Best Books of 2016: Part 2

Best Books of 2016: Part 2

Back in July 2016, I highlighted the best books of 2016 that I had read during the first half of the year. You can find that list here. This post continues the list with my favorites from the second half of the year.

As always, if you’re curious about what I’m reading right now, visit my Goodreads profile.

1. The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

The Wright Brothers, Wilbur and Orville, are still two of the greatest inventors in human history. Considering how commonplace air travel is today, compared to just a century ago, one can’t help but marvel at humanity’s ingenuity, for good and for bad. The Wright Brothers’ first successful flights were only in the first decade of the 1900s, yet a few decades later, planes were key weapons of war in WWII. Yet a few decades later, mankind reached the moon.

This book, of course, covers the story of the Wright Brothers themselves. One thing I love about it is the emphasis on their noble characters that were just as invaluable as their ingenuity.

2. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Derek Sivers

One of my favorite books of all time! Derek is one contemporary, contrarian thinker whom I admire. This short book distills his thoughts and rationales in creating a business that is truly his. His values and life lessons, like his views on money and creating things that are simple but great, are so good they are worth reading over and over again.

3. Night by Elie Wiesel

A classic account of the nobility, resilience, and evilness of humanity.

4. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant

Lots of non-typical insights on how the world is changed by individuals.

5. Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy Carter

This is the creation account of the hit musical Hamilton. I love this book because it tells an honest story about how a creative endeavor is birthed, one little step at a time, and also how history–the re-telling of what happened in the past–and our view of history can evolve, which may deviate from the actual facts.

I wrote on this book in this post: Hamilton: How Genius Work Happens

6. A Whole New Engineer: The Coming Revolution in Engineering Education by David Goldberg

I was cheering for this book while reading it because I loved it so much. Goldberg is arguing for an engineering education that is not only analytical and theoretical, but practical, project-based, and holistic. The wholeness of the education includes emotion and passion–embracing them to motivate generations of engineers to create even greater things in the future, and feeling fulfilled doing so.

7. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

This is the book that inspired Hamilton the musical, and it is a fine, 700-plus paged biography. I haven’t managed to finish it, but the book is a captivating read, in a non-academic kind of way. The remarkable short life of Alexander Hamilton is a life to marvel at. The man was so prolific; he produced so many original thoughts and documents that became the foundation of the country known as America.

8. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull

Probably the best management book I have ever read. This is the story of Pixar, from its inception until now, a studio that keeps on producing top-notch animation movies. Pixar’s movies have never bombed, and this is all credited to a culture of creativity that is meticulously created and maintained by the management team. A culture of creativity is fragile, but the team so far has seemed to master a way of fostering this culture, even replicating it in Disney Animation. You will never look at an animated film the same way again after reading this book. My favorite movie from this year is Zootopia, a direct product of the things Ed Catmull talks about in this book. I have a whole new appreciation for it and its creation.

I hope you can check some of these books out. Also check out Part 1 of this list, and the 2015 list here and here.

 

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Honda’s Three Joys: How the Founder Understands Human Psyche

Ever owned a Honda? I have one. And I enjoy driving a Honda.

 

While reading the book A Whole New Engineer by David Goldberg and Mark Somerville, a brilliant piece on the coming revolution in engineering education, I came across this gem from Soichiro Honda, the man who originated the now-giant car company.

 

In 1951, he wrote this manifesto to his employees in a company newsletter, also known as Honda’s Three Joys. You can find it here.

 

Honda Monthly No. 4

December 1, 1951

 

The Three Joys

 

I am presenting “The Three Joys” as the motto for our company. These are, namely, the joy of producing, the joy of selling, and the joy of buying.

 

The first of these, the joy of producing, is a joy known only to the engineer. Just as the Creator used an abundant will to create in making all the things that exist in the natural universe, so the engineer uses his own ideas to create products and contribute to society. This is a happiness that can hardly be compared to anything else. Furthermore, when that product is of superior quality so that society welcomes it, the engineers joy is absolutely not to be surpassed. As an engineer myself, I am constantly working in the hope of making this kind of product.

 

The second joy belongs to the person who sells the product. Our company is a manufacturer. The products made by our company pass into the possession of the various people who have a demand for them through the cooperation and efforts of all our agents and dealers. In this situation, when the product is of high quality, its performance is superior, and its price is reasonable, then it goes without saying that the people who engage in selling it will experience joy. Good, inexpensive items will always find a welcome. What sells well generates profits, as well as pride and happiness in handling those items. A manufacturer of products that do not bring this joy to people who sell those products is disqualified from being a manufacturer worthy of the name.

