They all seem to be blind. Some are helpful. Some are deadly. They form galaxies. They control our weather and our minds. They take our money. They make sure we don't live forever. I have not found a name for them, so I will give them a name. I will call them “Squishy Systems”.
We all, no matter what stage of life we are in, no matter what groups we are in, have things we consider important. We could define success as getting or achieving what is important to us. But what if something insidious keeps changing what is important? Can success ever be achieved?
If we think, we have a worldview. Everyone else has a different, yet unique, worldview. Learning about worldviews, your own and others, can help you succeed. How do we decide what is important to us? A difficult question we should explore. I strongly suspect we make this decision at an early age.
If being successful at selling is important to you, you might be interested in what would appeal to as many people (worldviews) as possible. This is the basis of much sales advice. I usually find these sales tips irritating because I think, that if you have common sense, they are self-evident. But if you haven't been exposed to these tips, this kind of advice may be very valuable.
For some squishy systems, labeling seems to be significant. If I was talking of business and sales, I might talk of the importance of branding – but branding is just another word for labeling and a squishy system would be embedded in the discussion.
We could talk about a squishy system and brand it as deadly and insidious. We could describe this as a system where rules are nebulous and what is important can change instantly. We could, however, have left off these labels and named this squishy system “Life” or the “Game of Life”. We could then brand the Game of Life as beautiful, wonderful, exciting, and challenging. If you have a certain worldview, or if you don't think about it, you will find the Game of Life attractive. And even if you don't find lack of rules or constantly changing rules a good thing, it doesn't mean you should become suicidal. I am only trying to demonstrate the importance of labeling.
You can use modern techniques to appeal to specific worldviews in a timely manner and thus be more effective. However, let's think a little more about trying to appeal to all worldviews.
We think most of our lives. Exceptions may be before we have any brain cells (neurons) or before connections form between these neurons. Unless a disease destroys these cells or connections, our unique worldview will continue. It is unlikely that even localized strokes can extinguish the most basic part of our worldview, our personalities.
You can see proof of the continuity of worldviews by observing people. It is likely we start to think even before we are born. When we learn to speak, the first thing we do is let the world know our worldview. In fact, as soon as we learn to cry, we let the world know our worldview. At this point, our worldview is pretty self-centered.
Fortunately, when we are young, our worldview can be changed more easily than later in life. The part of our worldview that people call our personality may appear very early. Many of our worldview changes can be attributed to our learning that it is not always wise to let others know our opinions - it is better if others don't think we are so self-centered.
If you visit a long time acquaintance, a ninety five year old resident in an assisted living home, he may have a hard time hearing you. He may have a hard time moving around. He may even be depressed while before he was cheerful. But when you talk to him, you will probably find that his worldview, what he thinks is good, what he thinks is bad, will not have changed in forty years. If your worldview has not changed significantly, you will find him just as smart or just as dumb as he was decades ago.
Maybe all worldviews are at some level self-centered. This would make sense from a survival standpoint. In this case, Dale Carnegie's advice "Talk in terms of the other person's interests" should have appeal across all worldviews. Unless the Game of Life is screwing with the rules.
In the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin introduced the concept of “the survival of the fittest”. This might be interpreted to mean that if you have traits that make you less likely to survive, you will not live long enough to pass these traits to the next generation. On the other hand, if you have “good” traits, the next generation will inherit these traits.
Suppose 10,000 years ago, a young boy is exploring his surroundings. If he lives, he will grow up to be what we call a Caveman. His curiosity, a product of his neural networks, is useful. He has learned where the best berries can be found, how to leave and return to his cave, where he can get water, and has begun to learn how to hunt after carefully watching his father. In relation to hunting, he now knows where small game is likely to be found. He has, mostly unemotionally, categorized more and more useful information.
One day, apparently like any other, he goes to the stream to get water. Suddenly, a lion appears from nowhere and pounces, one of his claws cutting into the boy's heel. Luckily, the boy falls backwards, into the stream which is swollen from a recent storm. He is rapidly pulled from danger. It also helped that cats hate water.
