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The Downside to Inaction

Published 1/25/2021

We underestimate the knowledge we have. (Interestingly, we also over-estimate the knowledge we have, just a different type of knowledge.) We also underestimate the knowledge we don't have.

We overestimate the downside to failure, and we underestimate the downside to inaction.

We are afraid of failure, but perhaps we should be more afraid of inaction.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
I want you to consider this idea for a moment. We underestimate what we know, but we also underestimate what we don't know. This sounds like a contradiction, but knowledge is not a zero-sum game. There is more information available to us than we realize. We've talked about this quite a bit on the show. The sheer amount of information is unbelievably unreachable. So we underestimate what we don't know, but we also underestimate what we do know. We forget how much knowledge we have. How much implicit knowledge we have as we talked about recently when we talked about discrete versus continuous information. There's a lot of information that we do know, and we have the capability to use that information more effectively than we think we do. Today we're going to talk about how the people who succeed take advantage of these two realities. My name is Jonathan Cutrell, I'm listening to Developer Tea. My goal on this show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. Before we get any further into the episode, I wanted to remind you, if you haven't listened all the way to the end of the last few episodes, you may not have heard about this, we've started a discord community. If you would like to join the discord community, right now I'm handing out invitations directly to you. So, in order to join, you can email me at developert.gmail.com, where you can reach out to me directly on Twitter, message at jcatrall or at developert. And we will get you an invite so you can join the discord community. The whole point of this is so that we don't just open up the community to anyone and everyone who is willing to click a link. All right, I want to keep this community specific to people who are deciding that they want to be a part of it. So, if that includes you, go ahead and send me that message on Twitter or you can email me developert.gmail. So, we've talked about how we underestimate the knowledge that we have and we also underestimate the knowledge that we don't have because knowledge is not a zero-sum game. We do not have the whole picture. We don't see all of the available knowledge out there. Now, we're going to talk about one more reality, a miscalculation that we as humans tend to do. And this one is also fairly simple to state, but a little bit harder to understand. We often overestimate the downside of failure. While simultaneously underestimating the downside to inaction. We overestimate the downside to failure and underestimate the downside to inaction. And this is important and it's tied to the first two ideas, the knowledge, you know, underestimating the amount of knowledge that we have and underestimating the amount of knowledge we don't have. It ties to that in a very unique way. But I want to talk for a moment about overestimating the downside to failure and underestimating the downside to inaction. And this is a very simple logical problem. We're going to frame this through the lens of a bet. Your bet is placed on odds of one in 25. In other words, one out of 25 times that you place this bet, you're going to win. On average, if you were to stick around and make the same bet, an extra 24 times, one out of those 25 times could win. Now, it's also possible, technically, that you could win all 25 times or you could lose all 25 times or you could wait and win on the 26th time. None of these are out of the realm of possibility. But over time, if you were to have a sufficiently high number of samples, those samples will tend to come out to one in 25. You're going to win one out of 25 times. Now, there are very few things that I can guarantee you in your life. Today, I'm going to give you one guarantee, but unfortunately, that guarantee is not that you will win one out of 25 times. As we've already discussed, it's possible to lose all 25 of those times. In fact, it would be possible to lose a thousand times in a row. There are no guarantees. But if you're willing to accept the role of luck or randomness in your kind of in your fate in this hypothetical scenario where you're placing bets, then one out of 25 is your chances. Okay, so 24 times out of 25, you will experience the downside. Now, let's say that anytime you won, you would get $50. It's $50. And it only takes a dollar to place a bet. Well, pretty quickly, you can see that on average, you'll double the money that you start with. So let's play it out. You make 25 bets each one costs a dollar, and on that 25th bet, you win $50. That replaces your original 25 and then gives you an additional 25 on top of it. In fact, you could bet. You could bet a whole lot more and still end up on the upside. You could bet up to 49 times, in fact. And on that 50th time, you would break even. And you're thinking, okay, well, this seems obvious. Of course, it makes sense to place these bets. But let's increase the numbers or let's change the upside to something that isn't so easily dealt with on the math side. Let's say that you are investing $1,000. And $1,000 into some training materials. And you're afraid that investing this $1,000 is not going to pan out. It's not going to give you any extra value or that you're going to, on the other side of spending this $1,000, you're going to regret it that the downside is enormous. But this is where people end up failing because it's not so clear that the upside, on the other side of this equation, once you've spent the $1,000, what exactly, monetarily speaking, is the upside. How much is it worth to you to have acquired the knowledge that you're going to acquire through this training material? This is a very simple kind of transactional example. But you could easily imagine that if you even marginally improved a skill that the payback even over the course of a single year could easily eclipse $1,000. So is it worth it to spend $1,000 on the training material? And we're not going to answer that question exactly because of course there's a lot of nuance that goes into this. For example, if that's your last $1,000 and you're choosing