Nassim Nicholas Taleb accidentally argues against 4 year school degrees

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com, or follow me on Twitter.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb has an excellent essay about why science works to advance the human race, and how to structure a research program for maximum benefit. However, it is also the strongest argument I’ve ever seen for ending 4 year school degrees. Consider this bit:

1) Convexity is easier to attain than knowledge (in the technical jargon, the “long-gamma” property): As we saw in Figure 2, under some level of uncertainty, we benefit more from improving the payoff function than from knowledge about what exactly we are looking for. Convexity can be increased by lowering costs per unit of trial (to improve the downside).

2) A “1/N” strategy is almost always best with convex strategies (the dispersion property): following point (1) and reducing the costs per attempt, compensate by multiplying the number of trials and allocating 1/N of the potential investment across N investments, and make N as large as possible. This allows us to minimize the probability of missing rather than maximize profits should one have a win, as the latter teleological strategy lowers the probability of a win. A large exposure to a single trial has lower expected return than a portfolio of small trials.

Further, research payoffs have “fat tails”, with results in the “tails” of the distribution dominating the properties; the bulk of the gains come from the rare event, “Black Swan”: 1 in 1000 trials can lead to 50% of the total contributions—similar to size of companies (50% of capitalization often comes from 1 in 1000 companies), bestsellers (think Harry Potter), or wealth. And critically we don’t know the winner ahead of time.

This seems to suggest that 4 degrees of 1 year each are a better strategy than 1 degree of 4 years. More so, 12 degrees of 3 months each would be better still, and 48 degrees of 1 month each would be better still. And 204 degrees of 1 week each would be better still. There must be some practical limit at the lower level, but it is probably shorter than 4 years.

This part seems especially to the point:

A rigid business plan gets one locked into a preset invariant policy, like a highway without exits —hence devoid of optionality. One needs the ability to change opportunistically and “reset” the option for a new option, by ratcheting up, and getting locked up in a higher state. To translate into practical terms, plans need to 1) stay flexible with frequent ways out, and, counter to intuition 2) be very short term, in order to properly capture the long term. Mathematically, five sequential one-year options are vastly more valuable than a single five-year option.

This explains why matters such as strategic planning have never born fruit in empirical reality: planning has a side effect to restrict optionality. It also explains why top-down centralized decisions tend to fail.

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