Mistaken Self-Importance

I recently read Fooled By Randomness which was the first book in what became Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto. I am eagerly anticipating his new book which comes out next month and if you do actually read here, you will know I’m quite fond of him and his work. This is not a review of the book (which was great), but rather me drawing the main idea of the book and applying it to my own experiences.

I will attempt first to describe this before moving on.

The essential idea explored in the book focuses on the markets and the way people only look at the successes while ignoring the failures. When someone succeeds, they believe it was because they consciously made the right decisions. Naturally the same does not follow with failure. People will not only claim the success, they may even begin to recall the past in a way that makes it as though they knew what was coming and what to do. They also tend to forget about the many more people who followed a similar path that ended in failure. A simpler way to understand this is to consider all the many potential conquerors that have existed in history and the very few whose names are still known today. Julius Caesar could well have died from childhood disease, after being captured by pirates or while crossing over to conquer Briton. There are certainly many great men who never were.

A lazy thinker might quickly come to the (wrong) conclusion that all life is random and all success is luck but Taleb would not agree with this. For a start, there are varying degrees of what people consider success. Many men have worked hard to become famous musicians and succeeded only in becoming musicians. Even if the fame and fortune didn’t follow, they still had a career or at the very least; a talent. Such men might still consider themselves failures and look with jealous rage at men they considered less than them who nonetheless became famous. Thus, applying yourself and working hard and all the cliches and platitudes still apply, if only to put the odds more in your favour.

This is but a simple summary and I’m not sure what Taleb would say of it if he read it but it gets me to where I am going and I think it will suffice.

Now to apply things to my own more recent work experience. I came to my place of work almost five years ago at the time of writing. When I joined, the school was not doing so well. The student numbers were quite low and close enough to half of capacity to be a worry. When I leave in a few months, it will be in a much better state than it was, with most classes at or near capacity. As I was in a leadership position for three of my five years there, should I take part of the credit for this? I would answer no now and I would have been reluctant to take much credit back when I was in leadership though I recall at least one drunken boast.

Even at the time when I was tempted to think I had made a difference, I saw errors in thinking this way though I was certainly tempted to give myself credit. Because over my time in leadership, I made a number of decisions I thought were bad, that didn’t turn out that way and a number of good ones, that similarly didn’t seem to make a difference. I averted, diverted and stopped a number of others. I was never totally in charge anyway, and whatever I might have thought was a good idea, still had to make it through the owner.

The truth is, as with everything, there is a lot more going on than what is going on around you. The fact that there were many more families overseas looking for schools in the same area was not something I could have possible controlled. Nor was the motivations, interests and circumstances of the local families. All the school could really do was be there and make it known that it was there and be competently run.

Within the school, each class is its own sphere and no leader can know what exactly is going on within each class at a given time. All they can do is hire employees they perceive to be competent and hope that turns out to be the case. When it is not the case, they need to hope they can remove the employee before they do any lasting damage. Something additional I learned while working was that they need to hope an employees popularity with others doesn’t let their shortcomings go overlooked.

Even in a relatively small business the amount of variables is considerable. Thinking back, I am thankful only that the school did not fail while I was working there; something which I would have fairly considered to be beyond my control. This of course means that its success was just as much beyond my control. So owning your successes means owning your failures.

As with my summary of the book above, this does not mean that nothing you do makes a difference and that it’s all random. It just means you’ve got to do the best you can which will put the odds more in your favour. You need to keep things in perspective and have some humility.

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