Luck, Skill, and Serendipity

Can you take the credit for your own success, or are you just a lottery ticket?

In the chapter You Are Not a Lottery Ticket from the book Zero to One, Peter Thiel makes a strong case against luck and chance: “The most contentious question in business is whether success comes from luck or skill.”

Hundreds of people have started multiple multimillion-dollar businesses. A few, like Steve Jobs, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk, have created several multibillion-dollar companies. Thiel claims that if success was mostly a matter of luck, these kinds of serial entrepreneurs probably wouldn’t exist.

Unfortunately, how strongly luck or chance influences the future cannot be determined empirically. A company starts in a unique set of circumstances, and one has to rewind back to its inception and create a thousand copies of the world, and start that company in each copy to see how many times it would succeed or fail. Since, such experiments aren’t possible we would have to go ahead with logical arguments. And that’s what the whole chapter is about.

Indefinite v. definite attitudes:

“Indefinite attitudes to the future explain what’s most dysfunctional in our world today. Process trumps substance: when people lack concrete plans to carry out, they use formal rules to assemble a portfolio of various options. . . . By the time a student gets to college, he’s spent a decade curating a bewilderingly diverse résumé to prepare for a completely unknowable future. Come what may, he’s ready—for nothing in particular.”

“A definite view, by contrast, favours firm convictions. Instead of pursuing many-sided mediocrity and calling it “well-roundedness,” a definite person determines the one best thing to do and then does it. Instead of working tirelessly to make herself indistinguishable, she strives to be great at something substantive—to be a monopoly of one.”

The general and recurring advice throughout the book is to plan and build a definite future. This involves predicting what the future would be, and then acting upon it. And that makes sense as well—if you believe your life is a matter of chance, why read this post, or any book that talks about building a better version of yourself or the world. But that is just one aspect of the story, and there’s another powerful angle to this school of thought.

Zero to One was published in 2014. But Nassim Nicholas Taleb had already turned the logic of “definite future” upon its head in his classic book The Black Swan way back in 2007.

In the chapter aptly titled How to Look for Bird Poop, Taleb says the classical model of discovery is: you search for what you know (say, a new way to reach India) and find something you didn’t know was there (America). Taleb makes a strong case about luck, chance, and especially “serendipity”: the term derived from a fairy tale, “The Three Princes of Serendip”. These princes were always making discoveries by accident or sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.

“Almost everything of the moment is the product of serendipity,” Taleb claims.

He further illustrates this claim with the examples of modern wonders like the computer and the internet. None of them were meant for their current intended purpose. As he mentions, “Nor was the computer invented to let you chat with your friends in Siberia, but it has caused some long-distance relationships to bloom. As an essayist, I can attest that the Internet has helped me to spread my ideas by bypassing journalists. But this was not the stated purpose of its military designer.”

Charles Townes’ discovery was irrelevant as he was simply satisfying his desire to split light beams. He was often teased by his colleagues about the irrelevance of his discovery. Yet just consider the applications of laser in the world around you: compact disks, eyesight corrections, microsurgery, data storage and retrieval—all unforeseen applications of the technology. “The laser is a prime illustration of a tool made for a given purpose (actually no real purpose) that then found applications that were not even dreamed of at the time.”

These men were simply building toys. Some of those toys went on to change the world, and are now dubbed as pre-planned innovations. Research does involve a large element of serendipity, which can pay off big as long as one knows how serendipitous the business can be and structures it around that fact.

Engineers tend to develop tools for the pleasure of developing tools, not to induce nature to yield its secrets.

After establishing his points on the role of serendipity, Taleb makes a strong case about predictions, or how bad we really are at it—especially when it comes to predicting our own inventions. “When a new technology emerges, we either grossly underestimate or severely overestimate its importance. Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, once predicted that there would be no need for more than just a handful of computers.”

Why is that so, you ask? Taleb refers to his hero Sir Karl Popper to answer this. Popper’s central argument was that in order to predict historical events you need to predict technological innovation, which is itself “fundamentally unpredictable”. In other words, if you expect to expect something at some date in the future, then you already expect that something at present.

