I noticed a shift this week, and it was in the people around me - the last 18 months has been filled with infinite divisions and conflicting opinions about everything COVID related - social distancing, lockdowns, masks, vaccines, you name it.
The shift was not negative, the shift was a unity in the people around me that did not exist a month ago.
What is changing?
“Nothing unites the English like war. Nothing divides them like Picasso.”
Hugh Mills, one of America’s most decorated Veterans.
Sometimes, it takes a common enemy to unify people. 18 months into the pandemic, we might be finding that enemy - naive interventionism.
We are going back in for another tour with the latest variant. Were we foolish to think that we can outrun a virus? No. I will bet long on human ingenuity everytime. We are problem solvers.
But today, we can look back at all of these measures and ask the question - has any of it truly made a difference?
It is very unclear.
It does not mean we should not have tried. We were smart to try - and in the next crisis, we will try again. Human beings will always try.
Nassim Taleb describes a human condition of needing to do something in the face of crisis. He coined the term “naive interventionism”.
Consider this experiment of pediatricians in New York City in 1930:
389 children were presented to New York City doctors and asked if any of the children required tonsillectomies. The doctors selected 174 children (44%).
The remaining 215 who were not selected were then presented to a different set of New York doctors and asked the same question. This time, 99 new children were selected (46%).
In a third round, the remaining 116 children were shown to a third set of doctors. 52 more children were selected (44%).
What happened here?
Did more children start showing symptoms between appointments? Roughly 45% each time?
Or did each set of doctors feel compelled to do something.
Important note - in 1930, this surgery carried a morbidity rate of 2-4%. Significant when the arbitrary nature of the selection is analyzed.
In the medical community this is known as iatrogenics - a treatment that causes more harm than good.
Consider the death of George Washington in December of 1799. We have sufficient evidence that his death was hastened by his medical team using bloodletting to cure him of a throat infection.
The first President of the United States was sick - his medical team consisted of some of the most educated doctors in the world - they could not stand by idly - they needed to do something. So they “relieved” Washington of five to nine pounds of his blood.
I’ll make a note that in each of these examples, the doctors involved were some of the most educated and respected doctors on the planet at the time - ‘The cutting edge of medicine.’
I’m sure it’s different these days though… ;)
We all fall victim to the need to do something - when a friend is walking us through a crisis they are facing, our brains immediately jump into problem solving mode - what our friend needs to do to rectify their situation.
Do we actually know what our friend needs to do? Do we have all of the information - all of the context? All sides of the story? Rarely. But that doesn’t prevent us from trying to solve the problem. Humans do not sit idly by.
It’s the entrepreneur in all of us - the innovator. The reason we have prospered as a species is our appetite for problem solving. Trial and error, generation after generation.
We need to do things wrong in order to do them better. We may never get it right, but if we work at it hard enough, we can improve.
Grand mistakes are unavoidable - as sure as the sun rises and sets. What is avoidable, is denying when our ideas are proven wrong.
Bloodletting was disproven before the end of the 19th century, but one of the founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital, Sir William Osler, continued to advocate for bloodletting until his death in 1919.
We often let our ideas and our statements become our identity, and they are not. Changing our mind can be painful - especially if it involves acknowledging we have made a mistake.
Being wrong on an important issue is not painful. Being wrong feels the same as being right. Acknowledging we are wrong however, is the pain. So we avoid this. It is easier to cling to our bad ideas than acknowledge we made a mistake.
I have done this before. I have lived this.
Were there other ways for politicians to approach the COVID pandemic? Of course. But everything great in the world has been accomplished through trial and error. Through failing before succeeding. Businesses succeed because other businesses failed and left valuable lessons in their pain.
We owe our comfort to the ghosts.
We are supposed to leave this world better than we found it. In order to do that we need to try and fail at as many things as possible, so our children can learn from our mistakes. There is no other path to progress that I believe in. Lessons must be learned the hard way, by ourselves or by those around us.
The beauty of the human experience is that we never know what comes next. We don’t have the answers, and we never will. When we pass on, our children will pick up the torch of humanity and keep the process alive. The grand experiment - the generations long process of trial and error.
This is my Christmas Spirit this year - grateful for my tour of this life and the experiences I get to share. I will carve out my piece of the world and leave it for someone else to improve.
I will leave you today with this quote - I have never been able to find the author, so if you know, please share.
No matter how long it lives, the Greatest Lion eventually dies. That is the world. They may die young from injuries they sustained while defending their Pride. They may die old, enfeebled by age. At their Peak, they Rule, Chase other animals, catch, devour, gulp and leave their crumbs for hyenas.
But age comes fast.
The old Lion can't hunt, can't kill or defend itself. It roams and roars until it runs out of luck.
Life is short. Power is ephemeral. I have seen it in lions. I have seen it in people. Everyone who lives long enough will become very vulnerable at some point. Therefore, let us be humble. Help the sick, the weak, the vulnerable and most importantly never forget that we will leave the stage one day.
Let’s make the most of our time on the stage.