Shoot first and ask questions later (And have kids even if you don’t want to) (Updated, sorta)

Below is a response to Patri Friedman’s recent post on his pro-parenthood bias:

I’m late to the party.

My first kid is about eight weeks from greeting the world (and piercing my ears for the first few months or years!), so I’ve been giving the whole parenthood thing a lot of thought over the past few months. Incidentally, though we intended to have kids eventually, it happened sooner than we were planning.

Such is the unpredictability of life.

Which brings me to a point that you didn’t make, one that Bryan Caplan has alluded to via some scrounged up surveys of parents. The data Caplan found indicates that almost no one regrets having kids. Most parents wish they had *more* kids than they end up having. And adults who don’t have kids also tend to wish later that they had reproduced (For sake of saving a few words or directing others, see this post on the data).

Even though this backward-looking data supports the argument to have children, I don’t think it’s necessary to conclude that you should reproduce.

We are apparently quite bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. For a nice read on this subject, I recommend picking up Dan Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” (and if you are too busy to do that, just read my selected quotes from Stumbling on Happiness here). A theme of Gilbert, which is also a theme of books like Taleb’s “The Black Swan,” is that everything is much more complex than we make it out to be, and this complexity makes our grossly simplified forecasts fundamentally flawed — useless at best — harmful at worst. As applied to those people who choose not to have kids, as much as they think they know what will make them happy in the future, they are almost certainly going to be wrong about their predictions.

Accepting our inability to know what will make us happy but understanding that it is a biological imperative to reproduce and realizing that it will be much more expensive to reproduce past our reproductive prime, all signs point to shooting first and asking questions later.

Of course, to have kids or not is no simple binary choice. Procreating makes for an incredibly “bushy” (complex) life experience. Kids add randomness and depth to our lives in ways that we can’t possibly foresee but ways we will likely enjoy*. Sure, by having kids you’ll forgo some experiences as you engage life by yourself or with your significant other, but the experiences you’ll forgo by not having children are wholly new and unpredictable — the life of an entirely new human being: you, your significant other, and your kid(s).

In short, I liken parenthood to doing first and understanding later. This is a good rule of thumb to apply across almost all facets of life — lots of iterations make for lots of experiments through which we can learn about and enjoy life. Not having kids is a choice to have a drastically less-interesting, much more simplistic and sterile (literally and figuratively) life. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone I care about.

So I shake my head when friends make that choice.

Finally, I don’t really understand how anyone can understand humanity through the lens of evolution and not have children. Having kids means getting in touch with our core humanity — our biological nature — and living out the imperative coded in our DNA: to create life. Reject your hardwired nature at your own risk.

For my particular contribution to furthering human evolution, our kid is getting a mix of the DNA from a caucasion (me) and an Indian. Gene-swapping for the win!

* Another SoH idea is that we are better off charging into the unknown than doing nothing because our mental immune systems are better at justifying our decisions after the fact than they are at managing grief of what could have been.

** Not a brightline conclusion, I know — you can always adopt or potentially figure out other methods to have children after you pass your reproductive time.

Update: So despite my comment being one of the last out of the 170+ comments to Patri’s post, I got a couple shout-outs in follow-up posts by Patri (here and here). And I had to throw in one more comment, which I’ll copy below, which is more or less an application of Pascal’s wager to the decision to have children. So here’s my second comment:

Another point regarding the buyer’s remorse stats — if the majority of people who don’t have kids ultimately regret it, it seems highly likely that at least one person in a committed sterile-by-choice relationship will regret their decision. Yeah, people often select mates based on whether or not they want to have kids, but these same individuals also often change their minds about their choice (thus the tendency towards regret).

And this often leads to wrecked, otherwise fantastic relationships. I’m sure that I am biased in making this observation — I know someone who clearly regrets not having children. His spouse of twenty years, on the other hand, seems perfectly content. And it has put an enormous amount of unspoken strain on their relationship, not to mention, it is a point of intense sadness for this individual.

I see a slight parallel to religion here. Having kids because you expect it to be somehow fulfilling is a bit like hoping for a reward in heaven when you die — a life lived adhering to some arbitrary religious codes requires a lot of obvious work with less than obvious rewards, not unlike the decision to have kids.

Except that is where the similarity breaks down. With the choice to procreate, not only do we see the direct benefits of our own parents’ choice (as in, I am alive and I believe my life is not only good for me but also for my parents), we see the benefits accruing to our friends and relatives.