Taleb illustrates this idea with an example:

“If you expect that you will know tomorrow with certainty that your boyfriend has been cheating on you all this time, then you know today with certainty that your boyfriend is cheating on you and will take action today, say, by grabbing a pair of scissors and angrily cutting all his Ferragamo ties in half. You won’t tell yourself, This is what I will figure out tomorrow, but today is different so I will ignore the information and have a pleasant dinner.”

In our context, “to understand the future to the point of being able to predict it, you need to incorporate elements from this future itself.” In other words, if you know about the discovery you are about to make in the future, then you have almost made it. The corollary explains our current predicament: we are not easily able to conceive of future inventions, because if we were, they would have already been invented.

Prediction requires knowing about technologies that will be discovered in the future. But that very knowledge would almost automatically allow us to start developing those technologies right away. Ergo, we do not know what we will know.

“If you are a Stone Age historical thinker called on to predict the future in a comprehensive report for your chief tribal planner, you must project the invention of the wheel or you will miss pretty much all of the action. Now, if you can prophesy the invention of the wheel, you already know what a wheel looks like, and thus you already know how to build a wheel, so you are already on your way.”

Taleb’s philosophy is a worthy successor to Popper’s concerns about the limitations in forecasting historical events. Almost all major inventions are heavily clouded by the narrative fallacy. Narratives are much easier to read, write, and remember. Narratives give little to no importance to serendipitous discoveries, and chance encounters. Were the Facebook and Google guys really planning for world domination from their respective dorm rooms? Was Steve Jobs really born to become a great innovator?

What you have to understand is that Peter Thiel is an investor. No investor would like to claim that her portfolio companies have been random successes, and that she has become a successful investor by sheer luck. In fact, no VC in the right mind would prefer luck over planning, or entertain founders who give luck or fortune more importance over their own definitive future plans. Thiel, being a VC, by design cannot accept the role of luck or chance in building the future.

Having said that, it doesn’t mean that you simply sit at home and do nothing. Lady Fortuna wouldn’t shower her blessings upon you that way. As Louis Pasteur has said, “Luck favours the prepared,” and like all great discoverers, he knew something about accidental discovery. You have to set yourself up for positive encounters, and the best way to get maximal exposure is to keep researching. Collect opportunities.

Thiel later suggests, “To a definite optimist, the future will be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better.” It’s just that it might not exactly be the kind of future you envision. Take the Cambridge Analytica event, for example. Had Facebook known in the past that something like this would happen in the future, they would have taken the correct measures accordingly. As already stated, we do not know what we will know.

The late Rajeev Motwani, who was Page’s and Brin’s academic advisor back in the day, summarises how Google came into being:

“It wasn’t that they sat down and said, ‘Let’s build the next great search engine.’ They were trying to solve interesting problems and stumbled upon some neat ideas.”

Best,
Abhishek

Support: Thanks for reading! If you want an easy way to support my work, please consider becoming a patron for $2/month.

There are 3 kinds of human goals, but only one of them is really important.

Peter Thiel and the classic trichotomy of the easy, the hard, and the impossible.

Throughout the book Zero to One, the central contrarian question that Peter Thiel addresses is, What important truth do very few people agree with you on? Everyone of today’s most famous or familiar ideas was once unknown or unsuspected, be it in the field of science, or business. Today the Pythagoras Theorem is a part of elementary mathematics, but the relationship between a triangle’s sides was a secret for a millennia. Pythagoras had to work on it very hard before discovering it.

Thiel talks about three kinds of human goals:

  1. Easy: Goals that can be satisfied with minimal effort. Conventions.

  2. Hard: Goals that can be satisfied with serious effort. Secrets.

  3. Impossible: Goals that cannot be satisfied, no matter how much effort you put. Mysteries.

Knowing conventional truth is important, but this knowledge doesn’t give you an edge. Conventional truth is what you were taught in schools and colleges. But to build the future, you need to satisfy the hard goals. You need to uncover secrets.

Learning to build a chat app maybe hard work for you, but it’s something that has already been figured out (by humanity), documented, and shared. It maybe hard for you on a personal level to achieve it (especially if you are prone to procrastination), but it’s an easily achievable goal nonetheless—one without many unknowns. The actual hard goal is to turn a simple internet messaging app into a WhatsApp, or to find an entirely different way to build a chat app—one which is at least 10x better than the current method.

A secret is something important yet unknown, hard but doable, and not impossible.

