That aunt and uncle that you haven’t talked to in five years are smiling. A pair of dark spaces fragment their not-so-toothy grins. Your parents are smiling. You’re wearing a medieval-styled dress with colored sashes covered in Latin.
You can feel the pride and excitement in the air. The promise of the future.
You ascend the raised platform and walk across the stage, deftly hiding the wince as some woman you’ve never met mispronounces your middle name.
You’re handed a piece of paper. Years of work, hundreds of thousands of dollars capped off with an ironically ancient scroll in a thoroughly modern ritual.
Stepping down, you’re greeted by a sign.
Welcome to Extremistan.
Don’t Be A Turkey.
This is the scene that greets most people today.
Most of them don’t know it. Most of them are turkeys.
The First Rule of Extremistan: Don’t Be A Turkey.
Raised in Mediocristan. We Live in Extremistan.
“This is the central illusion in life: that randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing— and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness… Mediocristan has a lot of variations, not a single one of which is extreme; Extremistan has few variations, but those that take place are extreme.”
N.N. Taleb – Antifragile
Mediocristan is a view of the world that we were all raised to believe. It’s how most people view the world, and with good reason.
It accurately reflects how the world has operated for the vast majority of it’s history and it is, judging by first, though not correct, appearances, how the world operates for most people up until they finish school or leave corporate employment.
Mediocristan is what biology—particularly evolution—looks like, and, in fact, how it actually functions. It’s a system robust with volatility and moderate, not extreme variation.
Evolution lives in Mediocristan. By introducing moderate amounts of random change (small errors in the copying of genetic code from one generation to the next), environmental pressures naturally select for a certain segment of the species while selecting against others. Certain parts of certain populations die out and, in some cases, entire populations die out.
Our ancestors were primordial ooze. It took four billion years, give or take a few hundred million, for us to become what we are today.
Moderate, gradual variation. It may not be all sunshine and rainbows, but there’s no typhoons or hurricanes to worry about either. That’s life in Mediocristan.
Your calorie intake is another biological system that lives in Mediocristan. No matter how much you put down at that Chinese buffet, you can’t double your weight in a single day. You can’t double it in a month. It would be extremely difficult to double it in a year, no matter how much you ate.
This is how biological systems operate and it’s how most all systems have operated until relatively recent history.
For that reason, it’s the world the vast majority of people believe we are living in.That’s a dicey lens through which to see large swathes of our reality. Particularly, our careers and businesses.
The Mediocristan view of things is not how all systems work.
Non-biological systems, man-made systems, modern systems like our businesses and careers, don’t live in Mediocristan.
They live in Extremistan.
Many people have doubled (or lost all of) their net worth in a single moment: a company goes public or announces bankruptcy. A stock quintuples or crashes.
Vast man-made empires have been toppled by a single event—the storming of the Bastille, the signing of The Declaration of Independence. These individual events are what change looks like in Extremistan.
Sudden, violent, irreversible. Most of all, unforeseen.
As technology continues to evolve, we are, increasingly, living our lives in Extremistan. As more and more of the world around us goes from biological to man made, the degree to which our reality is defined by Extremistan is increasing.
Yet Americans today are raised with a belief that we are still living in Mediocristan.
Everything about our existence up until we graduate from college (and much later, for people that get corporate jobs afterwards) confirms the illusion that we are living in Mediocristan.
It confirms that we live in a world which his safe and predictable. A world in which outcomes are normally distributed.
A paycheck arrives every two weeks, what’s to worry?
The school system is set up to enforce this belief.
Take, for example, the ways grades are distributed in a science class.
This Gaussian bell curve distribution makes sense intuitively to us. It’s fair (a dangerous concept).
Most people do okay, a few people do poorly, and a few people do really well. It is the view of the world which has been overwhelmingly correct for the last four billion years.
It is no longer an accurate representation and persisting in that belief is one of the biggest risks posed to our generation.
Consider how the outcomes will be distributed for those people after school. It won’t be distributed like a bell curve; it will be distributed like an 80/20 fractal.
A few students will possess the vast majority of the raw science ability. They’ll get jobs at NASA or offers from well-known consulting companies. They’ll go to medical school.
Many of the students that are above average, yet not exceptional, will not. If you were to compare the difference in outcomes for an A student and a B student, it’s not 10% as our bell curve would suggest.
