I’ve been fascinated by social psychology for the past 4 months and I’ve read anything and everything I've come across on this subject. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s one takeaway that trumps everything else. The most crucial and widely accepted fact when it comes to understanding individual and group psychology:
No one knows anything and everything is a crapshoot.
Trained CIA agents can’t tell if you’re lying. Many of those we trust most are sociopaths. Professionals we look up to have no idea what they’re talking about. Companies with impeccable reputations are lying to us.
In a world where none of our social instincts are accurate, it’s only logical to be a social nihilist. To submit to our inability to understand others’ intentions and to settle on the path of least mental strain.
Let’s get started on this journey together.
UC Santa Barbra recently compiled the presidential approval ratings for the last 12 US presidents. Of those, 6 had an approval rating of less than 50% (5 were below 40%). We swear by the democratic process, yet dislike who we elect half of the time. Well, maybe approval ratings shouldn’t be trusted. Let’s look at popular vote margins.
Of the previous 20 US presidential elections, 10 had a popular vote margin of 5% or less (two of them, by the way, were in the negatives. Nice job, Electoral College). This means that in half of the last 20 elections, we weren’t really sure who should be president. Despite the minuscule margin between the two candidates, one will make decisions that will affect the country for posterity. The other will probably write a book to hopefully recover some of the money lost on the campaign trail.
I can keep going, but I think it’s pretty clear that if we’re only going to be 50% sure who should run the country, why not just flip a coin? Here’s the new policy: vote for the candidate with the best hair. Don’t worry, I saved you the trouble and took it upon myself to do this for all the presidential elections in the last 100 years.
There were 26 elections in the past 100 years, and I calculated what percentage of the election results would change if we were to use the Best Hair strategy instead of the Electoral College. Ready? It’s 13 — half.
As a nihilist, there are two approaches you can take to dating:
Even nihilists, it turns out, get lonely and need to find a lifelong partner, so option 2 seems to be the best. The idea is that as long as you’re attracted to the other person, and they check your basic boxes (good hygiene, friendly to the waiter, no anger issues), you should propose. Why not?
It doesn’t matter how confident you are in your ability to judge someone after dating them for x months. You’re wrong. Countless research papers and historical evidence have shown us that we're really, really bad at judging people’s intentions. You have no idea if they’ll continue to be loyal to you, whether or not their personality will change, or if a marriage will end in divorce.
You can be as confident about your understanding of a potential partner after one date as you would with months and months of dating. No one knows — just propose.
At the beginning of 2021, Stripe, a Goliath in the payment processing world, led a $102 million investment round in a relatively new startup called Fast. It seemed like a logical move on Stripe’s part. Fast promised a smooth, one-click checkout experience to rival the likes of PayPal and Amazon Pay.
At the head of Fast was Domm Holland. Spiky hair, full of energy, AirPods in, always wearing a t-shirt — occasionally with a fun-patterned sports jacket. Domm knew exactly what to do to become a Silicon Valley ”darling”: move fast, break things, hire like crazy, get big names on your board, plaster the word “disrupt” on your Twitter profile — the whole shebang. And this worked for him. Investors took notice and Fast raised $125 million within just 2 years of launching.
15 months after that $102 million round, Fast fired their 250 employees and shut down its entire operation. As it turns out, Fast was spending millions on employee retreats, ungodly bonuses, massive salaries for the executives, and more. They were spending $10 million every month, blowing through their $120 million in just a year. Do you want to guess how much they made in 2019? $600,000. It was pretty shocking to realize that Silicon Valley’s darling didn’t know what the fuck he was doing.
This, of course, isn’t an isolated incident. Remember Elizabeth Holmes? Move fast, break things, hire like crazy, get big names on your board. You get the idea.
So, dear nihilist, if you’d like to invest your money, don’t pick the private startup with big dreams of becoming the next Google. Put your money in the S&P 500. I know it’s not perfect. For example, if you bought shares at the height of the dot com boom in the year 2000, if would've taken 15 years for you to recover your money. But I choose to put my money in this boring, snail of an index than to trust any 20-something-year-old reincarnation of Steve Jobs preaching about taking over a $3 trillion market.
A few months ago, I interviewed a candidate (let’s call him Mike) for a software engineering position that my company had put up. Mike radiated the type of energy that most people dream of having at 9 AM on a Tuesday. He seemed like the kind of person many people would describe as the nicest guy they’d ever met.
I gave Mike a coding challenge, and he started off great, but it went downhill pretty quickly after that. He stayed calm and collected throughout the whole thing and vocalized his thought process perfectly, but based on our strict interviewing guidelines, he didn’t “pass.” It felt shitty giving a “no hire” recommendation despite how badly I wanted him to pass. In the debrief, it turned out that of the 3 programming interviews that Mike did, he did really well in the first one, somewhat okay in the second, and poorly in the one with me.
We rejected him. I didn’t really get a say in it, but it felt wrong. I know plenty of people who would pass that coding challenge with flying colors, and yet they are self-confessed slackers, malingering their way through work weeks for years on end. Would you know any of that from their impressive interview results? Would you know that they only put in 10-15 hours a week and are kind of a pain to work with? No.
As long as they kinda know what they’re talking about, hire the nice candidate.
Selecting which students to admit to a university is really hard. Or at least, it should be hard. Sure, you could sort all the applicants by their SAT scores and pick the top 500 to accept, but is SAT score everything? A poor student growing up in West Bronx who gets a 1400 on the SAT is way more impressive than a rich student with the same score. The rich student has unlimited access to tutors. He doesn’t have to work, stress over whether or not he’ll be able to eat tonight, nor does he have to cross gang lines to get to high school. Of course, you should pick the poor student... Right?
SAT scores are just one factor, by the way. What about letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, or test scores? As an employee working in the admissions office of a university, how are you supposed to factor in all those variables and then calibrate it for things like income, upbringing, traumatic experiences, neighborhood, and dozens of others? And let’s say you somehow manage to do it, how do you know you’re right? Do the variables you decided to focus on actually impact how well a student will do in your university?
No one knows. You can run the numbers or peruse through MIT’s wonderful Admissions Blog all you want — it’s all a crapshoot. So, we should pick by random. Seriously. Import in all the students into Excel, sort by random, and pick the top 500 to accept. This isn’t ideal in a business sense, but we don’t care. We’re nihilists. Embrace the random.