I mention all of this because the anti-procreation argument assumes that you know without a reasonable doubt that you will be happier/more fulfilled/better off without children. Not only is there a lot of observational/anecdotal/statistical evidence suggesting you might be wrong, there’s also the reality thatwe are very bad at predicting what will make us happy in the future. The cards, it seems, are very much stacked against those who believe they’re better off without children.

So even if you don’t want to now, have kids anyway. To me, this argument is a version of Pascal’s wager that actually makes sense.

Chance Wins

http://www.blog.sethrober…what-causes-it/

This bit by Seth Roberts reminds me all at once of Nassim Taleb’s work (Status quo, the fed turkey, works until it completely implodes), Seth Godin’s “This is Broken” idea, and the dinosaurs going extinct.

Who is flying this plane? Do they really know what they are doing? Does chance win over purpose?

Seth’s blog post is centered around the broken U.S. healthcare system — a system which suffers both from a burgeoning status quo as well as no means of introducing alternative solutions. In other words, it is entrenched.

And just like the dinos, when that entrenchment ultimately leads to social upheaval, the failure may be catastrophic.

A robust system must be dynamic.

Why Nassim Taleb’s Black Swan idea won’t catch on

http://www.nakedcapitalis…black-swan.html

While not quite a book review, Yves Smith of nakedcapitalism.com discusses Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan from the perspective of how likely the ideas in the book are to spreading and being widely understood and internalized.

It’s an interesting post. Even in these times where we are increasingly observing the effects of long tails and fundamental unpredictability/randomness, people still cling to the idea that the world will unfold as planned even though it’s rarely ever this way.

NNT discusses this problem within the book. In particular, the problem of hindsight bias causes us to overstate our own control over event outcomes that are fundamentally more random — particularly when it is a positive outcome. On the flipside, we acknowledge how uncontrollable things are when the event has a negative outcome. This sinister bias inflates our belief in our own predictive power. Sort of silly, right?

I particularly like Yves’ conclusion (see bolded bit). You have to love that the success of a book about unpredictability and luck is, itself, a sort of black swan. Mind, this is Taleb’s second book on randomness and unpredictability; however, Taleb’s success as a stock trader, making massive sums and achieving widespread acclaim for his correct trading of the 1987 stock market crash, is arguably a black swan event — right? Or does expecting a black swan cause the expected event to cease being a black swan?

Further still, is Taleb’s success anecdotal proof that awareness of black swans and exposing yourself to upside potential from random events, planning for the unplannable, is not only possible, but could be a wildly profitable pursuit? I tend to think this may be the case, but maybe my human control bias is creeping in.

Fundamentally, I just don’t know.

Here is Yves:

I sincerely doubt [Nassim Taleb’s ideas] will be internalized. . . . The very fact that his construct has been reduced to the soundbite “black swan” when it is more complicated and richer is telling.

What are some of the reasons? Let me speculate.

First, Taleb goes to some length to establish that he is not the first to go down this line of thinking; he has quite a few intellectual ancestors. Yet these observations never took hold.

Of course, one reason is that the implications are pretty uncomfortable for a lot of professions . . .

But second, and perhaps as important, people do not want to see the world as subject to chance to the degree that Taleb says it is. This is hugely unsettling if you really do come to terms with the implications of his argument. We like to believe we have some measure of control over our lives. . . .

Third, if our mental construct of how the world works is off in some fundamental respects, it also calls into question our ability to make good decisions. And apart from Taleb, there are reasons to question our abilities here. It has been pretty well documented in brain research that humans can only hold so many variables in their consciousness at once. Our decision-making capabilities are more limited than we’d like to believe. And confronting every situation as if it were new would be simply exhausting, That is why we rely heavily on rules of thumb (more fancily called heuristics). Now we also have certain types of analytic processes, what I like to think of as pattern recognition, that can serve us well (this was the topic of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink). The problem is that this quick pattern recognition can work very well, or be absolutely wrong, and we have no easy way of telling which.

Essentially, Taleb paints a picture of the world and human behavior that is unflattering. So as much as his work makes a fundamentally important set of observations, its success may be largely a function of luck. It came out just when the credit markets were starting to unravel and well established practices, both among traders and the broader financial community, were being shown to have serious flaws. Had his book come out at another juncture, it probably would not have been as well received.

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan is a fantastic, eye-opening book that will challenge not only what you know but also what you think you know. Taleb is widely renowned as the guy who made beaucoup amounts of money off of the 1987 stock market crash. He profited not by predicting the crash would happen, but that the system would eventually produce a “black swan” event that would make options insanely profitable.