 

The third, the joy of the person who buys the product, is the fairest determiner of the products value. It is neither the manufacturer nor the dealer that best knows the value of the product and passes final judgment on it. Rather, it is none other than the purchaser who uses the product in his daily life. There is happiness in thinking, “Oh, I’m so glad I bought this.” This joy is the garland that is placed upon the products value. I am quietly confident that the value of our company’s products is well advertised by those products themselves. This is because I believe that they give joy to the people who buy them.

 

The Three Joys form our company’s motto. I am devoting all my strength in order to bring them to reality.

 

It is my hope that all of you, as employees of the company, will exert every effort so that you never betray this motto. I also hope that our agents will understand my desires in this regard so that we may continue to benefit from cooperation.

 

In the post-WWII era of assembly lines, in a mechanistic industry such as car manufacturing, I love that Honda understood that his was a human endeavor. Given that everyone involved was human, it was important to him to establish joy as the essential drive to live and work well. In a sense, this newsletter is very much in sync with our generation’s aspirations of combining work, passion, and play into one.

 

These three joys capture the essence of doing good work, that there’s pleasure in doing something well and doing something right. They’re timeless principles that every organization would do well to emulate.

 

Still curious? Couple this with how engineering needs to be a work with soul, using individuality as an asset in the joyful act of creating something, and how a creator uses his free will to transform a thought into reality.

 

Anatomy of Excellence

Anatomy of Excellence

A post on the anatomy of excellence befittingly takes some grit to go through. But I refuse to dilute it to a bite-sized listicle and I trust your intellect. Excellence deserves the 3500 words. Read it through at once or bookmark it to read it in pieces, but it’s worth getting to the end.


 

What makes people excel? What makes some stand out from the rest?

 

When we measure our performance against the crowd, we typically benchmark ourselves against this somewhat amorphous concept of the average. Average is an interesting concept because it can be understood both as praise or insult. In many areas of our lives, bowling, height, and playing guitar–we’ve all got some—average is probably our fate. But, as Atul Gawande writes in his book, Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance, “in your surgeon, your child’s pediatrician, your police department, your local high school? When the stakes are our lives and the lives of our children, we want no one to settle for average.” For high stakes situations, “what is troubling is not just being average but settling for it.”

 

In Better, Gawande writes about the three things that make a person successful in medicine: diligence, moral clarity, and ingenuity. I here take the liberty to add to his list and compile the 5 virtues of excellence—the anatomy of excellence.

 

The Anatomy of Excellence

 

  1. Diligence
  2. Commitment to do right
  3. Personal responsibility
  4. Ingenuity
  5. The striving towards something better
  1. Diligence

 

Diligence is the drive to complete the littlest tasks that seem insignificant day in and day out. It is easily overlooked and underestimated because of its simplicity. Gawande writes,

 

The first is diligence, the necessity of giving sufficient attention to detail to avoid error and prevail against obstacles. Diligence seems an easy and minor virtue. (You just pay attention, right?) But it is neither. Diligence is both central to performance and fiendishly hard.

 

Why is diligence important? It’s important because it’s a mindset, an approach of doing things that’s in it for the long haul. It bears the stamp of the person’s character, not just natural talent, which in the greater scheme of things is more important. Character is what we’re looking for in the person we’ve entrusted work to. Some things cannot be achieved without diligence. Many are filtered out from achieving great things because they don’t want to do the tedious thing; they’re turned off by the unglamorous work.

 

Gawande describes an example of diligence by describing the tireless efforts to minimize patient infections in hospitals due to contacts with doctors and nurses. The solution is simple: they need to wash their hands–wash them well and often. As it turns out, implementing this easy and known solution is not straightforward at all. People get lax, forgetful, lazy, and busy.

 

Stopping the epidemics spreading in our hospitals is not a problem of ignorance–of not having the know-how about what to do. It is a problem of compliance–a failure of an individual to apply that know-how correctly.

 

The efforts to monitor this behavior faced many failures. They didn’t work or worked only temporarily, because changing human behavior is hard. You have to read the book to grasp the frustrations in maintaining this high level awareness of hand washing. The antidote of these infections is diligence–both in the medical practitioners and in the individuals responsible to supervise safety.

 

Through trials and errors, they found a way to motivate medical workers to wash their hands consistently, which was a valuable lesson in itself. Many of the previous efforts were top-down. This time around, they obtained inputs from everyone on the floor, creating a wider ownership to the hospital’s performance and a culture of accountability where everyone was watching out for everyone else.

