Tag Archives: ignorance

It Takes 10,000 Hours, But It Really Has To Be The Right 10,000 Hours – A Lesson From The Big Short

The legendary screenwriter William Goldman was said to have shouted “Nobody knows anything!” in relation to the prediction of movie sales…
Quoted in The Black Swan, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb


I recently presented my synopsis of The Big Short by Michael Lewis to an audience of sharp folks for the downtown edition of the Urban Engagement Book Club for Central Dallas Ministries.  If you haven’t read the book, it is worth your time.  (You might want to read my earlier blog post:  A Quick Graphic Overview of The Big Short).  Next month, for the same group, I am presenting my synopsis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, so that was on our mind also.  Especially this key idea, popularized by Gladwell:  it takes 10,000 hours to get really world-class good at something.  At anything.

During our discussion of the book The Big Short, one woman, who had read both books, noted that there weren’t enough people on Wall Street who put in the 10,000 hours they should have on the safety of and the implications of the investments they were selling.  This failure was catastrophic!

And — this is a brilliant observation!

In The Big Short, Michael Lewis describes the work of Dr. Michael Burry, the one-eyed Doctor with Asperger’s, obsessed with “fairness.”  He was one guy in a dark room, pouring over publicly available information.  He began his successful investment career turning up “ick investments – taking a special analytical interest in stocks that inspire a first reaction of ‘ick.’”  He then turned his attention to the current environment.

Dr. Michael Burry - 10,000+ hours of work finding the dangers just around the corner

Here’s a key quote about Burry from the book:

He likely became the only investor to do the sort of old-fashioned bank credit analysis on the home loans that should have been done before they were made.  He was the opposite of an old-fashioned banker, however.  He was looking not for the best loans to make but the worst loans – so that he could bet against them.

What does this mean?  I think it means this.  There were plenty of people who put in the time, but not on the right aspects of “their job.”  Wall Street had no shortage of people who put in many, many hours –10,000+ for sure – packaging, reconfiguring, selling these products.  They may have been great “salesmen,” but not so great “is this what we should be selling for the good of our economy?” folks.

Here are some more quotes from The Big Short.  Ignorance — true, dangerous ignorance — seems to be the common denominator.

In Vegas the question lingering at the back of our minds ceased to be, Do these bond market people know something we do not?  It was replaced by, Do they deserve merely to be fired, or should they be put in jail?  Are they delusional, or do they know what they are doing?…  There were more morons than crooks, but the crooks were higher up.”

It’s too much to expect the people who run big Wall Street firms to speak in plain English, since so much of their livelihood depends on people believing that what they do cannot be translated into plain English…  No one at Morgan Stanley had a clue what risks Howie Hubler was running – and neither did Howie Hubler.

The big Wall Street firms had somehow become the dumb money.  The people who ran them did not understand their own businesses, and regulators obviously knew even less.  “No one knows what to do…”  they had always assumed that there was some grown-up in charge of the financial system whom they had never met; now, they saw there was not.

The only solution to ignorance is education.  You have to learn what you do not know.

Now, we are all ignorant, amazingly ignorant, about a lot of things.  And most ignorance is acceptable ignorance.  I do not know how to fly a plane, perform surgery, fill a cavity in a tooth, tie a scarf, drill for oil…  the list of areas in which I am ignorant is really very, very long.  And it is ok that I am ignorant about such matters.

But if someone hires me to do a job; if I am “perceived as expert” in a field; then it is my responsibility to be knowledgeable in this field.  If I am not knowledgeable, if I am ignorant, then this is the kind of ignorance that leads to disaster.

This woman’s observation at our gathering was right on the money.  We needed plenty of people investing 10,0000 hours on the right things.  We needed an army of Michael Burrys.  Instead, we got an army of greedy, ignorant salespeople, who never spent even 10 hours, much less 10,000 hours, on the “is this really the right thing to be doing/selling?” question.

And it cost us all – our entire economy, our entire country, our entire planet —  a great deal.

Let’s Call It The “We Can’t Keep Up” Syndrome

Here’s what I’m trying to say:  we don’t yet know how to do everything we are trying to do.  And that can be a real problem.

The totals are now beyond what most of us could have only imagined — and feared.  The total number of gallons of oil that have spewed into the Gulf from the BP disaster has probably surpassed 200 million gallons  (The figures are not precise — I did the math from this web site).  This is 18x the number of gallons from the Exxon Valdez disaster.  It seems like such a long time ago that Tony Hayward, and Haley Barbour, and others, stated that the Gulf was a big ocean and would easily disperse the oil harmlessly.  They were, sadly, wrong.  We have learned that lesson the hard way.

And the new iPhone is running into turmoil that is building day after day.  Partly because, in my opinion, AT&T was not yet ready to provide the infrastructure for all that technology.  It was too much innovation and implementation too soon.  The capacity to execute can not quite keep up with the needs of the era, with ever more challenging products and projects.  Consider this excerpt of AT&T CTO: ‘We will move heaven and Earth’ to improve our network by Anthony Ha (full article here):

When VentureBeat Editor in Chief Matt Marshall got a chance to ask AT&T Chief Technology Officer John Donovan a few questions on-stage, he asked what kinds of issues are holding back network quality. It’s a little bit of everything, Donovan replied. With a flood of new chipsets, phones, and applications, the traditional device testing and rollout methods have “broken down.” In addition, AT&T recently faced a shortage of the components needed to improve its network.

“I’ll tell you the things it’s not been,” Donovan said. “It’s not been capital, it’s not been conviction and commitment.” AT&T “will move heaven and Earth” to meet its customers’ growing data needs, he said.

