Thursday, February 24, 2022

Acknowledging the Tailwind

Back to El Salvador in a jiffy, I promise!


For years, I concluded that Chowhound had hit it big because the credo was fresh and infectious, and I'd infused it with cleverness (precisely targeting a previously unserved demographic, etc.). It took a very long time for me to realize that Chowhound hit big because web sites were "cool" in 1997, and really, it all glided on that tail wind (blogs were not cool in 2008, and apps were not cool in 2017 - regardless of how fresh, infectious, and clever they might be).

It's odd for me to have realized this, however belatedly. People drastically underestimate the effect of tailwinds, especially with respect to their own results. Some of it, of course, is ego (we want to take 110% credit for our success). But a lot of it can be attributed to a cognitive blind spot with respect to tailwind.


Whenever the stock market goes up, investors start feeling not just happy and lucky, but brilliant. "I'm a fantastic investor; look how my balance goes up as I've performed all these terribly smart investment moves!"

It's damnably hard to recognize (much less acknowledge) the tailwind, even when the market sinks and your smart moves only make it worse.


I once wrote that
We over-emphasize first-movers, crediting them with creating waves when, truly, they're just surfing them like everyone else. Causality has nothing to do with it. The first popping kernel doesn't make the other kernels pop.
Stepping Up

I made friends with a little-known public figure by slipping him notes when I thought he was misstepping. Most people don't appreciate that sort of thing. But really smart people do, because they're savvy enough to fully recognize (and worry about) their shortcomings. And he's very smart. So it worked out well, and he was very appreciative.

But then, thanks to a confluence of lucky factors, he became quite famous. And his reactions changed. He began raging at my temerity. Correction implied that he wasn't magnificent.

Normal enough, right? No big surprise. We all know how that goes.

But what was truly odd was that he couldn't see that my behavior was the stationary piece, and that the change had been on his end. He honestly felt that I'd become an asshole while he was still just being the same old him. He couldn't spot, much less acknowledge, changes he’d made as a result of tailwind.

The Chicken's Delight

A Skinner Box is one of those lab experiments where a subject gets rewarded for some behavior and punished for some other behavior. Skinner Boxes show that creatures of any intelligence level are capable of learning.

But what interests me is what happens after the experiment, as the critter continues to go for that sweet, sweet reward:
When the subject learns that a certain action triggers, say, an electrode buried in the orgasm part of its brain, that action will be repeated, over and over again, ad infinitum. It will become the defining action of the subject's life. It's the action that makes the good thing happen.

The reward must be well-suited to the subject. If the subject is a chicken, which is basically a biological device for pecking endless grain, you set up your Skinner box to feed the chicken. And the chicken will never stop responding in the way you've trained it to. It never "gets wise". Blessed with the result it most seeks, there's no reason to ask deeper questions. The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.
The chicken thinks it's just killin' it.

Practical upshots

1. Be more humble and realistic
Easier than it sounds (for one thing, in nearly all cases, realism compels humility). I find it helpful to keep returning to the image of the chicken, stupidly pecking shitty corn till his stomach explodes, with a smug conviction that he's won.

2. Recognize the world's Skinner Boxes
The world runs entirely on them, and, if you pay close attention, you'll notice the reward is always chintzy (which explains - I've buried the lede - why humans are "never satisfied") and the punishment is always oversold (which is why the worrying is always worse than the actuality) as well as fleeting (the next Skinner Box resets the meters). So maybe stop buying into them quite so eagerly. You're not a lab rat.

3. Go with the flow
Once you've dropped your obsession with frantically working the umpteen Skinner Boxes, you're free to bathe in the lovely flow of it all. And that flow (perennially immediately available if we merely stop fighting it via the fraught misimpression that we need to keep pushing the buttons which eject the shitty corn) is your tailwind. It's also the only non-chintzy reward.

Another buried lede: the above deconstructs and re-explains every world religion.

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