Nate Silver was on the Longform podcast in mid-April and talked about a whole slew of things we regularly highlight on this site. Rather than going long about a few things, like the recent post on Napoleon Bonaparte, this will be more rapid fire. Ready?
1/ Silver knows the side hustle. At a consulting job he didn’t like, he worked on a system for forecasting baseball players. Baseball Prospectus bought that system and hired Silver, who was already on to a another side hustle, online poker.
This blog started with notes about James Altucher’s podcast guests, though Altucher himself knew the side hustle too. He didn’t leave HBO until his website business reached the same income as his day job. Alexa von Tobel told the same story about starting LearnVest.
2/ Silver talked with people smarter than him. Silver is brilliant, but even he seeks out smarter people. During his online poker days he says, “I used to be active on the two plus two forum.” This was during the flourish of online poker, and Silver talked with other good players about how to play online. This worked because there were plenty of little fish for these big players to scoop up. As the system got tighter though, the amount that people talked declined.
If you want to get better at something, talking to someone better than you helps a lot. Simon Rich said he fills the TV writer’s rooms with people smarter than him. Dan Coyle called the sports version of this “talent hotbeds.” Austin Kleon praised Brian Eno’s term of “scenius.” Whatever the craft, a better craftsman will make you better as well.
3/ Silver knows that timing matters. Whether intentional or not, Silver has been in the barrel of the wave for a long time. He got into poker when there was easy(ish) money to be made. He started blogging at the right time too (“the barriers to entry were low and it was very meritocratic”). He wrote for Daily Kos and “it kind of blew up.” Moneyball thought was du jour and Silver knew the right recipes.
Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. – Victor Hugo
Napoleon Bonaparte had great timing in war. Seth Godin and Mark Cuban had great timing in getting out of the stock market. Malcolm Gladwell noted that Dire Straits was probably extra successful thanks to their timing. From war to music, the personal to professional, timing matters.
4/ Silver believes in spectrum thinking. About that ‘moneyball’ wave, “it’s not like the stat-heads won a unilateral victory.” For all the talk about analytics, it’s not a panacea. Rather, Silver says, “it’s more like people are like ‘we have to be smarter about making decisions and use these different tools at our disposal.’” Advanced metrics – in any domain – is just another tool.
Be careful about silver bullet solutions. We’ve seen this warning before. Most situations have many reasons (we call that ‘part of the reason’ reasoning) and lie somewhere on a spectrum. Greg Ip gave us the problem solving boots of engineers and sandals of ecologists to put on. Charlie Munger warned us about the ‘easy to measure/hard to measure’ spectrum. There’s also the spectrum of skill versus luck
5/ Silver takes his work, but not himself seriously. “It’s like a rollercoaster,” Silver says about running his website. “I’m passionate about my work, and it’s interesting to me, and hopefully our predictions do well,” but he doesn’t take the perspective of perfect predictions into every part of his life.
James Corden said working with Meryl Streep was perfect, in part, “because she took her work seriously, but not herself.”
6/ Silver knows the wrong side of maybe. “In a perfectly rational world, if you make an 80/20 prediction, people should know, not only will this prediction not be right all the time, but you did something wrong if it’s never wrong. The 20% underdog should come through sometimes.”
But (bridge) players must also continually make peace with good decisions that lead to bad outcomes, both one’s own decisions and those of a partner. This peacemaking skill is required if one is to invest wisely in an unknowable world.” – Richard Zeckhauser.
The “wrong side of maybe mindset,” coined by Phillip Tetlock in Superforecasting, is a valuable skill. Weather predictors get the flack and jokes, but it happens in every career. In Smarter, Better, Faster, Charles Duhigg profiles Annie Duke who explains this framework for poker. I wrote about it in this analysis of Sam Hinkie’s resignation letter.
7/ Silver competes against non-consumption. “We have a keen sense for what is a FiveThirtyEight story and what isn’t…we are a different kind of shop.” Silver notes that this was hard at first (“the site wasn’t all that great in the first three to six months of its existence.”) Eventually they found a good spot, daily stories, rigorously researched, and meticulously presented.
There’s no one else that does what FiveThirtyEight does, so they compete against non-consumption. This fits into the rainforest model that people like James Allworth (@JamesAllworth ) use as an analogy for the economy. Many organizations, creatures, etc, find small niches to occupy and dominate.
8/ Silver understands historical bifurcations. “The demise of Grantland didn’t happen all at once. There were a number of turning points where things could have gone in a way that was helpful or harmful, and most of those forks were harmful.” It might be fun, though wrong, to compare Bill Simmons – captain of the Grantland ship – to Napoleon, so we won’t. But the idea foundation for the demise of Grantland to the rise of Napoleon is the same.
Napoleon only dominated Europe because of a number of turning points where things could have gone in a way that was helpful or harmful. (See #1 here: Napoleon Bonaparte ) Silver guesses that this is also part of the reason for the rise of Donald Trump. If A, B, and C all go one way instead of another, then Trump would be in the lead. Those things all happened. Note, the individual odds may be better than a coin toss, where the overall odds are not. If the odds of each happening were 75%, the odds of all three happening is only 42% (.75^3).
9/ Silver knows the Texas sharpshooter fallacy. I was hoped that he would smash the statistical cherry-picking at ESPN like a birthday piñata, but he did not.
10/ Silver knows when good enough is good enough. If he goes to a New York Rangers game, Silver says he just cheers the team on (see #5, take the work, not yourself seriously). However, he’ll research dinner options.
There’s often a good enough threshold for most of life. My guess is that people successful people have clear ‘good enoughs’ in areas that matter less. Many great writers are also walkers. My guess is that walking is good enough for physical health. B.J. Novak and Casey Neistat both said that their tools are good enough for the work they need to do. Resources are finite, and something that fit a need good enough is something you don’t need to spend more time on.