The Fat Smoker and the Black Swan

The Great Oracle of Professional Services, David Maister, writes:
"The parallel between the market for business advice and the weight-loss industry fascinates me. We have in most countries a huge industry which basically doesn't have much to say except "eat less exercize more." Is there really any difference between Jennie Craig and Weight Watchers except the psychology of the process you voluntarily put yourself in, in order to provide structure to what you know you should be doing anyaway. Why do weight loss books sell so well? Why is everyone looking for the latest fad diet?"
I asked a similar question about self-help books in general a couple of years ago, and came up with a strong opinion. For those of you looking for a quick read, I'll net out the posts. The reason there are a zillion self-help books saying the same thing has little to do with the books themselves and everything to do with the individual reader experience.

Since I wrote those posts I stumbled onto an additional nuance. Earlier this year Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote a book entitled The Black Swan [link takes you to the corresponding ChangeThis manifesto]. His basic thesis is that our lives are heavily influenced by Black Swans, which he characterizes thusly:
"First it is an outlier, as it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point out its possibility. Second, it carries an extreme impact. Third, in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable."
For the fat smoker, the experience of losing the weight / stopping smoking fits the description. And the fat smoker's mind goes into concoction mode. While the reality is that the conditions just happened to be right for him or her to "eat less and exercise more", they're more likely to glom onto the book or program that got them going in the right direction. And so they tell their friends about this wonderful program, some of whom may also be just on the edge of a mental state that will allow them to "eat less and exercise more". They'll have success, too. If this happens to enough people, the book becomes a runaway best seller! Of course, for reasons discussed in the previous posts, not everyone is going to be able to use the book/program to keep them in the proper mental state. But the Black Swan of the "ultimate diet book" keeps them looking for one of their own.

In business, as in self-improvement, the key is not some new recipe, it's the motivation an organization or individual brings to the effort. Wally Bock notes in the comments section of David's post that the key to success in major initiatives, from losing weight to learning to golf or implementing Six Sigma, is in keeping motivated when the you hit the inevitable plateau or dip. And here's where the mental concoction apparatus does its finest work. After all, "I just bit the bullet and kept plugging away" doesn't have much story value.

What is the moral for managers and consultants?
  1. As we discussed in When Bad Things Happen to Good Concepts, it's vitally important to understand the difference between concept and context.
  2. Success ultimately boils down to motivation, and not everyone is motivated by the same things. You need to know what really motivates your employees/customers.
  3. Plan for, and watch for, the plateau or dip. When it happens, be ready to inject experiences that will bolster the motivation of the dipees.

What do you think? Did I miss anything? How would you answer David's question?

posted by Mike at 12:58 PM


Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey Mike,

Zakman here from Liz's blog.

Firstly, thank you for your encouraging comments. Thank you.

Next, I don't understand much about your blog since it appears to a business-oriented/commercial.

But I do have something to say about "When Bad Things Happen to Good Concepts" (at the risk of sounding stupid):

Bad things never happen to good people or good concepts. Never.


Because they're good. Good people do not accept bad things. And so long as they don't accept it, it's not happening.

Even natural calamities like earthquakes and tsunamis don't affect good people. They might lose their family and their house and business, they might feel hurt, but it doesn't affect them.

Because good people have goodness, and that's peace, in their hearts.

Just my thoughts... and thanks again for replying on Liz's blog :)

1:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice post. I have my own theory about this, which is based on my own experience. I like personal finance blogs. Weight loss ones not so much, because I've just never had a weight problem (have stayed the exact same weight as in 8th grade, although currently I'm a few pounds under) or any luck at losing weight at the times I wanted by diet and exercise.
But in terms of personal finance, I also don't have a problem. I'm debt free and have put away a little bit for retirement, and I live below my means. Same for my husband (although the amount he has put away is more than mine, but I am younger). The truth is that the advice I can get from most personal finance bloggers is not that useful. A lot are still struggling with credit card debt, and some are still living above their means. But I still like them, more than a lot of other kinds of blogs. I think it is because they address a problem that can be measured in a concrete way. And it is a problem that is applicable to everyone. Everyone can learn a little something, or save a little bit more. I can revisit the blog and see the person's net worth moving forward, and visualize their progress. And they also tend to post on things outside of the narrow confines of finances, which can keep me interested.
I recently started a blog about conservation. But the fact is, that how do you decide if you are conserving more or less, or enough? I can compare my net worth with yours, but I can't give us a conservation score. Even carbon calculators are pretty useless because there is a lot of info that they don't take into account. In the end, you will never be able to see my blog and see progress, or movement towards a goal. But I'm waiting for the day when Madame X will reach the 1 million mark and when Sistah Ant will pay off that debt!

4:43 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


I'll agree with your assertion that bad things don't happen to good people; they just have unplanned learning experiences. I'll disagree about good concepts, for the reasons that I put into the post.

Thanks for stopping by, and I hope you and your friend are doing well.


8:44 AM  
Blogger Mike said...


Welcome back!

Interesting point about conservation scores. I'm of the school that says there is ALWAYS a way to measure something, because if you can notice a difference there has to be a way to measure that change. The problem with conservation is that there is a lot of F.U.D. around global measurements. It's not clear that global measurements are even appropriate. Solving complex problems like anthropogenic global warming should be attacked at a local level, not a global one, because local metrics will yield useful metrics, global ones will not because you can't draw direct cause-effect relationships.


8:47 AM  

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