 

There will not be a time when washing hands will not be important in hospital work. This is not a phase–diligence is necessary, forever.

 

We always hope for the easy fix: the one simple change that will erase a problem in a stroke. But few things in life work this way. Instead, success requires making a hundred small steps go right–one after the other, no slipups, no goofs, everyone pitching in. We are used to thinking of doctoring as a solitary, intellectual task. But making medicine go right is less often like making a difficult diagnosis than life making sure everyone washes their hands.

 

Small details matter. And diligent people who pay attention to these details consistently stand out from the rest.

 

People underestimate the importance of diligence as a virtue. No doubt this has something to do with how supremely mundane it seems. It is defined as ‘the constant and earnest effort to accomplish what is undertaken.’ There is a flavor of simplistic relentlessness to it. And if it were an individual’s primary goal in life, that life would indeed seem narrow and unambitious.

 

Understood, however, as the prerequisite of great accomplishment, diligence stands as one of the most difficult challenges facing any group of people who take on tasks of risk and consequence. It sets a high, seemingly impossible, expectation for performance and human behavior.

 

 

  1. Commitment to do right

 

Moral clarity is doing the right thing because it is right. It wouldn’t be a distinguishing virtue if it were easy, because often the right thing to do is not the easiest, cheapest, or most expedient option. When other priorities conflict, which approach would one take? Yes, this approach requires a certain moral compass, a belief that there are ethics associated with your work.

 

In medicine, human lives are at stake. A mistake or wrong decision by a doctor or surgeon can result in life or death. This makes medicine an inherently moral profession. But even when we don’t see the results of our mistake as immediately as doctors do, it doesn’t mean that our own work is not moral in nature. I’ve argued before that every work has a moral component that requires us to do the right thing. We may not see the direct consequences, but it doesn’t mean we are not culpable or responsible for our mistakes.

 

Gawande explores the difficult questions on the right thing to do with regards to physical boundaries, doctors’ mistakes, and doctors’ involvement in the death penalty. The first, he thinks about nakedness and the boundaries that should be in place to ensure trust between patient and doctor. In the second, he asks how much should doctors be paid and how much should doctors pay when mistakes happen? Lastly, he examines the decisions of doctors who, one way or another, are involved in the death penalty. These are hard and uncomfortable questions to ask, but the act of asking these hard questions–what is the right thing to do–is a mark of excellence.

 

The easy thing for any doctor or nurse is simply to follow the written rules. But each of us has a duty not to follow rules and laws blindly. In medicine, we face conflicts about what the right and best actions are in all kinds of areas: relief of suffering for the terminally ill, provision of narcotics for patients with chronic pain, withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment for the critically ill, abortion, and executions, to name just a few. All have been the subject of professional rules and government regulation, and at times those rules and regulations have been and will be wrong. We may then be called on to make a choice. We must do our best to choose intelligently and wisely.

 

Above all, we have to be prepared to recognize when using our abilities skillfully comes into conflict with using them rightly.

 

Part of the commitment to do right is to acknowledge the limit of our knowledge. When do we know what to do, and when do we not know what to do? What do we do at that point? When there’s a possibility of us being wrong, do we have the guts to quiet down our ego and seek the help of others? In facing hard cases, doctors are faced with decisions on whether to keep pushing or stop fighting. In commenting on the ones that display self-awareness,

 

Sometimes they still pushed too long and not long enough. But at least they stopped to wonder, to reconsider the path they were on. They asked colleagues for another perspective. They set aside their egos.

 

This insight is wiser and harder to grasp than it might seem. When someone has come to you for your expertise and your expertise has failed, what do you have left? You have only your character to fall back upon–and sometimes it’s only your pride that comes through. You may simply deny your plan has failed, deny that more can’t be done. You may become angry. You may blame the person–“She didn’t follow my instructions!” You may dread just seeing that person again. I have done all these things. But they never come to any good.

 

In the end, no guidelines can tell us what we have power over and what we don’t. In the face of uncertainty, wisdom is to err on the side of pushing, to not give up. But you have to be ready to recognize when pushing is only ego, only weakness. You have to be ready to recognize when the pushing can turn to harm.

 

In a way, our task is to “Always Fight.” But our fight is not always to do more. It is to do right by our patients, even though what is right is not always clear.

 

The right thing to do may be a vague concept, but perhaps it is good that it is vague. The key here is the striving to seek what is right and to commit ourselves to pursue it. This is what sets the excellent ones apart from the majority who is satisfied to follow rules blindly.