It’s 10x. It’s 1000%.
The brain surgeon got A’s. The guy working at the nursing home got B’s.
Am I being hyperbolic? Sure, sort of. But think about your friends from college. Are the outcomes “fairly” distributed? Or are a few doing exceptionally well and a majority struggling?
The latter, the image of the fractal, is an Extremistan model.
The former, the Gaussian Bell Curve, is a model of Mediocristan.
We make a lot of our life decisions under the belief that we are living in Mediocristan. We are not. Your career is not. Your business is not. They all live in Extremistan and adapting to that model isn’t just a competitive advantage, it’s necessary for survival.
Outcomes are not fairly distributed in Extremistan. The average income in Silicon valley for highly skilled workers is $118,651. For low skilled workers? $28,847.
This counterintuitive notion is particularly hard for people in our generation to understand because it is happening on two levels at once: individually and societally.
The Soccer Mom Problem
In a world that increasingly resembles Extremistan, parents, college administrators, teachers, and corporate bosses do everything possible to create the illusion that we live in Mediocristan.
“Everything is fine; no need to worry,” they say.
Large institutions and corporations in the 21st century are not dissimilar from large communist states in the 20th. Errors in judgement from a few (the communist party or the C-suite) affect everyone. Stalin stood up and talked about how everyone was going to have plenty of food with his five-year plan right before the massive famine in the Ukraine, the traditional bread basket of Russia.
Likewise, a CEO standing and talking about his growth plan in no way indicates that a company is about to grow. It indicates that most people, including CEOs, are naive rationalists living in Extremistan.
A century in the rearview, our great grandparents had children by their late teens or early twenties. They had to go out and work and make money and provide for their family. They were very quickly thrown into “the real world.”
Because of our misplaced notion that “randomness is risky, that it is a bad thing— and that eliminating randomness is done by eliminating randomness,” we have over the past hundred years—and especially the past few decades—removed much of the randomness from the lives of children growing up.
Playgrounds are paved in recycled tire material. We aren’t scraped or bruised. The jagged edges have been sanded down. Schedules for summer camps come perfectly manicured to “ensure full activity quotas are met.” The soccer mom obsessively puts her foot down to ensure these regulations keep her children “safe.”
It seems to take many people a few years to overcome this after high school, college or corporate employment.
The Zuckerberg Phenomenon
Just as you’re being thrown from Mediocristan to Extremistan as you come of age and out of the shelter of the Soccer Moms, there is also a global, structural change towards Extremistan. The twenty-year-olds entering the workforce a hundred years ago were entering a world that was much more like Mediocristan than the world we live in now.
When parents and other authority figures make projections of safety, it’s not done deceptively. It’s an honest belief based on their life experiences. Life experiences that, for the most part, took place in Mediocristan. The world is increasingly coming to resemble Extremistan, it hasn’t always been that way. Many of our parents did spend their entire careers at one company, living in one place. They had job stability. That was a reality for much of the 20th century.
As technology has improved and the world becomes more centralized, the Extremistan effects are more extreme. Bill Gates was the youngest billionaire at 31, then Zuckerberg did it at 23.
Outcomes are becoming more and more extreme not just as you get older, but as the world gets older. The wealth gap is increasing. There were fewer wars in the 20th century than any preceding century, but a massive number of people died in each of those wars. That’s a symptom of living in Extremistan.
Things have been very peaceful for our generation compared with past generations, but the power to do massive damage is now in the hands of individuals more so than at any previous point in history. One nuclear bomb in an extremist’s hands can do massive damage. That wasn’t possible one hundred years ago.
ISIS and other terrorist organizations have been enabled by Extremistan. ISIS couldn’t have existed ten years ago, much less a hundred years ago.
The same phenomenon is true of corporations and the reality of long-term, stable employment for our generation. Just as the world appears more peaceful now than it’s ever been, we’re at the level where more people than ever in history have stable, full-time jobs.
Just as we assume things being peaceful means peace will continue, we assume the same will be true of employment.
We assume jobs are safe because they’ve always been safe for us and our parents. Because the chart was going up for most of the 20th century, we assume it will keep going up.
Don’t Be a Turkey.
Coming out of college or out of a traditional corporate job, most people think like turkeys. I thought like a turkey.
