Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson) is the best-selling author of 11 books on the intersection of science, technology, and personal experience, including Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. He also hosts the Fighting Coronavirus podcast on Wondery.
What We Discuss with Steven Johnson:
- In a world where we might put more thought into brunch than buying a house, what types of decisions warrant a “decision-making process?”
- Why we can do better than relying on the old pros and cons list that Ben Franklin, Charles Darwin, and our parents once found useful.
- Uniform phases of decision-making that we can teach, learn, and apply to tailor-made decisions of varying complexity.
- How AI might help us augment decision-making processes involving probability.
- The premortem: why planning as if a future event has already happened might result in better decisions than just asking ourselves “what if?”
- And much more…
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Face it: as a species, rarely do we put a lot of thought into making decisions — whether they involve an optimal brunch selection or the purchase of a new house. The considerations we ruminate over may simply be patterns that have worked for us in the past, though often don’t go beyond the tried-and-true pros and cons list that Ben Franklin, Charles Darwin, and our parents once found useful. But what happens when the outcomes of our decisions potentially go beyond the binary? What if the decisions we make have invisible variables that could very well result in what seems at first glance to be unforeseeable? What if we don’t have to throw out the baby or the bathwater, but are able to safely recycle the dirty tub’s contents to nourish a garden that helps feed the neighborhood and secure a college scholarship for the baby once washed within?
In this episode, we talk to Steven Johnson, author of Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most. In a quest to discover more modern, refined systems of decision-making processes than the aforementioned pros and cons list, he discovered that nothing much has changed in that department for the last couple of hundred years. We’ll go over what we can do to improve upon this archaic standby and hone our skills in making smarter and wiser decisions of optimal options. Listen, learn, and enjoy!
Please Scroll Down for Featured Resources and Transcript!
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Miss the show we did with Tip “T.I.” Harris — award-winning rapper, actor, entrepreneur, family man, philanthropist, author, activist, and host of the expediTIously podcast? Catch up with episode 262: Tip “T.I.” Harris | ExpediTIously Expressive!
THANKS, STEVEN JOHNSON!
If you enjoyed this session with Steven Johnson, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:
And if you want us to answer your questions on one of our upcoming weekly Feedback Friday episodes, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Resources from This Episode:
- Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson
- Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History’s First Global Manhunt by Steven Johnson
- Other Books by Steven Johnson
- Fighting Coronavirus | Wondery
- Steven Johnson | Website
- Steven Johnson | Twitter
- The Invention of Air: A Story Of Science, Faith, Revolution, And The Birth Of America by Steven Johnson
- Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson
- “Where’s The Beef?” Commercials, 1984 | Wendy’s
- High Line | Elevated NYC Park
- Annie Duke | How to Make Decisions Like a Poker Champ | TJHS 40
- Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts by Annie Duke
- Amos Tversky | Wikipedia
- Algorithms Should’ve Made Courts More Fair. What Went Wrong? | Wired
- 19 and Me: A COVID-19 Risk Calculator | Mathematica.org
- Model-Based Probabilistic Collision Detection in Autonomous Driving | IEEE Transactions on Intelligent Transportation Systems
- Pandemic | Ready.gov
- Planning and Preparedness Resources | CDC
- Admiral William H. McRaven | That’s So McRaven | TJHS 315
- Obama: Decision to Kill Bin Laden Was Heavily Debated | Voice of America
- The Bay of Pigs | JFK Library
- Diversity Creates Bonuses. It’s Not Just a Nice Thing to Do. | Scott Page, LinkedIn Editors
- The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies by Scott Page
- The Pre-Mortem: A Simple Technique To Save Any Project From Failure | Riskology
- Middlemarch by George Eliot
- Breaking Bad | Prime Video
- The Human Brain Is a Time Traveler | The New York Times
- Phineas Gage: Neuroscience’s Most Famous Patient | Smithsonian Magazine
- 10-Minute Meditation For Anxiety | Goodful
- The Desert One Debacle | The Atlantic
- Dan Heath | Solving Problems from Upstream | TJHS 350
Transcript of Steven Johnson | How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most (Episode 378)
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:00] Coming up on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
Steven Johnson: [00:00:02] The assessments have all been done and it's like, you should wear the seatbelt, and you should buy a car with airbags because this is good, and you should do this, and you shouldn't drink and drive. And we've figured out the odds of all these things over time. But then when you get a unique situation, like the one we're in with COVID-19 suddenly you realize you have to run all those kinds of risk assessments on your own, or the experts are trying as best as they can, but nobody knows yet.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:00:31] Welcome to the show. I'm Jordan Harbinger. On The Jordan Harbinger Show, we decode the stories, secrets, and skills of the world's most brilliant people and turn their wisdom into practical advice that you can use to impact your own life and those around you. We want to help you see the Matrix when it comes to how these amazing people think and behave. We want you to become a better thinker, especially a better decision-maker and critical thinker. If you're new to the show, we've got episodes with spies, CEOs, athletes, authors, thinkers, and performers, as well as toolboxes for skill sets like negotiation, body language, persuasion, and more. So if you're smart and you like to learn and improve, you're going to be right at home here with us.
[00:01:08] Rarely, do we put a lot of thought into making decisions. I know it seems we do or should, but for most of us, we just ruminate on something, worry about random variables until eventually coming to a decision. Or perhaps you're like me and you bust out a pros and cons list, and then you ignore everything you wrote down. And we think we really thought it out. As it turns out, the process of making decisions really evolves much in, I don't know, a hundred years today, Stephen Johnson, author of Farsighted, is going to help us hone the process and get better at this skill of decision making.
[00:01:40] If you want to know how I managed the book, guests like these bestselling authors, thinkers, performers, et cetera, it's always about that network. Check out our Six-Minute Networking course, which is free over at jordanharbinger.com/course. Now, by the way, most of the guests on the show, they subscribed to the course and the newsletter. So, if you want to be in some smart company, come join us in that course at jordanharbinger.com/course. Now, here's Steven Johnson.
[00:02:06] A lot of people don't put too much thought into decisions. And I know this because I'm one of those people. A lot of the time, I think the most common example I give is when I bought my first house. The decision-making process was, "Hey, Jordan, wake up — hey, wake up. Do you want to go see this house down South in the South Bay?" And I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I said, not really. And she goes, "Ah, my dad got up really early. He's in line. It's new construction, so it's first come first serve. It's not like they're showing it. You know, it's just a whole subdivision. We should go or he's going to be annoyed that he stood in line." And I'm like, "Great." We shower up, get ready, run down there. And then we walked through the house. I'm like, "It's all right, you know, whatever." And my father-in-law goes, "So you liked the house." And I said, "Sure." And he goes, "Great. Okay, we'll take it." And I went, "Whoa, wait, hold on. What?" And then I applied for a mortgage. And I thought, you know, I don't even need to argue. There's no way I'm not pre-approved. There are 50 people here. They all want to buy the same house. I'm never going to get it. Sure enough, we applied for the mortgage. They're like, "Uh, you're approved, but it's too late." And then somebody dropped out and then — anyway, long story short, I got the house and I went, wow, I literally put more thought into most brunch orders than this purchase of this house, which turned out to be a really good purchase. So I'm all for outsourcing decisions to people who know how to do them better. But you know, generally, when it comes to like who you're going to marry, where you're going to live, what kind of career you want, you want some kind of process for that decision. 99 percent of decisions probably don't need it, but what kind of decisions should we be looking at when we think I need a decision-making process?
Steven Johnson: [00:03:39] Yeah. I mean, I thought if everyone has a father-in-law that you can just offload the decision process too, I think everybody should just do that. Clearly, it turned fine. But most of us don't have access to that. Actually, it's funny because my dad shows up — the book is dedicated to my dad. And he kind of shows up at a couple of points in the plot because he's consulted on some of my big decisions and he plays a role, which we can get into basically being the kind of negative scenario planner. Think about all the downside scenarios which I tend to be not so good at doing because I tend to be more optimistic. The point is there are — you know, our lives are filled with decisions where the kind of timescale of the decision in terms of its effects in the world is vanishingly small. It's like, what should I have for dinner tonight? What should I order at brunch? You know, those kinds of decisions and for those kinds of decisions, you can go with your gut or you can think about them a little bit, but it's not a big deal. But your life is fundamentally shaped by a set number of decisions. For some of us, it's maybe 10 for others, it's a hundred or something like that that really have long-term implications. That really are transformative ones in terms of the course of your life, your family, your work, all the different things that really matter.