 

 

  1. Personal responsibility

 

I have found that it’s possible to get rid of a problem by pushing it around, postponing it, or tagging enough people in the effort until it becomes someone else’s problem. When you spread the responsibility of a certain task out, it’s easier to blame it on another person.

 

This is NOT problem solving. And not what excellent people do.

 

What they do instead is this: they lean (hard) into their problem, take ownership of the task, and make it their personal responsibility to get it done and get it done well.

 

This is a rant against the “Not my problem” syndrome. Imagine the person charged with uploading videos to a website, but the videos are long and people can’t find what they’re looking for–the key message as promised in the title–easily. He throws up his hands and says, “Not my problem. I did my job.” In other words, the perfecting of the video is not his job; it’s someone else’s problem. What can I do, I’m just an uploader?

 

Well, there are things he can do. He can point people to the minute and seconds where the key message appears, he can learn to cut and edit the videos, or at the very least, he can deliver the message to the right person on the team that can solve the problem.

 

If you’re a part of a team and you have a message you want people to hear, then it is incumbent upon you to make sure people get that message as easily as they can. And yes, it IS your problem.

 

The key thing here is having personal stakes in the work, making sure that once you touch the task, it will come out better at the other end. It’s about adding the maximum value to the product, as much as you possibly can.

 

Excellent people don’t just accept the scope of their task blindly. They investigate the wider scope–why do they need to do this task, what is the context. Once it is done, who are the recipients of the results? How can they receive this as easy as possible? They make it their business to not just finish the job, but to complete it—complete throughout the life cycle of the job, not just when it’s off their desk.

 

I don’t deny that there are limits to what we can do, that at some point, it really is not your problem anymore. But the point here is the attitude, because likely, the person who tends to say, “It’s not my problem. I’ve done all I can.” is likely not the person who has pushed the farthest in his effort.

 

Lean into your problem and contribute. Not everything is your problem, but the ones that are on your plate, make them yours and finish them with finesse.

 

 

  1. Ingenuity

 

Ingenuity is the creativity someone brings to the table to solve a problem. It is something that will not come out unless personal responsibility exists. This is the deep learning, the nonstop testing, and continual improvements in making your work, your craft, and your art better.

 

My favorite part of Gawande’s book is the chapter titled “The Bell Curve.” It tells the story of a small field in medicine that has been “far ahead of most others in measuring the results its practitioners achieve: cystic fibrosis care.”

 

Part of improving performance is conducting diligent measurements, data gathering, and benchmarking. What doesn’t get measure often doesn’t get improved. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation has collected data from treatment centers across the country since the 1960s. It all began with a pediatrician named LeRoy Matthews, who had a bold claim that his patients had an annual mortality rate of less than 2 percent at a time when the rest of the field averaged at more than 20 percent. The average patient died at the age of three.

 

The Foundation assigned another pediatrician, Warren Warwick, to investigate Matthews’ claim. When the results came in, they confirmed that he was a positive deviant. In his center, the median estimated age of death was 21 years, seven times the age of patients treated in other centers. At the time, he had not had a single death among patients younger than 6 years old in 5 years.

 

Unlike pediatricians elsewhere, Matthews viewed CF not as a sudden affliction but as a cumulative disease and provided aggressive preventive treatment to stave it off long before his patients became visibly sick from it. He made his patients sleep each night in a plastic tent filled with a continuous aerosolized water mist so dense you could barely see through it. This thinned the tenacious mucus that clogged their airways, enabling them to cough it up. Using an innovation of British pediatricians, he also had family members clap on the children’s chests daily to help loosen the mucus.

 

This one doctor changed the entire field. By 2003, the average life expectancy of a CF patient is 33 years.

 

Gawande visited two hospitals to compare treatment practices. First, he went to Cincinnati, a place that had middle ranking. He was surprised to be impressed by the quality of medical practice there. Everything was practiced “carefully and conscientiously—as well as anyone could ask for.”

 

Then he went to Minneapolis, where he met Warwick, the doctor who did the study on Matthews many years ago. Having learned from Matthews, Warwick seemed to add something different to the treatment.

 

In an interaction with a high school patient named Janelle, Warwick started with the friendly banter between doctor and his teenage patient. He found out that there had been a slight dip in her lung-function. Three months earlier, she had been at 109 percent, better than kids without CF, and now she was at 90 percent.

