Posted on 05/26/2013

Photo taken on May 23, 2013


Nassim N Taleb
Black Sawn

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Now take a look at the Cemetry

Now take a look at the Cemetry
Numerous studies of millionaires aimed at figuring out the skills required for hotshotness follow the following methodology. They take population of hotshots, those with big titles and big jobs, and study their attributes. They look at what those big guns have in common: courage, risk taking, optimism, and so on, and infer that these traits, most notably risk taking, help you to become successful. You would also probably get the same impression if you read CEO’s ghostwritten autobiographies or attended their presentations to fawning MBA students.

Now take a look at the cemetery. It is quite difficult to do so because people who fail do not seemm to write memories, and, if they did, those business publishers I know would not even consider giving them the courtesy of a returned phone call (as to returned e-mail, fuhgedit). Readers would not pay $26.95 for a story of failure, even if you convinced them that it had more useful tricks than a story of success. The entire notion of biography is grounded in the arbitrary ascription of a casual relation between specified traits and subsequent events. Now consider the cemetery. The graveyard of failed persons will be full of people who shared the following traits: courage, risk taking, optimism, et cetera. Just like the population of millionaires. There may be some difference in skills, but what truly separates the two is for the most part a single factor: luck. Plain luck.

You do not need a lot of empiricism to figure this out: a simple thought experiment suffices. The fund-management industry claims that some people are extremely skilled, since year after year they have outperformed the market. They w8ill identify these “geniuses” and convince you of their abilities. My approach has been to manufacture cohorts of purely random investors and, by simple computer simulation, show how it would be impossible to not have these geniuses produced ‘just by luck.’ Every year you fire the losers, leaving only the winners, and thus end up with long-term steady winners. Since you do not observe the cemetery of failed inventors, you will think that it is a good business, and that some operators are considerably better than others. Of course an explanation will be readily provided for the success of the lucky survivors: “He eats tofu,” “She works late; just the other I called her office at eight P.M…….” Or of course, “She is naturally lazy. People with that type of laziness can see things clearly.” By the mechanism of retrospective determinism we will find the “cause” – actually, we need to see the cause. I call these simulations of hypothetical cohorts, often done by computer, an engine of computational epistemology. You thought experiments can be run on a computer. You just simulate an alternative world, plain random, and verify that it looks similar to the one in which we live. Not getting lucky billionaires in these experiments would be the exception. ~ Page 106