Embracing Falling


A year ago, the Tulln Domino Team team set the record for the “Longest Domino Wall”. The whole point of this mesmerizing exercise is falling down dramatically. Bravo.

Interestingly Risky Steps

Oliver Burkeman - The Antidote

The International Day of Happiness today. Maybe the best way to celebrate is to embrace failure. That’s the bottom line to happiness guru Oliver Burkeman in his book “Happiness for People Who Can’t Standing Positive Thinking” who busts the myths of all the other happiness gurus. Five of his Happiness MYTHS are…

  1. It’s crucial to maintain a positive mindset
  2. Ambitious goals, relentlessly pursued, are the key to success
  3. The best managers are those who make work fun
  4. Higher self-esteem equals greater happiness
  5. Avoid pessimists at all costs

Burkeman advocates a following a negative path to a positive outlook…

  • “It is our constant quest to eliminate or to ignore the negative – insecurity, uncertainty, failure, sadness – that causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain or unhappy in the first place.  Yet this conclusion does not have to be depressing. Instead, it points to an alternative approach: a ‘negative path’ to happiness that entails taking a radically different stance towards those things most of us spend our lives trying hard to avoid. This involves learning to enjoy uncertainty, embracing insecurity and becoming familiar with failure. In order to be truly happy, it turns out, we might actually need to be willing to experience more negative emotions – or, at the very least, to stop running quite so hard from them.”

And part of that “negative path” to happiness is a form of pessimism…

  • “It’s what the psychologist Julie Norem calls ‘defensive pessimism,’ though its origins stretch back to the Stoics of ancient Greece. Thinking carefully about how badly things could go, the Stoics Seneca and Epictetus both recognized, saps the future of its anxiety-producing power; once you’ve figured out how you’d cope if things went wrong, the resulting peace of mind leaves you better primed for success. A similar focus on downsides informs the Principle of Affordable Loss, part of the business philosophy known as ‘effectuation.’ Instead of asking how likely some venture is to succeed, ask whether you could tolerate the consequences if it failed. That way, you’ll take the interestingly risky steps while avoiding the stupidly risky ones.”

Sort of asking yourself “how bad could it be?”

Emerging Stronger

Fukushima flowers


Six years since the worst natural disaster of the decade – Fukushima. The most extreme fears of nuclear meltdown did not materialise. Still, a number of silver linings have emerged from even this tragedy. For starters, it expanded the boundaries of thinking about “black swan” worst case possibilities for designers and regulators. Subsequent reviews of nuclear facilities around the world have uncovered flooding vulnerabilities that escaped previous inspections. While the costs of clean up, recovery and lingering radiation continue to be borne, also consider the potential disasters averted and lives saved from the lessons of this cruel classroom.

Being Alive Syndrome

Dont Panic Button

There’s seems to be a “day” for everything. One of the more colourfully contrived is today’s “International Panic Day”. With the advent of Brexit and the Trump candidacy, it probably couldn’t come at a better time. Kathryn Flett provides a refreshing perspective on “feeling panicky” on a daily basis in her Sunday Times piece (paywalled) “Restless? Edgy? Tired? Then rejoice, for you are alive”…

  • “I read a report in Grazia magazine on ‘generalised anxiety disorder’, or GAD, something to which young professional women are apparently prone. It is, we are told, the latest thing for those with nothing more pressing to worry about to worry about. GAD-triggers apparently include ‘anything that puts us under significant pressure’ and the condition is characterised by ‘feeling panicky, struggling to sleep and having a racing mind’. A diagnosis of GAD can be made confidently when one has had at least three of the following symptoms for longer than six months: restlessness or feeling on edge; problems concentrating; muscle tension; sleep disturbance; feeling tired; or irritability. From my perspective, as a middle-aged professional woman, this sounds suspiciously like ‘being alive syndrome’.”

Scientists Screwing Up

National Science Day. Curiously an official day in India, but not the USA. I always say that young people starting out in their career need to figure out what they can do better than (a) a computer, and (b) a highly motivated Asian (think booming China, SEA, and India). India’s National Science Day provides a clue as to their priorities. Whereas in America we have a Tartar Sauce Day, a Cold Cut Day and a Dadgum That’s Good Day (and that’s just next month), we don’t have a National Science Day. Go figure.

