Why I No Longer Listen to Experts (and Other Insane Discoveries About Decision-Making)
Tl;dr: experts, due to being experts, have a narrow vision and understanding of the whole.
Good decision-making is the second most important quality after the capacity to learn anything.
I remember reading that the best decision-makers in the world usually go to work in finance where their decisions make millions, if not billions.
Even though this was said in a book written by an expert, I disagree.
I don’t think the best decision-makers go to work in finance. I think they create the bank.
But that’s another story yet which underlines the thesis of the article: think for yourself.
In this piece, we’ll talk extensively about the book “How to think for yourself” written by academic Dr. Vikram Mansharamani.
His book may be one of the greatest books on decision-making I have ever read, along with Ray Dalio’s Principles.
The Essence of the Book
We live in a world of increasing complexity while the human’s spirit remains trapped within its own learning capacities.
The high number of different decisions on different topics we need to make daily has led us to outsource our thinking to experts and machines.
We consult the doctor about health, the banker about finance, the coach about physical exercises, the nutritionist about nutrition, Netflix about which movies to watch, and Maps about which road to take.
This has led us to lose control of our lives as we put our own fate into experts and technology’s hands.
And needless to say that all would be great in a perfect world…hadn’t the experts been wrong most of the time on the matters they were paid to consult.
Mid-2008, the price of oil was about $140/barrel and everyone got scared that the world was running out of it.
After September, oil plunged below 30$. In March 2020, the barrel even went to…negative prices for a while.
We also now know that we have more than enough oil for the upcoming decades, too much in fact in regard to climate change.
That’s an observation made by Yuval Noah Harari in one of his books: the more we look for something, the more we find it.
In 1967, economists said that the USSR economy grew very quickly and would catch up with the US economy by the year 2000.
Yet in 2000, the USSR had ceased to exist, mainly because of its repeated economic failures.
In 1911, it was pronounced that there would never be any more wars in Europe. Hum.
End of the 18th century, the economist Thomas Malthus had predicted that the world population would be in the tens of billions if left unchecked and that everyone would go hungry. We’re still waiting.
Bill Gates himself said that 640 kb of memory was more than enough for everyone.
Today, phones have up to 564 Gb.
Al Gore said in 2005 that the Netherlands would be flooded by 2015. Amsterdam is still there. The Red Light District though disappeared.
Steve Ballmer, then CEO of Microsoft, said the iPhone would fail. Ah?
In February 2020, Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase, the US biggest bank, said he didn’t see any risks or bubbles in the worldwide economy but in southern countries’ national debt.
Some weeks later, the S&P 500 was losing 30%.
It was around that same time that Ray Dalio said that “cash is trash” (meaning, buy assets).
And I remember a counter-terrorism expert that said that the terrorists that bombed Brussels in 2015 were already long gone right after their sinister deeds.
They were in fact hiding in the city.
There are hundreds if not thousands of examples like that where experts made ridiculous predictions that ended up being all but wrong.
Ray Dalio himself explained how he was diagnosed with cancer he didn’t have, a similar story also told in the book where hundreds of patients each year get medication to treat a condition…they are not sick of.
The book “Wrong” by David Freedman seems to narrate experts’ failures at their job, but I can’t recommend it as I’ve never read it.
Why Are Experts Often Wrong?
For several reasons: first, the world is more complex to understand not only for you and me but also for experts.
As such, Vikram Mansharamani gives the example of a theory proposing that Brexit should not be imputed to the Russian influence campaign or Dominic Cummings’ work with Cambridge Analytica, but to…rain.
It was in fact raining more on the parts of the UK that were Remainers than on the parts that were Brexiters, which could have discouraged people to go voting.
Second, the academic institutions have been increasingly focusing on…focus.
The pinnacle of intellectual achievement is not seen in the breadth of knowledge, but in the depth of it.
You study a Ph.D. to become hyper-specialized, not hyper-generalist and there isn’t any Nobel Prize for general culture.
Intellectual and knowledge prizes reward specialization, not diversification.
Furthermore, you will find millions of people advising students to “be great at one thing” and to “focus on one sector” and not to “spread around”.
As someone who studied again and again the profile of entrepreneurs and inventors, I can tell you it’s bad advice.
People that succeed (and I don’t mean your neighbor who is a lawyer and got a second-hand Porsche, I mean billionaires, politicians, and movie stars) are people that are ad minima good in a wide variety of domains.
That was the force of Steve Jobs, for example. He knew a bit about engineering, coding, design, user experience, and technological evolution which allowed him to develop a vision for which he could assemble teams of people that were specialized in this domain and could each execute a part of his vision.
It is understood that Jobs’ lack of specialization made him who he was: you can’t have a vision if you specialize because all you know is what you are specialized in.
You just become an expert dependent on other experts to understand the whole.
That’s the metaphor of the orchestra conductor.
While the conductor does not know how to play each instrument, he needs to know the minimum about all of them to bring them all together.
Isn’t the conductor the most important single person in the orchestra? Could the musician play together without the conductor? Would it be smart to have a violinist knowing only about the violin to lead the orchestra?
That’s our third point: this habit to focus shines light only on one part of the system while the rest remains hidden in the shadow and not taken into account.
A strict violinist could not lead an orchestra because the orchestra is not only about the violins.
Should the flute be mistaken, the violinist-conductor won’t be able to understand where the problem comes from until light is shined on the flute.
The author uses a medical metaphor to illustrate this claim.