However, most people behave as if there are no secrets left to find—that all the problems in the world are either solved, or impossible to solve. Others simply believe that it’s not their job to solve them.

Thiel mentions four social trends that are responsible for our disbelief in secrets:

  1. Incrementalism: We are taught that the right way to do things is to proceed one step at a time, one day at a time, one pay check or one grade at a time. In school you would easily get an A for doing exactly what you were asked for—as long as you do it a tad bit better than others. It’s very likely that you won’t be rewarded for doing something that isn’t part of the syllabus, not matter how well you do it.

  2. Risk Aversion: People are genuinely afraid to take risks because they are afraid to be proven wrong. By definition, a secret hasn’t been vetted by the mainstream, and is most likely an unpopular opinion. Not many people would agree with it, or support it. The pursuit of secrets leads to a lonely life. The prospect of being lonely but right is itself hard. The prospect of being lonely and wrong can be unbearable. It’s safer to steer far away from this route.

  3. Complacency: If your goal is to cash in, then you can do it in various other ways. Why look for secrets if you can comfortably “collect rents” from what has already been done. Innovation is not easy, and you know that very well. Trying to build something new is tremendously hard, and if you can find a way to bypass all that pain and hard work, and still get through, then why not! “Social elites have the most freedom and ability to explore new thinking, but they seem to believe in secrets the least.” Getting into an elite school isn’t about being set for life. Instead it’s a way to get access to talents and resources, and start looking for secrets. But most people see it as their ticket to a secure and complacent life.

  4. Flatness: Since we are all so well connected, a person looking for secrets might be thinking, “If it were possible to discover something new, wouldn’t someone from the faceless global talent pool of smarter and more creative people have found it already?” This doubt can deter a person from even getting started “in a world that seems too big a place for any individual to contribute something unique.” Globalisation makes us perceive that the world is homogenous and “flat,” when in fact, it might not be so.

But how can you be sure that there are secrets out there to be discovered? Thiel argues that “a world without secrets would enjoy a perfect understanding of justice.” A wrongful practice persists only when most people don’t perceive it to be unjust. Take slavery or civil rights violation, for example. They persisted because most people believed they were OK.

“Every injustice involves a moral truth that very few people recognise early on.” Only a small group of abolitionists knew that slavery was evil. Similarly, only a small group of people knew that markets aren’t always efficient, and shorted the housing market in 2008. (Read The Big Short, or watch the movie to learn more.)

To say that there are no secrets left today would mean that we live in a society with no hidden injustices.

Having said that, it’s highly unlikely for you to stumble upon secrets without ‘trying’. “You will never learn about any of them unless you demand to know them, and force yourself to look.” Prof. Andrew Wiles worked on Fermat’s Last Theorem for 9 years to get to a solution. One not only needs brilliance, but a faith in secrets as well. Sometimes you might go out looking for India, and discover America instead, but you have to go out searching nonetheless. “There are many secrets to uncover, and they will only yield to relentless searchers.”

It’s true in businesses as well. Great companies can be built by solving unsuspected problems about how the world works. Airbnb and Uber are great examples. They all look very obvious in hindsight, but “if insights that look so elementary in retrospect can support important and valuable businesses, there must remain many great companies still to start.”

“The best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking.” Do a 180 and try asking, what is conventional wisdom, and what is the opposite of it? What is so commonplace that people have become oblivious to it? What common problem is prevalent that nobody’s bothered about? What is not being taught in schools? What is not being said, written, or tweeted by successful people? What is hidden from plain sight?

In the chapter The Hound of Silence from the book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert talks about silent evidences, which can be great sources to look for secrets.

Silver Blaze hadn’t been missing for long when Inspector Gregory and Colonel Ross identified the stranger who had sneaked into the stable and stolen the prize racehorse. But as usual, Sherlock Holmes was one step ahead of the police. The colonel turned to the great detective:

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

It seems that a dog lived in the stable, that both of the stable hands had slept through the theft, and that these two facts had allowed Holmes to make one of his indubitably shrewd deductions. As he later explained:

“I had grasped the significance of the silence of the dog. . . . A dog was kept in the stables, and yet, though someone had been in and had fetched out a horse, he had not barked enough to arouse the two lads in the loft. Obviously the midnight visitor was someone whom the dog knew well.”

