Causality and Contrarianism

Catchy title eh? This week’s discussion is a bit philosophical in nature, but basically, the point I want to make is to not do normal things if you do not want normal results.

Simple concept right? To understand, yes, but to live according to, less so. Mob mentality is a form of survival, and it’s gruesomely effective. In college there were bunches of times when you’d get back a rough test and the first thing you’d do was look over at your pal’s paper to see how you stacked up. If enough people did badly, you’d argue the test. If a majority did poorly and argued it well enough, you could get a curve or some other mercy.

Much of life is the same way. We hold to statistics and averages because often they release us from personal responsibility. As the phrase goes, when a bear is chasing you, you don’t have to run faster than the bear, just faster than somebody else.

The average net worth of people under 35 is just over zero: about $3,000. If you don’t know, net worth is assets minus liabilities, so what you own minus what you owe. A house, for example, is usually a break-even on net worth. If you mortgage a house purchase, you have the mortgage value as a debt, but you also have an asset that would stand for that debt if it was called in: the house itself. Cash in hand or in a bank account or in investments is positive, obviously, as an asset without any liability. Student loan debt (which I suspect is the cause of the aforementioned figure) is a liability without a value-bearing asset, insofar as an education is not a measurable asset.

Does the fact that the average net worth of people under 35 is around $3,000 put you at ease? How would you perceive someone who was well in excess of that figure? Lucky? Greedy? A mere statistical anomaly?

Let’s go back to the test analogy. Inevitably, somebody in the class would pass with flying colors. Depending on their personality, their perception of the test difficulty, and a host of other factors, they’d either sit there silently while people asked for extra points, knowing with the bonus they’d surpass the 100% mark, smile while the proles asked for a curve knowing that with his score it’d be a small handful of points, or, the most entertaining (or infuriating), he’d actively mock the others who couldn’t pass “such an easy test.”

I found that very few tests were so difficult that they produced no winners. Life is much the same way. Even something so statistically overwhelming as the lottery spits out a winner every now and then. So, since there was and is almost always an outlier who passed, due to sheer brainpower, total luck, or just good old hard work and principle, the fact is that IT WAS NOT IMPOSSIBLE. And furthermore, something they did caused their success. The next logical inquiry would be, “What caused the success, and can it be controlled or mimicked?”

In essence, you know that what causes outliers is behavior that is not normal, so the most strictly effective iterative process is to take an action outside the norm, judge if the results were positive or negative outliers, and act accordingly. This was the Edison approach to the light bulb. It worked out pretty well for him. Back in high school physics (I was pretty good at physics), I had a friend who wanted to study together for the tests, so we tried something a little bit different. I went over to his house and he cooked dinner (this was not part of the studying, but he was an excellent chef), then while we ate, instead of reviewing the homework or notes, we would read straight through the chapter that the test was over. We would stop at any experiments and do them if they were feasible. We would do any example problems found in the chapter, but none of the homework problems. The first time we tested this method, we both got over 100%. Fair enough, so we did it again for the next one, with similar results. Once, a third friend joined the party. We were the three highest scores on the following test. We had stumbled upon a study method which, for one reason or another, had almost perfect accuracy. Also I ate a lot of good rice that year.

Even better is when you can make an educated guess at what kinds of irregular behavior will result in positive irregular results; let other people’s experience eliminate some of the iteration for you. This is what I try to teach: ways to be weird that will set you apart from the crowd in a good way. This is the basis of all my reading, studying, and testing; find out why normal people stay normal and exceptional people rise from normality to greatness. Jim Collins says simply that good is the enemy of great. Finding comfort in “average” precludes you from being “excellent.” There are NO stories of heroes or revolutionaries who were for the most part just satisfied with the status quo because their friends were or their culture was and their friends and culture got along “just fine.”

Warren Buffett says to be greedy when everyone else is afraid and afraid when everyone else is greedy. Once again, this contrarian thing seems to be pretty worthwhile. I’ve found it actually encouraging when people disagree with me on things that I know for a fact have worked for my good in my own life. When angry, unsatisfied, broke people say that I’m stupid, I get a big smile. If being smart makes you common, poor, and spiteful, I’ll take stupid any day of the week.

Are you unhappy or dissatisfied with some aspect of your life? Complaining about it or burying the emotion is normal, taking action on it is not. Let’s all strive to be a little bit more abnormal.