Day 25: Facts and Social Capital

On my drive home today, I was listening to The Art of Charm. Jordan was interviewing Richard Clarke, a former National Coordinator for Security, Infrastructure Protection, and Counter-Terrorism, and he was talking about “Cassandras,” people who can accurately predict imminent disasters and are ignored. Clarke knows about Cassandras because he is one: he warned President Bush in January 2001 that there was going to be a terrorist attack on US soil and that Bin Laden was likely going to be involved… only to be ignored and reassigned. And to top things off, his reassignment wasn’t scheduled until October 1st, so 9/11 happened on his watch.

One thing that Clarke advocated time and time again was to think with the facts, to acknowledge the evidence for (or against) something, seek to disprove the evidence, and, ultimately, to believe whatever evidence couldn’t be disproved. This really resonated with me, because I’ve always been more of a left-brained kinda guy.

However, given that this was The Art of Charm, something else really stood out to me, too. A few times (as with Harry Markopolos), it seemed that the thing that kept the Cassandra from convincing people of the disaster had nothing to do with the numbers and everything to do with social capital. Markopolos was the man who tried to blow the whistle on Bernie Madoff a decade before the Ponzi scheme actually fell apart. He was a financial analyst and he knew that Madoff’s returns weren’t possible. But he couldn’t get anyone from the SEC to listen to him. During the AoC interview, Jordan comments that, maybe if Markopolos had had a lawyer friend who could vouch for him, things would have turned out differently.

And then there’s the infamous Colombia space shuttle Powerpoint slide. This is, at least potentially, an error due to poor communication. Although poor communication doesn’t always cost millions of dollars and people’s lives, growing in the area of effective communication can only serve to help you along your path to success, particularly in fields like analytics. Some people zone out when the first graph hits the screen. I need to learn how to communicate effectively to those people.

All told, this was a really interesting podcast that challenged me in two ways:

  1. When something sounds unbelievable, be willing to do the work to prove that it should not be believed.
  2. Developing my social capital and communication skills are extremely valuable, particularly when I’m engaged in a polarizing field like analytics.
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