When it comes to finding solutions to problems, experts preach for their own church: a sleep doctor will tell you to get more sleep and a nutrition doctor better tell you to eat more meat and less sugar (run otherwise), a cardiologist will find your heart to be the cause of your problems and so on.
This isn’t especially negative: if you do see your cardiologist and you end up having a heart problem that can be fixed, good for you.
But if you see your cardiologist and he doesn’t understand that your heart problem comes from your stomach, for example…that’s more annoying.
The thesis of the author is that we shouldn’t overly rely on specialized experts when looking for a problem whose origin concerns the interconnections of the different parts that make up the system: we should rely instead on generalists that understand the system.
This statement is correlated by one of Ray Dalio’s principles “be imprecise”.
Dalio believes more in knowing a bit of everything to see the bigger picture than knowing very well one component and he’s absolutely right, especially when your job is to analyze something as complex as the economy.
In the book “Range: why generalists win in a specialized world”, the author made several compelling cases of people that became very good at one thing because they were doing several other things that taught them the knowledge and important lessons they drew on to become good at that one thing.
Finally, new discoveries are most of the time made by people that were completely novice in what they discovered.
Jim Simons, for example, discovered a mathematics equation that found wide applications in physics.
Roland Moreno, a French journalist, invented the chip card.
Dozens of other discoveries, from Viagra to the microwave oven, were invented by “accidents”, by completely novice people in the field of the discovery.
There is no more precious outlook than the one completely virgin of experience.
The author goes on to give several examples of how some random people, by thinking for themselves instead of thinking according to the principles that were given, managed to reach extraordinary results, especially in the world of finance and investment.
The notion to distinguish here is that we are talking about individuals being superior to the group, which is often the case: the majority is most often wrong than right.
I, personally, don’t believe at all in “the wisdom of the crowd”.
For two main reasons. One external to humans, and one internal.
1. The immediate future (immediate because ultimately, history repeats itself and I agree that there are some timeless lessons and principles that should be respected) is different than the immediate past, and you can’t apply the same rules and principles to understand both of them.
Today is different than yesterday and tomorrow. As such, you have two choices to remedy the absence of mental roadmap.
First choice, you turn on your TV, the radio, open a newspaper (or worse, Facebook), and think within the paradigm that has been prepared for you.
In many cases, you won’t even have to think but just to believe what you are told.
This is how mass-media eventually makes the population entirely dependent on them and why I don’t listen to my dad anymore (there isn’t a stronger mass-media consumer than him.)
Your second choice is to do none of that but to think for yourself, observe, search, and eventually discover the rules of the game by yourself, which is an exercise most people can’t do.
2. Most people can’t think for themselves because they are not trained to do so.
The tools you are given to build your own mental roadmap is called “education”.
Let’s be honest, these tools are useless in the context of approaching a situation you’ve never encountered.
Education in this society is merely the teaching of rules, principles, and boundaries within which students are asked to solve past problems, instead of letting students discover new rules, principles, and boundaries of new situations to solve new problems.
As such, education, as it is, doesn’t put any emphasis on the importance of thinking for yourself “outside the box”, but instead trains you to think within pre-established rules “inside a box”.
And we wonder where all the creativity has gone.
What Can We Do?
It all comes down to keeping experts “on tap, not on top”. As such, let’s say you want to know where the economy is headed.
You shouldn’t only rely on one economist, but also on a sociologist, a psychologist, a financial trader, an accountant, and on a normal person, so that you can grasp the whole situation by adding the sum of its part, instead of understanding only one component.
The economy, out of everything, is only a part of its own: it depends on many more things than just itself.
The author furthermore encourages to ask for second opinions.
It’s not because one doctor says x that another doctor won’t say y.
Finally, there is a tremendous need for us to acquire knowledge by ourselves.
I became a carnivore after one year of research teaching myself nutrition and physiology and testing different foods to see how I reacted.
My desire to understand how we got to where we are as a society made me study history and my wish to retain control over my own finances made me study economics and finance.
It is by adding all of this knowledge that I came to realize that societal changes had never been studied from a nutrition-based perspective, a topic for a future article.
The power to cross fields of knowledge to create new boundaries may be the most precious thing about being a generalist and gives you an underrated advantage over all the other specialized experts.
Generalists don’t follow experts.
Experts execute the vision of generalists.
The Bottom Line
The world is much more complex than it appears and
very few people no one can wholly grasp it.
One example echoing this claim concerns a theory explaining the decrease of criminality in New York City.
It was thought originally that security had been engineered by the policies of Rudi Giuliani.
Yet another theory came along explaining that peace had been established…by the abandonment of lead-heavy petrol for cars whose molecule was likely to make people more violent.
We don’t know much about the world and even less about the variables that interact with each other to make up the world.
A butterfly flaps its wings…you know the following.
When you specialize, you narrow your viewpoint which makes you blind to alternatives.
In the case of decision-making, the author stresses the need to include experts’ opinions as one part of your decision-making process and to triangulate your sources of knowledge.
To make sure he was on the right track, Ray Dalio turned his principles into computer code and prior to making a decision, would measure and compare his decision to the computer’s.
While he knew he might forget about some principles, the computer most likely wouldn’t.
This book confirmed a suspicion I had about experts but was too scared to voice because of experts’ status. After all, experts are experts and who would dare challenge their “expertise”?
Well, I do, now.
Through his exposé, Vikram Mansharamani gave me plain confidence in my decision-making system which relies on the principle to consult different sources but to solely make my own decisions by observing and taking into account the bigger picture.
And yes, I see the irony of taking advice from an expert on not trusting experts.
Luckily, Mister Mansharamani is a generalist.