The celebrate the failure scientists embrace every day in their craft, I have these the inspired interview with Mario Livio above as well as this enjoyable one on The Daily Show (only available in USA).

Index of Relative Ignorance

Education versus Patent trend
Number of USA patent applications and average years of schooling

Was the Industrial Age of the 20th century a golden era of relative intelligence where understanding of the world outpaced its growing complexity?

Did the Digital Age of the 21st century usher in a new Dark Age of relative ignorance when the complexity of the world outpaced the broad-based ability to understand it?

The Twentieth Century did seem to be a special period in history where broad-based social intelligence and collective knowledge grew significantly faster than the complexity of the world with which we interacted. In essence, we were learning more about the world faster than ‘the world’ could make stuff for us to learn. Communications media matured from “print and soap boxes” to radio, television and the Internet and basic education was no longer the exclusive domain of the elite, but grew to universality. The secrets and mysteries of the how the world actually worked revealed themselves not just to a few mavens and wizards, but the population of humankind as a whole.

The Digital Revolution changed all that. Computers accelerated the growth of what there was to know about the world as those electronic processors fuelled a spike in discovery and innovation. Moreover, these revelations did not sit tucked away in laboratories and universities, but those same digital technologies also opened the flood gates which inundated the the population with that new found  “knowledge”. The fire hose flood of information from an anarchic, randomly curated media overwhelmed most peoples’ ability to cope with it. Toffler’s prophetic Future Shock has arrived.

I first posted about the “Dark Ages of Black Boxes” half a decade ago and since then have posted 53 pieces about the dynamic I have observed. The analysis of 2016 political tsunamis of the Brexit referendum and Trump election have echoed many themes about the pending “dark ages”.

This gap between “Knowledge” and “Knowing” is quite starkly illustrated by plotting the trajectories (see graph above) of (a) patents issued according to US Patent Activity (“knowledge”), and (b) average years of schooling in the population (“knowing”). In the 1920s, schooling started a decades long run of outpacing discovery until the end of the century when the Information Age turbo-charged an unprecedented inflection point of discovery.

KNOWLEDGE EXPLOSION I need to make clear that I am not talking about the often heralded “dumbing down” of the population. Instead, it is more of a “complicating up” of daily life. In fact, I would argue that people as a collective have never been smarter. Steven Pinker’s book “The Better Angels of Our Nature” documents the steady maturation of the world’s outlook on its fellow human beings and planet itself:

  • “Thanks to the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism, we increasingly control our impulses, empathize with others, bargain rather than plunder, debunk toxic ideologies, and deploy our powers of reason to reduce the temptations of violence.”

Rise of Education – By any measure, the 20th century has been nothing short of an education revolution. Driven by the need for a more methodical workforce dealing with unnatural (ie. mechanical) objects, education has become the norm across the world, certainly the Western world. “Global Rise of Education” by Esteban Ortiz-Ospina and Max Roser is an excellent overview.

Average years of education

Rise of Mass Media – Education doesn’t stop at the schoolhouse door. Mass media and the Internet have delivered boundless information, reference material and tutorials to our fingertips. Much of what is being decried today as ignorant political debate is actually quite well informed.

Unfortunately, as “Global Literacy Rates” chart (below) illustrates, mankind is starting to hit a saturation point for basic education and literacy. Once 100% have it, you can’t grow aggregate smarts by getting more people educated…only by getting people educated more. Hard education – not just “readin” but critical thinking, not just “rithmatic” but statistics and predicate logic.

Global Literacy rates

COMPLEXITY – The two century period between Newton and Einstein could be dubbed the “Age of How Stuff Works”. The two titans deciphered and articulated some of the most fundamental rules and building blocks of the universe from “for every action there is an opposite but equal reaction” to “E=mc2”. But then things got interesting. Multidimensional string theory, multiverses, incompleteness theorem, chaos theory, irrational economic actors were all just some of the counter-intuitive discoveries of advanced research. It turns out that the world was much more complicated than the mechanical explanations of billiard balls knocking against each other. Comprehending these new concepts, many of which were essential to the latest breakthroughs in technology, required not only much deeper education, but also a unnatural dexterity of thinking that the human brain wasn’t organically evolved to process.

