Luck or lack thereof

There’s an interesting experiment done by psychologist B.F. Skinner in 1947 showing pigeons displaying superstitious behaviors [video][wiki], like humans (in the past, right?!), seeing a black cat and relating to a signal of bad luck, or maybe trying to replicate someone’s success by copying something, a behavior for instance, only to find out later that it wasn’t what made them successful.

People might have different ways to explain (and rationalize) good and bad outcomes that happen to them. One of them is attributing good outcomes to skill and bad outcomes to bad luck, classic, we’re all guilty of. For instance, when someone dies on the roads, it’s common to make up stories but it’s easy to forget that many factors might contribute to a bad outcome, starting with the road’s design (does it have physical separation?), how many drunk drivers is out there? How many incidents with tires bursting? How many heart attack while driving? And the list goes on. People are subjected to the accumulated decisions made by other people.

So, what’s the chance an event might happen by chance alone?

For the sake of argument, consider one more example with these made up numbers:

  • An untrained shooter will hit the target 1 in 100; (or 1 shooter out of 100)
  • A trained shooter with 10 hours will hit the target 1 in 50;
  • A trained shooter with 100 hours will hit the target 1 in 10;
  • A trained shooter with 1.000 hours will hit the target 1 in 2;
  • A trained shooter with 10.000 hours will hit the target 1 in 1;

Maintaining consistency, being reliable, that requires more than luck.

But here’s the thing, the odds are indeed stacked against us, from all sides. Our lives are affected by other people’s decisions all the time, let me explain:

When someone:

  • Design a building, a bridge,a car, an airplane, a ship, a train, a highway;
  • Design any security sensitive facility (such nuclear, prisons, etc);
  • Writes a paper, a book, software (which is eating our entire world);
  • Sets policies/rules, culture;
  • Need to decide something and take everyone’s opinion or only noncritical opinions;
  • And so on…

All of them(structure, process, social norm, decision), always have margin of error, vulnerabilities, any of these creations are all bets against the future, which in time, will most likely break (or be invalidated) in different degrees and rates. How much we foreseen and account for that will help differentiate you from others.

Why the margin of error tends to be big?

  • It’s expensive to reduce, too much to cover;
  • Limited understanding of the problem and/or know-how/training/skill to properly solve it;
    • In software development for instance, lack of understanding of the problem creates workloads (technical debts) that needs to be paid (rewritten) cover unforeseen, dismissed requirements and better solve the problem;
  • Trade Off (choosing a set of options that dismiss/ignore certain requirements);

Imagine a light switch, in order to work it requires a closed (connected) circuit, same with other kinds of structures like an airplane, imagine a circle, a single pixel off and the circuit would break, switching off the structure. Since all need to be connected in order to work, it’s easy to see that it’s much more probable that it won’t work or in other words, it’s easier to be wrong than to be right, in anything.

As humans, we create structures, processes and decide defying theses odds. In part with redundancy and stress testing to make sure is reliable, which is critical in sensitive structures, in the case of the airplane, a commercial aircraft usually has two engines, four hydraulic pipe systems (that’s some redundancy!), some things it simply pays to safeguard.

But you have to remember, everything has vulnerabilities, margin for error, these structures have different parts with different probabilities and different levels of redundancy. But invariably, they will falter if not replaced or properly maintained.

The nuclear disaster in Fukushima for instance, was it just because of nature? Was there anything that could be done differently? Well, Fukushima facility could withstand earthquakes up to magnitude 8, but in 2011 was hit by a 9.1, but the real problem was the tsunami which disabled critical cooling systems that caused the nuclear meltdowns, hydrogen-air explosions, and the release of radioactive material in Units 1, 2 and 3.

When designing any structure, or process or making decisions, vulnerability/margin of error will be there and needs to be managed to limit bad outcomes regardless how unlikely in severe cases, remember people win the lottery all the time.

We can’t be always right, the world is simply too messy, but that shouldn’t prevent us from trying to be most of the time when it matters. Being even marginally better at decision-making than you competition is how you win the long-term game, life is a collection of decision after all.

How to improve?

To beat luck (also known as randomness, or noise), you first need to acknowledge that life is indeed very much like a game of chance, you are making bets all the time (others too), with each creation or decision and you know what happen when someone bet against the future. Even what we think is right in the short term might not be in the long-term, or vice versa.

Lack of imagination, lack of stress testing everything (taking for granted), or plain disregard have consequences that may even cost people’s lives.

Knowledge and claims are not all the same, they have different degrees of reliability, how much you can trust them, really? You can only know by putting to the testing and removing luck from the equation to eliminate false hopes, false positives, false truths. If you seriously think a given idea, decision, claim, or knowledge can be relied upon then you accept all the consequences that implies (regardless whether you thought of them or not). How much of that you truly know and understand? If it’s as good as you think, why not put it to the test? To objectively measure its merit and validity. At least then you safeguard you and other people from being victims of bad ideas and decisions.

You can start with a prediction (specific, testable and falsifiable):

Write down your predictions(expectations) and compare with reality afterwards, you need to find out the frequency by which you’re right, if it’s due to skill or plain luck. If you want to beat luck, first you need to know much much better you’re doing than a coin flip.

Keeping track of your predictions, measuring the frequency: 1 hit (right) per (N) misses (wrong), will help you calibrate the predictions.

The world is incredible complex and our perception is very limited, the best we can do is making approximations that need to be calibrated (expectations and reality). For instance: if I talk about humans, do I really know enough to infer on the lives of 7.6 billion people (may/2018 estimate) or am I assuming based on what I currently perceived given my exposure to some of them?! Overconfidence always has a cost, not necessarily just for you.

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