between paying the electricity bill and the training course, then I'm not going to be the one who tells you to go and buy that training course. But it outlines the very simple fact that we often overestimate the downside and we underestimate, this is part we haven't talked about yet, we underestimate the downside of inaction. We underestimate the downside of inaction. We're going to talk about how that plays out and how this connects to our chronic underestimating of both the knowledge that we have and the knowledge that we don't have right after we talk about today's sponsor, Listen Notes. I want you to go over and check out Listen Notes.com. It's one of the coolest products that I've seen in a long time. It's more than one product really. We've already talked about the podcast API. We've talked about the Listen Later playlist feature. We've talked about the surgeon's and today I want to remind you about something we're going to we're talking about solving problems in today's episode and specifically in a moment. We're going to talk about how we like to make problems bigger than they really are that we see problems as bigger obstacles than they really are. Listen Notes could be the springboard for you to build a one person business. You don't need to overthink this. You don't need to build your stack to be scalable on day one. You could go and build a company using Listen Notes. How are you going to use Listen Notes to do this? Well one, you could actually use it to educate yourself through all the podcasts that you can invite and you could do a bunch of topic research, a bunch of expert research using their search engine tool to listen to a bunch of podcasts. I believe that podcasts are an untapped gigantic value source for education. That's one way. But another way is to actually use that API that we mentioned. You could actually go and build a podcast application, a podcast product and you could have a sustainable business yourself. That's possible. I want to encourage you, if this is something that you've ever thought about, to go and check out Listen Notes and see if it inspires you to build something. Thanks so much to Listen Notes for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. You had to listennotes.com to get started today. So we're going to tie all of this together now. We're going to tie all of this information together. And we're going to tie it together through the lens of the last phenomenon, the fact that we underestimate the downside of inaction. What does this mean? Well, it means that we have this sense of inertia. We have the gravity and the comfort of maintaining whatever we're currently doing. And to be clear, it's possible that in this scenario where we say inaction, we're just talking about doing something different than what you're currently doing. I'm not saying that you're sitting on the couch doing absolutely nothing. Many of you probably are hearing this and you can easily kind of put yourself outside of this category by saying, oh, well, no, I have a job and I'm not lazy. We're not equating laziness with inaction in this episode to be very clear. Inaction could mean maintaining exactly what you're already doing. So, you don't get a pass if you thought that's just keeping your job and being a hard worker or something. And listening to this podcast, even, right, is enough to put you outside of this category. Inaction is choosing not to make that bet. Right? And it's very clear when we look at this statistical example, the constrained kind of thought model here, the thought experiment that we were talking about with the bets, that if you have $25 and you can spend it to make bets that you can double your money in 25 bets. But inaction just means that you hold on to that $25. And these numbers might be a little bit confusing because they are linear. When we change the upside, let's imagine that the upside is $1,000. And the bet is still $1,000. Right? Well, of course, of course it makes sense to start making that bet with $1 a day or whatever it takes to make a bet because $1,000 is a huge upside. We can see that when we're looking at these numbers. But so many of us are too concerned about losing our $25. If we lost all 25 times, we're so concerned about losing our $25 that we're not willing to trust the statistical likelihood that we have a huge upside. Think about this for a second. It's not a guarantee that you have a huge upside. Right? It is a statistical model that you have a huge upside when you place good bets, when you place sound bets. And when we talk about bets on this show, almost every time we say that, we're not talking about actual bets. We're saying you're going to invest some time, some energy, some money for an unknown payoff. Right? So we very often are bad at this. We're not good at this as humans because we very rarely look at the likelihood of a good upside. We underestimate the upside. Right? That's another way of saying we underestimate the downside of inaction because inaction leaves us where we are now. No possible positive change can come from inaction. And this is a huge downside relative to that very large upside. And so many of the things in our lives have large upside. And a lot of the time we are vastly overestimating the downside. And this goes back to what we were talking about. We are overestimating the downside of failure. And so we get scared. And when we're scared, we retreat. We retreat to doing things that we know. We retreat to doing things that are safe. And so often that fear of losing what we already have outweighs the draw. It outweighs the drive to have something different. Because change is scary. And when we make a bet, there's a chance we'll lose. There is no guarantees. The one guarantee that I can give you. Right? The one guarantee that I can give you is that inaction will not bring. Positive change. Inaction will not bring positive change. It also won't bring negative change necessarily. But inaction is not going to bring you positive change. And so if you care about growth, if you care about investing in your future, if you care about becoming a better engineer, a better person, if you care about changing your life in some way, you have to become more comfortable with change. And in order to be more comfortable with change, you have to become more comfortable with failure. We overestimate the downside of failure. We underestimate, though, and this is the important thing and hopefully the positive note that I can