Based on our understanding of the world having spent our entire lives in Mediocristan and the fact that up until relatively recent history, we have lived in Mediocristan, a turkey’s view of the world is highly rational.
It’s also wrong.
“A turkey is fed for a thousand days by a butcher; every day confirms to its staff of analysts that butchers love turkeys “with increased statistical confidence.” The butcher will keep feeding the turkey until a few days before Thanksgiving… [The] turkey will have a revision of belief— right when its confidence in the statement that the butcher loves turkeys is maximal and ‘it is very quiet’ and soothingly predictable in the life of the turkey.”
The most obvious example of a world where a single, irreversible decision dictates the future is that of a turkey before Thanksgiving.
From the day a Thanksgiving turkey is born, everything about its life indicates that things are only going to get better. It’s hatched in a safe, sterile environment. It’s cared for and fed daily.
Every single day, this pattern happens again. It wakes up to find plenty of food and a place to live.
It is at the moment when the turkey has the most historical data to show that it’s life is likely to keep improving, the 4th Wednesday of November, that it realizes, it’s not so good to be a turkey.
That is, the moment when we are most confident about our security is the moment in which we are in fact most likely to be endangered
It’s already too late though. The turkey, fattened and slothful, is out of options.
What’s Safer: Accountant or Entrepreneur?
Let’s say you’re an accountant that worked at a large firm for a few years. You have the option to leave to go start a company which may or may not succeed.
The way we would typically look at that situation is: you could leave something safe to pursue something risky.
If we lived in Mediocristan, that would be an accurate thing to say.
If we lived in Extremistan (and we do), that would be incorrect.
Let’s look at why by comparing the story of two friends whose names I’ve obscured.
One we’ll call Rand; the other, Max.
Rand had some job stability as an accountant and left to start his own company. Max stayed at the company and continued to work as an accountant because he felt it was the smart, responsible and safe thing to do. Everything in his life up to that point indicated that to him.
Max continues putting in his hours, forty per week in the slow season and eighty plus leading up to tax time. He’s arranging spreadsheets and getting paid. The $3,876 check hits his bank account every two weeks, just like a butcher filling the turkey’s trough.
There’s an important thing to note here: We often conflate income with value creation.
Steady income creates an illusion of steady value creation. This is an illusion that our Mediocristan view is hiding from us.
This is dangerous. Fatally dangerous. It’s allowing us to accumulate silent risk.
It is entirely possible to make income without creating value for the world, or creating dramatically less value than you’re being compensated for.
See: every government bureaucracy ever. Or, more specifically, see: Max.
Max believes he’s doing something valuable until, one day, he gets a letter from HR.
“Your position has been replaced by Marissa. Marissa lives in the Sri Lanka and has a degree from a London University and is more than happy to earn $4 an hour doing exactly what you’re doing.”
Any non-biological system without variation is accumulating silent risk.
The longer the market goes without having a correction, the larger the correction will be when it happens. The longer we go in our careers and businesses without variation or randomness, the larger the amount of silent risk we accumulate.
Now Max is 40 years old, he’s at his peak earning potential, and his job just get moved to Sri Lanka for $4 an hour.
Because he’s been shielded from the Extremistan reality for so long, Max made decisions based on his belief in Mediocristan. He has mortgage, a family, and expensive spending habits.
That’s all accumulated silent risk. Because the silent risk has been accumulating for decades, it all hits him at once.
Moderate amounts of volatility are healthy. Lifting a weight slightly heavier than you did at the gym last time makes you stronger. Large amounts of volatility, say having a car dropped on you, kill.
Likewise, moderate amount of volatility in our careers and businesses are healthy. It’s the large events, the butcher’s hatchet, that kill us.
Silent Risk Accumulation is Increasingly Exponentially
Note that these are all real people. Max’s company hasn’t located Marissa yet, but they both exist and the rate at which it’s getting easier is exponential.
The internet and online marketplaces is not only making it easier for Max’s company to find people like Marissa and for Marissa to get the qualifications needed to work for Max’s company, the pace at which it’s getting easier is accelerating.
Ten years ago, platforms like Odesk and Elance didn’t exist. You used to be constrained to hiring within your geography and that’s a paradigm many established businesses still operate under.
Higher education also used to be confined to the West. Online education has made it easier for Marissa to get the training and qualifications necessary.