Technology Revolution – Until personal computers arrived, automobiles were the most complex and expensive piece of technology owned by the masses. Built on mechanical engineering principles, a few lectures in a Driver’s Ed class taught most people enough to troubleshoot basic breakdowns (eg. if steam was coming out of a hose, then try to patch that hose). People didn’t hesitate to pop open the hood/bonnet to take a look at the engine to see what they could see. But today, if your iPhone or computer screen goes blank, you wouldn’t think of unscrewing the back to take a look inside.

As it happens, even our cars are becoming more like our computers every day. More and more opaque amalgams of technological complexity. Even my expert mechanic is now sending me to the car manufacturer to service half my car problems because he is not equipped to handle the on-board systems which affect so much of the car’s operation. Andrea Busnelli recently reported that a typical new car today has “100 million lines of code” and “this number is planned to grow to 200-300 millions in the near future” (see graph below).

Line of software code in automobiles

Big Data – What there is to know in the world today is pretty much unknowable. At one point, one could conceivably plow through and read the entire encyclopedia. But the 4 million articles in Wikipedia would fill 1,000 copies of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Data about the world around us continues to accumulate unabated at an inhuman pace (see graph below).

Global data growth

Finance – Money itself has become the domain of rocket scientists. “Quants” have driven the esoteric fields of derivatives and hedge funds into ever more complicated esoteric instruments. A few generations ago, you invested in an object or an entity and received some pre-defined share of returns that it produced. Now, financial products take all forms and often are abstracted many “degrees” away from anything tangible. The Enron calamity illustrated the degree of inscrutable complexity that could be engineered.

Politics – Good guys and bad guys, white hats and black hats. In days of yore, the allies and the enemies were clearly delineated. In today’s world of geopolitics, just figuring out friend or foe has become a complicated task. The world abounds with “frenemy” hybrids. No more so that in the current political crisis in Syria as so deftly illustrated by Vox’s YouTube piece “Syria’s war: Who is fighting and why.

RELATIVE IGNORANCE PARADOX – Again, I need to reiterate that I am not decrying the “ignorance” of the population. In fact, my proposition assumes that absolute intelligence in the world stays the same or even increases. It just doesn’t increase sufficiently to keep up with the demands on it (that said, there are a number of people who strongly argue that collective intellect is actually on the decline which would only amplify the effect I am describing). This distinction leads to the first corollary of the “Rule of Relative Ignorance”…the “Relative Ignorance Paradox”. It states…

  1. 90% of people alive today have a higher ABSOLUTE knowledge level than most of the people who have ever lived.
  2. 90% of people alive today have a lower RELATIVE knowledge level than most of the people who have ever lived (ie. relative to the knowledge base there is to know).

The more information available, the less people understand. Information and Understanding are in inverse proportion leading to an inescapable divergence of relative comprehension.

school learning

WHAT TO DO – For starters, there doesn’t appear to be any stopping this trend. The knowledge accumulation that has been accelerated by technology will continue to pile up while the human brain will remain more or less the same organ it was when it evolved millions of years ago. While some outlier individuals will devote more and more of their lives to comprehending the new frontiers of understanding,  for most people extra education will not provide substantial personal gains to them. The boundaries of insight will continue to drift inexorably away from the mainstream.

One response is a persistent theme of this blog – embracing failure. Embracing the failure of knowledge is most prominently advocated by the philosophy of “skepticism”. Humankind will need to adopt more humility about each person’s individual understanding. “Authorities” (who will be questionable for their integrity as well as their own ability to truly understand) will have to be supplanted by “Arbitrators” (people and processes that help to navigate the masses of data and insight for a best obtainable understanding). The engineering mind-set of the twentieth century dictated that answers be either right or wrong, black or white.  This absolutist perspective be need to be supplanted by more adaptable and flexible outlook where relative shades of grey are the norm.

Simple but wrong

The Debt of Dreams

Gapingvoid - silly dreams

Sometimes dreaming must die to make way for dreams to come true. Paraphrasing from Jessica Abel’s article, “Imagining Your Future Projects Is Holding You Back”, Hugh posted these comments to accompany his piece above…

  • Idea Debt is when you spend too much time picturing what a project is going to be like, too much time thinking about how awesome it will be to have this thing done and in the world, too much time imagining how cool you will look, how in demand you’ll be, how much money you’ll make. And way too little time actually making the darn thing.”

Leadership might have a vision of the upside, but without the counterbalance of managing execution, nothing will be achieved. Sometimes finding the balance is driving more execution, but sometimes it is dreaming less.