 

Most people would have settled for 90 percent, but not Warwick. He started asking, why did it go down, asking Janelle to find out what had been going on in her life. Met with a series of “I don’t know” plus attitude, he went on to do a lecture,

 

“’A person’s daily risk of getting a bad lung illness with CF is 0.5 percent.’ He wrote the number down. Janelle rolled her eyes. She began tapping her foot. ‘The daily risk of getting a bad lung illness with CF plus treatment is 0.05 percent,’ he went on, and he wrote that number down.” He went on to describe the different between a 99.5 percent vs. 99.95 percent chance of staying well. On a given day, there seemed to be hardly any difference. But, showing his calculations to the patient, in a year, it is the difference between an 83 percent and 16 percent of making it through the year without getting sick.

 

He eventually found out that Janelle had a new boyfriend and some new school changes that disrupted her treatments. He then insisted on Janelle to come for a few days to catch up on lost grounds. The interaction ended with this, “We’ve failed, Janelle… It’s important to acknowledge when we’ve failed.”

 

Gawande reflects on the core of Warwick’s worldview that makes his center better than average,

 

He believed that excellence came from seeing, on a daily basis, the difference between being 99.5 percent successful and being 99.95 percent successful. Many things human beings do are like that, of course: catching fly balls, manufacturing microchips, delivering overnight packages. Medicine’s distinction is that lives are lost in those slim margins.

 

Warwick’s combination of focus, aggressiveness, and inventiveness is what makes him extraordinary. He thinks hard about his patients, he pushes them, and he does not hesitate to improvise.

 

His ingenuity led him to innovate unconventional solutions to CF, inventing a new stethoscope, a new cough, and a mechanized chest-thumping vest for patients to wear.

 

When you lean hard into a problem, diligent in paying attention to details, committed to do the right thing for your patient, and use your individuality and creativity in trying new solutions, all of that opens up doors of innovation, solutions that are uniquely you. None of this will come out of superficial work.

 

 

  1. Something better

 

In the CF discussion, even though Matthews and Warwick’s methods had improved the entire field, their centers managed to stay ahead of the pack. From the gathering of data over the years, patterns emerged.

 

“You look at the rates of improvement in different quartiles, and it’s the centers in the top quartile that are improving fastest,” Marshall says. “They are at risk of breaking away.” What the best may have, above all, is a capacity to learn and change–and to do so faster than everyone else. 

 

Humanity is gifted with this infinite capacity to grow and those who know how to do this out of their own volition, excel. It is the striving toward something better that distinguishes those at the high end of the bell curve.

 

Paul Kalanithi, another doctor, writes in When Breath Becomes Air that “the defining characteristic of the organism is striving.” In Mind, Character, and Personality, Vol 1, Ellen White writes, “’Something better’ is the watchword of education, the law of all true living.”

 

There’s always something better to do, some way better to try.

 

 

Gawande concludes that to be successful in medicine is to have and practice these ingredients of excellence.

 

We are used to thinking that a doctor’s ability depends mainly on science and skill. The lesson from Minneapolis–and indeed from battlefield medical tents in Iraq, villages with outbreaks of polio, birthing rooms across the country, and all the other places I have described in this book–is that these may be the easiest parts of care. Even doctors with great knowledge and technical skill can have mediocre results; more nebulous factors like aggressiveness and diligence and ingenuity can matter enormously.

 

The great news is that this is accessible to everyone. Everyone can be diligent, commit to do right, claim personal responsibility, try new things, and strive to be better.

 

True success in medicine is not easy. It requires will, attention to detail, and creativity. But the lesson I took from India was that it is possible anywhere and by anyone. I can imagine few places with more difficult conditions. Yet astonishing successes could be found. And each one began, I noticed, remarkably simply: with a readiness to recognize problems and a determination to remedy them.

 

Arriving at meaningful solutions is an inevitably slow and difficult process. Nonetheless, what I saw was: better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try.

 

These are not natural-born talents. These are the stuffs of discipline, attitude, and approach to life, work, and learning. It can be acquired and practiced by all. Do one, and you may already do better than your peers. But do all of them and you can’t help but be excellent.

 

 

Hindsight Bias: When Experience Works Against You

Hindsight Bias: When Experience Works Against You

Learning from the past—it’s the reasonable thing to do to improve and make progress. It turns out though, that its merit may well depend on what exactly we learn, since “looking back” is not without its downfall. Cue in hindsight bias.

 

What is Hindsight Bias?

 

Hindsight bias is the belief that past events were more predictable than they were before they happened. Richard E. Nisbett in The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why, writes:

 

“We tend to have two problems when we try to ‘predict’ the past: (1) believing that, at least in retrospect, it can be seen that events could not have turned out other than they did; and (2) even thinking that in fact one easily could have predicted [in advance] that events would have turned out as they did.”