Recommendation — Nassim Nicholas Taleb (or “NNT” as I like to refer to him) opened my eyes with this book. Any book that can blow open your understanding of the world is a must-read — and this is one of those books. The role that randomness and unpredictability play in our lives is completely under-appreciated, when it is acknowledged at all. Just one attempt at appreciation I’ve made can be found in my post “But For,” which is an attempt to string together a series of unplanned events that have cumulatively had an enormous impact on my life.

Going forward, I want to garner a greater appreciation for power law, stochasticity, black swan events, and living in “Extremistan.” On my immediate reading list are related books: The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, Stumbling on Happiness and The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. I’ve yet to order it, but NNT’s first book, Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, is also on my list.

I’ve become a bit of a Nassim Taleb junkie and typically link down stuff he puts out (videos, articles, posts to his low-tech blog “Opacity,” etc.).

Review — Rather than recant what others have said better, I’ll selectively quote a thorough and informative review of the book from Amazon:

The Black Swan is probably the strongest statement of enlightened empiricism since Ernst Mach refused to acknowledge the existence of the atom. Of course, in theory, everyone today is supposed to be an empiricist – all right-thinking intellectuals claim to base their views solely on positive scientific observation. But very few sincerely confront the implications of rigorous empiricism. Specifically, few confront “the problem of induction,” illustrated here by the story of the black swan.

Briefly: observing an event once does not predict it will occur again in the future. This remains true regardless of the number of observations one adds to the pile. Or, as Taleb, recapitulating David Hume, has it: the observation of even a million white swans does not justify the statement “all swans are white.” There is no way to know that somewhere out there a black swan is not hiding, disproving the rule and nullifying our “knowledge” of swans. The problem of induction tells us that we cannot really learn from our experiences. It makes knowledge very problematic, if not impossible. And yet, humans do behave -almost without exception- as though they believe that experience teaches us lessons. This is forgivable; there is no better path to knowledge. But before proceeding, one must account for the limits that the problem of induction places on our claims to knowledge. And humans seem, at every turn, to lack this critical self-awareness.

Taleb explains that conventional social scientists use induction to collect data, which is then plotted on the good old Gaussian bellcurve. With characteristic silliness, Taleb dubs the land of the bellcurve “Mediocristan” – and informs us that it is the natural habitat of the white swan. He contrasts Mediocristan with “Extremistan” – where chaos reigns, the wholly unexpected happens, power laws and fractal geometry apply and the bellcurve does not. Taleb’s fictional/metaphorical ‘stans’ share something with the ‘stans’ of the real world: very ill-defined borders. Indeed, one can never tell whether one is in the relatively safe territory of Mediocristan or if one has wandered into the lawless tribal regions of Extremistan. The bellcurve can only help you in Mediocristan, but you have no way of knowing whether you have strayed into Extremistan – beyond the bellcurve’s jurisdiction. This means that bellcurves are of no reliable use, anywhere. The full implications of this take a while to sink in, and are sure to cause huge controversy. In July, Taleb will debate Charles Murray (author of -what else?- the Bell Curve). I’ll let you know who wins.

Interview with Leonard Mlodinow (part 3)

http://www.blog.sethrober…lodinow-part-3/

There are 15 parts and counting to this interview with writer, scientist Leonard Mlodinow (they are all about a page long). He’s wrote The Drunkard’s Walk, which I’ve ordered from Amazon — it sounds similar to Taleb’s The Black Swan, which was fantastic and crystallized some thoughts that had been racing around in the ether of my brain. Saving this one down as I particularly liked Mlodinow’s commentary on writing here.

For the rest, here’s the current directory:

  1. part 1
  2. part 2
  3. part 3
  4. part 4
  5. part 5
  6. part 6
  7. part 7
  8. part 8
  9. part 9
  10. part 10
  11. part 11
  12. part 12
  13. part 13
  14. part 14
  15. part 15

Also mentioned in part 15 is a documentary about Cal-Tech basketball that sounds intriguing — it is called “Quantum Hoops.” Might be worth renting.

