Saturday, February 15, 2014

The power of "not losing".

Most of us heard about the power of striving forward, climbing high, taking a chance, reaching for the top - and how "playing it safe" won't get you anywhere. There is truth in those claims, but today I'll try to showcase how "just not failing" can make you succeed as a side effect.

When I became an undergraduate student (at the Technion), I was accepted to the university's Excellence Program. The program offered quite a lot of money (at least for an 18 year old kid) in scholarship, as well as less tangible benefits (like a popular science lecture every couple of weeks - and the awesome people you meet there). In return, the program demanded every student to prove his/hers worth every semester - the most straightforward way of doing so was getting an average above 92(%). Every single semester.
Every participant wanted to stay on board, obviously, but my case was different - the scholarship was practically vital for our household financial balance. Failure was not an option.

In the previous post we saw how to make (some) sense of the randomness that controls all outcomes in our life. The final grade of every semester obviously depends on a lot of parameters - and while they are not, strictly speaking, independent - they are (most likely) "independent enough" for the central limit theorem to work (perhaps I'll elaborate on the subject in a future post).
 "Well", you might say at this point, "92 isn't easy - so you have to study hard and move the average of your Gaussian to 92" - right? 

Remember - not only I can't afford to get less than 92, I must "pass" 8 times in a row (once every semester of my 4 year degree). Let's see what would happen if I took this advice - using the formalism from last time:

The yellow line represents the coveted 92 threshold. The Gaussian may look like it's spread out but it actually represents an uncertainty of about 2-3 points - probably an underestimate.

If we work just hard enough for the Gaussian to be centered at 92 - we have a 50% chance to fail on the first semester - and practically 0 chance to make it through to graduation - Unacceptable!
If we want a reasonable chance (lets say around 75%) to make it - we have to aim for an average of ~97 - much higher than the intuitive 92.

It turns out being "good enough" is not good enough.
This is how the fear of failure can drive excellence.

This model applies to any situation in which failure is not an option - for example driving (one accident is one too many) or arguments with your spouse (sometimes one really bad fight might lead to a breakup). You wouldn't look "just enough" at the road right? So why are you "just romantic enough" for her not to dump you?

Until next time, may you dodge every single bullet.

Michael Shalyt.

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