 

The first pertains to the belief of the “inevitability” of certain events, which influences the mind to think of the cause and effects to describe this inevitability. Then, convinced of this causal relationship, the second follows. Applying the causal relationship, one should have known that the event would certainly happen. The problem with this is, it’s a fallacy. Nisbett continues to describe that certain cultural paradigms have greater tendencies to commit this fallacy, but more on that later in future posts.

 

Hindsight bias is what leads to phrases like “I knew it all along” or “I knew from before that this would happen.” Ironically, the people who commit this fallacy may sound like experts, gifted with certain prescience of events, and may become the go-to sources for future predictions. You’ve seen them on TV—people get over-credited for predictive knowledge because they say so-and-so should have known and done something so this other thing would have happened. The key illusion here is the belief that they understand the past–they have a model to explain the past–which they use to predict the future, while in fact they understand the past much less than they think they do.

 

The Mind That Cannot Revert Itself

 

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains some of the mechanism that causes hindsight bias:

 

“A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world (or of any part of it), you immediately lost much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed.”

 

He continues to describe a psychology experiment to illustrate this point:

 

“Choosing a topic on which minds are not completely made up–say, the death penalty–the experimenter carefully measures people’s attitudes. Next, the participants see or hear a persuasive pro or con message. Then the experimenter measures people’s attitudes again; they usually are closer to the persuasive message they were exposed to. Finally, the participants report the opinion they held beforehand. This task turns out to be surprisingly difficult. Asked to reconstruct their former beliefs, people retrieve their current ones instead–an instance of substitution–and many cannot believe that they ever felt differently.” 

 

Because the mind has a hard time reproducing its less knowledgeable state, over-simplification of the past or overconfidence happens.

 

“Your inability to reconstruct past beliefs will inevitably cause you to underestimate the extent to which you were surprised by past events.”

 

The less knowledgeable me saw things as complicated. But once I know, I couldn’t believe that a previous me ever thought things as complicated. It seems like there’s a limit to sympathy with my old self.

 

Asymmetric Perception

 

Our relationship with the past and future is very interesting. We know that the future is uncertain. I, right now, have many choices that could result in a plethora of outcomes. But I can only make one choice, and thus as I traverse through time, I will only have one version of history. Looking forward, I see a spectrum of possibilities, but looking back, I see only one. The fallacy arises if I believe that because I only see one history in my past, it is the only one version that could have happened while in fact, if I return to that point, just like my presence, I would have multiple choices as well. Other outcomes were just as probable.

 

This asymmetry of our perceptions with respect to time is a warning when we learn from the past since “the tendency to revise the history of one’s beliefs in light of what actually happened produces a robust cognitive illusion.” The lessons learned, or our model of what happened in the past, may be influenced by this bias, which may produce a story that’s too clean and tidy compared to reality.

 

Hindsight Bias image 1

Event A and B at two different times

Hindsight Bias image 2

Perception at time A. A range of possibilities of outcomes, of which B is an instance.

Hindsight bias

Perception at time B, the belief that A to B is inevitable.

 

 

When Experience Works Against You

 

Our view of the past influences our perception of the future. If our model of the past is too straightforward, we may be tempted to extrapolate the same behavior in the future and oversimplify, which can be serious if you were a decision maker. The failure to consider various possibilities of outcomes can lead to incorrect estimation of risks and failure to mitigate. But even if you weren’t a decision maker, the loss from hindsight bias, to me, is its opportunity cost. The disbelief that the future could not turn out another way may prevent you from exploring creative options.

 

In many areas of life, experience is highly valued in considering someone’s suitability for a job, rightly so. Experience can also be described as the quantity of past events in someone’s repertoire. It’s how much history he has in a particular area. It does not always mean that the person is older, although in most cases it correlates strongly with age.

 

For a job that requires expertise, experience is a definitely an advantage. Sometimes, though, a task requires creativity, innovation, new ways of looking at and doing things. For this type of work, experience may mean that the person’s mental model may be too rigid and solidified to consider alternatives.

 

I’ve been on both sides of this fallacy, both as the guilty party and the victim of hindsight bias. As the guilty one, I’ve said things like, “I knew all along this would work or that wouldn’t work out” and giving suggestions like “I’ve tried that, it didn’t work so don’t bother trying.” The root issue is believing that the cause and effect are clear, discounting other factors that also play big roles. Maybe sometimes it helps the recipients of this ‘advice’, but what if it’s actually misdirection?