[00:04:50] And the argument that I was trying to make in Farsighted, for those kinds of decisions, it is, as you say, incredibly helpful to have a process and to think about how we make those kinds of decisions and what are the kind of routines we're going to go through to try and make them. And when you look back at your life, these crucial kinds of turning points in your life where you chose this path over this path, those are the things that shaped everything for you. And so to think about how did you do that, how did you make that choice. And in some sense, the origin of this project was thinking about the one tool that most of us have and most of us are taught at some point — I remember my dad teaching it to me, which is the pros and cons list. It turns out to be like in a very old tradition actually goes back to Ben Franklin who wrote about it in a letter to Joseph Priestley, who I'd written a book about many, many years ago. So I knew about this, Ben Franklin, the use of the pros and cons method. Which is kind of a funny thing, because Franklin was such a self-help guru. Like in his own time, he was founding father but also like advice columnists.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:05:49] Yeah. It's weird. When you think about him, you're like, "Wait a minute. This guy's like OG Dale Carnegie," and also like, "Let me go ahead and sign the constitution or whatever." I don't know.
Steven Johnson: [00:05:58] Somewhere, he is like the American kind of ethos is there and Franklin and that mix of things. But the thing that really sparked it for me was I'd written years ago, another book called Where Good Ideas Come From. And that has a lot of stuff about Darwin in it — Darwin's notebooks, which are amazing documents for a lot of different reasons, in terms of watching a mind wrestle with really big ideas and argue with himself and all that stuff. But at one point in his notebooks in the late 1830s, as he's like coming up with the theory of natural selection, he interrupts his musings and creates a pros and cons list, trying to decide whether to get married. And it's hilarious and it's in the book. If you want to see it, it's a very funny list of things —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:06:39] I saw it. Yeah, and I think it is kind of a funny anecdote — go ahead and tell it because the guy's considerations are pretty basic.
Steven Johnson: [00:06:46] Yeah. He has some things in there like, on the pro side of getting married, someone will be around and maybe we'll have kids, but he has a one-liner which is like better than a dog anyhow or something like that. It hasn't aged very well. But on the negative side is that he's afraid he's going to have to give up the clever conversation of men in clubs. That's like the negative.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:07:08] That does kind of sound nice though. I'm like, "Oh, there are clubs where guys just sat around and talked." I don't think we have that anymore.
Steven Johnson: [00:07:14] Yeah. That was the dream back in 1837. From knowing these two stories from other books that I'd written, I thought, you know, that's so funny because like the pros and cons list is still the only tool that most of us have for making complex decisions. That's the vast majority of people if they're ever taught anything about decision making, it's write down the pros on one side and cons on the other and see which list is longer, which is better than nothing probably, but it's so limited. And we think about all the different other ways that we've advanced in our kind of tools that we use to do things in life and decision making, particularly complex decision making, long-term decision making is so important. Surely there must be something better out there. So that was kind of the quest that I went on in writing Farsighted is to figure out what is the kind of the state of the art in decision-making theory or science and to what extent can we actually use these things in the real world.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:07] What's funny, I found out that he's so hilariously candid about how he sees taking a wife. So he said, "It would be nice to eat good food, but not to get fat. But, oh, what a waste of time to have female chatter around the house." It's like, wow, that aged well, and then he gets married six months later, like, "Okay, buddy."
Steven Johnson: [00:08:24] Yeah. Also the other thing, he ends up being very happily married, although there's some tragedy in his life because his daughter dies, which shows up in the book actually later as well. But the woman he married, Emma Wedgwood, is his cousin.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:35] Oh, God.
Steven Johnson: [00:08:36] And someone pointed out to me when I was on a book tour for this — it's weird that on the negative, on the cons side of the list, it never says, "Is my cousin." You'd think that would have been a factor.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:48] The whole family might say something a little negative about that. It just goes to show at the time it was like fully expected to just marry your cousin because, yeah, they're convenient. We already know the family.
Steven Johnson: [00:08:56] Everybody was doing it back then.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:08:57] Yeah, exactly. Now, most people don't actually make decisions. They're just doing kind of the next best thing with very little information or deliberation, kind of like my house purchase. And that sums up the first two-thirds of my life pretty well also, I think, where it's just like, "Well, I should go to law school because I graduated from college and I can only get a job at Best Buy. And that's not where I want to end up. So I'll have more education. Why not?" Not like, "I should be a lawyer. There's always good things about it." Just like, "This is a grad school that I got into that doesn't seem impossibly hard. And also lots of people say lawyers make money because I've seen that in movies." Like this is like how I based most of my major decisions. A lot of people write in for advice to the show and they're like, "I think I screw this up." And I'm like, "Don't worry. I screwed up the first 30 years of my life and I'm fine now. Like it's okay."
Steven Johnson: [00:09:45] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:09:46] We usually also just decide whether or not to do a specific thing. It's very rarely like, "Here are my five options or my three options." It's like, "Do I go to law school?" It's like, "Oh, wait, wait, wait. That's not really your — " We're artificially constraining our choices, right?
Steven Johnson: [00:10:00] Yeah, exactly. And let me say two things to just back up a little bit. One of the things that I wrestled with a lot in writing this book which gets to your role as advice — people are writing to the show for advice. One of the things that I took really seriously in writing this book is the fact that when you're writing about major decisions in people's lives, by definition, they're all unique, right? There's no easy formula. When someone is, let's say, deciding whether — this is a decision that runs through the book — whether to leave the city and move to the suburbs. That classic like you've got young kids and you've been living downtown and you're trying to decide if you're going to move to the suburbs. That kind of decision is unique for everybody trying to make it because it involves so many different variables that are specific to you and your partner and your kids and the city you're in and whether there's a pandemic going on in the middle of your city and all the different things. And as an author, writing a book, trying to give people advice, by definition, I have no idea who I'm talking to. Like I'm not talking to an individual person who I know whose circumstances I know. And there's a lot of self-help out there where it feels just kind of silly because you don't know me and why am I listening to you, a total stranger giving me advice. And I almost didn't write the book because I was concerned about that.
[00:11:14] But what I ultimately realized in going through the science of it all and the history of kind of decision theory is that all of the tools that are in the book — and that we can talk about here — are ultimately tools in a sense of kind of perception. It's about when you have a really complex decision that has a lot of different variables or that involves unpredictable kind of downstream effects of the different paths that you take, that you have to go through a bunch of exercises to get yourself, to see it in all of its complexity and to understand all the different variables that are at play and to get around your kind of usual biases, your default assumptions and stuff like that challenge or conventional wisdom, or whatever you want to call it. And those are things that you can teach. I can't tell you whether you should take this new job because I don't know you, but I can give you a set of strategies that enable you to understand and perceive the problem more clearly. And that's something that is transferable and something that's teachable by the way, which we can talk about. One of the things that I ultimately came around to is the idea that these things should be taught as a required course in high school. But we can talk about that later.
[00:12:18] So in order to get that kind of perceptual clarity about the choice that you're facing, the main idea is to have different stages of the decision to divide it, to not just sit down and be like, "All right, I've got my yellow legal pad. I'm writing down the pros and cons." But actually, I have phases. And the first phase is this idea of mapping it. You're trying to understand what are all the variables that are in play and what are my options. And this is coming back to your question, which is most people look at a decision as what you described it as like a whether-or-not decision. "I'm trying to decide should I go do this or not."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:12:56] Right.
Steven Johnson: [00:12:57] And this is true in life and this is true in business where this has been analyzed kind of extensively. When you look at high-level kinds of executive decisions people make, there's a tendency to just like — something presents itself — and they're like, "Well, should we do this or not, people? Let's gather around and decide this." And people who. Just jumped in and tried to decide based on that one option — whether or not to do it — When you look at the long-term life of these decisions and their effects, it turns out that those people are much less successful and less happy in the end with their choice than folks who in the early stages of the decision, I had a phase where they looked for other options. They're like, "Look, we're not going to decide this yet. Right now, we're looking at option A, but is there an option B and is there an option C and option D?" And it sounds intuitive —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:13:41] Right, yeah. It's almost like, okay, tell me the show isn't just about considering multiple options when making a decision, right? Like people are going, "Oh, where's the beef?"
Steven Johnson: [00:13:48] But people rarely do it. That's the thing. And they don't kind of realize that. They don't say, “Okay, let's have this, period. We're just really keeping our mind open and we're deliberately trying to explore other kinds of options that are out there." And there's kind of business case studies that looked at this and found that people who have that earlier stage are much, much happier in the end with the decisions they end up making.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:14:09] That makes sense. I think another thing is we often have one, I don't know what you'd call it like an anchor or core variable where we make decisions based on that. So I find that a lot of bad decisions I've made just in business or something like that is I'll say something like, "Is this the cheapest way of getting this done?" And then, later on, I'll talk to someone and they're like, "You shouldn't be doing that at all." And I'm like, "Oh," so not only did I pick the cheapest way to get it done or not the cheapest way to get it done, I'm doing something that doesn't need to be done. Or we pick nutritional value or let's pick something less nebulous — whatever my parents will like the best. That's a pretty common choice. I think that a lot of people make when it comes to career and education when they're young or will this make me happy right now, which sounds really dumb when you say it like that. But then when you're at the store thinking like, "Ooh, look at this fancy gadget." You don't really say, "Will this make me happy right now?" You go, "No, I need this because," because you rationalize, "Oh, wow. I'm definitely going to use this giant — " We were just talking about our tech toys before this because we have audio gear that is absolutely not required to make a podcast. It's a hundred times the price of the minimum entry-level podcast gear.