I have blogged before (a few times) about the formulation from Atul Gawande’s The Checklist Manifesto, re. the two great problems:  ignorance and ineptitude.  Here’s the key quote:

We have just two reasons that we may fail.
The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works.  There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop. The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly  This is the skyscraper that is built wrong and collapses, the snowstorm whose signs the meteorologist just plain missed, the stab wound from a weapon the doctors forgot to ask about.
For nearly all of history, people’s lives have been governed primarily by ignorance.

But there is a third problem, one that does not quite have a name yet.  Let’s call it the “we can’t keep up” syndrome.  Maybe it is a subset of one of the two by Gawande.  But it presents a unique challenge to the modern business environment.

It is not entirely new.  In the early days of television, there were television set makers dependent on television networks dependent on television makers.  It was a circle of interdependency, a complex set of interconnections, with officially disconnected but very interdependent companies needing every company in the mix to keep up.  And keeping up was tough.

Just in the last year, television stations have switched to HD, needing the cable channels to provide slots for their new HD channels, with the cable channels needing the stations to broadcast in HD.  Everything is so interconnected, interdependent.  Everyone has to succeed for anyone to succeed – one has to succeed for all to possibly succeed.

And then, the ripple effects.  There is now no doubt that people working in companies with much better safety records than BP are paying the price for BP’s failures.  Jobs are leaving the Gulf for other oceans across the globe.  The moratorium, which many object to (but – can you imagine if a second well had this kind of disaster right now?) means that costly equipment has to go where there is work.  And then the equipment will be run by a new set of workers.

But here is the deal.  Companies, entire industries, need to learn, adapt, innovate as they go…and it is tough to keep up.

Maybe the problem is not incompetence.  Maybe the problem is not ineptitude (though there were serious mistakes made).  Maybe it is simply that we are in a perpetual growth/innovation/need-to-get-it-right era, and there will always be a need for version 2.0 and 2.8 and 7.0 in nearly every arena.

If all it means is that I have to wait for the next software update on my iPhone, I’m ok with that.  But if it destroys the environment on the Gulf Coast for hundreds of miles, then it becomes a much more serious matter.

“We Don’t Know It” & “We Blow It” – Two Paths to Potential Disaster

I mentioned to a group this week that I think The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande is the most important book I have ever presented.  Not necessarily the best book – but the most important book.  I think about its principles, such as that our age is an age of great complexity, with nearly every news story I read.  I have blogged about it so often that my readers must be thinking, “Oh no – not another Gawande blog post…”

But today, as I was going thorugh the concepts  of the book yet again, these two simple phrases flew out of my mouth.

“We don’t know it”
We blow it.”

All mistakes that we make flow from one of these.  Here are the relevant quotes from Gawande’s book (emphasis added):

We have just two reasons that we may fail.
The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works.  There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop. The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly  This is the skyscraper that is built wrong and collapses, the snowstorm whose signs the meteorologist just plain missed, the stab wound from a weapon the doctors forgot to ask about.
For nearly all of history, people’s lives have been governed primarily by ignorance.

Failures of ignorance we can forgive.  If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort.  But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.

In other words:
“We don’t know it” (our problem with ignorance)
“We blow it.” (our problem with ineptitude).

We don’t know it.
We blow it.

Solve these two, and we will have a much less troublesome world.


To purchase my synopsis of The Checklist Manifesto, with handout + audio, go to our companion web site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

What if there are no real Black Swans at all? — (And the “Dynamite Prize in Economics” goes to… Alan Greenspan)

Alan Greenspan, "prize winner"

News item:  Alan Greenspan is the recipient of this year’s Dynamite Prize in Economics  as “the economist most responsible for causing the Global Financial Crisis.” The once-lauded Federal Reserve chairman has been awarded the “Dynamite Prize In Economics” by his fellow economists, according to the blog Real-World Economics Review.  The Real World Economics Review Blog has over 11,000 subscribers, and they have named Alan Greenspan its recipient for this prize.  Finishing second and third were Milton Freidman and Lawrence Summers.    (No, receiving this prize is not a good thing).  Here is a line from the article:

This blog established the prize in response to attempts by economists to evade responsibility for the crisis by calling it an unpredictable, “Black Swan” event. In reality, the public perception that economic theories and policies helped cause the crisis is correct.

(I first read about this here on the Huffington Post).

Their next prize will go the Revere Award winner:

The economics establishment has attempted to evade responsibility for the Global Financial Collapse by calling it an unpredictable, “Black Swan” event.  But in fact some non-neoclassical economists foresaw the crisis and warned the public of its approach. The Revere Award aims to give these economists the professional and public recognition that they deserve, to encourage others to utilize their methods, and to increase the likelihood that, for the benefit of humankind, empirically responsible economists will be listened to in the future.

maybe not all "black swans" are actually black swans

And I got to thinking.  I have presented a synopsis of The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.  I like the book, and I have bought into the philosophy of the book pretty enthusiastically.  The book says that “nobody knows anything.”   Here are the characteristics of a black swan:

• A Black Swan is an event which follows three attributes:
• First, it is an outlier.  (rarity)
• Second, it carries an extreme impact.
• Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable.  (retrospective, though not prospective, predictability).

But these economists definitely call into question the explanation of the current crisis as an actual example of a “black swan.”  And, I have been quite intrigued by Gawande’s simple formulation:  the two great problems are ignorance and ineptitude.  (see my earlier post here).

Maybe some of the events that we label as “black swans” are in fact knowable.  The trick is to overcome enough ignorance, and find the right experts with the right knowledge, to be better prepared and make better decisions and take better steps…  In other words, the crisis may not have been the result of ignorance, but ineptitude.

This much is clear.  Some economists missed it – and others (fewer) got it right.  It looks like we may have listened to the wrong economists.

Anyway, I’m intrigued by all this.