02 Dec The Drunkard’s Walk (LEONARD MLODINOW) | Part D ‘
If it is easy to fall victim to expectations, it is also easy to exploit them. That is why struggling people in Hollywood work hard to look as though they are not struggling, why doctors wear white coats and place all manner of certificates and degrees on their office walls, why used-car salesmen would rather repair blemishes on the outside of a car than sink money into engine work, and why teachers will, on average, give a higher grade to a homework assignment turned in by an “excellent” student than to identical work turned in by a “weak” one. Marketers also know this and design ad campaigns to create and then exploit our expectations. One arena in which that was done very effectively is the vodka market. Vodka is a neutral spirit, distilled, according to the U.S. government definition, “as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste or color.” Most American vodkas originate, therefore, not with passionate, flannel-shirted men like those who create wines, but with corporate giants like the agrochemical supplier Archer Daniels Midland. And the job of the vodka distiller is not to nurture an aging process that imparts finely nuanced flavor but to take the 190-proof industrial swill such suppliers provide, add water, and subtract as much of the taste as possible. Through massive image-building campaigns, however, vodka producers have managed to create very strong expectations of difference. As a result, people believe that this liquor, which by its very definition is without a distinctive character, actually varies greatly from brand to brand. Moreover, they are willing to pay large amounts of money based on those differences. Lest I be dismissed as a tasteless boor, I wish to point out that there is a way to test my ravings. You could line up a series of vodkas and a series of vodka sophisticates and perform a blind tasting. As it happens, The New York Times did just that. And without their labels, fancy vodkas like Grey Goose and Ketel One didn’t fare so well. Compared with conventional wisdom, in fact, the results appeared random. Moreover, of the twenty-one vodkas tasted, it was the cheap bar brand, Smirnoff, that came out at the top of the list. Our assessment of the world would be quite different if all our judgments could be insulated from expectation and based only on relevant data.
A few year ago The Sunday Times of London conducted an experiment. Its editors submitted typewritten manuscripts of the opening chapters of two novels that had won the Booker Prize—one of the world’s most prestigious and most influential awards for contemporary fiction—to twenty major publishers and agents. One of the novels was In a Free State by V. S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature; the other was Holiday by Stanley Middleton. One can safely assume that each of the recipients of the manuscripts would have heaped praise on the highly lauded novels had they known what they were reading. But the submissions were made as if they were the work of aspiring authors, and none of the publishers or agents appeared to recognize them. How did the highly successful works fare? All but one of the replies were rejections. The exception was an expression of interest in Middleton’s novel by a London literary agent. The same agent wrote of Naipaul’s book, “We…thought it was quite original. In the end though I’m afraid we just weren’t quite enthusiastic enough to be able to offer to take things further.”
The author Stephen King unwittingly conducted a similar experiment when, worried that the public would not accept his books as quickly as he could churn them out, he wrote a series of novels under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. Sales figures indicated that even Stephen King, without the name, is no Stephen King. (Sales picked up considerably after word of the author’s true identity finally got out.) Sadly, one experiment King did not perform was the opposite: to swathe wonderful unpublished manuscripts by struggling writers in covers naming him as the author. But if even Stephen King, without the name, is no Stephen King, then the rest of us, when our creative work receives a lessthan-Kingly reception, might take comfort in knowing that the differences in quality might not be as great as some people would have us believe.
Years ago at Caltech, I had an office around the corner from the office of a physicist named John Schwarz. He was getting little recognition and had suffered a decade of ridicule as he almost singlehandedly kept alive a discredited theory, called string theory, which predicted that space has many more dimensions than the three we observe.
Then one day he and a co-worker made a technical breakthrough, and for reasons that need not concern us here, suddenly the extra dimensions sounded more acceptable. String theory has been the hottest thing in physics ever since. Today John is considered one of the brilliant elder statesmen of physics, yet had he let the years of obscurity get to him, he would have been a testament to Thomas Edison’s observation that “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Another physicist I knew had a story that was strikingly similar to John’s. He was, coincidentally, John’s PhD adviser at the University of California, Berkeley. Considered one of the most brilliant scientists of his generation, this physicist was a leader in an area of research called S-matrix theory. Like John, he was stubbornly persistent and continued to work on his theory for years after others had given up. But unlike John, he did not succeed. And because of his lack of success he ended his career with many people thinking him a crackpot. But in my opinion both he and John were brilliant physicists with the courage to work—with no promise of an imminent breakthrough—on a theory that had gone out of style. And just as authors should be judged by their writing and not their books’ sales, so physicists—and all who strive to achieve—should be judged more by their abilities than by their success.
The cord that tethers ability to success is both loose and elastic. It is easy to see fine qualities in successful books or to see unpublished manuscripts, inexpensive vodkas, or people struggling in any field as somehow lacking. It is easy to believe that ideas that worked were good ideas, that plans that succeeded were well designed, and that ideas and plans that did not were ill conceived. And it is easy to make heroes out of the most successful and to glance with disdain at the least. But ability does not guarantee achievement, nor is achievement proportional to ability. And so it is important to always keep in mind the other term in the equation—the role of chance.
It is no tragedy to think of the most successful people in any field as superheroes. But it is a tragedy when a belief in the judgment of experts or the marketplace rather than a belief in ourselves causes us to give up, as John Kennedy Toole did when he committed suicide after publishers repeatedly rejected his manuscript for the posthumously best-selling Confederacy of Dunces. And so when tempted to judge someone by his or her degree of success, I like to remind myself that were they to start over, Stephen King might be only a Richard Bachman and V. S. Naipaul just another struggling author, and somewhere out there roam the equals of Bill Gates and Bruce Willis and Roger Maris who are not rich and famous, equals on whom Fortune did not bestow the right breakthrough product or TV show or year. What I’ve learned, above all, is to keep marching forward because the best news is that since chance does play a role, one important factor in success is under our control: the number of at bats, the number of chances taken, the number of opportunities seized. For even a coin weighted toward failure will sometimes land on success. Or as the IBM pioneer Thomas Watson said, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.”
It may come as an epiphany merely to recognize the ubiquitous role of random processes in our lives; the true power of the theory of random processes, however, lies in the fact that once we understand the nature of random processes, we can alter the way we perceive the events that happen around us.
The psychologist David Rosenhan wrote that “once a person is abnormal, all of his other behaviors and characteristics are colored by that label.” The same applies for stardom, for many other labels of success, and for those of failure. We judge people and initiatives by their results, and we expect events to happen for good, understandable reasons. But our clear visions of inevitability are often only illusions. I wrote this book in the belief that we can reorganize our thinking in the face of uncertainty. We can improve our skill at decision making and tame some of the biases that lead us to make poor judgments and poor choices. We can seek to understand people’s qualities or the qualities of a situation quite apart from the results they attain, and we can learn to judge decisions by the spectrum of potential outcomes they might have produced rather than by the particular result that actually occurred.
The Drunkard’s Walk