Steven Johnson: [00:15:18] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:19] And like music studios, don't even have some of the stuff that you and I have for recording are very impressive voices into the computer. And so it's like, "Well, yeah, this will make me happy," but I've convinced myself that this is good for the business. That I'll have more listeners because I have an $8,000 studio instead of an $80 mic.
Steven Johnson: [00:15:37] Well, and that's the thing — I mean, I want to make it clear. All the techniques that we can talk about that are in the book are things that most of the time should not be applied to the decision of whether to buy that gear. You should just go buy that gear or not, but they don't go through an elaborate thing —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:15:51] No gymnastics.
Steven Johnson: [00:15:51] It's really like separating out the times when it really matters. In a funny way, like what you said offhand there about like, one way to do it is just like, "What would my parents like?"
Jordan Harbinger: [00:16:00] Right.
Steven Johnson: [00:16:03] It's not a terrible strategy, particularly when you're young and you're impatient because you're in a sense saying like, "Look, my parents have been around for a lot longer. They've accumulated a lot more kind of tacit knowledge about the world and the consequences of choices and all that kind of stuff. And so maybe it's just easier rather than me to do all this math myself. Like if I just offer it to them in that way, and there's not a crazy way to do it." But this is for folks who want to do the math on their own.
[00:16:27] And also one of the things I should say is like the book goes back and forth between long-term decisions for individuals and also like social decisions, like planning, decisions, city decisions, political decisions, and things like that. Because the rules that I'm talking about or the techniques I'm talking about apply in both cases. In terms of the other options, kind of idea — You know, one of the stories that I enjoyed kind of putting together in the book is a story — I'm in Brooklyn right now as I'm talking to you — and in New York, there's this great story in Manhattan about the High Line, which was this abandoned elevated rail line that ran through Chelsea and was for 30 years, like basically it was abandoned, was an eyesore. There was one question about “Should we tear this thing down?” Like, that was it. It was obviously not useful in any way. And there was just — “Should it be torn down or should we just let it rot there?” And then kind of collectively, as a society, people came up with the idea like, "Wait a second, maybe there's another option here. Maybe we're looking at this problem wrong." And in fact, you could reinvent this space and you could turn it into a park and people could walk on this long, 30-block stretch, elevated above the city, and you can have these wonderful grasslands and things like that. And it ended up being as one of the — probably most influential urban parks built in the last 20 years precisely because people were like, "Wait, are we really including all the potential options here?" And now it's so successful, of course, that like the neighborhood around has become incredibly expensive and it's overcrowded and it's such a success. Nobody goes there anymore.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:17:55] Yeah, it's a park and you're like, "I don't want to be ass-to-elbow with a bunch of people walking on this kind of like an elevated park." It's such a pain. You can't walk and God forbid, you’ve got a stroller with you. Forget it. You’ve got to carry your kid over 700 people who are standing there taking selfies. Oh, and now you've got to be six feet away. It can only be one is on one end of the rail. The is on the other side. It's like this is not fun anymore. Yeah. And if you overlooked it, I don't know, 30 years ago, you're like, "This damn eyesore outside of my window. This thing sucks." And now you're like, "Ooh, I’ve got a park out there."
Steven Johnson: [00:18:27] Right.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:18:27] Unbelievable. Humans also kind of don't really think well about probability, I think. Annie Duke was on the show, her book Thinking in Bets — we'll link to that in the show notes. But Thinking in Bets, her argument leads to better predictions. Because I know when my three guesses for probability are for sure that's going to happen, no way that's going to happen, or maybe it's going to happen. I kind of have like zero, 100 and sometimes I have a 50-50 chance. And that's when I'm feeling very creative. I never really drill it down deeper than that.
Steven Johnson: [00:19:00] Yeah, that's great. I mean, the aim is the first key has a line where she says that those are the three settings that humans have. It's like, it's definitely, never, and maybe. That's it. And it's one place where we may find more and more opportunities for collaboration with machine intelligence, right? That the machines are actually really good at doing probabilities. Humans are really bad at doing probabilities. Humans are good at lots of other elements of it, but we may be able to — like one of the things I talk about a little bit, and actually in a piece I wrote after the book came out is decision making in terms of things like decisions that judges make and in terms of things like, you know, setting bail for people where you're really looking at probabilities. Like, "What is the likelihood that if I release this guy on a hundred-dollar bail that he's going to go and commit another crime?" And that turns out to be a thing that it looks like if you tune it right, you can get algorithms that can actually outperform judges. That can actually be a less racist system in the judges. There's a lot of talk about the algorithms being more racist than judges. And it's not a kind of thing where you want to just say like, "All right, I'm trying to decide if I should take this job or not. So, hey Siri, tell me," I just lit up by Siri here, "Tell me the odds of this." That's not going to be the case and actually have the AI make the decision for you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:20:11] "Take whatever job you need to pay for the next iPhone."
Steven Johnson: [00:20:15] She looked up the word odds in Wikipedia. Yeah, it was very nice. So it's not that you're going to offload the decision to the machine, but you might collaborate with the machine where it's like, "This is my assessment." And the machine is then another voice that gives you a different perspective. And if the machine analysis of the situation is so wildly divergent from yours, then you have to question your assumptions. But it's a way of kind of getting more eyes on the problem, in this case, visualize. But a broader point about risk is — you know, I think this is something that has come up a lot in our current crisis because so much of it is about trying to make risk calculations that are entirely unique. Like we were living in New York, we live in Brooklyn in a big apartment building and we've got teenagers. You know, we have a dog that we have to walk through the elevator and you're sitting there saying like, "Okay, how much are we at risk in terms of COVID-19? At what point am I going to — how dangerous is this elevator?"
[00:21:14] And if we get into a car and we drive seven hours to a place where we're far away — like are we actually creating more risks for ourselves because, in fact, we're more likely to die in seven hours of highway driving than we are as healthy young people — more or less not that young — but as a healthy 51-year-old —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:21:33] I was like, “Who are we talking about again?”
Steven Johnson: [00:21:36] I'm not like — and life is like that. And you begin to realize how much of a risk is pre-calibrated for you. Like the assessments have all been done and it's like, you should wear the seatbelt, and you should buy a car with airbags because this is good, and you should do this, and you shouldn't drink and drive. And we've figured out the odds of all these things over time. But then when you get a unique situation, like the one we're in with COVID-19, suddenly you realize you have to run all those kinds of risk assessments on your own, or the experts are trying as best as they can, but nobody knows yet. You know, that's a huge part of these kinds of calculations.
[00:22:12] Another AI kind of version of this, I talked about it a little bit in the book is the original patent application for Google's self-driving car system. I had this great thing that I love. It's such a great metaphor. Those are called the Bad Events Table. And it's this grid of like all the things that could go wrong. As the self-driving car is driving around, it has clipped the side of a parked car, slightly damaging the door handle of the current car, all the way to a head-on collision with bus — destroying the passengers at high speed. And next to each of these possibilities is the likelihood of it happening given the current situation and given the options that are available to the car at that particular moment, swerving this way, swerving that way. And the magnitude of the risk in the sense of how bad would it be. And so it was a way of measuring how likely is it and how terrible would it be if this happened. And what the car is doing, kind of at the speed of thought is running all those things and saying like, "Okay, if I swerve this way, there's a slight chance that I will accidentally graze the side of the car. But I'm entirely eliminating the risk that I will run over this pedestrian, which would be terrible and has a very high kind of magnitude of danger or threat or whatever." And that is in a sense, like what you want in your life, like is to be at a slower pace, sitting there going like, "Okay, with this choice, like what are the potential dangers here? How bad are they? And then what's the likelihood of each of these dangers? So a very kind of high likelihood, but low danger thing is okay, I can tolerate that."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:23:54] Sure.
Steven Johnson: [00:23:55] But how much are we planning for the very low probability, but very high danger or threat scenario?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:02] Like a meteor hitting the earth?
