Monday, September 08, 2008

People Are Irrational. Life is Unpredictable.

Last Wednesday if someone would have told me that morning that I’d be dropping a 54” Big Screen (not a flat screen, but a big screen) TV twenty feet from a loft’s upper level to it’s lower level … in free fall, I would have bet my Corvette that it wouldn’t happen. But it did, and the TV was demolished.

While I’m writing this from the 11th floor of an office building in San Francisco, there are window washers outside my window … right now. Kooky, huh?

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of books on the improbability of life and the illogical things that even the smartest people succumb to. Much of that seeming irrationality can be attributed to our unconscious thought having a huge effect on our actions. Additionally, our conscious thought is affected greatly by how we want to be perceived by society. Both of these massive forces, in many cases, are barely visible to us as individuals, so when we react because of them, our actions can be a complete mystery to even our closest friends and family.

Let’s imagine you are an expert in something, but no one knows who you are. How much more difficult would you expect it to be for your peers to accept a breakthrough from you as opposed to someone who is well recognized in the field? You may think consciously that you’d be willing to accept the idea, but if Leroy Jackson from East Oakland initiates a bid to change the distance of pro basketball’s 3-point line, it’s not the same as if it were initiated by Michael Jordan.

It has been argued that the act of recognizing, and attributing values based on recognition, is largely a subconscious process. If that’s the case, then it may just be our natural state to not give a lot of value to ideas from unrecognized people. That’s a big obstacle to overcome, especially if your audience doesn’t even realize it’s happening. Add to this, the fact that we’re usually looking to our left and to our right to see if what our peers think BEFORE we make our own decision, and it becomes really hard to convince anyone to buy into a new idea.

But then life is random. Unpredictable. Things happen to us regularly that are totally unexpected. Fifteen years ago, when I was sleeping on the floor of my brothers’ apartment, I wouldn’t have bet on my having my own home and dream car. Ten years ago it would have been impossible for me to predict that I’d be married to a top bellydancer. Five years ago, following achilles surgery, I would not have put any money on my learning how to do handstands and back handsprings at the halfway point of my life expectancy.

But it all happened.

My own way of making sense of life’s unpredictability and in dealing with the apparent irrationality of people is my growing belief in destiny. I’m not a mathematician, but I think fate can be proven mathematically. What really convinced me of this are the cracks in my car’s windshield.

A year or so ago my car’s windshield was struck by a rock or something and that turned into a small crack. Later on, another rock struck the windshield and another small crack appeared. Over the next few weeks as the cracks began to grow due to the temperature changes from morning to night, then it hit me. These two cracks will eventually meet … but they don’t know it yet. The study of crack propagation is called tribology. There are equations that define how long it will take a crack to grow, and in which direction.

To me, those cracks in my windshield were like people born with a shared destiny. Let’s say a prodigy in the US, and one in Brazil both have physical and mental inclinations towards the same sport, field of science, or other skill or profession. If they continue to progress towards excellence in their shared area it isn’t too hard to believe that at some point they will at least become aware of one another. Like, say, two Olympic athletes, or two physicists.

Someone watching the progress of both of these prodigies from a higher vantage point in their area of expertise might see they’re eventual meeting as a real possibility very early on. But, at that early stage, the American and the Brazilian would still be clueless. Like those cracks.

So, even though our actions are driven in part by preset rules in our DNA, and by our desire to be accepted by our social and/or professional groups (even you rebels and anarchists who are hanging out and dressing like other rebels and anarchists), there are a lot of surprises out there waiting. And, they’re coming faster because of online social networking.

Sites like Digg, Youtube, Delicious, and Facebook make it possible for people like our Brazilian and American prodigies to meet and share ideas, videos, etc., both directly and indirectly. I’ve learned a lot about martial arts by watching Capoeira players in Israel, street fights in New York, and cage MMA matches in the UK on YouTube. And, the latest world news is at your fingertips with sites like Digg Labs’ I Spy application.

The book Groundswell does an excellent job of quantifying the business potential of these applications, and in predicting group behavior based on “technographic” prefernces. But, like any book really can’t predict how valid these models will be in 5 years. 5 years ago Youtube, Delicious, Twitter, and Facebook didn’t even exist. Will they be displaced by some other upstart or will they stick around like Ebay and Amazon?

Will Google still be a corporate behemoth, or will they become an official government entity? After all, Google is in the process of doing what the US Government intended to do by inventing the internet in the first place, aggregating public and personal information and making it easily accessible (… to them).

I consider myself a rational person, but I’ve encountered so many situations where intelligent people have willingly chosen to make irrational decisions that my perception of logical thought is tarnished. I’m almost to the point where I depend on the unpredictable to happen in order to accomplish anything impactful in personal and professional relationships. It seems like that’s the only time that most people can break out of their subconscious paradigms long enough to actually listen.

In fact, it’s starting to seem to me that manufacturing unexpected events might be the most reliable way to get someone’s attention. Who is to say that the unpredictable events that occur in our lives haven’t been manufactured by someone with a wider vantage point? Maybe it was time for the 54 inch big screen to go to TV heaven.

Can I get a Amen?

If you’re interested in gut feelings, unconscious thinking, irrational behavior, or social dynamics, some of the books listed below might interest you.

Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer

Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Josh Bernoff

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell


Blogger Eric said...


9:31 PM  
Blogger Erik said...

I'll second that...Amen!

5:20 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home