MLODINOW I think that in a way . . . I guess there’s two components to being able to write. One is your natural proclivity, I try not to say talent, but it’s your voice or the way you express yourself. And the other is the craft part of it that you learn by doing. I think I always had a good sense of humor and maybe a way to say things colorfully or think in terms of dramatic or powerful situations and I guess that’s the first part and served well. The other part is the things you learn as you go, such as what puts people to sleep or how to abandon what you think are good ideas but really aren’t. That’s a hard lesson to learn because it’s difficult to let go of things you might like and to realize that it just doesn’t belong or goes on too far or the idea that sometimes it’s hard to recognize things that may be good but just don’t belong there–that are tangents and they take away the dramatic thrust of where you’re going and they really have to be cut even though they’re good and you like them. You know, lessons like that, lessons about pacing–you learn by doing, by failing. You learn more about pacing, all sorts of technical aspects of writing, whether its fiction or nonfiction or TV or books; there are certain principles that you just learn by repeatedly doing and doing wrong and realizing, absorbing what went wrong and fixing it and you grow that way. In book writing you’re able to do that a lot with rough drafts so a lot of your mistakes don’t end up getting published–you know? TV writing can be so fast that often you don’t see the problems with the script until you actually watch it on the air and then you go, ‘Next time I think I won’t have that guy climbing the stairs for four minutes in the middle of the scene; I think five seconds is enough to get the idea across.’

ROBERTS Yes, that kind of brings us back to the very beginning. I feel like somehow the times have changed and people are smarter. Now you can make a living from what you’re doing. You’re writing this very entertaining intellectual history; finally there’s a market for it. Finally people are smart enough to be at your level so that you can write a book that you respect but you can get a wide enough audience.

MLODINOW Are you saying that in the 50s that couldn’t have been done? I don’t know.

ROBERTS Well, nobody did it; let’s put it that way.

MLODINOW No, nobody did it. I don’t know why.

ROBERTS As I said before we started recording, you’re the first person to ever do this. Will you be the last? I don’t know but you’re the first. You’re the first person to write intellectual histories that actually are popular and that people want to read, that they’re not forced to read by their teachers. It’s not just a tiny group of people reading them. Professors of course write them but they’re not well written and it’s just their job to write them; they get a salary from the government to write those books. You’re not getting any salary. You’re an entrepreneur and it’s just so different. Your books have to be popular or your job goes away. It’s just a different level of competence; your books are just infinitely more accessible, infinitely better than a professor would normally write. A professor is subsidized and that’s what is basically comes down to. Practically everybody who writes about science is subsidized but you’re not.

Contrarian advice on passion

Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs on passion:

The answer (aside from the fact that they’re still employed) is because they are blissfully sheltered from the worst advice in the world. I refer, of course, to those preposterous platitudes lining the hallways of corporate America, extolling virtues like “Teamwork,” “Determination” and “Efficiency.” You’ve seen them–saccharine-sweet pieces of schmaltzy sentiment, oozing down from snow capped mountains, crashing waterfalls and impossible rainbows. In particular, I’m thinking of a specific piece of nonsense that implores in earnest italics, to always, always … Follow Your Passion!

In the long history of inspirational pabulum, “follow your passion” has got to be the worst. Even if this drivel were confined to the borders of the cheap plastic frames that typically surround it, I’d condemn the whole sentiment as dangerous, not because it’s clich?, but because so many people believe it. Over and over, people love to talk about the passion that guided them to happiness. When I left high school–confused and unsure of everything–my guidance counselor assured me that it would all work out, if I could just muster the courage to follow my dreams. My Scoutmaster said to trust my gut. And my pastor advised me to listen to my heart. What a crock.

Why do we do this? Why do we tell our kids–and ourselves–that following some form of desire is the key to job satisfaction? If I’ve learned anything from this show, it’s the folly of looking for a job that completely satisfies a “true purpose.” In fact, the happiest people I’ve met over the last few years have not followed their passion at all–they have instead brought it with them.

Rowe is certainly on to something here. This passage is evocative of a meme that has been expressed by Richard on passion vs. excellence, Art on modern life, Twight on uncertainty and Art/me on the stochasticity of life.

What I take from Rowe, Richard, Art and Twight (and Nassim Taleb) is that life is random and complex. This stochastic complexity is difficult to predict and nearly impossible to control. The notion that there is some string of events that must occur in a perfect, precise order to have a fulfilling life is nonsense. There is no perfect job, friend, spouse or life, so stop the futile search — it is vanity. Rather spend your energy enjoying the job, friends, spouse and life that you have.

What is your passion? Why waste time asking an answer-less question?

Get on with enjoying life.

