Lessons Learned in 2016
2016 has been a beast of a year. It’s been often-humbling and I got a lot wrong. I also learned a lot of new things and it’s always useful to hold yourself to account. So…what have we learned about the world?
- Forecasting is overrated: Forecasting – in elections and in other fields – is accorded far too much status and attention for such a low-value-added activity.
- Sound assumptions beat methodological sophistication: See above.
- Expertise is overrated: See above.
- History isn’t over: The great consensus on the shape and role of the Western state that reigned since the mid-1980s is dead.
- Muddling through is underrated: The 2016 election showed that many seeming political crises can be resolved by simply ignoring them and moving on. We will see if this is as true internationally as it was domestically, but we should view predictions of disaster very skeptically.
- Social trust matters: A breakdown of trust in governing and mediating institutions (e.g., the media, political parties) was a necessary precondition to this election. It is difficult to see how to break out of a low-trust equilibrium, and the social and political consequences are sobering.
What beliefs of mine turned out to be wrong this year?
- Clinton would win the general: Obviously. I never believed this until Trump took off in the primary, and never thought it was a lock. I still thought it was ~80% likely, and was surprised at the result.
- Stories about Clinton’s email server would pass, and wouldn’t do permanent damage: I still don’t understand why this was the most-covered discrete political story of the year. This is a good reminder of how little I – or the “experts” – really do understand about politics.
- The internet is marginal to political behavior and outcomes: 2016 should disabuse us of this notion.
- Probabilistic thinking is easy: Even people with statistical training easily fall into the traps of false certainty and artificially limited outcome spaces.
What I’ve learned professionally from my time on the campaign:
- Social trust matters: A high-trust social environment is just as key to an organization as to society writ large, if not more so.
- Group norms and rituals are underrated: See above.
- People crave certainty: See “forecasting is overrated”. False certainty is dangerous, but feels just as good as real certainty.
- Replicable code matters: It’s worth investing time in good processes and especially in automation. They make you faster and less error-prone.
- There are two big differences between a good analyst and a great analyst: empathy and chunking. Empathy is underrated in the analyst toolbox, but is needed both to translate someone’s request into what they really need and to communicate your findings most effectively. “Chunking” is breaking down a big thing into a set of smaller things – effective chunking allows an analyst to tackle new projects, figure out a timeline and list of tasks, and effectively asking for help and/or delegating with discrete chunks. Good chunking also allows for more building and use of replicable code.
- The biggest difference between good and bad leaders is caring. There are a lot of other skills that separate “good” from “great”. However, over and over again the difference I observed between effective leaders and ineffective ones was simply a serious desire to engage with the management aspects of the job – developing subordinates, delegating, and managing schedules/timelines/expectations. As they say, 80% of success is showing up.
My resolutions for the next year:
- Pay more attention: A senior leader told me simply that, “most people don’t pay much attention most of the time”. This is a powerful insight.
- Get involved locally: City council meetings, town halls, and so on. The only way to combat low social trust is community involvement.
- Less social media: Social media has a corrosive effect on social solidarity and clear thinking.
- Read less economics and political science, more psychology, sociology and history: More varied mental frameworks for understanding individual and political behavior are helpful. No discipline is a source of truth, but each has useful insights.
- Write more: Nothing like writing down your thoughts to clarify and organize them.
Happy New Year to all – I hope you take the time to reflect on what you’ve learned and how you’ll approach the next year.