 

As a victim of hindsight bias, I’ve been on the other side of experts and been told not to hope too much from a certain pursuit, or that my idea won’t work because it’s always done in certain ways. But because I don’t have much pre-knowledge, I’m less constrained to think in their ways and more motivated to pursue alternate ideas. When it comes to thinking divergently, which I believe is necessary in making progress that’s a leap rather than incremental, there’s an advantage to being young and inexperienced.

 

The Impossibles

 

Is there an escape from hindsight bias? I would think so. A conscientious approach to detect hindsight bias in ourselves may fix it and free us from limiting/false models from the past, and acknowledge the statistical nature of our world. But if Kahneman’s right, that our brain cannot fully sympathize with its less knowledgeable version in the past, maybe we cannot overcome hindsight bias 100% internally.

 

Which is why it’s great that there are other people, and sometimes a new person for in a position or as a leader is the best way to bring in new approaches, new visions, and new solutions. There’s a quote a movie that I love, “We are too young to realize that certain things are impossible…so we will do them anyway.” If we can be the one saying this, then great! But if it so happens that we can’t, then maybe we should at least have someone else in the team who can still say those words, and counteract our hindsight bias.


More on cognitive biases:

Don’t Jump!

When Size Matters

OK, But Not OK. Not OK, But OK

 

Image credit: Uxmas.com

Rock of Ages: Structures That Last

Rock of Ages: Structures That Last

Giza. Chichen Itza. Magelang. Three locations where ancient structures stand for thousands of years. The pyramids of Giza have existed for over 4000 years, built out of quarried stones, stacked and shaped into place. El Castillo, the largest pyramid in the Chichen Itza complex in the Yucatan state of Mexico, is made out of rocks forming a 4-sided structure with stairs on each side. There are sculptures of serpents on the sides of the stairs on the northern side. Candi Borobudur, or the Borobudur Temple, in Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia, is an impressive structure of stone carvings of Buddha facing all corners of the earth. The walls are relief panels with carvings that narrate Buddhist cosmology as well as daily living in 9th century Javanese society.

Borobudur Temple

Candi Borobudur, or Borobudur Temple, in Central Java, Indonesia

 

Each of these structures reflects the worldviews of the civilizations that created them. Both their function and aesthetics are filled with meaning, and somehow this deep meaning is communicated to anyone visiting its perimeters. When you come close to these structures, they generate a reaction in the soul.

Pyramid and sphinx

Pyramid and sphinx of Giza, Egypt. Credit: Freeimages

 

In Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down, reportedly one of the influential books that Elon Musk read when he first thought about building SpaceX, structural engineer J. E. Gordon reflects on structures and aesthetics in his first chapter:

 

“…although most artefacts are not primarily concerned with making an emotional or aesthetic effect, it is highly important to realize that there can be no such thing as an emotionally neutral statement. This is true whether the medium be speech or writing or painting or technological design. Whether we mean it or not, every single thing we design and make will have some kind of subjective impact, for good or bad, over and above its overtly rational purpose.”

 

Gordon contrasts the artefacts of the eighteenth century, which “seem to many of us to be at least pleasing and sometimes incomparably beautiful,” to the works of modern man—modern is a relative term–which is not so much filled with “active ugliness” as the “prevalence of the dull and the commonplace.”

 

“…man does not live by safety and efficiency alone, and we have to face the fact that, visually, the world is becoming an increasingly depressing place… Far too seldom is the heart rejoiced or does one feel any better or happier for looking at the works of modern man.”

 

It seems to me that the grandeur of exceptional structures lies in the spiritual aspect of the work, which is often the source of excellence that makes them out of the ordinary.

 

Ancient Engineering

 

On why these ancient structures last, I am toying with conjectures here. I’d defer to the civil engineers and architects to supply the scientific explanation.

 

Pyramids and temples were built by their creators to last. Whether it was a tribute to kings, ancestors, or gods, these structures reflected their beliefs about life and the afterlife. This to them was a perpetual reality that would never change. Why would it, if this was how the world worked? The bodies of past Pharaohs were not placed there temporarily, nor Buddhas arbitrarily placed in random directions. They were designed with intention of permanence.

 

If these structures were meant to last, they needed to be built in a certain way, much like the difference in attitude and approach when I know I’m making something for temporary use or for ever. Intent drives content, which in turn informs method.

 

The pyramid-like shape of these 3 structures to me seems very stable, although I would here open myself to counter examples that show other equally stable shapes. Admittedly, these 3 examples are simply based on my personal exposures, a lecture I heard recently on Egyptology, my recent visit to Chichen Itza, and my visit and pride in a notable accomplishment of my home country’s past civilizations.

