Category Archives: Philosophy

I don’t need to be good. Just better than you.

Abstention on the part of those who won’t venture
in creates opportunities for those who will.

The quote above comes from Howard Mark‘s The Most Important Thing Illuminated, who was referring to investors who, believing they cannot beat the market, stay away from the investing game. In doing so, these people allow those who think they can (and who do participate in actively trying to beat the market), opportunities to do just that.

It reminded me of a thought I had during my recent annual military service, where I saw a significant number of comrades looking more physically unfit than ever, many of whom were almost as or even more physically fit than me during our active days (about ten years ago). By virtue of simply having more or less maintained my fitness these past years, I was now perceived by them as being much fitter than them.

It was almost as if because they didn’t want to play the fitness game (“Not young; no time” was the common refrain), and I did, I “won” by default, even though I wasn’t naturally the “fittest” to begin with.

By the same token, I’ve known of plenty of really smart people who not quite wanting to play the “career game” (for whatever reason) get stuck in career mediocrity, giving us less naturally talented folks opportunities we wouldn’t have had if not for their leaving the game for us.

The World as it Should Be

Just thought I would share with you what has to be, for me, the quote of the week. Taken from the book Getting More, a beautiful book on negotiation by Stuart Diamond (emphasis mine):

Lower your expectations. If you come into a negotiation thinking that the other side will be difficult, unfair, rude, or trying to cheat you, you won’t be likely to have dashed expectations–and you won’t be emotional. When you lower your expectations of what will take place in a negotiation, you will be rarely disappointed–and you might be pleasantly surprised. Getting yourself psychologically prepared is important.

You might feel, “Hey, I shouldn’t have to do things like that.” Okay, maybe not. But we live in the real world, not in the “should” world.

The beauty of that statement, I think, lies in the fact that it embraces the irrationality of people, the irrationality of the world. Where things are done sometimes for reasons beyond human comprehension.

And even if you don’t believe in the irrationality of people, as I sometimes find myself wont to do, the fact is we as human beings have so many hidden motivations that though we are, perhaps, ultimately rational, we are for most practical purposes just the opposite.

The Trolley Problem and Being a Leader

In my previous post I wrote about the trolley problem (aka “the train dilemma”). Though an interesting problem in its own right and one which rightly deserved its own post, it wasn’t really just for the sake of interest that I wrote it.

As regular readers of my site would know (yes, all 60,000 of you, +/- a few), I sometimes write posts for the sake of providing background for a future post.

This was one of them; and that future post is this.

And it’s going to be about leadership.

The Trolley Problem

You may see the trolley problem as a philosophical and moral problem. One which makes you ponder the complexities of life a little; question your own values a little; and makes you ask yourself what would I do? a little.

I don’t know about you, but when I’m faced with such tough morally ambiguous philosophical questions, I’m glad it’s not real. I wouldn’t want to make a decision either way.

A Thought Experiment

But imagine if you had to make a decision, and that real lives were at stake. And imagine that you were going to be judged on that decision by both people you know and those you don’t.

To make things a little easier for you, suppose  you get to pick an advisory committee.

You can pick as many people as you want, whoever you want, to be your advisers on this issue (the Dalai Lama; Presidents and Prime Ministers; Iron Man; God), but with one catch: you can’t tell the anyone who will be judging you who your advisers are. (And even if you tried to, they wouldn’t listen.)

This was the thought experiment I had when I read about “failures” in government — failures I thought were not so much failures as much as people making what they probably thought were good decisions, but with not-so-great outcomes.

Whether it was the introduction of Obamacare, the handling of the (as of now still) missing Malaysia Airlines MH 370 flight, or the Singapore government’s two-child policy in the 70’s, things that make sense from one perspective are make nonsense in another.

The Two-Child Policy in Singapore

Of those above, the one that hits closest to home is probably the two-child policy (I’m Singaporean after all), and is the one I’m most familiar with.

Singaporeans, it seems, aren’t reproducing enough to hit the replacement rate. This means the Singaporean population will drop over the years if not for the effect of positive net immigration.

A lot of governmental effort has gone into encouraging Singaporeans to have more babies (e.g. “baby bonus” schemes) and relaxing restrictions on foreigners (willkommen!), which many Singaporeans aren’t too happy about (e.g. overcrowding on public transport, “foreigners stealing our jobs”, bla bla bla bla).

Many naysayers of the two-child policy cite it as one of the root causes of the low fertility rates we’re having now (and by extension the immigration “problem”), and lament the government’s lack of foresight when they were implementing the policy in the 70’s.

The thing is, I’m not too sure.