Although the inspector and the colonel were aware of what had happened, only Holmes was aware of what hadn’t happened: The dog hadn’t barked, which meant that the thief was not the stranger whom the police had identified. By paying careful attention to the absence of an event, Sherlock Holmes further distinguished himself from the rest of humankind.

When the rest of humankind imagines the future, it rarely notices what imagination has missed—and the missing pieces are much more important than we realise.

Best,
Abhishek

Support: Thanks for reading! If you want an easy way to support my work, please consider becoming a patron for $2/month.

Life is neither like chess, nor like poker.

Why it's a capital mistake to use games to model real-life situations.

Humans Evolved 'Game Face' As Plea for Help, Study Suggests

In your adult life, if you have talked to enough people, or have attended few conferences and keynotes, you must have heard people starting a sentence with, “Like in a game of chess,” or “Think of it as a game of poker.” Analogies are helpful in communication, but life is neither a game of chess, nor a game of poker.

In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb explains the difference between everyday randomness, and randomness in the context of games or casinos. Taleb coined the term “ludic fallacy” to refer to “the misuse of games to model real-life situations.”

Ludic Fallacy: It is a capital mistake to use games to model real-life situations. The attributes of the uncertainty we face in real life have little connection to the sterilized ones we encounter in games.

Games are far more constrained, and follow certain rules. Games have clearly defined probabilities. For example, an AI system can be used to examine all possible outcomes of a chess game at any point by backwards induction to determine future moves that are likely to win.

Real-life situations, on the other hand, are full of uncertainty, and don’t comply to our probabilistic models. Unlike a game of poker that has a fixed set of cards known to all parties involved, in life an unknown card can pop-up at any point randomly.

There is a key distinction between Knightian risks, which are computable because we have enough information to calculate the odds, and Knightian uncertainty, which is non-computable because we don’t have enough information to calculate odds accurately. Games fall into the former category. Real life is in the latter. If we take the concept literally and only plan for the expected, we will run into some serious problems.

The ludic fallacy is more like an acknowledgement that real-life is far more complex than their paper models. Even if you conclude that all systems could theoretically be expressed through sufficiently complex models, there’s always the problem of creating a model complex enough to express the system.

Because we understand that a coin flip turning out to be heads has roughly 0.5 probability, we reasonably predict that flipping the coin 1000 times will yield roughly 500 heads. But the fallacy is to assume that this is true in real-life when the coin being used can be loaded, or doubled-headed.

“In real life you do not know the odds; you need to discover them, and the sources of uncertainty are not defined.” In Taleb’s context, most things in real life are this way. They look like they’re going to follow your probabilistic model, but you frequently don’t account for true randomness, which isn’t modelled this way. Also, you may not have complete information most of the time—you think you’re flipping a fair coin because you see two possible outcomes, but in reality the odds are 0.99 against you.


Don’t be a nerd.

In The Black Swan, Taleb introduces two characters viz. the street smart Fat Tony, and the ‘nerd’ Dr. John.

They are asked to “assume that a coin is fair, i.e., has an equal probability of coming up heads or tails when flipped. I flip it ninety-nine times and get heads each time. What are the odds of my getting tails on my next throw?”

Dr. John says that the odds are not affected by the previous outcomes so the odds must still be 50:50.

Fat Tony says, “You are either full of crap or a pure sucker to buy that ‘50 pehcent’ business. The coin gotta be loaded. It can’t be a fair game.”

Organised competitive fighting trains the athlete to focus on the game and, in order not to dissipate his concentration, to ignore the possibility of what is not specifically allowed by the rules, such as kicks to the groin, a surprise knife, et cetera. So those who win gold medal might be precisely those who will be most vulnerable in real life. Likewise, you see people with huge muscles (in black T-shirts) who can impress you in the artificial environment of the gym but are unable to lift a stone.

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan

Taleb further elaborates, “In an IQ test, as well as in any academic setting (including sports), Dr. John would vastly outperform Fat Tony. But Fat Tony would outperform Dr. John in any other possible ecological, real-life situation. In fact, Tony, in spite of his lack of culture, has an enormous curiosity about the texture of reality, and his own erudition—to me, he is more scientific in the literal, though not in the social, sense than Dr. John.”

The moral: don’t be a nerd.