The Stochasticity of Life

A few months ago, various circumstances led me to a brief bout with depression. It is a strange moment when you reflect that, “I am depressed”. As I’m prone to do when I don’t know much about a subject, I googled depression. As part of my searching, I ended up reading some insightful comments on depression by Art De Vany, who almost three years ago today, was watching his wife succumb to a terminal disease. Regarding depression, Art wrote (emphasis mine):

Are you depressed they ask? And I say no, you only get depressed when you compare the present state with one that is better or perfect in some way. If you accept the reality of the present state, then you can’t make these irrelevant comparisons of what is against the ideal.

You are so strong they say. And I say, no. I am just grounded in the reality of the now and trying to find the best things to do to influence the ensemble of paths on which our lives will evolve from here. If I become depressed or confused, I give up our moment of power. …

The lifepath ensemble formulation is a liberating idea because it makes you understand that you cannot achieve a unique outcome and that the transitions from this state to the next are stochastic. All we can do is to do those things that make favorable transitions more likely.

Not that depression is that bad a thing always. If it is motivating to realize you have fallen short of some attainable goal, it may lead you to improve your preparation for the next life transition. But, if you think you can achieve the change or goal with certainty, then you may become depressed in an unhealthful way. This can fall into a non-linear dynamic that is reinforcing, leading to deeper depression and, eventually, non-competent decisions.

After reading these comments a few months back, I sensed their truth while rejecting their application. Depression is sinister in that it is addictive — I wanted to wallow in my depression rather than work to escape it. It is so easy to be the victim.

Though I won’t elaborate on this further here, it’s likely that what helped me overcome my depression were the positive steps I took1 to improve my health. Not surprisingly, these steps were small to start but have cascaded, compounding their goodness in a non-linear fashion.

Underlying the depression application of De Vany’s comments is a central, important idea: the stochasticity2 of life. De Vany also calls it the “lifepath ensemble formulation”3. These descriptors evoke imagery of a symphony of circumstances, many of which are unpredictable, that drive life forward. So much of life occurs as the sum of a randomness. Even when not random, the number of causal factors in life are often so great as to destroy predictability.

Rather than despair over life’s innate uncertainty and randomness, I accept it. Doing so assuages my anxiety about potentially negative outcomes and empowers me to take the necessarily small steps that will further progress towards a goal. This is even more important when the lifepath ensemble seems nothing more than cacophony. Indeed, the stochasticity of life adds depth and beauty. Would you really have it any other way?

Though I can’t be sure, I bet that is what De Vany means by the “lifepath ensemble” — it is the string of individual actions that come together to set a course for my life. The course will be anything but certain, so accept the uncertainty, and work within it.

Extracurricular reading

  • Anyone else reminded of Knocked Up? There’s a line in that movie spoken by the father (played by Harold Ramis) to Ben (Seth Rogen) that goes something like “Life doesn’t care about your plans!” Here’s the mp3 of Ben more or less reciting this line to Allison (Katherine Hiegl). A strong undercurrent of this hilarious movie is the stochasticity of life.
  • I might have to blog on this in more detail later, but Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, practices “affirmations”. Affirmations is a method whereby you write out a specific goal 15 times a day for as long as it takes (at least six months) for the goal to manifest itself in your life. Mystical enough for you? Adams says he practiced affirmations regarding becoming a syndicated cartoonist. His affirmation was “I Scott Adams will become a syndicated cartoonist.” Correlation is not causation; however, I can imagine a causal pathway whereby writing down a specific goal encourages you to focus on means to accomplish the goal, consciously or otherwise. Alternatively, focusing on the goal raises your awareness and helps you tune out much of the stochastic noise of life and focus on taking those small steps. Here is a re-post4 of Adams’ post. Note: I have not tried affirmations.
  • My sister clued me in to Earl Nightingale’s “Strangest Secret in the World”. Here’s a ten minute clip of this on youtube. You can listen to it but the secret is that “we become what we think about”. Again, the method by which thought becomes action is unclear; however, it seems obvious that we will actualize our desires and our desires spring from our thought. So think!

Footnotes

1 Art played an indirect, but prominent role in that process, as well, so I probably owe Dr. De Vany a “thank you” or two.

2 To save anyone from looking this up — as I had to, “stochasticity” means:

the quality of lacking any predictable order or plan

3 Such a provocative descriptor and yet he has not since blogged on the “lifepath ensemble” again — 1 2

4 Quite bizarrely, the original blog post by Adams on his Dilbert Blog has disappeared. You can do the googling yourself if you don’t believe me. Strikes me as odd. Note: in the original post, Adams alluded to a book on luck by Richard Wiseman. That post is still out there for the reading.