Ex Nihilo

Baseball players, stock traders, farmers, soldiers and professional gamblers (actually, when you think about it, all of these professions are professional gamblers of sorts) tend to be superstitious and/or religious. And for good reason, I suppose. When a bullet hits the man next you, but not you, or a flood wipes out your field, but spares your neighbor’s, it’s difficult to believe that there’s something you or they did to cause or prevent that. Wade Boggs ate chicken before every game because early in his career he had a really good game after eating chicken, so post hoc ergo proper hoc, decided it would be best to eat chicken every single day of his professional career. In the excellent book My Life as a Quant Emanuel Derman describes traders he worked with who had certain superstitious rituals of wearing a “lucky” piece of clothing and so forth.

I was surprised therefore when recently reading Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, What the Dog Saw, to see that Nassim Nicolas Taleb, author of Fooled by Randomness and a professional buyer of stock options, admits superstitious practices too. Gladwell says that, when on a winning streak, Mr. Taleb parks his car in the same spot each day and, when his luck turns sour, has a tendency to prohibit the playing of music from whichever composer was being played that day.

I say surprised because Mr. Taleb’s thinking on almost every single matter related to buying and selling stocks runs contrarian (even heretical) to most orthodoxy – even to the point where he doesn’t actually buy or sell stocks at all (he only buys options to buy or sell stocks).

It seems odd to me (as a Ph.D. engineer) that rational, intelligent and pragmatic people – Ph.D.s in quantitative finance and such – would also rub rabbits’ feet and not step directly on door thresholds and other such mumbo-jumbo. Why is that?

In these professions, the defining characteristic as I see it, is that success, to a large extent, does not depend on one’s own actions. When a baseball travels 60 feet 6 inches in about half a second (giving you about 250 milliseconds to decide whether or not to swing the bat), even having practiced hitting a ball tens of thousands of times before doesn’t guarantee that you’ll hit it this time. Your success depends on probability, randomness and chance – factors that are completely out of your control.

To be superstitious or religious is rational for people like these, I suppose, especially if their beliefs provide some sort of peace of mind. (Stock trading is nerve-wracking enough by itself – but probably especially so if you’re forced to listen to music you don’t like at the same time.)

A second type of profession deals with problems to be solved – people like scientists, engineers, computer programmers, machine operators, police detectives. Computer programmers tend not to be superstitious, simply because there’s no reason to be. When you have a piece of code and want to know if it works or not, you run it. If it runs, it runs. And each time it will run exactly the same way as the first time (until you change a line), regardless of what music you play. The defining characteristic of these occupations is that there are problems to be solved and mysteries to be explained and only by data gathering and experimenting and logical deduction and hypothesis forming and trial-and-error and iterations of tests and attempted solutions can the problems be resolved and the mysteries explained.

As Western society has moved from primarily an agricultural era to primarily an industrial one, it’s therefore understandable that there has been a subsequent decline in religiousness and rise in subpopulations that are atheistic.

There’s a third category of professions, though – what you might call ‘content generators’ or “creative types”, like artists, musicians, writers. The defining characteristic here is that practitioners attempt to generate new concepts ex nihilo (that is, ‘out of nothing’). As the ease of generating written words, music, pictures and video has increased, so has the number of people attempting such things – a trend I think will continue into the forseeable future. These people often have little use for data gathering or hypothesis forming and tend to not be religious, but I think in some ways blend both of the other two major categories of professions. Performing artists often have pre-show rituals they go through to psyche themselves up for a show. Even writers often have routines – like going jogging each morning and then setting aside a two-hour block just for writing. And every attempt to create something new – a song or sculpture or book or blog post – involved trial-and-error and iterations.

I’m not certain whether it’s the defining characteristic of your profession that helps determine what kind of person you are, or if what kind of person you are determines which professions you prefer. Perhaps then it’s wise to consciously attempt to have hobbies that involve one or both of the other categories, so that you expose yourself to each of these ways of thinking on a regular basis.


  1. Ted

    I wouldn’t put too much stock in the transition from agriculture to technology causing some sort of enlightenment resulting in people becoming more Vulcan-like.

    Human nature is pretty constant. People may have different superstitions, or different gods, than they used to, but they still have them, even if they don’t call them that by name.

    The Taleb thing is funny though.

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