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Trains, Brains, and Cost Overruns
I plan on being a good servant to our future robot overlords
“Leadership is about how to be, not how to do it.”
-Frances Hesselbein z’’l
In 2008, the state of California began building a high-speed bullet train between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
The estimated cost? $33 billion.
The estimated date for completion? 2020.
What is the estimated cost today? Over $100 billion.
And has the train been completed in 2022? Not even close.
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I sympathize with California, and not only because increasing high-speed trains is one essential strategy for addressing climate change in the United States. Sadly, California is only the latest victim of a heuristic known as the “planning fallacy,” the idea that people underestimate the amount of time and resources it will take to complete a task.
Even when we know that a project is likely to take longer or cost more money than the estimate, people are overly optimistic about their ability to succeed where others have failed (see confirmation bias, recency bias, anchoring bias, Dunning Kruger Effect…you get the idea).
But have no fear: I’m here to build you up, not just tear you down. As Debbie Friedman z’’l taught, those who sow in tears will reap in joy…
Instinctively, organizations want to reward the optimist with a can-do attitude over the pessimist in the corner pointing out that this idea may not be perfectly conceived. However, if appropriately managed, pessimism can be a YUGE asset in addressing the planning fallacy and other systemic organizational mistakes.
Do you know someone in your life who always seems well-prepared because they are constantly worrying about the future? The kind of person who stocks a year’s worth of canned food in their basement, or never crammed for a test in college because they were frantically studying all the time?
Turns out that this kind of person has a name (besides “Josh”): a “defensive pessimist.” The term was first coined by Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor in a 1986 paper and expounded upon in greater depth by Dr. Norem in The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.Dr. Norem defines defensive pessimism as a “strategy used by anxious people to help them manage their anxiety so they can work productively,” primarily through “lowering expectations” and playing through all scenarios. She points out that defensive pessimism can be an effective strategy for people with anxiety because it allows them to “focus away from emotions” and focus more on planning, which is what will ultimately enable the optimist or pessimist to be successful, in most cases.
In Parashat Miketz, Joseph’s rise to the top of Pharoah’s court is due to Joseph’s defensive pessimism.When asked to interpret Pharoah’s dreams, Joseph recognizes that there will be a famine in Egypt, the kind of incident that usually leads to societal breakdown. But Joseph calmly tells Pharoah that there is a strategy that can avoid the issue. If Joseph is wrong, Egypt will still have a major reserve supply of food. But when he is right, Egypt is dramatically ahead of the curve (which, of course, leads to the reunion with Joseph’s brothers).
If you want to take a test to see whether or not you are a defensive pessimist, take Dr. Norem’s quiz here. For the record, I scored 77 out of 84, so apparently, I’m a defensive pessimist.Adam Grant and Susan Cain, two favorites of mine, also have a great conversation about defensive pessimism on Susan’s podcast.
Of course, if defensive pessimism is so great, it begs the question of whether or not there is anything “wrong” with being an optimist. We are going to come back to optimism at a later date, but the reason the pessimist gets to shine first is that too many organizations fail because overly optimistic predictions are not questioned before they become policy. Often, it is the “scout,” the person who can see off into the distance, whose voice needs to be recognized more frequently.
If you are looking for a podcast to regularly teach you about behavioral economics, consider Julia Galef’s Rationally Speaking podcast, or read her book The Scout Mindset. While I suppose Dr. Galef would be tickled by a rabbi promoting her book (she’s a well-known skeptic), theism is not a prerequisite to be featured in this newsletter.
Galef argues that many people are motivated by what she calls the “self-belief” model of success, the idea that “If you convince yourself that you will succeed, you’ll be motivated to attempt hard things and persist in the face of setbacks.”This is the logic of optimism as a self-fulling prophecy or Walt Disney’s notion that “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
However, Galef points out that the biggest problem with the self-belief approach is that by not thinking “realistically about risk,” people do not ask questions about whether or not they are pursuing a desirable goal, in the first place. Similar to Annie Duke, Galef argues that a self-belief approach “implicitly assumes that you don’t need to make any decisions…you’ve already found the one right path, and there are no other options out there worth weighing.”
Galef entitles her book The Scout Mindset” because a scout wants their “map…to be as accurate as possible.”As such, the scout will constantly adjust their pathway to success. And when the map is wrong, the scout simply adjusts the map to be more accurate the next time around.
“Winning” An Unfair Game: I guess I’m allowed to give a shameless plug on my own newsletter? If you haven’t read it, here’s my article in eJewishPhilanthropy on the Moneyball revolution we need in the Jewish Community. WARNING: This article is commentary, not explanation, but the article gives you a little more insight into why I have such a strong emotional connection to this approach.
What Is AI Chatbot?: Perhaps you’ve heard about something called Chat GPT, a website that shows how artificial intelligence may be able to produce written language similar to human beings; a great summary can be found in The Guardian. Personally, I enjoyed Chat GPT’s attempt to show how to remove a peanut butter sandwich from your VCR in the language of the King James Bible.
When We Need Holy Friendships: We are living in a “friendship recession,” particularly if you identify as a male. The trend is real, although the pathway out is less clear. That said, Jewish leaders should see things through a lens of holiness, and the idea of “holy friendship” stuck with me.
“Lookism” and Attractiveness Discrimination: I suppose everyone has considered the whether or not whether or not they are “attractive” at some point in their life. Apparently, there is some interesting research going on into “lookism” and “attractiveness discrimination,” the idea that unfair advantages are bestowed upon people deemed physically attractive. We need to read up on this.
The Endless Quest for a Better Mousetrap: Why improve something that seems great as it is? This is another way of saying “create a better mousetrap.” Here’s an interesting take on why inventors are constantly trying to make something just a little better.
Julie Norem and Nancy Cantor, “Defensive Pessimism: Harnessing Anxiety As Motivation,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 51, Number 6 (1986), 1208-1217.
To quote Joseph in Sefer Andrew Lloyd Webber, “All these things you saw in your pajamas are a long-range forecast for your farmers.”
Nahum Sarna has an interesting observation about why Pharoah and his advisors are so impressed by Joseph:
“Pharoah and his courtiers…are impressed…by the social concern that he [Joseph] displays in his advice. Not content just to predict disaster, Joseph immediately suggests measures to alleviate the lot of the Egyptian people.”
Pharoah only asks Joseph to interpret the dreams; he does not ask Joseph to write a playbook based on that interpretation. However, Sarna notes that Joseph’s interpretation is impressive because it is descriptive and prescriptive.
See Bereishit 41:37 in Nahum Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary: Genesis (Philadephia: The Jewish Publication Society 1989), 285.
Cue every person who loves me shaking their head and saying, “You didn’t need to take a test for me to know that.”
“Theism” means that you believe in God (i.e. the opposite of atheist, or anti-theist). I became a philosophy major in college specifically so I could hang out with atheists before going to rabbinical school.
Julia Galef, The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t (London: Portfolio- Penguin Books, 2021), 105.