"By the Book" Rarely Writes a New Chapter

It's no secret that data is big. Decisions are made and projects are quashed because the numbers don't add up.

But can we rely too much on metrics? Bruce Feiler, "United States of Metrics:"

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the statistician and former options trader who wrote the best-selling book “The Black Swan,” about unexpected events, said he believes the current obsession with metrics is a seductive trap.

'The evil here is not having metrics,' he said. 'The problem is that you start trying to maximize every metric you have and reduce everything else.'

Mr. Taleb said he likes knowing how many kilograms of meat he’s buying, but if his meal is measured only by kilograms of meat and calories consumed, then dozens of other uncountable qualities, like the pleasure of the food or the quality of the conversation, go ignored.

Metrics should inform decisions, but for the decision maker they will never, alone, point to the best possible outcome, and certainly not to anything fundamentally new or innovative. That's because what's new and innovative is not fully knowable now. And if an ability to innovate or fundamentally change direction is important to you or your company, don't let anyone else tell you otherwise.

As a snapshot of the world, metrics by themselves cannot hope to match compression algorithm already in your mind, a mere 3.5 billion years in the making. Throw in an openness to experience, a widely read and well stocked attic and a tolerance for ambiguity, and that first-person thing called conscious thought already encodes for incredible possibility. That's because, unlike the numbers in a spreadsheet or model, the human mind knows the things that it knows. Its "uncountable qualities" add crucial information to the mix.

Rather than a class in statistical regression, perhaps a course in improvisation, theater or stand-up would be beneficial. Why? Like life, creative outcomes are always a work in progress. And that next step will always be a step into the unknown.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, by the way, spoke at the IdeaFestival not long after the publication of The Black Swan.

Stay curious. 


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