Correct play doesn’t guarantee a good outcome

When we get a shitty outcome, it’s easy to assume that we should have done something differently. After all, it didn’t turn out how we wanted, so we must have done something wrong. Right?

But there’s a great lesson that poker players learn quickly: we can make the correct play and still lose. Often.

Correct play doesn’t guarantee short term wins, but it will give us the best odds of success in the long term.

In the face of a short term defeat, the worst thing we can do is to automatically assume that we got everything wrong and change our strategy entirely.

A short term loss is a data point, not a life sentence.

Getting comfortable with short term loss can help inoculate us against the type of behaviour which will guarantee long term disaster.

There is always a chance of course that we should have / could have done something differently for a better outcome. But it’s never certain. It’s never guaranteed.

All we really do is learn the game, learn the odds, learn the players, learn the situations and make the best decisions with the information we have to hand.

It’s just another reason to play the long game.

Why facts don’t convince us


We like to think that we’re moral, rational creatures who live sensibly based on the information we receive.

The truth, as always, is a lot messier than we would like.

We can see this when we’re confronted with information that doesn’t match our world view. When we see facts we don’t “like”.

We dismiss, rather than verify.

If we do look into the issue in question, our first instinct is to simply seek out information which confirms our existing point of view. Confirmation bias.

We’re just not creatures of fact, we’re creatures of narrative. Of stories.

We each have a personal story we tell ourselves. In our personal story, we’re a lone, rational protagonist struggling against an irrational and unjust world.

And we all have the same story.

Not only do we act in accordance with our story, but our beliefs and story perpetuate each other.

Rarely if ever, will our story changed with purely by facts. Raw data we don’t like just becomes woven into the “irrationality of the world” in our story.

Facts can’t dent the cliffs of our personal story, but a counter narrative has the power to reshape and reform our story’s landscape.

The next time you’re planning to try to convince someone to change their mind, think about the narrative.

Think about their story, think about your story.

Don’t disregard your facts, but don’t fire them out like bullets. Weave them into the fabric of a compelling story and you’ll be more likely to win both hearts and minds.

The Compass

I bought my daughter a compass on the weekend.

She complained that the needle kept moving when she walked.

“That’s how you know the compass is working. If you move around and the needle is still, then you know that the compass is broken. It’s lying to you.”

“But it’s easier to follow when the needle stays still.”

“Of course it is. That’s the difference between lies and the truth. Lies are often easier, but they point you in the wrong direction.”

“…It doesn’t tell me where I’m going.”

“It will tell you which way North is, and from there you can figure out where you’re going.”

“How can I get it to tell me which way to go?”

“You have to decide where you want to go, then the compass will tell you if you’re pointing in the right direction.”

“That’s dumb, I want to know where the best place is to go.”

“You get to figure that out. That’s the best bit.”

“I don’t want to figure it out. Can’t you just tell me?”

“You don’t want me to tell you that. I’m still figuring out the best place for me.”

“Really, you still don’t know? When will you figure it out?”

“I don’t know, probably sometime just before I die.”

“That’s a bit late isn’t it?”

“Not really. The best bit is in the figuring out.”

“You’re weird.”

Peeking into the sausage factory


I’ve been reading The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield which is amazing and you should absolutely grab a copy if you care about doing the things which matter most to you.

I’ve also been folding lots of washing, which I can also recommend. It’s not an inspirational or insightful activity, but it’s valuable if you don’t want to get divorced.

Normally while folding, I’ll listen to an audiobook version of whatever I’m reading at that time. That way I can do something I like when I’m also doing something I don’t.

Since it’s not that easy to track down The War of Art as an audio book, I’ve been listening to YouTube interviews with Stephen Pressfield whilst I fold. I thought that since I like the book so much, it would be useful and inspiring to listen to him talk about it in depth. It wasn’t.

And herein lies the challenge of peeking behind the curtains of something. Especially something you love. While you’re hoping for additional insight which takes you to a new level of understanding, it’s possible you can find yourself on a tour of a sausage factory, watching someone sweep up a pile of lips and arseholes which are then crudely mashed into that thing you (used to) love.

This got me thinking about when you should and shouldn’t peek behind the scenes (given the opportunity) and whether or not it’s possible to have some helpful guidelines for navigating the decision.

My (unsupported) intuition is that there fundamentalists on both sides of this argument – those who want to know all at all costs, and those for whom ignorance is bliss.

I can see the arguments for both sides having merit, but circumstantial merit. I don’t think that either approach can be applied universally without sacrificing something important.

In the case of this book and listening to the interviews, the peek didn’t add to my enjoyment or appreciation. It offered a strict(er) interpretation of the work which, if taken, eroded a lot of what I felt made it important. In this instance, the peek wasn’t worth it.

But there are just as many, if not more examples, of times when it’s been helpful to look behind the scenes, even if it’s ruined my appreciation for something. Peeking behind the scenes of factory farming, ruined my appetite for meat, but I’m grateful that I have the information, because now I feel I have a better position on eating meat (I don’t eat it).

