Scott Adams has this really memorable term for how to think about people: moist robots. Moist because — well, we’re wet and squishy. Robots because there are certain predictable behaviors that we repeat. In situations like A, most people do f(A). In situation; in situations like B, most people will do f(B). Sounds very robot-like to me1.
Now I’m sure you can remember a time where this rings true, everyone has that friend who thinks their going to win big at the casino despite what hundreds of years of math suggest. This is great example of irrational behavior that has been programmed (in one way or another) into many of us moist robots. Most of the time our squishy brains are great at detecting these problems but only when it’s not about us. It’s easy to see your friend has no idea about probability, but much harder to see why you’re such a sucker for Instagram.
As you read this sentence, you can imagine how this story can play out in any number of ways. Here’s a very common story, you see someone who is super successful, perhaps someone famous you saw on the interweb. Naturally, you wonder how you can become super successful. Your parents will tell you that all you need is hard work. You’re not so sure since they also told you that the Easter Bunny was real, so you also read Ms. Super Successful’s biography. The book tells you it was her passion that drove her to eventually become CEO of company X. You’re mostly convinced but to be sure you listen to her commencement speech and any interviews you can get a hold of, and they tell you the same thing: hard work and passion got Ms. Super Successful to where she is, and so can you2!
But let’s not forget about one very important thing: we’re all still moist robots. A very common pattern (or cognitive bias as the psychologists call it) with moist robots is that of self-serving bias: we have the tendency to perceive oneself in an overly favorable manner. So when Mrs. Super Successful is attributing her success to something, she overemphasizes the aspects that she has control over, namely: hard work and passion. Never mind the fact that her parents were in the 99th percentile of wealth, had connections with the trustees at an Ivy League school, and had an abundance of opportunities to learn the skills she needed to be successful — all she really needed was hard work and passion. Which leads to another pattern called survivorship bias where us moist robots mistakenly draw conclusions about what worked based on who survived (e.g. successful people) instead of the entire population (e.g. all people, successes and failures). If you looked at the people who worked hard and have passion, you would see a surprising number of moist robots who weren’t successful3.
And so a successful moist robot tells another young moist robot, how to be successful and we see a predictable pattern of behavior again (you’re a young moist robot in this situation). You have multiple authority figures (parents, teachers, successful people) telling you to one thing (authority bias), these people are generally very likable (liking bias), and you see that all successful people have worked hard and followed their passion (suvivorship bias and bias from mere association), it’s no wonder we’re programmed to think that hard work and passion alone are enough to be successful. We’re just moist robots after all.
Having said all of that, I’m still a big fan of working hard and following your passion. It’s a pretty good program as far as us moist robots go. I would add another crucial subroutine though: luck (or more aptly randomness). Everything that happens is so dependent on our surrounding environment, which we rarely have control over, hence luck. If you’re not factoring in luck then you’re not factoring in reality. The trick is that your program should seek out and maximize the situations where luck is on your side and correspondingly move out of positions where it isn’t. After all, what good is a (moist) robot if you can’t program it?
- If you want to learn more about moist robots, then you might be interested in getting Scott Adams’ book: How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life [↩]
- Phrase intended, check out Stephen Colbert’s book [↩]
- Although, you rarely see a successful person who doesn’t work hard and have passion. It’s kind of a necessary but not sufficient condition [↩]