Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Nassim Taleb on the lack of respect for those not doing steady and predictable work

Our society doesn't really understand work that doesn't deliver steady and predictable results.  People working away on this kind of work tend not to get much respect.  This is a real problem, because such work is essential to society.  In The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb nicely describes what it's like for people having to deal with this lack of respect:

     Every morning you leave your cramped apartment in Manhattan's East Village to go to your laboratory at the Rockefeller University in the East Sixties. You return in the late evening, and people in your social network ask you if you had a good day, just to be polite. At the laboratory, people are more tactful. Of course you did not have a good day; you found nothing. You are not a watch repairman. Your finding nothing is very valuable, since it is part of the process of discovery—hey, you know where not to look. Other researchers, knowing your results, would avoid trying your special experiment, provided a journal is thoughtful enough to consider your "found nothing" as information and publish it. 
     Meanwhile your brother-in-law is a salesman for a Wall Street firm, and keeps getting large commissions—large and steady commissions. "He is doing very well," you hear, particularly from your father-in-law, with a small pensive nanosecond of silence after the utterance—which makes you realize that he just made a comparison. It was involuntary, but he made one. Holidays can be terrible. You run into your brother-in-law at family reunions and, invariably, detect unmistakable signs of frustration on the part of your wife, who, briefly, fears that she married a loser, before remembering the logic of your profession. But she has to fight her first im­pulse. Her sister will not stop talking about their renovations, their new wallpaper. Your wife will be a little more silent than usual on the drive home. This sulking will be made slightly worse because the car you are driving is rented, since you cannot afford to garage a car in Manhattan. What should you do? Move to Australia and thereby make family re­unions less frequent, or switch brothers-in-laws by marrying someone with a less "successful" brother? 
     Or should you dress like a hippie and become defiant? That may work for an artist, but not so easily for a scientist or a businessman. You are trapped. 
     You work on a project that does not deliver immediate or steady results; all the while, people around you work on projects that do. You are in trouble. Such is the lot of scientists, artists, and researchers lost in society rather than living in an insulated community or an artist colony.
(pg 86)

     Many people labor in life under the impression that they are doing something right, yet they may not show solid results for a long time. They need a capacity for continuously adjourned gratification to survive a steady diet of peer cruelty without becoming demoralized. They look like idiots to their cousins, they look like idiots to their peers, they need courage to continue. No confirmation comes to them, no validation, no fawning students, no Nobel, no Shnobel. "How was your year?" brings them a small but containable spasm of pain deep inside, since almost all of their years will seem wasted to someone looking at their life from the out­side. Then bang, the lumpy event comes that brings the grand vindication. Or it may never come. 
(pg 87)

This touches a nerve with me, as my research is definitely a long way from the steady and predictable, though I would say that I've been pretty fortunate in that I have had support and understanding from people.


  1. I am doing unpredictable work, with not much to show for it in riches.

    I would expand on this post. It is beyond a lack of respect for me or anyone doing such work. Who cares about me? It is a lack of respect for the "subjects" of the various people doing anything interesting.

    My work is political research into the apathy and disinterest of voters and citizens who do not vote or participate. (a majority over decades)

    Because it does not fit into the Republican and Democratic propaganda, it is ignored.The press only pays attention to the horse race and trivia of big campaigns. The problem is that the condition of American democracy is outside that tiny framework anymore.

    I have the numbers to prove it and these numbers have recently emerged into public consciousness. (low approval for Congress and President)but it is much bigger than that, stretching back in time to the 1960s on.

    A lack of respect for ideas is a lack of curiosity about what may or may not be interesting. It is not about me or anyone else doing unrecognized unpredictable work. It is about the people who will not take a look at the work, just for laughs.

  2. Hi Tom - thanks for your thoughts. That lack of curiosity and interest is definitely a shame.