 

Gordon also writes that pre-metallic structures of the past probably ‘force’ their engineers to think deeply about loads and stresses on the materials at their disposal:

 

“To make structures without the benefit of metals requires an instinct for the distribution and direction of stresses which is by no means always possessed by modern engineers; for the use of metals, which are so conveniently tough and uniform, has taken some of the intuition and also some of the thinking out of engineering.” 

 

Certainly there were numerous ancient structures that didn’t last, whether to due structural or environmental causes. Earthquakes, floods, and everything that could happen over the span of 4000 years might destroy even the most superior knowledge of stress distribution on solids. This, though, only makes our respect and admiration grow for the few structures that have survived history and the “primitive technologies” that created them.

 

Of Matter and Structure

 

There is also, however, something to be said about the materials used in these trans-millennial structures. They were made out of stones, probably because stones were the most readily available materials with load-bearing strength before the discovery, manipulation, and production of metals. Is it also possible that this choice material contributes to their survival?

 

Since metallic structures are relatively younger, it is quite unfair to compare stony and metallic structures on equal grounds. We don’t know (or, rather, I don’t know) whether metals will outlast stones, as in, if two pyramids were built, one with stone and one with metals in the same location, which one would last longer? We only have one version of history, so all we can do is credit the ancient glories to the stone structures.

 

As building materials, stones have notable advantages. They are by nature durable, fireproof, and nonreactive. They are not the easiest to work with due to their weight and non-uniformity, and they don’t provide good insulation (not good for places with extremely hot or cold weather). But their resistance to fire and moisture is a clear strength, unlike wood that is in fact fuel for fire and prone to decay, or metals that bend and melt due to heat. Stones will not rust, since the molecules are mostly oxidized and thus will not react with air or water. Further, it can be restored. Many of the ancient stone structures were once lost and re-discovered after many years of abandonment. But careful restoration could bring their old glories back, provided that enterprising people didn’t chip them away, and moss could be removed from stones. Compare this with common houses in North America, which, HGTV tells me, can undergo so much decay and destruction from being abandoned for a few years.

 

The Character of Stones

 

In the Biblical account, there is a section that flies over human history by giving each era a certain character through material symbols. In the book of Daniel chapter 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which he forgot, and decreed his counselors to reproduce the dream and interpretation. Failure to do so would result in death. Daniel, a Hebrew prophet in the king’s court prayed to God and was granted the vision and its explanation.

 

The vision was of a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly of brass, legs of iron, and feet of iron and clay. Each section symbolized a kingdom, gold for Babylon, silver for Media and Persia, bronze for Greece, iron for Rome, and iron and clay for divided Rome.

 

At the end of the vision was a part that was a bit strange and discontinuous. A stone “cut out without hands” appeared, stroke the feet of the statue, and crumbled the whole structure down. This stone represented the kingdom of God, hence the discontinuity from the materials in the statue–metals refined by human civilizations–was fitting here.

 

Yet the choice of a stone to represent the kingdom of God was rather anticlimactic, wouldn’t you say? I would probably choose something majestic, like a big giant diamond to crush the entire human civilization. A plain old stone is neither flashy nor valuable.

 

Interestingly, however, the commentary continues to highlight that this last kingdom’s distinct characteristic was that it would last forever. Daniel 2:44 says, “And in the days of these kings shall the God of heaven set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” The other kingdoms pass away, but this one stays.

 

Perhaps there is something here, given what we know about the material characteristics of rocks and stones. In other places, Biblical references to rocks mean stability, strength and assurance (e.g., building on the rock, rock of salvation, etc). God Himself is referred to as the Rock of Israel.

 

It is not uncommon for the Bible to illustrate the kingdom of God with unusual symbols; a seed, leaven, a net cast into the sea, and numerous other unexpected metaphors. They are often humble, simple, and commonplace. Yet each time, they reveal a secret strength that is not always intuitive to human thinking, like the seed that grows into a tree, where birds can lodge in its branches. The baffling-ness calls its audience to think of reality as God sees it, that not everything is valued according to the marketplace and human commerce.

 

In the choice of a stone in Daniel 2, its durability, strength, and stability certainly reflects a characteristic of God’s kingdom. That sameness yesterday, today, and tomorrow is a key aspect of the Biblical God. I don’t know whether the author of the hymn “Rock of Ages” was thinking along this line, but that phrase is awfully and appropriately fitting.

 

Photo credit: Johnny Loi Photography

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