Monday, October 10, 2011

The Steve Jobs Cul De Sac

Since Steve Jobs, our leaden messiah, passed into an off-colour white light last week, a youtube video of the Good Man cataloguing to a group of Stanford students his life philosophy - the philosophy he attributed to his rise - has been doing the rounds.

I first watched this video several years ago, and found it inspirational in the huckserish American vein, a minimalist take on the sweaty self-help guru gesticulating toward the stars, itself an update on white-steepled preachers trembling out Job.

Robin Hanson argues here that the philosophy is actually a subtle form of status signalling, and more commentary here.

In the main, every human action is a coy wink to one group or person or another.  It is how we evolved, and how we will die.

Jobs urges the hatted crowd to 'not settle' in quest of a fulfilling job.  If the work you do does not pass some existential litmus test, then it should be discarded, and you must start afresh.  Hanson argues that this philosophy can only be applied by a very small percentage of the population - Stanford Grads, for example (if even that) and therein lies the status shimmer.  In so adopting the philosophy you are demonstrating that you are the kind of person so 'in demand' that a cavalcade of opportunities can be overlooked in pursuit of the golden role.

As Hanson says:

notice: doing what you love, and never settling until you find it, is a costly signal of your career prospects. Since following this advice tends to go better for really capable people, they pay a smaller price for following it. So endorsing this strategy in a way that makes you more likely to follow it is a way to signal your status.

But there are other problems with the Jobs philosophy, and in a more general sense with ex post facto explanations for his own ascent and coronation.

For example - how many people have followed his philosophy and not achieved anything?

Nicolas Nassim Taleb dubbed this statistical shrug the 'graveyard of silent evidence'.  Humans have an inbuilt inclination to ignore the graveyard - the long  list of people who followed a given philosophy to the letter, who were in every respect - intelligence, aptitude, ability - equal to the hero, but who nevertheless failed.  The problem is acute for the simple reason that we do not hear from them.  They are dead, or were pushed by fate down a less glamorous path.

Like the lone survivor of the air crash who points godward in explanation of his fate, ignoring or discarding the unfortunate co-passengers whom God by omission must then have slaughtered, we look only to the top, to those who made it, and ignore in turn the thousands of carbon copies that struggled but found only the graveyard.  We then look to the escapee and ask - what did you do?  And can we imitate it?

This usually leads to even brighter problems.  For one, the escapees are in the main not very self-reflective creatures.  They may squint back over their own life and pluck from there a collage of half-recalled aphorisms, and attribute these to their success, the less specific the better.  Self deception, an evolutionary constant, also has a walk-role.

I say this not to thwart the escapees, or to bemoan their place in our collective mind, but to show that they have their own motivations, personal and political, consious and unconsious, that drive how they interact with the world, and that flower the advice they impart.

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