Steven Johnson: [00:24:04] Like a meteor or like a pandemic, right? Like, that part of the critique of where we are right now is that we didn't spend enough time as a society or some people in power of paying attention to low probability — you know, week after week, it's a very low probability, but in the long run, it's a higher probability, but very high risk, high threat events. That's something to be thinking about, even if they're not likely to happen this year or next year. They're probably likely to happen at some point. And they're going to be so bad that we want to plan for that. And that, hopefully, we'll get better at that kind of thinking to have gone through this.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:24:37] You're listening to The Jordan Harbinger Show with our guest Steven Johnson. We'll be right back.
[00:24:41] This episode is sponsored in part by Purple. These guys make amazing pillows that keep their shape. They're not too hot. They're not too cold. They got this patented grid in there. It's got 2,800 open-air channels. They wanted me to be really sure to tell you about those 2,800 open-air channels that naturally are temperature neutral gel. So you never sleep too hot. You never sleep too cold. Although for me, there's no such thing as a pillow. That's too cold. If I could have like a nice pillow —
Sal Cotching: [00:25:07] Oh, my God.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:08] — that was soft. I would do it.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:10] Yeah. Where do I sign up? Exactly. I liked the pillow so far. Jen stole it from me. That's how good it is. And, of course, you know, they're going to ship it free with a hundred-night trial. And then apparently you can mail back this dirty drool-covered pillow if you don't like it. But for me, I'm keeping it.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:25:52] This episode is also sponsored by BiOptimizers. If there's one mineral, you're not getting enough of it, let's admit it we're probably not getting enough of any minerals, but we're definitely not getting enough magnesium. Right, Sal?
Sal Cotching: [00:26:03] Yeah, you might not know this, Jordan, but magnesium is actually great for helping with period pain.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:26:08] I did not know that, but I do know that when Jen was pregnant, she got a ton of leg cramps and we grabbed this product from BiOptimizers — because I told my friend that she was having that and she took this and her leg cramps stopped. And then she was like, "Oh, it's just psychological or whatever." So she stopped taking it and immediately the leg cramps returned. Because I guess whenever you're 3D printing another human in the form of a baby, they're just sapping all of your magnesium and probably other minerals that you are already deficient in. But with magnesium when you're not getting enough, you know it because you get cramps. And there's a lot of biological processes that involve magnesium — so metabolism, energy, digestion, and all that. It's deficient in the soil. We're only getting one or two forms when we take other supplements. So BiOptimizers created magnesium breakthrough, which is a very sort of extreme — it sounds like an extreme form of magnesium, but I think the idea here is it has all seven critical forms of magnesium for all those bodily functions and tell them where they can grab a deal on that. We have a little coupon for them.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:27:48] Oh, those are some great products and/or services were they not? Now back to Steven Johnson on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
[00:27:56] I do totally understand why people in power were to spend tens of millions of dollars on this thing that hasn't happened since 1918 or fix some other problem that everyone's whining about right now. You know, I get it.
Steven Johnson: [00:28:10] I do too, but hopefully, we'll now be able to point to this and say, "This other thing we want to spend money on is like the next COVID-19." We need to at least spend some time thinking about it.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:23] Remember when we lost ten trillion dollars in value because we didn't invest like $200 million in prevention.
Steven Johnson: [00:28:30] Right. Do you remember it? Does that ring a bell at all?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:28:33] Yeah. Oh, you mean last year? Oh, you mean right now? You mean, March. The problem is this can also be a mistake, right? We zoom into the aftermath of the decisions, but we seldom look at the process and we look at results over process, but knowing the results never really helps us recreate the success or, I guess, failure. So knowing the process is what really does this, and this is where we can learn and grow in our abilities, right? Like we're not going to get necessarily better at — I guess, well, some of us might get better at predicting results, but we would really stand to get better at knowing what the process of getting a positive result looks like versus just like getting better at guessing where things are going.
Steven Johnson: [00:29:11] So, one of the things that kind of runs through the book is this extended analysis of the decision-making process that the Obama White House made in deciding on its approach to the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:29:25] Right, the Osama bin Laden raid.
Steven Johnson: [00:29:27] The raid on the compound and about that — and I focused on that because it's a beautiful example of a decision process that was thought about specifically as a process with these different stages, following a lot of the kind of techniques that I talked about in the book — I've learned from them, they didn't learn from me. So it's a wonderful kind of case study in that, but I think it has an important in a sense kind of political message, which is to say the one question you never hear in a presidential debate is how do you make decisions, right? But that is the job on some level. It's like, "What are we going to do? Should we raise these taxes? Should we decide to fight COVID-19 this way?" It's all about decisions all day long and so it seems weird to me that we don't ask someone who works handing the keys to the country. Like, "How are you going to do that? What's your process going to be?" And there are some — I think Obama was actually a very interesting, kind of as a decision-maker. He is very deliberative, sometimes critique for that. But the methods that they use there were constantly about kind of challenging assumptions, bringing in a diverse team of people with different perspectives to look at the problem.
[00:30:35] A lot of the kind of bet strategy that's used. Like constant asking of what are the probabilities here. Both Obama and McRaven — kind of running the process — were constantly saying like, "What are the odds like? And what's your confidence level in this assessment?" which is a crucial kind of the second question when somebody says, "I think we should do this." And you say like, "Okay, but how confident are you that you're right." And just that exercise is really important. To me like that, when we think about leadership roles, anywhere, whether it's leadership roles in a corporation or in a non-profit or in government asking people like what is their process for making a decision, I think is a really important question we should do more of.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:14] Yeah, we see in the bin Laden raid, how some of the brainstorm ideas they came out with. This is a little bit of a side note. Because I guess whenever you're making a decision, you brainstorm and some of the ideas are just terrible. Like what were some of the worst ones? Because I know you mentioned them in the book. I'm just drawing a blank right now.
Steven Johnson: [00:31:28] So it was a two-part decision and they were trying to figure out if this mysterious figure in this compound actually is Osama bin Laden.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:31:35] Oh, right.
Steven Johnson: [00:31:36] They spent months trying to figure that out because they didn't want to get the wrong guy. And two, then it was, "What are we going to do about it?" And so the first part of the decision, they were trying to figure out how do they determine that it is Osama bin Laden. And so they had these ideas kind of like they were trying to get people out of the compound and someone was like, "We could broadcast out something saying that like, ‘This is the voice of God, like, this is the voice of Allah. Come out of your compound.’" That's a stupid idea. Nobody is going to fall for that. But that was, you know, it was a classic brainstorming kind of scenario where it's like no idea is too stupid — throw out, get as many parts on the table that you can think about and something interesting will happen out of that.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:15] That was a really — I wonder who the person was like, who said that — was this like a contest to get the worst idea out there? Or was it just somebody who was new? I don't know.
Steven Johnson: [00:32:25] I don't know.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:26] That's one of those ideas where you're like, "Hmm. Who brought this guy in the room? Whose guy is that?"
Steven Johnson: [00:32:32] Yeah. Everybody is like, "Oh, that idea is too stupid. I'm sorry. We've no idea is too stupid, but that one actually is and you're fired. Sorry."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:32:39] Yeah. "Sorry, what was your name again? Yeah, you don't work here anymore." Um, how did they avoid groupthink during the deliberation? Because it seems like you could easily be like, "Well, it's got to be him because I really want to get out of here and do this. And like, ah, it doesn't matter what the Pakistanis think of us invading their airspace." I mean, so many things could have gone wrong in this raid.
Steven Johnson: [00:33:00] One of the arguments that I make in the book is that diverse decisions are really good where you get an interesting mix of people together, there's a collective intelligence that's there. But there is a downside of that with just groupthink, right? If the room gets too united and confident in its choice and you miss a lot of things and that's to some extent what happened for instance, with the Cuban Missile Crisis and things like that — the Bay of Pigs is really even more than the Cuban Missile Crisis.
[00:33:22] But a diverse group is one way around that, right? Have people with different fields of expertise, different perspectives on literally gender diversity, ethnic diversity, all those things contribute — there's an endless amount of study that shows that diverse groups make collectively smarter, more nuanced decisions than homogeneous groups. So that's just one thing you can do to help yourself.
[00:33:42] And by the way, another political argument is like we tend to talk about — you know, when we see less diverse groups being elected to office, there's a kind of equality of opportunity argument there or equal representation argument there, which is all-important, but there's also another point from the social sciences, which is like, we know that those groups will make worse decisions. They are much more prone to groupthink than a group that is more eclectic. I mean, it makes for more tension and in-fighting and stuff like that, but the overall collective IQ of a group goes up the more diverse a group.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:11] that's interesting. So like I know the study in the book was that diverse juries tend to deliberate more and also better — what you'd said was just the presence of let's say non-whites in a jury made everyone else more open to alternative interpretations of what happened. And this also holds true with detectives picking suspects out of a lineup, all these different things. So it's not just like, "Oh, we need diversity because otherwise some people will feel left out — like that's important, don't get me wrong. But that's sort of one of those arguments where it's like, "But freedom." And you're like, "Eh, okay, whatever."