Best,
Abhishek

P.S. Thanks for reading! If you’re enjoying these weekly articles, please support my work by becoming a patron for $2/month.

If you think arguments are like fights, then you’re clearly misguided.

Here’s what most people don’t know about the etiquettes of proper argumentation.

Few days ago, my girlfriend and I had a bad argument. We were, what you say, not exactly in talking terms for almost a day.

After reconciliation, when we reflected upon it, we could clearly see that it was not just a bad argument—it was a big fight! This could have been easily avoided had we ‘argued’ the right way. We made all the classic mistakes, and turned, what could have been a sensible discussion, into a scuffle.

Next time you are on the verge of a verbal spat with a loved one or a colleague, may this post guide you in the right path.


Arguments aren’t fights.

In the 1980s and 1990s, University of Washington psychologist John Gottman had hundreds of married couples argue, glare, and reveal embarrassing things about each other in front of camera in his ‘love lab’. After doing this for 9 straight years, Gottman announced his findings in 1994.

His findings reveal that couples who stay married longer argue about as much as those who end up in divorce. However, successful couples go about their arguments in a different way, and with a different purpose. They use their disputes to solve problems and work out differences. Contrary to that, the ill-fated ones choose to attack each other instead. The happy ones argue, while the unhappy ones fight. Yes, arguments and fights aren’t the same.

Unlike fights, arguments aren’t about blame-shifting, he-said-she-said squabbling. In a fight, each disputant tries to win. In an argument, they try to win over.

In other words, you succeed in an argument when you persuade your audience. You win a fight when you dominate your enemy. A round of boxing, or an innings of cricket is a fight. Two siblings screaming at each other at the top of their voice is a fight. But when two reasonable adults have gathered to settle differences, and come to an understanding, it doesn’t necessarily have to fight—be it in the home turf, or in the office space.

In a fight, one tries to take out her aggression on another. “You are just pathetic!” But a persuader on the other hand tries to change her audience: their mood, their mind, and their willingness to do something. When done skilfully, persuasion gets people to want to do what you want.

Persuasion is an art, something like seduction. While our culture tends to admire straight shooters, the ones who follow their gut regardless of what anyone thinks, those people rarely get their way in the end. They aren’t persuaders.

Sure, aggressive loudmouths often win temporary victories through intimidation or simply by talking others to exhaustion (especially in meetings), but the more subtle, eloquent approaches lead to long-term commitment.

Remember: If you don’t persuade, you only inspire revenge or retreat.


Don’t score points. Achieve goals instead.

If you work in a creative filed, I’m sure there will be clash of ideas and heated discussions every once in a while. At some point, your colleague would say something like, “That’ll never work,” and your instinct might be to reply back, “What makes you so cocksure?” in an attempt to score some ego points.

Instead, let’s start by agreeing with her: “Hmm, maybe not.” How about that? I’m sure you’ve done your homework, and are ready to fire your counter arguments, but instead of going with aggression, how about we go with humility instead?

Why, you ask? Well, your goal is to make your audience accept your choice, not to score temporary points, right? But your opponent wants to score a point here, so give her one. Your System 1 wants to to win arguments on points, only to lose the battle. Don’t allow it.

On the other hand, agreeing upfront with her changes her mood. She came for a fight, and got what she needed away. This causes cognitive dissonance, and puts you in a nice position for your rebuttal. Politicians use this technique to calm down an angry mob.

MOB: “You haven’t helped us at all! We are pissed!”

POLITICIAN: “Yes I agree. I’ve pissed all of you. It’s fairly normal to be mad at me.”

In other words, a good way to get people to agree with you is to agree with them—tactically, that is. Agreeing upfront does not mean you are giving up the argument. Changing the mood makes your audience vulnerable and more receptive to your arguments, which leads to change of opinions. It’s a nice strategy to use your opponent’s point to get what you want.

Remember: You goal is to make your audience to accept your choice, not score temporary points.


Avoid the past and present. Rely on the future.

In arguments, blames usually deal with the past: “Why were you late?” Values deal in the present: “Is the company’s current strategy ethical?” And Choices have to do with the future: “Should we Netflix and chill?”