The boy doesn't remember pulling himself from the water downstream. In fact, from the moment the lion leaps at him, he doesn't think at all. He doesn't stop shaking for an hour. The first thing he notices is he is using a leaf to spread mud on his heel. The bleeding seems to be slowing. The trip home is longer than usual - he has been washed a long way downstream. With every turn in the trail, he fears he will find the lion, and the lion will find him. Finally safe in his cave, he remembers his mother told him to be careful around the stream. Lions and other dangerous animals could be hiding near by.
When the boy becomes an old caveman, he still has a scar on his heel. And he remembers every moment of that horrible day. After that day, he is always a little less carefree, a little more aware of dangers.
Could fear and other intense emotions change worldviews and cement memories? Is the caveman's neural network just another short lived example of a squishy system?
If you have the worldview of a typical sales prospect, an animal (or a caveboy) approaching a watering hole, or someone wanting to update their LinkedIn profile, the question you are always asking, whether consciously or subconsciously, is "What does it cost?”.
In the case of the LinkedIn profile, the cost is, as the experts love to say, that the old profile will relay incorrect or incomplete information, resulting in missed opportunities. Time is not usually considered in this cost calculation, but it should be remembered that time spent updating a profile could have been spent doing something else, something that might be even more important.
Thirst will drive the animal to the watering hole. The cost, however, could be high. He could be eaten by a lion. The animal can control the likely cost by being careful when he approaches the water or even choosing a different watering hole.
The sales prospect wants to know the cost of a salesman's product or service. The prospect wants to know the cost so he can say he can't afford it and go on to think about more pleasant things. The salesman's job is to tell the prospect the cost, but first relate the cost of not buying. This can be done much more quickly than most people realize.
Remember our imaginary trip across the country toward the future and toward today at the west coast metal pole? We need to return to the first third of our journey and continue looking closely at that time period. But first a couple of notes: (1) During the second third of our journey, as we traveled from St. Louis to somewhere in New Mexico, many kinds of multi-cellular organisms developed. Some could even have been seen. These may have been large enough and solid enough to leave fossils. Cold temperatures during most of this time may have slowed the development of life; (2) We might have seen the old caveman when we were in the last third of our journey – the very last part when we were within 100 feet of our destination, the west coast metal pole.
If you are a sales professional talking to a prospect, chances are he was not almost eaten by a lion when he was a boy. Your prospect, however, may have had many unpleasant encounters with salesmen. He may be thirsty for what you have to offer, but you don't want to be the lion at the river. You want to be your prospect's friend.
Almost all very successful people – here I am speaking in a monetary sense – believe very strongly in due diligence. They believe you should always “look before you leap”. In an unchanging world, this would always be a winning strategy. We do not, however, live in an unchanging world. To be more accurate, we go for a long period of time with only minor changes. The way things are done, a paradigm, is constant. Then, suddenly, there is a paradigm shift, and due diligence is worthless.
One example of a paradigm shift is the housing market. For many years, experts said that common sense dictated that home prices would always increase. Real estate was the best, safest investment. For three generations, these experts were right. Successful people, looking for a real estate adviser, would use due diligence to find the one whose forecasts had been most accurate. The few that forecast a price drop were ridiculed and not considered. Then, one day there was a paradigm shift and, in a flash, home prices dropped drastically.
The professionals who failed to see the seismic change did not suffer and were still sought out for advice. Once an expert, always an expert. Due diligence was now defined as relying on “less wrong” experts.
Unfortunately, search engines and social media haven't been around long enough to find a true expert, the real estate adviser or even a stay at home mom in Wisconsin, who consistently insisted for twenty years that house prices were going up – then in 2007 was equally adamant that a crash was coming.
No matter how fast our world changes, and it seems to be changing more and more rapidly, it seems to be suicidal to adopt a policy of consistently not “looking before you leap”. It does seem prudent to try to be more aware that conventional wisdom and common sense may suddenly be wrong. Maybe we can even train ourselves to sense any minor “quivers” in a paradigm that forecast major change. It may also be prudent to be interested in not just how others think, but how and why we developed our own worldview.