Steven Johnson: [00:34:40] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:34:41] Right. But there's like, no, no, no, no — the decision will be better for everyone. The result will actually be unambiguously better if we have people in there bumping heads together.
Steven Johnson: [00:34:53] And there are two levels to it. I mean, the original theory — this is a somewhat old idea, there's that guy, Scott Page has written about this. He would be a great guest on the show if he hasn't been on, but he wrote a book called The Difference. He's the guy who is famous for the Diversity Trumps Ability kind of argument. You can get a bunch of high IQ people in a room who are all from the same background and they're all white men or whatever that could be all black women but if they're homogeneous, you get a lower IQ or whatever — however you want to measure intelligence — a group that is diverse. They will outperform on tasks that involve creative thinking and problem-solving because of it. But the old theory was that the reason why the diverse groups are smarter collectively is that each person brings in new perspectives and ideas and information that other members of the group don't have. And so there's just more information that's there to help deliberately.
[00:35:45] And that's part of the answer, the explanation for this phenomenon, but there's another part of it, which has kind of been revealed recently, which is that you alluded to this, which is just the presence of people with a different perspective or background or gender or whatever it is, elicits new information from the original in-group. So let's say you're the guy who was part of the original homogeneous group, and then you diversify the group, you yourself actually will come up with new ideas in your own mind. You won't just learn from those other people because the presence of people with different backgrounds and assumptions makes you kind of challenge your gut — you know, first impressions are instincts. And so everybody individually gets smarter in the group. So it's a really interesting phenomenon. But I've forgotten now how we were, where this was connected to.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:30] I think we were talking about groupthink and avoiding — you know what I'm sure we'll pick that thread back up but —
Steven Johnson: [00:36:35] Oh, I know exactly where we were.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:36] Okay.
Steven Johnson: [00:36:37] The big strategy in terms of avoiding groupthink beyond just having a diverse group, which has played a key role in the Osama bin Laden decision process, is this technique of basically building deliberately negative scenarios or predictions about the consequences of the choice being made. The best example of this is this technique called the pre-mortem.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:36:59] Yes.
Steven Johnson: [00:37:00] They were my favorite little, like a trick from the book and the idea of the pre-mortem is — so a post-mortem in conventional language is you're the medical examiner and someone comes in and they're dead and the post-mortem is to figure out what has killed this person. A pre-mortem is a mental exercise you do in a sense where it's like this patient is going to die, tell a story about how the patient came to die. And the exercise is we're about to make this big decision and we have decided that path A is the right one to do. We're going to do a raid by helicopters on bin Laden's lair or I'm going to go to law school or whatever it is.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:37:41] Both equal important decisions.
Steven Johnson: [00:37:41] You're basically right there and you're pretty much ready to pull the trigger on this decision. You get a group together and you do a pre-mortem and the pre-mortem exercise is to say, "Okay, he's going to go to law school. And in five years, this turned out to be a disastrous choice. Tell the story of how it became such a disaster." And it's basically, it's a scenario planning, it's a kind of a narrative storytelling exercise, and everybody has to kind of do it separately basically. And everybody comes back and is like, "Okay, here's a story. He went to law school and it turned out that it really narrowed his perspective on the world. And he ended up — it turns out the law business crashed because there are too many lawyers out there and he ended up not having a job and he wasn't intellectually happy." You know, whatever it is, you build the story, right? Am I describing your life?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:38:27] Yeah, pretty much. I mean, the result was like it did crash because the economy crashed. It was like, "We don't need all of these knuckleheads doing paperwork about real estate finance. They should all retool overnight." And now the law firms were like, "We're not going to hire you. You didn't even want to work here originally." And I'm like, "I didn't want to be a lawyer. What the hell am I doing? Start a podcast, that's where the money's at."
Steven Johnson: [00:38:47] There you go, so it all worked out. So you'd run that exercise. And the point of the exercise from the folks who have studied it is that people are much more perceptive at seeing potential problems with the choice when you ask them to tell a story that way, as opposed to just saying like, "Okay, the plan is we're going to go to law school. Does anybody have any problems with it?" You know, when you ask it that way, people are like, "No, it looks good."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:14] "Sounds good."
Steven Johnson: [00:39:15] "Being a lawyer is a great job. He seems like a lawyer. This is great." But when you ask them to tell the story, it forces them to actually look for the holes and the exercise of gathering the group and hearing all these different stories ends up — even if you end up going to law school or pursuing the raid, you're prepped a little bit for the ways in which it could go south on you. Or you end up being able to kind of keep some of the potential problems at bay because you've anticipated them through this exercise.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:39:40] Is this the same thing as scenario planning, where you get people together and you tell multiple stories, one where things get worse, one where things get better, and one where things get weird? Or is that something else?
Steven Johnson: [00:39:49] Yeah. I mean, scenario planning, it's very similar. Conventionally, it is slightly earlier in the process where you're looking at a bunch of different options, or you're trying to understand the kind of broader kind of tableau and I do love — I'm glad you brought that up because that trio, like tell three stories about the future one where it gets better, one where it gets worse, and one where it gets weird. And the third one is the great one, right? Like you're like we're trying to figure out — think about it in a business context. Like, "We're going to launch this new kind of toothpaste. And we want to think about where the world's going to be in 10 years." Long-term decision making here, right? And so if we launched this new toothpaste, write a story about how this goes great, and tell the story about how it goes terrible, and then tell the story about how it goes weird. You can be like, "Oh, it goes great because the market is huge and we're breaking all these new markets. It goes badly because our competitors come up with another kind of toothpaste that is better. Weird is like maybe people don't have teeth in 10 years."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:40:42] Right, I was going to say, "What if we just don't need — like, you can just buy new teeth so easily at the dentist. It's like why would I waste time brushing them? I can go get a new set in a month and it'll be fine."
Steven Johnson: [00:40:52] I mean, most people aren't inclined to imagine the weird scenarios. But like, look at where we are. We're in a classic weird scenario that a small number of interesting eclectic people have been predicting precisely because they're open to the idea of weird scenarios and thinking about what those would be.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:11] Those people are called doctors, by the way. They all have — every doctor was like, "This was inevitable, man."
Steven Johnson: [00:41:17] Yeah, totally.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:41:18] Yes. But sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you, but this process does seem quite interesting. Before I forget, I want to go back to the diversity of thought issue. You mentioned that reading can also make us better decision-makers, which is music to my ears, but what is it? Is it the stories? Because, you know, can I just use Netflix? Do I have to read a novel?
Steven Johnson: [00:41:38] You know, actually, I mean, I would say the great long kind of format either movies, but particularly, long format, television narrative, these days and the golden age of television is the closest thing. I talk a lot about novels in the book, but you know, a classic Netflix drama is as close to that as you can get, I think. But remember how we were talking to the very beginning about how every complicated life decision is unique, right? It's like a snowflake or a fingerprint, it will never be repeated exactly this configuration. And so the trick of it is to develop better perceptual skills to see the problem in itself and its unique properties and all that stuff. And in a sense, what I began to realize as I was writing this is that great storytelling and I would say particularly novelistic storytelling for a specific reason in some ways gives us practice.
[00:42:29] When we see somebody making a complicated decision in a story and when it's told — you know, I talk a lot about Middlemarch, Eliot's great book from the 19th century, because there are these core decisions in that book and she is so incredibly good at teasing all the different elements. And you watch this very sophisticated mind trying to figure out what the best path forward is. It just gives you, it's like a rehearsal, it's like a simulation of the kind of thinking you will need to do in your own life. It's a different set of problems, a different set of variables, different people involved, but when you see somebody doing it, it's a way of kind of rehearsing that. And I think you can get that from TV. There are — like Breaking Bad. Middlemarch and Breaking Bad —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:12] Speaking of great novels and literature, Breaking Bad —
Steven Johnson: [00:43:16] Breaking Bad and Middlemarch are similar in this way. Here you go —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:43:19] They both were in the myth.
Steven Johnson: [00:43:20] I'm going to go back to grad school to defend this connection. But what it is like a series of you could say cascadingly bad decisions, but he's constantly trying to figure out given an incredibly complex set of problems, the best path through this thing, trying to keep his family alive and somehow support himself, but not get killed by the drug lords or whatever it is, you know, whatever issues. And what makes it so powerful is it's not actually like the action scenes or like the violence or all these other things that we think of as being thrilling. Like how is he going to figure this out? Like how is he going to thread this needle that he's found himself in? And it made me realize how — like, the thing I've always loved about storytelling, whether it's on TV or movies or in a book are those points when somebody has a really complicated choice to make and they either make it well, or they make it poorly, but like they have that kind of moment.
