Curiosity about the interior life of other people’s day-to-day work is one of the most fundamental of human impulses.
You don’t start at the top if you want to find the story. You start in the middle, because it’s the people in the middle who do the actual work in the world.
People at the top are self-conscious about what they say (and rightfully so) because they have position and privilege to protect — and self-consciousness is the enemy of “interestingness.”
What we think isn’t the issue. Instead, I’m more interested in describing what people who think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals think about homelessness or ketchup or financial scandals.
It was a mistake to separate product development from marketing, as most of their contemporaries did, because to them the two were indistinguishable: the object that sold best was the one that sold itself.
If, out of a crowd of fifty, twenty-five people come forward to buy, the true pitchman sells to only twenty of them. To the remaining five, he says, “Wait! There’s something else I want to show you!” Then he starts his pitch again, with slight variations, and the remaining four or five become the inner core of the next crowd, hemmed in by the people around them, and so eager to pay their money and be on their way that they start the selling frenzy all over again. The turn requires the management of expectation. That’s why Arnold always kept a pineapple tantalizingly perched on his stand. “For forty years, I’ve been promising to show people how to cut the pineapple, and I’ve never cut it once.”
“I know how to ask for the money. And that’s the secret to the whole damn business.”
You have to explain the invention to customers — not once or twice but three or four times, with a different twist each time. You have to show them exactly how it works and why it works.
Finally, sell them on the paradoxical fact that, revolutionary as the gadget is, it’s not at all hard to use.
If Ron had been the one to introduce the VCR, in other words, he would not simply have sold it in an infomercial. He would also have changed the VCR itself, so that it made sense in an infomercial. The clock, for example, wouldn’t be digital. (The haplessly blinking unset clock has, of course, become a symbol of frustration.) The tape wouldn’t be inserted behind a hidden door — it would be out in plain view, just like the chicken in the rotisserie, so that if it was recording you could see the spools turn.
The controls wouldn’t be discreet buttons; they would be large, and they would make a reassuring click as they were pushed up and down, and each step of the taping process would be identified with a big, obvious numeral so that you could set it and forget it. And would it be a slender black, low-profile box? Of course not. Ours is a culture in which the term “black box” is synonymous with incomprehensibility. Ron’s VCR would be in red-and-white plastic, both opaque and translucent swirl, or maybe 364 Alcoa aluminum, painted in some bold primary color, and it would sit on top of the television, not below it, so that when your neighbor or your friend came over he would spot it immediately and say, “Wow, you have one of those Ronco Tape-O-Matics!”
Nor does he ever bet on the market moving in one direction or another. That would require Taleb to assume that he understands the market, and he doesn’t.
Taleb doesn’t even invest in stocks, not for Empirica and not for his own personal account. Buying a stock, unlike buying an option, is a gamble that the future will represent an improved version of the past. And who knows whether that will be true? So all of Taleb’s personal wealth, and the hundreds of millions that Empirica has in reserve, is in Treasury bills.
Taleb buys options because he is certain that, at root, he knows nothing, or, more precisely, that other people believe they know more than they do.
Karl Popper, who said that you could not know with any certainty that a proposition was true; you could only know that it was not true.
He sat down at his kitchen table at 7:30 a.m. He made a plan. Every day, he would write until lunchtime. Then he would lie down on the floor for twenty minutes to rest his mind. Then he would return to work for a few more hours. He was a lawyer. He had discipline. “I figured out very early on that if I didn’t get my writing done I felt terrible. So I always got my writing done. I treated it like a job. I did not procrastinate.”
Late bloomers, Galenson says, tend to work the other way around. Their approach is experimental. “Their goals are imprecise, so their procedure is tentative and incremental,” Galenson writes in “Old Masters and Young Geniuses.”
Feedback — a direct, personal response by a teacher to a specific statement by a student — seems to be most closely linked to academic success. Not only did the teacher catch the “Me!” amid the wiggling and tumult; she addressed it directly. “Mind you, that’s not great feedback,” Hamre said. “High-quality feedback is where there is a back-and-forth exchange to get a deeper understanding.”
The implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn’t be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don’t track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree — and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before. That means that the profession needs to start the equivalent of Ed Deutschlander’s training camp. It needs an apprenticeship system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. Kane and Staiger have calculated that, given the enormous differences between the top and the bottom of the profession, you’d probably have to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. That means tenure can’t be routinely awarded, the way it is now. Currently, the salary structure of the teaching profession is highly rigid, and that would also have to change in a world where we want to rate teachers on their actual performance. An apprentice should get apprentice wages. But if we find eighty-fifth-percentile teachers who can teach a year and a half’s material in one year, we’re going to have to pay them a lot — both because we want them to stay and because the only way to get people to try out for what will suddenly be a high-risk profession is to offer those who survive the winnowing a healthy reward.