leave you on here. The exciting part, the empowering part, is very simple. We underestimate our knowledge. We underestimate what we know. And so we are armed with more knowledge than we realize. And additionally, there's more knowledge to be gained than we realize as well. Even the most expert people in this field, this is still true for them, that they underestimate the knowledge that they have and they underestimate the available knowledge out there. So the top most experts in our field still only have a fraction, a fraction of the actual total sum of knowledge, even about a given subject. So why is this important? Where are we going with all of this? You can take the knowledge that you have, which is not vastly different, no matter where you are on the spectrum. It's not vastly different from somebody who is much more experienced than you. And you can approach your problems by understanding number one that if you fail the downside probably isn't as bad as you think it is. Number two, you're probably discounting the upside if things go well. And number three, that there is so much more knowledge to be gained. And at the very least, this will lead you to some of that knowledge. This is such a simple way of thinking about action versus inaction, taking a chance and looking failure in the face. Now I want to, you're probably listening, you're thinking, okay, well, we overestimate the downside of failure, but how do we stop doing that? How can we, how can we ever stop being afraid of that? Well, there's a couple of ways that I would recommend. And there's, again, there's no bullet proof. There's no guarantees. There's no bullet proof answer here. Because failure is scary because we're humans. We tie up all of our internal emotions and the emotions that we literally feel with those failure moments. We believe that it's going to threaten our livelihoods. That's what our kind of lizard brain is telling us. And so what I want you to do is a couple of simple thought experience. One is to look back on previous failures, review a specific failure, try to take your brain back there if you can, in the most, you know, high detail way that you can. This is especially effective. If you have journaling or some kind of record of that event, that moment where you captured the way that you were feeling, right? If you can remember the way that you're feeling, especially, then try to get back to that moment logically, create, recreate that scene in as much detail as you can, and try to imagine feeling the same way that you did. Now that you have the benefit of hindsight, it's very unlikely that you're going to feel the sense of threat that you felt in the moment. You're not going to feel like your life is being threatened when you look back because you know that you survived. This is when you dwell on this, you can recognize that there is a pathway to a survival because you followed that pathway. And we've all failed at something. Looking back at failures is one way to become more comfortable with them. Another way that you can become more comfortable with a possible future failure is to ask yourself and once again be as detailed as you can, what is the worst that could happen here? All right, play that scenario out. Try to sit quietly and imagine the worst possible scenario for a given attempt. A lot of times the answer, all right, the worst that can happen with a failure is that you have to get up and try it again. It's kind of an emotional frustration, but ultimately there's very little downside. A lot of the time this is the case. Maybe one step further would be, oh, well, you don't get the promotion that you've been working on this year. You might get it next year, right? It's delayed. One step further, one higher level of severity might be that you lose your job. Well, play that out further, right? What happens if you lose your job? What happens if you don't get that promotion? What do you actually lose? If you lose your job, you might lose the ability to pay some of your bills, maybe your lights get turned off, or maybe you have to ask a friend for some help. That can be challenging to our pride. All right, so very quickly, there's a very short pathway to the fundamental human emotions, the human experience that you are fearing without being able to articulate it. You don't want to get to the point where you have to ask someone for help. Or you don't want to get to the point where you can't pay a bill. You don't want to lose your apartment. You don't want to lose your home. You don't want to not be able to provide for your family. But in almost every case that I've tried this exercise, and I've talked to other people about this exercise, where they end up is not in that dire position. A lot of the time there is a way. There's some pathway that avoids that. For example, if you lose your job, maybe one way that you can deal with that fear is to have a good resume prepared. Have some good references. Be ready to look for another job. Very often we catastrophize these events in our minds. We catastrophize the downside to failure. And then we don't think about what we're going to do if it happens. We don't play out what are our practical actions or our practical reactions to our own failures. What can we do then? An excellent quote from Marcus Aurelius helps us kind of see this in a clear light. This isn't a new problem. Marcus says, never let the future disturb you. You will meet it if you have to with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present. In other words, if that failure occurs, you are still here. You still have the opportunity to do something about it. We overestimate the downside to failure and we underestimate the downside to inaction. Thank you so much for listening to today's episode of Developers. I encourage you to go and check out listennotes.com. This is an excellent index of over 91 million podcast episodes, but it's much more than that as we've already talked about. You could end up even starting your own business on top of this platform. So check it out, head over to listennotes.com. Thank you so much for listening. If you want an invite to the Discord, the Developer Tea Discord community, please reach out to me on Twitter at at Developer Teaor at J.Cutrelle. Or you can always email me at Developer Tea at gmail.com. If you have any questions for us on the show, if you'd like us to cover a topic, please reach out to the same places. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.