A Few Short Stories

Thirty-seven thousand Americans died in car accidents in 1955, six times today’s rate adjusted for miles driven.

Ford began offering seat belts in every model that year. It was a $27 upgrade, equivalent to about $190 today. Research showed they reduced traffic fatalities by nearly 70%.

But only 2% of customers opted for the upgrade. Ninety-eight percent of buyers preferred to remain at the mercy of inertia.

Things eventually changed, but it took decades. Seatbelt usage was still under 15% in the early 1980s. It didn’t exceed 80% until the early 2000s – almost half a century after Ford offered them in all cars.

It’s easy to underestimate how social norms stall change, even when the change is an obvious improvement. One of the strongest forces in the world is the urge to keep doing things as you’ve always done them, because people don’t like to be told they’ve been doing things wrong. Change eventually comes, but agonizingly slower than you might assume.

Dunkirk was a miracle. More than 330,000 Allied soldiers, pinned down by Nazi attacks, were successfully evacuated from the beaches of France back to England, ferried by hundreds of small civilian boats.

London broke out in celebration when the mission was completed. Few were more relieved than Winston Churchill, who feared the imminent destruction of his army.

But Edmund Ironside, commander of British Home Forces, pointed out that if the Allies could quickly ferry a third of a million troops from France to England while avoiding aerial attack, the Germans probably could, too. Churchill had been holding onto hope that Germany couldn’t cross the Channel with an invasion force; such a daring mission seemed impossible. But then his own army proved it was quite possible. Dunkirk was both a success and a foreboding.

Your competitors can probably innovate and execute as well as you can. So every time you uncover a new talent you’re proud of, temper your thrill with the acceptance that other people who want to win as badly as you probably aren’t far behind.

Notorious BIG once casually mentioned that he began selling crack in fourth grade. He explained:

They [teachers] was always like, “Take the talent that you have and think of something that you can do in the future with it.”

And I was like, “Well, I like to draw.” So what could I do with drawing? What am I gonna be, an art dealer? I’m not gonna be that type. I was thinking maybe I can do big billboards and shit. Like commercial art.

And then after that I got introduced to crack. Haha, now I’m thinking, commercial art?! Haha. I’m out here for 20 minutes and I can make some real, real money, man.

Incentives drive everything, and most of us underestimate what we’d be willing to do if the incentives were right.

When Barack Obama discussed running for president in 2005, his friend George Haywood – an accomplished investor – gave him a warning: the housing market was about to collapse, and would take the economy down with it.

George told Obama how mortgage-backed securities worked, how they were being rated all wrong, how much risk was piling up, and how inevitable its collapse was. And it wasn’t just talk: George was short the mortgage market.

Home prices kept rising for two years. By 2007, when cracks began showing, Obama checked in with George. Surely his bet was now paying off?

Obama wrote in his memoir:

George told me that he had been forced to abandon his short position after taking heavy losses.

“I just don’t have enough cash to stay with the bet,” he said calmly enough, adding, “Apparently I’ve underestimated how willing people are to maintain a charade.”

Irrational trends rarely follow rational timelines. Unsustainable things can last longer than you think.

When the Black Death plague entered England in 1348, the Scots up north laughed at their good fortune. With the English crippled by disease, now was a perfect time for Scotland to stage an attack on its neighbor.

The Scots huddled together thousands of troops in preparation for battle. Which, of course, is the worst possible move during a pandemic.

“Before they could move, the savage mortality fell upon them too, scattering some in death and the rest in panic,” historian Barbara Tuchman writes in her book A Distant Mirror.

There’s a powerful urge to think risk is something that happens to other people. Other people get unlucky, other people make dumb decisions, other people get swayed by the seduction of greed and fear. But you? Me? No, never us. False confidence makes the eventual reality all the more shocking.

Some are more susceptible to risk than others, but no one is exempt from being humbled.

Dr. Dan Goodman once performed surgery on a middle-aged woman whose cataract had left her blind since childhood. The cataract was removed, leaving the woman with near-perfect vision. A miraculous success.

The patient returned for a checkup a few weeks later. The book Crashing Through writes:

Her reaction startled Goodman. She had been happy and content as a blind person. Now sighted, she became anxious and depressed. She told him that she had spent her adult life on welfare and had never worked, married, or ventured far from home – a small existence to which she had become comfortably accustomed. Now, however, government officials told her that she no longer qualified for disability, and they expected her to get a job. Society wanted her to function normally. It was, she told Goldman, too much to handle.

Every goal you dream about has a downside that’s easy to overlook.

Historian John Meecham writes:

When we condemn [the past] for slavery, or for Native American removal, or for denying women their full role in the life of the nation, we ought to pause and think: What injustices are we perpetuating even now that will one day face the harshest of verdicts by those who come after us?

This applies to so many things.

What is the modern version of cigarettes, which were doctor-recommended just a few generations ago? We didn’t know dinosaurs existed 200 years ago, which makes you wonder what else is out there that we’re oblivious to today. What company is the modern Enron, so obviously a fraud? What do most people – not a few wackos, but most of us – believe that will look something between hilarious and disgraceful 100 years from now?

A lot of history is just gawking at how wrong, how blind, people can be. Disastrously wrong, embarrassingly blind. Millions of people, all at the same time. When you then realize that today will be considered history in a few generations … oh dear. It’s unpleasant. But also fascinating.

Apollo 11 was the first time in history humans visited another celestial body.

You’d think that would be an overwhelming experience – literally the coolest thing any human had ever done. But as the spacecraft hovered over the moon, Michael Collins turned to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin and said:

It’s amazing how quickly you adapt. It doesn’t seem weird at all to me to look out there and see the moon going by, you know?

Three months later, after Al Bean walked on the moon during Apollo 12, he turned to astronaut Pete Conrad and said “It’s kind of like the song: Is that all there is?” Conrad was relieved, because he secretly felt the same, describing his moonwalk as spectacular but not momentous.

Most mental upside comes from the thrill of anticipation – actual experiences tend to fall flat, and your mind quickly moves on to anticipating the next event. That’s how dopamine works.

If walking on the moon left astronauts underwhelmed, what does it say about our own earthly goals and expectations?

John Nash is one of the smartest mathematicians to ever live, winning the Nobel Prize. He was also schizophrenic, and spent most of his life convinced that aliens were sending him coded messages.

In her book A Beautiful Mind, Silvia Nasar recounts a conversation between Nash and Harvard professor George Mackey:

“How could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof, how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” Mackey asked.

“Because,” Nash said slowly in his soft, reasonable southern drawl, “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”

This is a good example of a theory I have about very talented people: No one should be shocked when people who think about the world in unique ways you like also think about the world in unique ways you don’t like. Unique minds have to be accepted as a full package.