The MBA Meathead: Results Don’t Matter and Why Your Percents are Stupid

TAGS: skill, news reporting, luck, the mba meathead, percentages, sports

elitefts™ Sunday Edition

Results Don’t Matter—Luck versus Skill

I used to love ESPN. Twenty years ago, there was a single channel and SportsCenter was a pre-recorded thirty minutes that would run on a loop all morning. It was a fantastic half-hour of scores, highlights, and reporting of actual occurrences. As Joe Friday would say, “All we want are the facts, ma’am.”

Fast forward to today. I’m not sure what they are doing because I can’t watch more than 10 minutes of it. It appears to have devolved into a stream of opinions, speculations, and gossip-mongering that would make a 1950s housewife in the beauty parlor blush. Who needs scores and highlights when you can have adults bloviating about which superstar didn’t bring his A-game last night or which backup special-teams player may or may not be getting along with his coach? It is mind-numbingly asinine.

My favorite is when one of the supposed experts proclaims that one team wanted it more than the other or that another team did not show up to play hard or whatever other broad generalization fits the storyline. Never mind those pesky X’s and O’s, game-planning by the coaching staff, and positional matchups. Nope, it is all about whether an entire roster of three dozen professional athletes decided to collectively ‘not want it as bad’ as the other entire roster. If you want to see a beautiful exchange on this topic, check out the video of the June 2012 dressing down of Skip Bayless by Mark Cuban. The sad part is when the team owner exposes the commentator in question for being an absolute fraud with irrelevant suppositions, and the commentator has no choice but to sit back and take it. He can’t refute because it is true, and he can’t agree because that would pull back the curtain and expose the sham of today’s version of sports journalism.

The reason these lowly standards of journalism flourish is that humans have an overwhelming need to fit outcomes to storylines. Every cause must have an effect. It helps us maintain some feeling of control and understanding over what are actually highly random events. So what if a hoops game went to overtime and the home team banked in a three-pointer at the buzzer to win what was, by all accounts, an evenly contested game. We want to fill in the blanks after the fact as if the victory was pre-ordained based on the home crowd noise, the off-court adversity that a star player battled, or (even better for the talking-heads) the laziness, lack of chemistry, or any other negative pall that can be cast upon the loser.

The reality is that many games and other occurrences in life simply come down to statistical randomness. A certain percent of outcomes will be based on skill (X’s and O’x, matchups, etc.) and a certain percent will be based on luck (a kind bounce on the rim, point guards shooting threes above their true mean, etc.).

Which brings me to the point of this article from a business standpoint: the same luck versus skill dynamic is as true in the corporate world as it is in sports. Understanding how to differentiate between the two is critical to making good decisions. It is mind-boggling how many multi-million dollar moves are made based on non-repeatable lucky outcomes that are viewed as repeatable and skill-based. For example, Vice-President Douchebag takes over a commercial unit just as macro-economic factors within that industry turn favorable and business cycle trends start sloping positively. Mr. VP Douchebag is then lauded by the Board of Directors as a master of the turnaround and becomes the successor to the retiring CEO. Three years later, the company is in shambles as Mr. Douchebag is continually exposed as a poor leader incapable of making good decisions. He receives a fat golden parachute as he is shown the door and the cycle repeats.

Or, how about the Wall Street analyst who ranks number one on the annual performance list. Her picture graces the cover of magazines and she is able to strike out on her own as a hedge fund manager making piles of cash. Only problem is the investment returns were driven by a misunderstood and overly-risky position in gold futures that just happened to pay-off because of unexpected civil unrest in the Congo causing price spikes. Someone has to be number one every year. Sometimes they deserve it based on their skillfulness and sometimes they just get lucky.

In both cases, people who appeared to be superstars were actually mediocre at-best performers. Don’t get caught in that trap. Don’t be the person who creates a backstory to fill every outcome as though it had to be. Those good at separating luck and skill to truly understand why things happen are the ones who make the best decisions.

How do you do this? Since most people are not statisticians, nor do they have the luxury of recording large sample sizes of real-world activities to analyze, it becomes more of an art than a science. When judging if a particular outcome was mainly a result of luck or skill, I look at the activity itself and try to split the determining factors into those two camps, assuming it was replicated 1,000 times.