It is possible to make great strides in understanding others and ourselves and then using this knowledge to automate the finding of “perfect prospects”. If you attempt to do this, however, it is important to remember two things – one that sounds nice, the other bad. The former is “Don't be greedy”. The latter is “think obsessively about secrecy”. These two points are important because all Commercial Search Engines are recent examples of the same processes that have been going on for half a billion years.
Squishy systems are ubiquitous (one of the the definitions of squishy is: "not firm, steady, or fixed"). The Stock Market is a squishy system. Life exhibits squishy systems everywhere. We each have a unique mind which creates our Worldview. Our minds are squishy.
A squishy system is affected by a gazillion factors. Some of these factors are well known. Other factors can be ferreted out only after extensive, time consuming, research. And, some factors, by their very nature, may be unknowable. If that weren't enough complexity, the importance of each factor can vary over time.
Suppose you have decided to invest in the Stock Market. You need to know what stock to buy, when to buy it, and when to sell it. Sounds simple enough.
When you try to answer these three questions (What stock should I buy?, When should I buy it?, and When should I sell it?), you realize much more is involved – namely the many factors of a squishy system.
I will not try to list the infinite number of squishy factors and their relative (in my opinion) importance that are part of the stock market. One thing to remember is that human fear and greed are part of this system.
Being that we like to think that we are rational creatures, most of us put a lot of faith in financial experts. These experts may be statisticians with advanced degrees who know how to use computers to search through mountains of data to find gems of wisdom. Or these experts could be friendly people who have spent years learning financial buzzwords and proper marketing techniques.
Conventional wisdom tells you to rely on an expert – not a “hot tip” from, perhaps, neighbor Bob who heard about the next big winner from “someone in the know”.
Conventional wisdom is correct – but it does not tell the whole story. There is a hidden assumption that the only choice is either an expert or neighbor Bob.
A “Boiler Room” is slang for a room where a group of people, usually telemarketers, spend each day phoning people to try to sell a product. The product is usually overpriced and the call lists have been obtained from various sources. The situation is described accurately when you know that the names and phone numbers are on what the telemarketers refer to as “sucker lists”.
There have been numerous situations, in both the movies and in real life, where stock brokers, not telemarketers, use boiler rooms. They first invest in a particular stock. They then phone their suckers, touting the stock and increasing demand. The price, driven by the greed of the suckers, rises to an unrealistic level. The brokers sell and make a profit, usually a very big profit. The brokers' sales make the stock price drop moderately – but then the suckers' fear causes more selling and the stock price drops rapidly. Most suckers lose big.
This practice is very illegal.
People who are attracted to neighbor Bob or his ilk are considered suckers. They are impatient and greedy, looking for a quick killing. They are the people who more easily fall prey to their own fears, managing to panic and sell at exactly the wrong time. They are the people who buy high and sell low. They don't want to put in the time, effort, and hard work needed to evaluated all the factors. All of this is true, or semi-true, and has nothing to do with why you should not rely on neighbor Bob.
People who are attracted to neighbor Bob and his hot tips are often ambitious self-starters who want to control their own financial future. They group themselves onto sucker lists and take action – without any help from any villains.
One of these suckers wants to believe that the “someone in the know” is really “someone in the know”, an insider. This sucker wants to believe that the insider knows the stock is undervalued. The sucker wants to believe that the insider will act very strangely. The insider will not put himself at legal risk by buying the stock himself or tipping off close relatives. He will, however, be willing to share with neighbor Bob, and, only with, neighbor Bob. Neighbor Bob, in turn, will not buy the stock before sharing his hot tip with the sucker. If what the sucker wants to believe turns out to be untrue, demand for the stock will have increased. The sucker is unlikely to buy at the right time and pay the right price.
Financial experts don't quite put it this way, but they love to brag that they are smarter than suckers. What if, however, we put your average expert up against a much shrewder opponent? I am talking about a blindfolded monkey.