There are an exponentially increasing number of Marissa’s. They’re getting exponentially easier to find.
Paradoxically, it’s worse for Max the longer it takes Max’s company to find Marissa, because Max is sitting there accumulating silent risk the whole time.
He’d be better off if they found her next week, he could recover.
If you do something which creates no value for ten years, and it gets replaced by machines or Marissa from Sri Lanka when you’re 40 years old, at peak earning potential, with a family and mortgage, you would be a Turkey on Thanksgiving.
Our objective then is simple. Don’t be a turkey.
You have no valuable skills, because the skill set you’ve been developing has just plummeted in value thanks to globalization and technology. The butcher’s hatched drops.1
How To Not Be a Turkey
Now let’s talk to Rand.
Rand just left his job as an accountant.
Rand isn’t making a lot of money right now.
He’s made a product which he’s delivering while living in his parents’ basement.
But for Rand, not making money is feedback. There’s no silent risk accumulating.
If Rand puts up a sales page and no one buys, that’s feedback. He can adjust and has adjusted. Money wasn’t hitting the bank account so he’s changed the product; he’s changed the marketing; sales are starting to improve.
Markets aren’t perfect, but they’re a lot more accurate than Jack, Max’s fifty year old middle manager that’s just trying to ride out his career and get his retirement benefits. If Rand isn’t making money out the gate, that’s means it’s time to adapt, and he can.
Nature loves small errors. It’s the fuel behind evolution. Rand has to go out and peck for his food. It’s not just showing up in the trough. But now he knows where to forage, how to forage and the days he goes hungry are the days he’s learning the most.
If you do data entry but keep getting a paycheck for ten years, and then the HR department sends you a letter and Marissa from Sri Lanka takes your job, you have no options.
Rand, on the other hand, has a much bumpier-looking income. Some months he does good and some months he does bad. But it’s getting better, and he’s gaining skills. He’s building a network. He’s creating (not waiting on) his future. 2
It is in seeking a path with no mistakes and variation (stable income, clear promotion path) that we in fact expose ourselves to massive downside (getting fired at forty with no real skills and a network of people in the HR department that likewise have no real skills).
This is a symptom of Modernity. As humans attempt to achieve domination of their environment by smoothing out the jagged edges, we create silent risks and let them build and build.
Many people are entering Thanksgiving week.
Risk Lives in the Future
“Artisans, say, taxi drivers, prostitutes (a very, very old profession), carpenters, plumbers, tailors, and dentists, have some volatility in their income but they are rather robust to a minor professional Black Swan, one that would bring their income to a complete halt. Their risks are visible. Not so with employees , who have no volatility, but can be surprised to see their income going to zero after a phone call from the personnel department. Employees’ risks are hidden. Thanks to variability, these artisanal careers harbor a bit of antifragility: small variations make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment and being, sort of, continuously under pressure to be fit.”
Many of us have been fed the naive, turkey belief that traditional careers are safe they have always been safe. It’s what I was fed and believed for a long time. And, if we look at historical trends, it makes sense!
The trouble with historical is exactly that–it’s historical.
Saying a career that’s been safe for the last forty years will be safe for the next forty is like saying that we’re safe today because nuclear bombs explode less often than people have fist fights.
It’s true, but the impact of the bomb explosion is inconceivably large compared to fist fights.
In Extremistan, risk doesn’t live in the past; it lives in the future.
The fact that Max’s decision has been safe for the last one hundred years is in no way indicative that it’s going to be safe in the future.
Bronx or Botswana?
I don’t say all this to scare you, I say it to make you aware.
We have, in many facets of our life, been sold the dream of the lion in the Bronx zoo.
Sunday afternoon feedings, basking in the sun, and an occasional jaunt around the exhibit.
It’s not an easy decision to walk out of the Bronx zoo and hop a one way ticket to Botswana.
It is, however, the safe one. What was once safe is now risky. What was once risky is now safe.
Last Updated on July 30, 2019 by Taylor Pearson
- Max also doesn’t have a network because Max hasn’t been building relationships with people outside his company (which is also full of turkeys).
- He’s also protected from narrative fallacy. We have a natural dependence to lean on narratives. Because we can explain something, we believe it to be true. In Extremistan, this is a fallacy. Inputs are decoupled from outputs.