October 11, 2015

Insidious Persistent Myths

Upton Sinclair, the author of The Jungle, and a renowned journalist from the early 20th century, once said that “it is difficult to get someone to understand something when the continuation of his livelihood depends on him not understanding it.” This is a profound, but simple, truth.

Whole industries and marketplaces, and often political and social paradigms, depend on people willfully denying reality. In health care, the stubborn myth is that more care is always better care. This myth enables health care providers to make more money, not have to make tough end-of-life decisions, and appear to be giving the patient what he or she wants.

Excessive care often puts the patient in worse position than if no care were given. Many drugs are ineffective and have negative side effects. In certain cases, aggressive cancer treatments shorten life. Surgeries not only do not correct the problem for which the surgery is done, but create other complications. The Dartmouth Atlas Survey, which was created by Dr. John Wennberg, has demonstrated over several decades that there is no relationship between the intensity and cost of health care across regions and the health outcomes. It often happens that we spend more and get less for our money.

We willfully deny this self-evident truth, because, if we acknowledged it, we would have a health care system with different winners and losers. Many high-cost health care regions would lose revenues and jobs. More painful end-of-life conversations would have to take place. Society as a whole would be far better off, but many individuals would have painful readjustments.

Similarly, in the film industry, there is a deeply imbedded view that commercial success for films is totally random. It is best reflected in how many people have interpreted a famous quote by William Goldman, an author and Academy-Award winning screenplay writer: “In the end, nobody knows anything.” Goldman meant to point out that making commercially successful films is an art, rather than a science, and that there are no guarantees of success.

His thoughtful observation has been distorted into a view that commercial success is totally random. This view of success as being random is insidious because it denigrates the value of intelligent planning and execution, as opposed to the seat-of-the-pants decision-making many people make. It turns every filmmaking endeavor into the equivalent of playing the exceptionally low-odds Powerball lottery. It also justifies making no significant changes to what intelligent film industry executives know is an unsustainable business model.

The unpredictability myth enables some to resist any changes in business practices that would increase predictability and likelihood of success. Companies like Epigogix, which offers predictive modeling on film screenplays, and Opera Solutions, for which I am an advisor, which provides data analytic solutions for increasing the yield on film recommendations to customers, prove that, while results can never be guaranteed, the odds of success can be significantly improved. There are many film industry executives who have developed extremely workable and intelligent business models, but what has made them successful has not been universally understood or copied.

Among politicians, a similar, deeply imbedded paradigm is that success is a result of luck. Politicians, many of them far left Democrats, refer to taxes that redistribute wealth as “progressive” and as “ways to help the less fortunate.” To them, the difference between success and failure is a function of how lucky breaks are distributed.

Success is a combination of smart decisionmaking and luck. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, argues that Bill Gates’ success was heavily influenced by computer access he had at his prep school. He also gives many other examples of people who had similarly privileged access to resources needed for future success. Bill Gates clearly had an opportunity not available to many Americans in the 1970’s. However, Gates was not the only student at that school. Others had the same access, but he was the only one who took full advantage of it.

In my life, becoming the CEO of Pitney Bowes involved a great deal of luck. However, my work, and the assistance I received from family and friends over a lifetime, enabled me to benefit from the lucky breaks when they came. I worked hard, deferred many gratifications, and experienced a lot of resentment from those who chose not to work as hard.

Other than lottery winners, there are no instant successes. Many so-called “overnight successes” are really cases of people who have labored for years to be ready to take advantage of the one big break. I wrote about this in a blog some time back about the difference between the way Bill Wyman accurately chronicled the Rolling Stones’ success, compared with how popular media described it. Popular accounts of the Rolling Stones’ origins focus on the early partnership between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and imply that there was instant chemistry and genius yielding early success.

Wyman, a founding band member, told a different story. The individual band members toiled for years as solo performers and members of other bands. They experimented with different musical styles, inspired by artists like Lonnie Donegan who led the way with musical pieces that combined multiple musical genres. The Rolling Stones did not achieve instant success, but built the foundation for what appeared to be instant success after the Beatles led the way in the U.S. in 1964.

Even those cases of performers “discovered” decades ago in various Los Angeles area soda shops, such as Lana Turner at Schwab’s drug store, often leave out the foundational processes that led to the “discovery” or that followed it. Turner grew up under very difficult circumstances, being born in Idaho and moved to San Francisco as a child, and worked hard to be ready for her break. She made a number of gutsy decisions, including a decision to leave one studio and join another as a teenager.

With the exception of lotteries and those smart enough to take their casino winnings and save them, there are relatively few cases of lucky, overnight sustainable successes. When people get lucky and win lotteries, they often are unprepared to deal with the consequences of success and either lose their money over time or experience huge disruptions in their lives. A great TV show in the 1950’s The Millionaire, depicted people presented with a tax-free million dollar check (comparable to $10 million today) from an anonymous donor, who often struggled to live with their newly-found wealth.

Adherence to myth is unaffected by one’s level of education and wealth. Many educators with advanced degrees adhere to the myth that, if only we gave teachers and schools more money, the quality of education would improve. Clearly, good educators would benefit from having more resources. However, giving a poor or mediocre teacher a higher salary and smaller classes with more equipment and supplies in a nicer facility will not turn that individual into a better teacher. Moreover, someone ill-equipped to teach does not get better with experience. Teachers’ unions and other advocates of more education funding would be much more credible if they acknowledged that many members of their profession do not belong in it.

What do we do about these persistent myths? First, acknowledge them in a non-judgmental way. Second, recognize that, if there is economic dislocation from changing a paradigm, such as the amount of health care we deliver, the way we evaluate potential feature films, and the way we fund education, we need to anticipate and address that economic dislocation. Unfortunately, people rely on the rules of a marketplace, a business, a government, or a system, and we need to transition them to some degree to a new system. In the transformation of electric utility service, we call these obsolete systems “stranded costs” and we develop plans to pay for phasing them out. All this obsolete health care, education, and government infrastructure is a “stranded cost.”

Most important, we need to recognize that every myth or paradigm is a temporary way of thinking about the world. We must stop reinforcing the notion that there is a fixed way of thinking about the world that, once learned, will give someone a permanent advantage. Experience is valuable, but the most important lesson that we need to recognize is that, sometimes, experience gets in the way of insight. The art of being successful is knowing when experience is useful and when it must be discarded.

Life is inherently uncomfortable and insecure. We should not teach our children to seek security and certainty, but to build resilience, continuous learning skills, and the capability to address the widest range of life’s challenges.