently expressed and easily applied, check out Taleb’s book. I don’t agree with everything he says, but it is very stimulating thinking.
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Cameron Wilkinson is a writer and editor in Dallas, TX. His writing for the events industry pairs with his interests in sales and marketing. He also holds a B.A. in English Literature form the University of North Texas.
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