In 1973, a Princeton University professor named Burton Malkiel published a bestselling book “A Random Walk Down Wall Street”. In his book, he said “A blindfolded monkey throwing darts at a newspaper's financial pages could select a portfolio that would do just as well as one carefully selected by experts.”
Of course, the learned professor was dead wrong. Further research showed conclusively that the monkey would do much better than the expert.
If you think about it, this result makes perfect sense. Do you see why? I won't go into the details, but the short answer is the monkey is not influenced by either greed or fear.
Being optimistic, I believe techniques can be found that significantly increase investment return. If you find something that works, just remember that the stock market is a squishy system. This particular squishy system makes universal knowledge worthless. Successful greedy people are noticed. Be secretive. Statisticians with advanced degrees who know how to use computers are watching.
If we ever live in a world where there is a high demand for blindfolds and everybody has a pet monkey, the best investment advice will be “listen to the experts”. Or, perhaps, sell blindfolds.
Life has been using squishy systems for millions of years. To borrow and modify from the Gettysburg Address: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we do in the next few years”. Life will probably probably survive. I wish I could say the same for mankind. New, man-made squishy systems are changing our society. Some of these changes are good, but many are dangerous.
What is often called the rat race is one of these squishy systems. In this strange race, each new invention pushes one participant into a temporary lead. Changes in technology, which are occurring more and more rapidly, are turning this particular squishy system into a rat race on steroids.
Can we escape this dreary race? Can we get off this latest version of the treadmills that Life has been traveling on forever? Can we overcome what seems to be Life's Prime Directive: “Improve or die sooner”? I see hope.
Trapped as I am in my worldview, this hope is small, dim, microscopic. From your worldview, this hope may be brilliant, overwhelming, huge enough to drive a truck through.
When you view Reality, you see many squishy systems. All have a large competitive component. This is much more than a spider trying to figure out how to catch a fly or a fly trying to escape a spider. It includes a man belonging to multiple organizations or groups, all fighting for their own agendas. It includes a neuron, which we would like to think of as identical to all other neurons, belonging to multiple neural networks, all fighting to control how we think, feel, and act. I have thought a lot about how neural networks compete for control. Sadly for me, if you can support a worldview that offers escape from the rat race on steroids, you may have rendered my efforts to understand neural networks a colossal waste of time.
We cannot compare worldviews, but we like to try. I like to argue, on a logical basis, that all worldviews are equally valid. On an emotional level, however, I can't argue this is true. Other worldviews seem so wrong. I feel they can't possibly be true.
One of our favorite statements when our worldview conflicts with another is “I am not like that”.
“I am not like that” supports my view that worldviews are products of neural networks. The foundation of a neural network is created long ago, perhaps at conception, and is then built and modified in unknowable ways by experiences over a lifetime. A strong neural network gives us our primary view of life with strong emotional attachments to this view and even a feeling that if we abandon this view we are, in some way, abandoning who we are.
Do you feel that if you changed or gave up a particular important view you have about Reality, you would no longer be you? Be honest, does this thought scare you?
“I am not like that” really means “I am not exactly like that, but I have a similar neural network. It is not as strong as yours and I have other networks that are more powerful and contribute more to my total worldview”. “I am not like that” may also mean “One of my strongest neural networks believes I am rational and to give this belief up would cause me great pain. I can see evidence that others are irrational, but never me”.
If the stock market is a squishy system that can never be predicted, surely the same can be said about the squishy, human mind. When we talk of the interactions of two minds, two squishy systems, the same can be said in spades. Nevertheless, maybe these musings about how we think can help us change ourselves for the better.
Do my thoughts about thinking make sense to you? Can you think of a better explanation for the world we see around us? If you have a better theory, I will be sad and disappointed – unless it frees me from the diabolical clutches of a rat race on steroids. . .
Stewart, Mike. A Book Like No Other: Everything is Connected (Kindle Locations 1017-1037). UNKNOWN. Kindle Edition.