[00:44:15] And so, I began to realize this is one of the reasons why we love literature and great storytelling is an important thing because it's like practice for our own lives and for our own choices. And the more we read, the more we kind of get these alternate kinds of scenarios that we can learn from and kind of rehearse the choices we're going to have to make in our own actual lives.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:44:36] We got to take a quick break from Steven Johnson for a little capitalism. We'll be right back.
[00:44:40] This episode is sponsored in part by Athletic Greens. Even with a balanced diet — which I don't have — it's difficult to cover all of your nutritional basis and Athletic Greens wants to help you with that. Their daily drink is like nutritional insurance for your body that is delivered straight to your door. It's a complex blend of 75 vitamins, minerals, and whole food-sourced ingredients. It's a greens powder engineered to help fill the nutritional gaps in your diet. And I'm sure I have plenty of those. It's also diet-friendly. So if you're super high maintenance, if you're that annoying friend, that's like, "I'm keto, paleo, vegan, dairy-free, gluten-free." You can drink athletic greens anyway, and they have less than one gram of sugar and still taste great. It certainly doesn't taste like something that has 75 different vegetables in it. I'll tell you that. And it's made in New Zealand. Sal, do you have any thoughts on that?
Sal Cotching: [00:45:22] Yeah, you got to trust the Kiwis. I'm a Kiwi and — you trust me, right?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:45:28] TBD on that. It depends on context really, but yes, how's — ? Yes. That's what I meant to say.
Sal Cotching: [00:45:33] I got the Aussie accent though, so maybe I'm straddling both.
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Jordan Harbinger: [00:48:10] After the show, we've got a preview trailer of our interview with hip-hop legend, T.I. Harris on how he went from committing crimes to committing rhymes. If you like a good comeback story, stay tuned for that after the close of the show.
[00:48:21] Thank you for listening and supporting the show. Your support of our advertisers keeps us going and it means a lot to me, it means a lot to us. If you want to get a handle on those discounts, go to jordanharbinger.com/deals and they're all listed there. Don't forget we have a worksheet for today's episode and for every episode. The link to those is in the show notes at jordanharbinger.com/podcast. Now here's the rest of our conversation with Stephen Johnson.
[00:48:48] You mentioned novels in the default network. Can you tell us a little bit about what the default network is? We talk about it on the show from time to time, but I think a lot of people are probably wondering, "Okay, how does the default network help me make better decisions? Like, why am I making decisions in the shower?"
Steven Johnson: [00:49:00] Yeah.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:01] That's kind of the common refrain — I post a lot of things that I come up with in the shower because it works.
Steven Johnson: [00:49:07] I'm glad you're not podcasting from the shower though.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:10] No.
Steven Johnson: [00:49:10] I do see a video image of you.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:49:12] The waterproof mic market is really small and there are only a few options and I haven't found the satisfaction with any of them.
Steven Johnson: [00:49:18] So I actually wrote a longer piece for The New York Times Magazine about this. If folks are interested -- the name I can't remember [ed. note: The Human Brain Is a Time Traveler], but you'll hopefully find the link to it because it's a really interesting story. It's a great story of scientific discovery, actually. So in the early days of brain imaging, when you had the first generation of fMRIs and PET scans, this is the kind of late '80s, early '90s. So for the first time, you could see changes in activity in different parts of the brain over time or over short intervals of time. And so you could ask someone to do multiplication and you can see parts of the brain light up that were clearly attached to doing mental math in your head or reading or speaking or thinking of chocolate or whatever it was you wanted to study. And so everybody's like, "Oh, this is amazing. We can finally tell what parts of the brain are devoted to what kinds of tasks,” and so on. But to do that — because there's a lot of activity going on in your brain all the time — you had to have control, right? So if you're studying people doing mental math, you had to scan them doing multiplication tables, and then you had to scan them not doing multiplication tables.
[00:50:21] So you could compare the two images and figure out what the difference was and the difference would be that's the part of the brain that's involved in mental math. But then they had this weird thing where they would tell people to sit there and do nothing as the control while they scan their brains for 30 seconds or a minute or something like that. When the scans came back, when people were told to do nothing, there was more activity in the brain than when they were actually doing the tasks, they were allegedly studying. Hmm. And the activity was in the evolutionarily modern parts of the brain, the most human parts of the brain —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:50:55] Interesting.
Steven Johnson: [00:50:55] — were lighting up. So for the first 10 times, this happened separately the people were like, "Well, our machine is broken."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:01] Sure.
Steven Johnson: [00:51:01] They told them to think of nothing and —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:03] I remember doing these in college a lot. And I always secretly wondered if I was the control and they're like, "There's nothing going on in this guy." Like, "Does this guy know he's part of the experiment? Hello?"
Steven Johnson: [00:51:16] So then I started like, asking people like, “What was happening in that period when we told you to do nothing?” And they basically realized what people were doing is they were daydreaming.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:51:24] Yeah, sure.
Steven Johnson: [00:51:25] You know, they were just like, they were told to do nothing and their brains naturally were like, "Oh, you know, okay, so next week I’ve got to do that thing. And I'm wondering if I can get that job promotion because then if I could do that, I could get that raise, and then we can buy that house. And maybe I could — ” You know, people just doing that in cycles and it turned out that most of the time people were telling kind of mini-stories about the near and long-term future. They were running these little scenario plans in their heads. And what eventually they realized is that this part of the brain, they call it the default network because it seems to be what, left to its own devices, this is what the human brain does. It runs these little scenarios about the future, and they now think that this is a key part of our intelligence as a species. We think that most animals, even some of our close relatives, like in the great apes, have a very limited sense of the future. Like nobody's sitting there, no chimpanzee is like, "What are we doing next summer?" Like that, there's no concept of a next summer in the mind of a chimpanzee. Whereas humans are constantly thinking like this and it seems like actually, we do it — it's one of these things where we do it so well, we don't even realize how much kind of computation in cycles it's using up in our own brains until we were able to scan it.
[00:52:39] And suddenly we realized, wow, thinking about the future is really hard. It uses up a lot of cycles, but we're so good at it that we don't even think of it as a superpower, but it actually is a superpower. And people believe that you can look at folks who I have had — like Phineas Gage, this famous kind of 19th-century study, where people who have damage to parts of the brain that are integral to the default network, they're very bad at decision making. They can be very nice. They speak fluently. They don't seem to have brain damage, but they end up like losing all their money gambling or unable to map a kind of career path for themselves.
[00:53:15] And so the argument is that this cycle of kind of thing dreaming and thinking about the future and running through these different scenarios is essential to our ability to make nuanced important life decisions. So the implications of that are that you want to leave time in your life for doing that. That's what the shower is, right? Like the shower is that because there's nobody in there with you most of the time. Unless you really have a problem, there's generally not Twitter in there. You can't host a podcast in the shower. So it's one of the few times in life where you get 10 minutes where you're just kind of sitting and letting your mind wander. There are other ways to do it. Like walks, I get as a New Yorker, like just going out for a walk — actually I tend to do it without headphones and things like that because I like to let my mind kind of go off in these little loops.
[00:54:05] That is a really important kind of exercise. And it's not — the other thing is like people talk about screens and getting away from screens and meditating more and things like that — it doesn't quite fit that opposition because so much of meditation — this is not true of all meditation, but so much of meditation is trying to stop your brain from wandering.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:23] Right, like shut off the default network. It's like your brain does not want to do that.
Steven Johnson: [00:54:26] Yeah. And there's maybe some value — and there's definitely some value for people who have issues with the anxiety because what happens when you have kind of clinical anxiety is the default network keeps taking you to these negative places and it sets off —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:54:39] Right, rumination. It's, "You're never going to be successful." "Ugh, I was just trying to get a bagel." Yeah.
Steven Johnson: [00:54:44] But if you don't have a serious problem with that, and meditation in and of itself can be valuable for other things, but also leaving time in your life where you just let that default network run — you take a longer shower, you take a longer walk, and you kind of let those that processing happening. That's an incredible kind of intuitive resource that we all have.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:03] When we're making these choices, how do we look for our blind spots? We can't really say like, “Sit down and make a list of everything you would never think of.”
Steven Johnson: [00:55:11] Yeah. Yeah. That was —
Jordan Harbinger: [00:55:12] That's a cliche, right?