Yes, it’s true that the policy might have exacerbated the problem of low fertility rates we’re facing. But it has also occurred to me that we might well be facing the same issue because Singapore might not have prospered as much as it had — fertility rates and economic development could well be negatively correlated. We Singaporeans might have sought greener pastures elsewhere and/or foreigners wouldn’t want to come here anyway.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I find it difficult to believe that any person in a leadership position would choose to make bad, unthinking decisions on purpose.

Outcomes and Decisions

One important distinction that I learnt in University (thank you Ms. Olaru) and that has shaped my thinking ever since is between outcomes and decisions. You should never confuse a bad outcome with a bad decision, and a good outcome with a good decision (just ask me crossing the street without looking and narrowly escaping certain death, looking all cool and unflustered).

If an outcome turns out to be disastrous, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a bad decision. And even if an outcome turns out to be great, it isn’t always obvious that it led from a good decision.

Good/Bad Outcome = [Good/Bad Decision] X [Good/Bad Luck]

On Being a Leader

The trolley problem to me pretty much embodies so much of what leadership is. Leaders have to make decisions on many issues steeped in ambiguity. Issues where there’s no right or wrong but only probably right or probably wrong.

When it comes to the trolley problem, the more I thought about it the more I realised that leaders would choose to do what caused the least harm overall, and not necessarily the least harm to themselves. And they take responsibility for what they’ve done.

If it means that pulling the switch would likely save a few more people then the switch will be pulled, even if it means explaining themselves to death in court or to the public.

Because that’s the right thing to do. And that’s what leaders do.

Revisiting the train track dilemma or “trolley problem”

Part I: The Classic Train Track Dilemma, or: The Trolley Problem

Imagine that you’re at a train station “open house” of sorts. People are there to admire trains and see how they operate. No trains are scheduled to run that day, so people are scattered all over the place.

There are some people gathering at the station; some standing on the tracks; and some, like you, standing on the hills admiring the scenery.

Suddenly you spot a train hurtling toward and about to hit a group of about fifty people, all of whom are unaware of it. You shout out to them, but whatever sound you make is drowned out by the party atmosphere down there. You estimate that if nothing is done, at least 90% will be killed.

It just so happens that you’re standing near a switch that, if flipped, would throw the train on to another set of tracks and save these fifty people. However, you notice that on the other set of tracks there stands a group of five people. By flipping the switch, though you could save the fifty, you’d almost certainly kill these five.

What do you do?

PART II – The Train Track Dilemma, Revisited

Now, before you make a decision, let’s throw in another spanner into your already-jammed-up-moral works. Being a train enthusiast, you spot something, on the tracks leading to the fifty, that looks a lot like a device that serves to limit speeds of trains as they approach the station.

It appears to be engaged, meaning that there is a possibility that the train will slow down sufficiently enough such that those fifty could possibly get out of the way. But you don’t know that — it might just be some rubbish or party prop.

You estimate a 50% chance that it is a speed limiter that works, saving those fifty; and a 50% chance that it isn’t one, allowing the train to go on at full speed, killing those fifty.

What now? Do you flip the switch? If you do, you could well be sentencing the five to death for the sake of fifty who might not even be at risk.

Going beyond economics

“So,” he asked, “what should he do?”

Straightforward as the question may seem, it was anything but. There were two tracks I could take: (1) the economic, rational track; or (2) the moral, slightly irrational track.

I can’t quite share with you what the exact nature of the discussion was, but the question would be somewhat analogous to the following:

Imagine that you and another person are participants of a social experiment, which pays both of you $5 each for participating. As part of the experiment, the experimenter passes you $10 and says that it’s to be shared with the other participant but with a catch: you decide how much you want to share. If you don’t want to share any of it, you don’t have to.

And, the other participant won’t know anything about this additional $10 that has been handed over to you. What do you do?

The economic track (that’s option 1) says that you keep the full amount. The other participant, not knowing that you have received this $10, will not be in any way worse off if he or she wasn’t offered anything.

The moral track (that’s option 2) says that you should split it 50/50: both of you did pretty much the same thing (turning up for the experiment), and there’s no real reason why it shouldn’t be split equally.

Now, that was pretty much the question that was asked of me: “What should he do?”

Take the full amount, or share it?

I chose to answer option 1, and was agreed with an attaboy smile. It was, after all, in the business’ best interest.

But I couldn’t help but feel a little peeved that there wasn’t so much as a hint that option 2 was just as viable an answer. I’d answered option 1 for the sake of argument, half-thinking that it was the wrong answer, hoping to be refuted and then having a good laugh about it. That I was so heartily agreed with… that was unexpected.

It is during times likes these, because of times like these, that I seek out disciplines beyond cold economics. It’s times like these that I’m reminded of the importance of having different perspectives, perspectives gained from activities like reading poetry, studying philosophy, and running.

Running especially. Because of the pure irrationality of it. It’s a constant reminder that it’s OK to be irrational. That it’s OK to be nice.