For example, if I, as an average chess player, play a world champion 1,000 times, I am going to lose 1,000 times. That activity is highly determined by skill; therefore, the results you see even in a small sample size are a good indicator of true underlying ability. However, if I, as an average Texas Hold’em player, go heads-up against the best in the world 1,000 times, I have a good shot to win hundreds of those hands. Texas Hold’em has a much higher luck component determining the outcome when compared to chess. The results of the card player in a single competition do not matter to me nearly as much as the chess player. Therefore, I know I need to scrutinize the card player more heavily before, say, hiring him as my coach (relative to the chess player).

As you progress through your business career, think about the people you meet and the projects in which you are involved. Ask yourself if the results produced were truly due to successful strategy, leadership, analysis, and teamwork. Or were the inputs horseshit that got bailed out by unexpected factors. When someone is successful, ask yourself if his/her success is due to some repeatable skill, or was he/she just in the right place at the right time.

Performance does not necessarily equate to quality. Results do not necessarily matter. The inputs and the process are what matter. The best plans are often laid to waste by uncontrollable factors. The worst plans sometimes succeed regardless of the ineptitude of those formulating them. The job of a good leader and decision-maker is to ferret out the difference between the two.

Your Percents are Stupid

Disclaimer: if you have been lifting for 10+ years, this section does not apply to you. I am in a training lull between competitions at the moment, so rather than talking about programming, this is a tangent relating to the beginning or intermediate lifter.

Given my affiliation with elitefts™, I am fortunate enough to attend things like the Underground Strength Sessions (UGSS). This is when the company brings in a group of sponsored lifters from all around the country for a weekend of lifting, eating, sharing of ideas, and shit-talking.

At the last UGSS, there was a roundtable discussion about training programs and what people followed early in their lifting careers. More often than not, the answer was that they just lifted. Maybe it was a bodybuilder template off the grocery store magazine shelves, or maybe it was simply following what other strong people in their gym did. But, I don’t recall anyone saying that he jumped in with a complex or overly-tailored program right out of the gate. It was only over long periods of time that everyone advanced to more intricate training methods.

This reinforced something at which I have been shaking my head for years. The internet is polluted with videos, forum posts, and Q&A requests for what percents to use, when to time BCAA intake, how to set band tension, how to program the sixth sub-block in a 35-week training cycle, and on and on. These are often guys who weigh less than 200 pounds, have trained for about three minutes in their lives, and still haven’t learned how to do a proper squat or deadlift.

If you have been training for less than five years, let me save everyone’s time here and give you the answer to any question you might ask: It doesn’t matter. What percent of 1RM you use on set 5 of 13 in your mesocycle doesn’t matter. Drinking ice water because you think it will increase thermo-whatever in your body doesn’t matter. Supplement protocols don’t matter. Percent of straight weight versus band tension for your speed work doesn’t matter. Your speed work doesn’t matter. Your program doesn’t matter. Let me say that again a little louder: YOUR PROGRAM DOESN’T MATTER. The first five years should be nothing but you lifting hard and learning how your body works.

The list of what does matter is relatively small. Lift consistently and eat reasonably. If you must follow a program or a diet, pick whatever one you want (it doesn’t matter) and follow it exactly as written. No questions. No tweaks. Just do what it says. There will be plenty of time during the remaining 50 years of your training life to make whatever changes you want. For the first 5-10 years, just lift.

If you do not want to follow a formal program or diet, just do the following:

  • Go to the weight room two to four days a week and hit one or two major compound movements (working up to a max set of 1-4 reps on each) along with three or four accessory movements (working up to 3 sets of 6-8 reps on each) with a high level of intensity.
    • For compound movements, increase the weight when you can do a final set of 4 reps.
    • For accessory movements, increase the weight when you can get all 3 sets of 8 reps.
  • Take in one to two grams of protein per pound of bodyweight and choose protein over carbohydrates when picking food.
  • Period. That’s it.

I believe the technical term for this is linear progression. I’m not sure about that nor do I care, but I do know that I did this for eight years and gained 70 pounds of body mass (180 to 250) while increasing my rawdog bench press by 250 pounds (225 to 475).

Looking Ahead

My next meet is not scheduled until October 2013. This will be ten months between competitions, which is much longer than the normal six-month intermission. The last two months were spent doing hypertrophy work and preparing the baseline for a training cycle. I now have eight solid months remaining to retool the physical infrastructure and run a full meet prep cycle. Dave Tate will be doing the programming, so it will be fun.

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