After the fact, it’s easy to know if the peek was worth it since you can judge whether or not your position has improved based on what you have learned. Unfortunately, hindsight only works one way.

You could also argue that your position always improves by learning more, it’s just that you might not learn precisely that which you were looking for.

I didn’t get more nuance and insight about the book, but I did get a good lesson in not projecting your feelings about at artwork, onto its creator. You can love a work and dislike the artist. The reverse is also true.

I’ve been trying to find the criteria which might help make the choice not to look behind the scenes in appropriate circumstances, but doesn’t offer a haven to those who, like in the farming example, don’t want to face the grim reality of their own choices.

I think there are some useful questions to ask which might help determine if it’s worth your time, but I don’t think any (with perhaps the exception of the last one), help to really get us closer to a guideline.

  • Will this peek help me make better decisions, regardless of what I see?
  • Is my understanding of this thing nuanced or advanced?
  • How attached am I to my perception of this thing?
  • Is the value purely in my perception, or is it somewhere external?
  • What is the value / cost of having that perception shift?
  • How long will it take to look behind the scenes, and what will I have to sacrifice to do so?
  • Do I have an ethical obligation to understand more about this thing?

Despite where I thought that I might get to when I started writing this, I think that I’m coming down on the side of “always look”. Sure, somethings you’re going to see things you don’t like and which don’t really help you in the short term.

The only exception to this, might be when it’s very costly/time consuming to look, and there is absolutely no ethical obligation of have a peek.

It’s frustrating not to be able to get to a more solid position, but sometimes you just have to recognise there is more value in admitting something is grey than attempting to declare it black and white.

As for The War of Art, you should still get the book – it’s great. But when you’re folding washing, maybe you should just concentrate on what you’re doing. I know I should.

Let me know in the comments which side of the fence you come down on with respect to having a peek.

Changing your mind about changing your mind

I’m a big fan of changing my mind – of updating my opinion/position as new information becomes available.

It’s not an easy process, personally or socially, as changing your mind can be an incredibly humbling experience. But it’s something that we all have to get better at. Given the polarity of opinions on hot button issues, at least some people are going to have to change their mind if we hope to reach any kind of consensus.

In that respect, the ability to change our minds, especially about emotionally-charged situations is fundamental to resolving some of the world’s stickiest issues.

The problem we have is that changing our mind is often perceived, both by ourselves and others, as a sign of weakness, when it should be our greatest strength. Politicians are lambasted for “flip-flopping” on issues, and even us mortals can get a roasting, especially from those who’s position we abandon.

I (currently:) believe that the ability and will to honestly and publicly change our position on key issues is a super-power which we should cultivate as broadly as possible.

There are few who willingly undertake this process publicly, Sam Harris being one of the notable exceptions. Regardless of what you think of Sam’s ideas or politics, you’ve got to admire the way he will wade into a discussion, prepared to update his position, and to openly acknowledge that he has done so. It’s an admirable approach, but you can see that it is costly for him (although it’s admittedly difficult to discern how much flak he gets from changing his position on inflammatory issues as opposed to being vocal on sensitive issues in the first place).

This is a rather long way of saying that I really enjoyed the latest episode of The Knowledge Project podcast which spends quite a bit of time focussing on the benefits and mechanics of changing our mind.

The Knowledge Project is made by Shane Parrish who runs the excellent blog Farnam Street. Each episode is a deep dive into the world of an expert whose work touches one of Shane’s areas of interest. The guest for this episode was Julia Galef who hosts her own podcast (Rationally Speaking) and is a co-founder of the Centre for Applied Rationality.

This episode is full of cool insights about influence and persuasion and the ethics of both, but the best bit (at least from my point of view), was the brief section where Julia and Shane discuss actual tactics for being open to having your own mind changed.

It sounds like something that we should be able to do as humans without tips and tricks from experts, but we’re so hard-wired to hang on our beliefs and reject conflicting information, that sometimes we need a helping hand.

One of these tactics is to have a Trigger Action Plan. This kind of plan, is a deliberate attempt to take a specific course of action in a situation in which would otherwise have a more automatic response.

An example of this might changing your automatic response upon hearing some information which seriously conflicts with your current world view (e.g. the sky is made of marmalade). Instead of automatically dismissing the information out of hand or seeking out answers which support your view, your deliberately seek out information which supports the conflicting viewpoint. In this way, you will be able to get a better understanding of the arguments and evidence supporting this claim and be able to make a better assessment of whether the claim is valid.

Another useful tactic was specifically geared towards hearing information from people we don’t like. In this case, our feelings for the person will prejudice our perception of the information, usually for the worse. The intervention here, is to imagine that we are receiving the same information from someone we like and/or respect, with a view to noting how much of our resistance is due to our personal feelings.

This second tactic seemed particularly useful in situations where you genuinely want to make progress with difficult people, a situation which I think we all find ourselves in.

There is a lot more in the episode which is worth checking out, but at the very least, I hope that I’ve given some food for thought on the value of having a more open mind about changing your mind.