Most office altercations and domestic rows use the past or present tense: “She’s the one who ruined that pitch,” or “How can you be so insensitive!” Both of them fall under the influence of System 1’s need to score points, and you should avoid them by all means. The future is the best tense to maintain decorum—both in the living room, and in the war room.

Consider framing your sentences like this: “What should we do about it?” or “Let’s find a way to avoid this in future.” The past and present can help you make a point (or score one), but any argument involving a decision eventually has to turn to the future. Train your System 2 to define future choices.

What makes the future interesting is, unlike the past and present, it doesn’t depend upon facts. All you have for the future are either conjectures or choices. You have to learn to use that to your advantage.

For example, when you find yourself as a target, try to refocus the issue on future choices: “How is blaming me going to help us get the next contract?” or “Whether you think I’m insensitive or not, let’s figure out a way for you and me to get along.”

Never reply with something like, “But I tried my best,” or “You can’t be so mean to me!” When attacked, relying on the past or the present makes you look either defensive or weak. It doesn’t help you achieve anything.

An easy way to switch tenses (while making your counter argument) is to start with, “On the other hand,” followed by, “Besides.”

BOSS: This plan is ludicrous. This isn’t gonna fly!

YOU: On the other hand, it may. Besides, this is the perfect time to be aggressive and take risks. Most likely we won’t be able to do this 5 years from now.

Remember: Whenever you find an argument getting out of control, the easiest thing is to switch tense.


Endnote

In matters dealing with your spouse or your partner, things can be a bit different. Never forget to show sympathy: “I understand you are in a bad mood.” Empathise: “I would behave the same way had I been in your position.” Then wrap it up by switching to the future tense: “Let’s find a way to make this work so that it doesn’t happen again.” Reconciliation always lies in the future.

This is easier said than done. In the heat of an argument, one is heavily dependent on the System 1’s fight-or-flight mode. You have to train your System 2 to get off it’s ass and do some strategic thinking, otherwise you would find yourself in unnecessary skirmishes every now and then.

What tactic have you recently used to resolve a dispute?

Best,
Abhishek

P.S. Thanks for reading! If you’ve learnt something new, you can thank me with a cup of coffee for $2

How to be persuasive when you don't have any authority.

Turning belief systems upon themselves to get yourself heard.

I’m sure you must have faced a stubborn client, a stubborn board member, a stubborn boss, or a stubborn customer at some point in life — one who is as headstrong as you are, and more adamant than you think you can ever be.

How do you persuade such as person, especially when there’s a power hierarchy? This person is above you, and doesn’t have to listen to you. She has total authority over you, and can completely ignore your arguments without even giving you a proper reason. How do you get yourself heard in such a situation?

If you’ve ever faced rejection, you must know by now that just being rational, and simply putting your point out there doesn’t really work. And if you are the junior most person (or the most humble/meek one) in the room, fuggedaboudit!

You might be wondering if it’s better to become physically articulate, and raise your voice to get your point across the table. If that works, good for you! But if you are like me, and aren’t comfortable doing that, there might be another way.


Consider this scenario: The e-commerce company you work for is planning to launch a drip email campaign to engage new users in an effort to increase activation. (A user gets ‘activated’ when she orders an item after signing up.) You are the new Jr. Marketing Manager who is in charge of detailing out the campaign. You report to the Sr. Marketing Manager, i.e., the person actually in charge of the campaign.

You’ve done your research, and have chosen to take an unorthodox approach. You believe drip campaigns (i.e., a communication strategy that sends a pre-written set of emails to customers over time) are usually based on assumptions, and don’t account for actual user behaviour. You intend to change that, and try something different. Following is what you propose your boss and your colleagues in a meeting:

“Instead of taking the usual course, one which is full of assumptions, I propose we do it differently. I believe we should study the behaviour of our current active users, and find out the path they had followed until activation. If we do a round of interviews, we’ll also come to know where most of them were stuck, and what all doubts they had. We can design our campaign around this knowledge.”

Your boss is young and vibrant (or, old and archaic), and despite having the best of intentions, she isn’t convinced about your approach. The others in the room are doubtful as well.

You are after all new, and without experience. They have good reasons to have doubts. They are far more experienced, and have stronger opinions (and better presence of mind) to counter you. There is no way you can convince them, even if your approach is indeed better.

