"The brain sees the world as far, far less, random than it actually is ... rare events explain more and more of the world we live in, yet remain as counterintuitive to us as they were to our ancestors ... it is as if there were two planets: the one in which we actually live and the one, considerably more deterministic, on which people are convinced we live ... Past events will always looks less than random than they were."
I have been re-reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb's first book, Fooled By Randomness. It is a work of art, hugely discursive, full of byways as well as highways, and an ego-filled exploration of reality that will either charm or irritate you immensely. But its theme -- also the theme of Professor Phil Rosenzweig's excellent book The Halo Effect ... and the eight other business delusions that deceive managers, and of Superconnect by Greg Lockwood and me -- can be summarized in one short and incredibly important sentence:
Events are more random than we think; business and life are profoundly uncertain.
Now, I'm not going to explain why this is so -- for that you will have to read one of the three books I've cited. But, trust me, it is true. What I will do is outline:
• Why randomness can be wonderful
• Eight Actions to Benefit from Randomness.
Why Randomness Can Liberate Us
Many of us go through life as if it were a steeplechase where we have to go round a well-defined racecourse, jump over a specified number of fences, each conveniently labelled, and strain every sinew to get ahead of the field and cross the winning line.
The fences have names such as:
• Do well in school
• Get a good degree
• Work for a prestigious company
• Cultivate your resumé
• Accumulate various qualifications and experience
• Work long and hard
• Sacrifice your personal life to your professional life
• Save and invest
• Be tenacious and persevere through adversity.
Most really ambitious people -- and I was one of them -- go through life jumping one fence after another, until they either succeed or collapse from exhaustion.
But it doesn't have to be this way.
In fact, if you understand how random the world really is, the fences are a snare and a delusion. The racetrack doesn't really exist. It is a figment of our collective imagination. You can clamber over all these fences and ignore the real opportunity that may stare you in the face for a few fleeting seconds. And some other lucky clod, with half your intelligence, training and diligence, may float up in the air, ignore every fence, and land in the winner's enclosure with never a care in the world.
Why is this a wonderful, liberating world? Well, it there are no rules, no fences, just a mass of random opportunity. A big disorienting, maybe, at first, even frightening. Little or no structure. Just a matter of putting yourself in the right place at the right time, and even more, recognizing somewhere that could be the right place at the right time. But it's glorious because:
➢ If you don't have the right background or qualifications, it need not matter.
➢ Hard work is a mug's game. So is letting your life be ordered by other people (exception - the very few really successful people around you).
➢ It's never too late to find a fulfilling life and feel successful.
➢ Success depends on being willing to gamble, and on the skill you build up at certain types of betting successfully - and once you get in the habit, that is fun.
➢ "Probability is a qualitative subject" (Taleb). In other words, you don't need mathematics and you don't need spreadsheets. You do need a mind attuned to the main chance and where you might fit into it.
➢ Many bets have trivial or even negative costs - they can be enjoyable as well as lead, one in a blue moon, to a great future.
➢ Success also depends on meeting and listening to random people from varied backgrounds, and exercising your imagination - all pleasant activities.
But I can be more explicit about what we need to do:
Eight Actions to Benefit from Randomness
1. Spend time each week with a different "friendly acquaintance" who is from a different world - someone from your past life, the friend of a friend, or someone intriguing you have just met. Have a meal or a drink with them in a relaxed environment with enough time to explore what they do, what they know, and what possible connections there may be with what you do and know.
2. Become a professional risk-taker. Take risks with limited downside, and cut your losses if the bet is going nowhere. For example, change jobs, change where you live, change the people you mix with, accept daring projects that may not succeed but could move your fortunes up a gear. Divide your life into more discrete chunks.
3. Now for three hints from the 80/20 principle. Find firms that are going places - that are small but growing fast.
4. Find a boss who is also moving up fast, and position yourself in their slipstream.
5. Find companies, individuals, markets, and events that could be on the cusp of victory - where something may be happening to transform their prospects. Realize this before everyone else does, and position yourself to benefit. You don't have to be certain, or even believe that victory is likely -- just that it is possible and it could shake the world around you. For example, if two friends are about to start a new business that could succeed, and you could add value to it, invite yourself to the party before it starts.
6. Become more specialized in areas that excite you. Build up unique skills. Keep a constant eye out for how you might deploy those skills to do something useful for other people and so make money -- where the unique skills can have a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times more impact.
7. Search for the few rules of thumb that really work and can cut through complexity like a hot knife through butter -- rules such as the 80/20 principle and the star principle. Build up a mental toolkit that equips you to spot opportunities before anyone else does. Opportunity rarely knocks, and then only in a muffled way. Opportunity is more like a viscous liquid -- a fierce, new source of energy that is spreading wastefully and needs to be channelled into newly constructed waterways.
8. Finally, when you do get a break, cast doubt aside and take it with both hands. Chances that can transform your life do come along, but they are rare. Remember Shakespeare: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallows."