Lots of Overnight Tragedies, No Overnight Miracles

“History is the record of man’s steps and slips. It shows us that the steps have been slow and slight; the slips, quick and abounding.” – B.H. Hart

An important thing that explains a lot of things is that good news takes time but bad news happens instantly.

Dwight Eisenhower ate a hamburger for dinner on September 24th, 1955. Later that evening he told his wife the onions gave him heartburn. Then he began to panic. The president had a massive heart attack. It easily could have killed him. If it had, Eisenhower would have joined more than 700,000 Americans who died of heart disease that year.

What’s happened since has been extraordinary. But few paid attention.

The age-adjusted death rate per capita from heart disease has declined more than 70% since the 1950s, according to the National Institute of Health.

So many Americans die of heart disease that cutting the fatality rate by 70% leads to a number of lives saved that is hard to comprehend.

Had the rate had not declined over the last 65 years – if we hadn’t become better at treating heart disease and the mortality rate plateaued since the 1950s – 25 million more Americans would have died from heart disease over the last 65 years than actually did.

25 million!

Even in a single year the improvement is incredible: more than half a million fewer Americans now die of heart disease each year than would have if we hadn’t made any improvements since the 1950s. Picture the population of Atlanta saved every year. Or a full football stadium saved every month

How is this not a bigger story?

Why are we not shouting in the streets about how incredible this is and building statues for cardiologists?

I’ll tell you why: because the improvement happened too slowly for anyone to notice.

This is the annual change in heart-disease mortality:

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The average decline is 1.5% per year.

How would you react if you saw a news headline that says, “Heart Disease Deaths Decline 1.5% Last Year.” You’d yawn and move on. So that’s what we’ve done.

We do it all the time. The most important things come from compounding. But compounding takes a while, so it’s easy to ignore.

New technologies take years or decades for people to even notice, then years or decades more for people to accept and put to use. Show me a new technology that was immediately recognized for its full potential and instantly adopted by the masses. It doesn’t exist. A lot of pessimism is fueled by the fact that it often looks like we haven’t innovated in a decade because it takes a decade to notice innovations. This is true even in hard sciences: Historian David Wooton says it took 200 years from discovering germs to the medical acceptance that germs cause disease.

Same for economic growth. Real GDP per capita increased eight-fold in the last 100 years. America of the 1920s has the same real per-capita GDP as Turkmenistan does today. Our growth over the last 100 years has been unbelievable. But it averages 2% per year, which is easy to ignore in any given year, decade, or lifetime. Americans over age 50 have seen real GDP per person at least double since they were born. But people don’t remember when they were born. They remember the last few months, when progress is always invisible.

Same for investments. Netflix stock returned 35,000% between 2002 and 2018. But it was below its previous all-time high on 94% of days, which made the progress easy to ignore, and the number of investors to actually hold Netflix from 2002 to 2018 round to zero.

Same for careers, social progress, brands, companies, and relationships. Good news always takes time, often too much to even notice it happened.

But bad news?

Bad news is not shy or subtle. It comes instantly, so fast that it overwhelms your attention and you can’t look away.

Pearl Harbor and September 11th are probably the two biggest news events of the last 100 years. Both lasted less than two hours, start to finish.

It took less than 30 days for most people to go from having never heard of Covid-19 to it upending their life.

It took less than 15 months for Lehman Brothers – a 158-year-old company – to go from an all-time high to bankrupt. Same with Enron, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Nokia, Bernie Madoff, Muammar Gaddafi, Notre Dame, and the Soviet Union. Things that thrived for decades can be ruined in minutes. There is no equivalent in the other direction.

There’s a good reason why.

Growth always fights against competition that slows its rise. New ideas fight for attention, business models fight incumbents, constructing a building fights gravity. There’s always a headwind. But everyone gets out of the way of decline. Insiders might try to stop it, but it doesn’t attract masses of outsiders who rush in to push back in the other direction like progress does.

The irony is that growth and progress is way more powerful than setback. But setback will always get more attention because of how fast it occurs. So slow progress amid a drumbeat of bad news is the normal state of affairs. It’s not an easy thing to get used to, but it’ll always be with us.

More on this topic:

Five Lessons From History

Risk Is What You Don’t See

Why Complexity Sells