Saturday, November 21, 2015

diamonds on the sidewalk

The propensity in the human mind to not see diamonds on the sidewalk where a diamond should not be, is not supposed to be, and on the rare occasion when it is there, right where is is not supposed to be, so, obviously, is are not there... and it gets kicked to the curb. Happens every day.

Lewis Carroll actually knew a girl called Alice. She was the daughter of a colleague and he wrote Alice in Wonderland for her originally, then decided to publish. For awhile the book was something of a collaboration between a man in his 40s and girl about 7.

They remained friends their entire lives and she visited him when she was in her 40s and he in his 80s as he was dying. Carroll also got in trouble for taking pictures of naked children -- with the parents present to display on the walls of Victorian homes -- as one of the early photographers in England.  A relationship that from the outside might seem strange, a friendship between and 7 year old girl and a 40 year old man, produced a great work of literature and two lives greatly enriched.

William Tecumseh Sherman was a failure at real estate in San Francisco before the American Civil War. He himself could not understand why he had a mental breakdown over property sales and could not take the stress of money but had no trouble ordering thousands to their deaths. Grant, Sherman and Lincoln: none of them looked like great leaders in 1850, yet by 1865 they were all unquestionable among the greatest figures of the age.

George McClellan should have been a great general, given his resume. He just wasn't. Tens of thousands of people died for nothing until reality outweighed people's pre-existing assumptions.

Oliver Cromwell (in a much earlier Civil War in England) was an ordinary country squire until the necessities war turned him into the greatest calvary commander and eventual near dictator of England.

War seems to open cracks in society and shake up people's lives. In some cases, they become different people and people do not respond as you would have predicted by reading their resumes.

The common thread with these examples is that our way of going about things, putting people and stories into categories, and making assumptions about who people are and what they should do, carries inherent bias in favor of what already is even when what already is isn't working very well.

That people tend to prefer the familiar is understandable and in many situations logical. When you have little data or little time, preferring a story that sounds like one you've heard before or a song that is like one you liked or a politician that reminds you of another one or a food that you've eaten before without getting sick or the type of person who seems like the type that you liked before all makes sense. But bias in favor of the routine creeps into everything and distorts the world because the unexpected is almost always the most important and best stuff that can happen to you.

Finding the diamonds in the unexpected or deviant is hard work. Most of the unexpected is not brilliant. So you have to learn how to recognize or even expect the unexpected... and that seems tricky.

On the internet there are many diamonds on the sidewalk that get thrown out with the litter of plastic potato chip bags, as in every area of life, due to the bias in favor of the expected.

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