🔤 be there

This week is an alphabetical experiment, taking pieces from a longer chunk and breaking them off, like a Hershey bar.

The best way to understand the world is to be in the world. There are shorter ways: hacks, shortcuts, summaries, stories, books, studies, linear regressions, etc. But the richest data with the most unique lessons (right and wrong) is to be there in it.

The lightbulb moment for Robert Cialdini happened as a professor. He wondered what would happen if he studied real people making decisions rather than college students in the psychology department (participating for extra credit). Feeling the winds of the real world, Cialdini said, "was the most instructive and most entertaining researching project I've ever engaged in."

Of course, these real-world instances are messier than laboratories but they also matter a lot more. Rory Sutherland put it this way:

"As a business person, I go, ‘That's fine.' I just need to know that the way you design a choice has a big effect on how people choose and I need to know also that the logical economic assumption isn't true."

The real world won't provide clear answers but it will offer testable hypotheses. We can parley problems and think theoretically but 'the acid test of combat' is where the ultimate answer lies.

Before the 2008 Olympics, the British government wanted to overhaul their team. They'd be hosting in four years and wanted a good showing in front of the home crowds. So everyone got to work. The cycling team improved the nutrition (a nice academic subject) and improved the design of the bikes (an engineering subject, perfect for the laboratory and computer renderings). The athletes got better, but there was low-hanging fruit to be plucked only after the athlete's brains had been picked.

If the British Olympic team coaches hadn't gone out into the winds of the real world to talk to their athletes they'd have missed a major little problem: saddle sores.

As Owen Slot recalled, "The team found that riders were somewhat embarrassed to talk about them and they were staggered by the number of training days missed due to saddle sores." Athletes didn't want to talk about saddles sores or miss practice and risk losing their spot. Their solution was simple, change the angle of the seat.

Technology is a tool much like a survey. Big data, analytics, and algorithms all offer additional ways to translate the world and find news solutions along new paths. However, it's not the only way. Businesses must talk to customers (in the store), coaches must talk to athletes on the bikes, and academics should take their research from the lab to the field.