Steven Johnson: [00:55:13] Yeah. That was a great quote. Like the one thing a person cannot do is write a list of things that would never occur to them but on some level, that's what these choices are about. Like there's something that you're not seeing that you have to kind of figure out how to get to. And a lot of the things that we've talked about are blind spots or tools for seeing around blind spots. That's a huge asset in thinking about diverse groups in decision makings, but he has a different perspective and literally can see — they see that thing that's coming that you can't see because they just look at the world in a different way. And that's another way in which the pre-mortem is a really useful exercise. Like what's the risk that you're not seeing? That's what I was talking about at the beginning of the conversation like that's the role my dad is always playing in my life. He is the — I think the knowledge was, I think, I called her like master par excellence of the pre-mortem. Like, whatever I'm doing, I'm like, "Dad, so we're going to have a nice salad for dinner." And he's like, "Oh, that's going to go very poorly."
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:08] Or there are so many problems with that.
Steven Johnson: [00:56:11] But it is great because it compliments my natural optimism about things, which is something that I have benefitted from him as well. That I need someone around me to kind of be like on my shoulder. But think about how this could go badly or what are you missing? You know, what's in that blind spot that you can't see?
Jordan Harbinger: [00:56:28] You mentioned that we tend to overvalue information that we have and undervalue information that we don't have. So if I already know something, maybe I'm more apt to kind of think that that's what's important in the exam. The metaphor, I guess, you give is, "A drunk guy looking for his keys under a streetlight, even though he dropped him somewhere else because the light is better over here." So explain this because I'd never heard that we actually tend to overvalue information that we have. But it completely makes sense. We do more consideration with it because there's more to hold up.
Steven Johnson: [00:57:00] Yeah. It's probably this exercise of — it's a kind of information humility, right? Particularly, when you're in the early stages of a choice, beginning with the assumption that there's a whole vast set of variables that are going to be important to this choice that you haven't even identified yet. That's part of the reason why it's important to have that early stage we were talking about at the beginning about seeking other options. There might be a second path that hasn't even occurred to you yet. So don't even start thinking about whether to do this or not like let's be humble at this early stage and assume that we only know a small kind of part of that process.
[00:57:34] A lot of the problems we're talking about right now are variations on a theme of overconfidence. Groupthink is a collective overconfidence. Confirmation bias, which we haven't said, but it's kind of like implicit in what we've been talking about. Like, you want to see your preconceived ideas kind of confirmed in the world until you see everything through that lens. We were talking about the Obama routine — like, what's your confidence level that this thing you're advocating for is right. Like asking that follow up question and say like, "Yeah, you're advising us to do this, but like, how confident are you that you're right?" And that's the bet strategy you talked about as well. Like forcing yourself to be like, "How much do I really believe in this particular theory of change, and what's going to happen?" And so much of this is about battling overconfidence and having that kind of initial humility that I don't fully understand this yet. And that, you know, it's hard to do particularly — I mean, I find it hard to do because generally my life has gone pretty well and I've made decisions that have ended up putting me in a pretty good place that I've been happy with. But I also have to like, remind myself, there are lots of things that I could have done better. And just because I ended up falling in this path and it turned out all right, it doesn't necessarily mean I was right all the time. I could have just been lucky, I guess. You have to have that kind of humility to go into making a complex choice.
Jordan Harbinger: [00:58:52] I think it's good to celebrate the idea that we could have forgotten something or that we did forget something or that some of it is luck. And I think the funny anecdote you give is in the bin Laden raid, they planned every detail meticulously, but at the end, they forgot a tape measure to see if the guy that killed was actually six foot five because they knew bin Laden was 6'5". So they've got this body and they're like, "Oh, shoot, nobody's got a tape measure to measure him." It's part of the identification process. So they had some other soldier who was, I guess, verifiably 6'5" lay next to this dead body, which must be one of the stories that this guy tells at the bar, every chance he gets.
Steven Johnson: [00:59:29] No one believes it. They'll be like, "Why were you lying to — ?"
Jordan Harbinger: [00:59:32] "Did you know grandpa lay down next to a dead body of a famous terrorist to see if it was him?" I mean, it's just kind of crazy and it's dark. Like we're chuckling, but it is like you're lying next to some dead guy, but they put a tape measure, I guess, on the plaque commemorating this operation. And is it that they gave it to Admiral McRaven? There's like a tape measure and it's like, "Here's the one tiny detail that you forgot and this otherwise almost perfectly executed mission."
Steven Johnson: [00:59:56] Yeah, I thought it was kind of weird because it was a little bit of a — I don't know, like a backhanded compliment for an award.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:01] It's like, "You're great. But I just want you to know you're not perfect."
Steven Johnson: [01:00:04] For the rest of your life — you're going to put this thing up in your cabinet. It's going to have a reminder of the one thing that you screwed up in this incredible achievement.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:00:12] Right. It's like if you landed on the moon and it was like, "Here's the ham sandwich that was half-eaten that you left on the shuttle on the way back." Like, "Oops, what am I supposed to do?"
Steven Johnson: [01:00:20] But you know, that actually reminds me that one of the other stories — that's connected to this in the Obama thing — is that once they decided that they were going to fly through Pakistani airspace to get to the lair and they weren't going to notify the Pakistanis. They were worried about the security risk if they said, "Hey, by the way, we're going to send three of these helicopters through your space at low altitude." They're afraid that it would leak and they weren't sure this was so crazy that bin Laden was there in Pakistan. They were worried that somehow maybe the authorities knew it. And so they decided to not tell them. But then they did the same kind of pre-mortem, you know, negative scenario planning. They were like, "What could be the consequences of that?" And one of the things that they did was they said, "Oh, well, they could be so ticked off by this, that they might eject just from using both land and air routes through Pakistan," which was their primary way of getting military supplies to Afghanistan.
[01:01:13] And so nobody really was this at the time, but like a month or so before the raid, when nobody had any idea that they'd found him, they opened up another path through parts of Russia that would allow them to get supplies into Afghanistan if in fact they got kicked out because of this. So they were just running all these different kind of imagined scenarios because they didn't want to be — they'd seen so many cases, whether it was the botched rescue of the hostages and Jimmy Carter or whether it was the Bay of Pigs fiasco, where people had just failed to run all those different scenarios and anticipate them. And obviously, there's always the tape measure that you forget but it's not a perfect science. You can't anticipate everything, but you can dramatically increase your odds of getting results that you like by trying to run through these routines.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:02:01] How did you go from farsighted decision-making to, "All right, I'm going to write about pirates." I mean, I guess that's what writers do, but it seems like a wild jump. You know, you see business book writers like Chip and Dan Heath, and it's like, their books are different, but they're at least seemingly tangentially related.
Steven Johnson: [01:02:18] Yeah. You know it's been the kind of curse and blessing of my career that I have. Like, I wrote a book about video games and pop culture, and I wrote a book about cholera in the 19th century, and then I wrote a book about innovation and decision making. And then now I'm back to 17th-century pirates with Enemy of All Mankind. So it is weird. I mean, I think there are some people who are like, "I like those kinds of books that Steven. But I have to figure out when he comes out with a new one, whether it's one of those books or whether it's one of the other ones." You know, I probably would have a more cohesive audience if I wrote the same kind of book but I don't know, I just like writing different genres, but there is a connection between Farsighted and the pirate books. So the pirate book is about this 17th-century pirate Henry Every who pulls off this heist of an Indian treasure ship and ends up triggering the first global manhunt in the history of the world. And it's the story about piracy, but it's also a story about the birth of capitalism in the world system. And it's got a million different themes. It's crazy — just the plot of the story, true story, is amazing. And hopefully, I kind of conveyed some of these issues around it in a compelling way.
[01:03:20] But what I realized is I was kind of finishing Farsighted as I was starting Enemy of All Mankind and there are multiple points in Enemy of All Mankind where the story kind of stops for a second and I take the reader through what I imagine was going through the mind of a few of these key players in it and the decisions that they're facing. There are a couple of key points where the pirate, for instance, he mutinies one ship at one point, and then he decides to go after this incredibly audacious kind of prize, which is very high risk. And then he has to figure out how to escape. And I realized from writing Farsighted that the kind of dramatic potential of getting as much as I can as historian mode inside the mind of these people and trying to show them wrestling with this immense choice that they have. It's like literally life or death choice with global consequences. It was a whole technique that I had never used really before in any of the historical accounts that I'd done. I'd written a lot about innovation, how people come up with new ideas, and similar in that way but watching somebody wrestle with a choice, the dramatic potential of that was something that was new to me with Enemy of All Mankind. I think it made the book a lot better for that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:04:29] Yeah, it makes sense. I'm wondering how you chase a pirate who's moving around the globe on a ship in like 1750, or whenever these things were happening?
Steven Johnson: [01:04:38] 1695. So the other interesting connection of Farsighted is that his pirate Henry Every was basically the bin Laden of his time. It's the first time where there was this question of like, here's this guy who's done something terrible and the whole world is — because of this battle between England and India and the East India company is making all this money. So they can't afford to take off the Indian government. And so it's just this huge thing that has erupted because of this one crime that this small band of people had committed. It's very similar to terrorism and the 20th century and 21st century.