These conversations usually follow the same course of action. You face a barrage of justifications and counter arguments— why your plan is highly likely to fail, why it is cumbersome to implement, how once upon a time they had tried something unorthodox and it was disastrous, why this one particular strategy somebody read somewhere might be a better fit than yours, etc. Rather than persuading, you are now busy defending. You have to win the first bit so that the rest would become easy. Don’t underestimate the power of halo effect.

If you ask me, I face this problem all time. I subconsciously believe that since my approach is so obvious to me, it would be obvious to others as well. I don’t usually take the effort to convey my research.

The above pitch has the same problem. It simply tells — it doesn’t articulate, hence it fails to persuade. It also doesn’t leverage any cognitive biases that would make it impactful.

Leverage authority bias, and some more…

Authority bias is the tendency to attribute greater accuracy to the opinion of an authority figure and be more influenced by that opinion.

In another post, I had talked about why it makes you do stupid things, and how you should avoid it. In this post, I’ll teach you how to exploit it to win arguments.

To spruce up the pitch on the email campaign, you would have to bring in an external ‘authoritative’ reference that backs your argument — especially one which has no dog in the fight. It would heavily strengthen your position.

Fun Fact: This is exactly what research papers do. It is of common knowledge that loads of references to existing research heavily increases the likelihood of getting published. Having published 2 papers within a month (after getting rejected more than 5 times) I’ve got first hand experience about this.

What you have to understand is that although people say they want innovation, the more familiar your idea is, the more likely it is to be implemented. Familiarity always trumps newness. If you quote Seth Godin, John Caples, or David Ogilvy (or any other celebrity in marketing), it would be kind of hard for somebody to defy them. And if you happen to know that your boss is a fan of somebody in particular, then bingo!

By referencing a quote from person I don’t mean anything abstract like, “Think out of the box.” These can be interpreted in multiple ways and won’t help your case at all. What you need is a concrete example. Buffer’s pitch deck used Zuckerberg’s Law: “The amount a user shares today is twice the amount they shared a year ago,” to raise $3.5Mn.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be a popular persona. Referencing a blog post (or a research journal) of a successful company in a different market would also work.


People generally determine what is correct by finding out what others think is correct—especially when they are in doubt. Apart from validation from an authoritative source, your references would give social proof as well. Social proof makes you think, “If it has worked for somebody else, it is very likely to work for me as well.”

If you start your pitch with, “I read a post from <a successful company> where they mentioned this really interesting approach they had taken….,” or “I connected with a friend who used to work with <a successful company> and he mentioned something very interesting that we can try…,” your pitch automatically becomes a lot better. It gives both proof of authority (of a successful company) along with social proof. (Yes, you do have to find credible sources. It requires hard work to have an opinion.)

And if you want to go an extra step, try quoting multiple sources of validation. More examples are always better than a single example. Information from multiple sources is generally perceived to be from different perspectives and independent pools of knowledge, and thus more worthy of consideration. All founders implement this strategy in their pitches. You should too.

Endnote

Every person has a belief system. Your boss is too experienced in life to establish a new belief system now. No one is that open minded — although we all like to believe we are. You have to turn that belief system upon itself to get your point across. (Personally, I usually don’t defy anything that Don Norman says. It’s against my belief system.)

It’s easy when you have authority. But if you don’t have any, you’ll just have to use somebody else’s authority to work in your favour. The benefit of authority bias is that people give into it very easily. Unlike social proof, or multiple source effect, only one powerful reference is enough.

A word or caution: Don’t use this method in open discussions and brainstorming sessions. When discussing ideas, your aim is to think openly and find the truth — not to convince your point of view.

But I do believe you might face very badly managed brainstorming sessions where your bosses, or your investors, or your professors aren’t open to your ideas. If you can’t walk out of it, this strategy would be pretty handy.

Just remember to present your opinion in a clear and concise manner. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb has said in The Black Swan, “Humans will believe anything you say provided you do not exhibit the smallest shadow of diffidence; like animals, they can detect the smallest crack in your confidence before you express it.” It might take some practice to master confidence, especially if you are suffering from imposter syndrome.

What are some of the mental hacks that you implement to get your voice heard? I would be happy to learn.

Best,
Abhishek

P.S. Thanks for reading! If you’ve learnt something new, care to get me a cup of coffee for $2 to say thanks?

Loading more posts…