[01:05:10] So the question was then as with bin Laden, you know, recently was given a whole set of institutions all around the world if they're all intent on finding one person, how likely is it that they'll find him? I remember thinking this about bin Laden. Like if the most wanted person in the world of everybody knows your name, like, is it possible to stay hidden? And it was kind of amazing, he lasted as long as he did. It was easier in a sense for Every because there was no Internet and no one was putting them on their Instagram feed in the background or something like that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:42] Right. Is that how they found like El Chapo, one of those times his son was like, "Yeah, I'm hanging out with my dad." It's like, "You are a moron."
Steven Johnson: [01:05:51] If they only had TikTok back in the day, my pirate would have been caught much earlier, but they don't have that.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:05:56] Yeah, like, "Swashbuckling with my mates. Oh, man, arrested." Steven, thank you so much. It's been a great show. It's been a fun, interesting show. And of course, decision making is always something that if you're able to get one percent better at, if that extrapolates or sort of ripples through your whole life, well, that's a worthy pursuit.
Steven Johnson: [01:06:17] Well, I'm glad you have me on and I'm glad you didn't become a lawyer. That's all I have to say.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:21] I did, unfortunately. I did. I was, and then I passed the bar and then I was like, now that I've done all the hard stuff, I'm out. Thank you very much.
Steven Johnson: [01:06:29] Thanks, man.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:06:32] Thanks to Steven Johnson for coming on the show today, his book is called Farsighted. His newest book is called Enemy of All Mankind: A True Story of Piracy, Power, and History's First Global Manhunt. You can find those in the show notes.
[01:06:44] By the way, I thought it was interesting today when he was saying that a lot of people are making decisions in poor ways. Jeff Bezos, he said, when he's 70 percent certain or only 30 percent uncertain, he'll pull the trigger on something. Imagine being less than three-quarters sure. Most of us don't think about certainty or anything, any decision as a matter of probability, we're usually pretty binary as we mentioned in the show. I thought it was interesting that Jeff Bezos, one of the richest men in the world, is confident being more or less, just over half sure before trying something.
[01:07:16] And most people really only consider one alternative when making a choice. I know this is true for me. It's really bad to constrain yourself like this. It's not a yes or no, it's not a this or that. Usually, there's a whole smorgasbord of choices and we just tend to ignore them because it's easier for our brain to wrap our mind around one or two choices or a binary choice. Decisions with multiple options though have statistically — or historically I should say — been judged successful more often than binary decisions. So in other words, if you give yourself three, four, or five choices, you will be more satisfied or more successful with a choice made from there than a yes or no. So when you constrain yourself, not only do you make a worse choice, but you feel worse about that choice.
[01:07:58] So in the future, if you find yourself thinking, a whether-or-not decision, you're thinking about whether or not to do something, instead try and actually bring in other options and consider those as well. So turn every whether-or-not decision into a which-one decision, not, "Do I take this job? Do I not take this job?" But, "Yes, maybe I'll take this, but I want to modify that. And I only want to do it for part-time or I only want to do it for a limited time." You can always, always, always ask, add options in there. And that's also true for negotiation by the way. I frequently negotiate deals, whether it's for advertising or something like that. And it's usually here are your options and it's never going to be in your favor when you're presented with options in a negotiation. So you should always take control of those options wherever possible. It's not going to be, "Well, this is $30 CPM for this, or it's $40 CPM for that." It's, "How about $25 CPM for a combination of this and that, and also I have all the leverage because you're trying to sell me something." That's how you can add options in here. And usually, you end up with the other party being less prepared to defend against that because they're used to controlling the frame and the set of options. And also it gives you so many alternatives that you realize once you have some alternatives, you realize you have even more. So it's never just yes or no. You add one option in there and you find, "Oh, you know, I could actually do this, this, this, this, this, or this," or just walk. Before you felt like you had to choose one of those options. You'd never have to do that. It's always a negotiation and you will be more satisfied with your decision after you do that too. So that's always nice.
[01:09:31] One thing I was also reminded of during this conversation was Shaquille O'Neal when he's trying to make important decisions in his life. If you heard our Shaq interview — we're going to be replaying that soon — but if you heard our Shaq interview, he has a panel of experts. It's like his accountant, his cousin, his mom, one of his coaches, his lawyer — they all opine because his mom wants him to be happy. His cousin wants to do what's really cool and is going to make his brand look good. His lawyer wants to keep them safe, and his accountant wants to make money. So when they can all kind of agree on things, he can take input from various places and it stops him from getting screwed. Because anybody else's agenda, you know, the accountant trying to pull one over on you, the lawyer, whatever is going to get called out by the other experts. I think that's a genius way to make important decisions in your own life. So think about who's on your panel. Who can you trust to help you make important decisions? They don't have to be experts on you or your life. They just have to be experts or people with good judgment in general, or an expert in a particular area like law or accounting.
[01:10:32] Anyway, that's enough for me right now. Hope you enjoyed this episode. Show notes will have the worksheets for this episode. So there'll be the practicals in there. We've also got the transcripts for each episode. And if you do buy the books, please use the website links because they do support the show.
[01:10:46] I'm teaching you how to connect with great people, like Steven Johnson, manage relationships, using systems, using tiny habits in six minutes a day. Literally, it's even less, but look, I needed a clever name, Six-Minute Networking. That's free. And it's at jordanharbinger.com/course. The problem with doing this later, you got to dig the well before you get thirsty. Build your network before you need it, folks, even if it feels hard, it feels like starting over. I guarantee you, you got more momentum than you think. Go there now jordanharbinger.com/course. It's freaking free people. I don't want to hear any whining if you don't do it and you get screwed over later and you don't have a network. This is easy to do. Best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, second best time is right now.
[01:11:26] Most of the guests you hear on the show, they subscribed to this course and the newsletter. Do you think you're smarter than them? I think not. By the way, if you did like this, reach out to Steven Johnson. Show guests love hearing from you. Twitter handles are always in the show notes. You never know what's going to shake out of that. Speaking of building relationships, you can always reach out and/or follow me on social. I'm at @JordanHarbinger on both Twitter and Instagram.
[01:11:47] This show's created an association with PodcastOne. And of course my amazing team, including Jen Harbinger, Jay Sanderson, Robert Fogarty, Ian Baird, Millie Ocampo, and Sal Cotching. Our advice and opinions and those of our guests are their own. And I might be a former lawyer and even a current lawyer, but I'm not your lawyer. I'm sure as heck, not a doctor nor therapist. I'm not even a writer. So do your own research before implementing anything you hear on the show. And remember, we rise by lifting others. The fee for the show is that you share it with friends when you find something useful or interesting. If you know somebody who's got a big decision coming up or wants to learn how to make decisions better, share this episode with them. Hopefully, you do find something useful in every episode. So please do share the show with those you love. In the meantime, do your best to apply what you hear on the show, so that you can live what you listen, and we'll see you next time.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:36] As promised, here's a preview of our interview with T.I. Tip Harris.
T.I.: [01:12:44] Where I'm from we do what we call pouring our own trouble.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:48] All right, cheers.
T.I.: [01:12:50] All right.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:12:50] You dropped out of high school. When you were that age were you thinking, "Oh, I'm just going to sell drugs for a while. Then I'm going to become a famous musician."
T.I.: [01:12:58] Well, to be perfectly candid with you, that's exactly what I was thinking.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:01] Really?
T.I.: [01:13:02] I was going to sell drugs until I earned myself the opportunity to become a musician or an artist. I found out my girlfriend at the time was pregnant with my oldest son. I quit my job at the airport. Completely started, headfirst into the street. That probably lasted about three or four months, but my probation officer still thought I'd work at the airport. We had been working on a demo to shop around. It was phenomenal stuff. I said, "If you could take me somewhere right now, where I can have an opportunity to present myself with somebody, then I'll stop." Jason said, "I know somewhere." And I say, "See, that's why we own the team together." So we pulled up, Jason walked me in the room, and then immediately, I met Reese and Mello. Three months after that, I was signed. A month before my son was born, I was straight.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:47] Your parole officer must've been like, "Oh, great. He's got a record deal. He's going to be back at the airport in like a month and a half. You are on thin ice, man."
T.I.: [01:13:55] I mean, to be honest with you, he didn't find that I wasn't at the airport until I told him.
Jordan Harbinger: [01:13:58] He still thinks you worked at the airport.
[01:14:02] For more with T.I. including some tips on how he runs his business here, check out episode 262 with Tip T.I. Harris right here on The Jordan Harbinger Show.
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