Unknown Unknowns #19 - Karma
2 min read

Unknown Unknowns #19 - Karma

When I was younger, I thought karma was a silly thing, something people believed in to encourage good behavior, like Santa Claus or Heaven and Hell.  As I got older, karma was like getting a lotto ticket of luck for doing a good deed.  Do enough good deeds and pay-it-forward would come around.

This Week:

I wrote a longer essay this week on how we learn.  It's one of three essay that I'll be publishing over the next week on learning and expertise.

Something Interesting: Upside Decay

Brian Lui writes about "upside decay", where "an organization doesn’t get any lucky breaks".  Upside events usually occur over a long time period, and usually take a chain of lower probability events to happen.  For example, in order to get to the moon, there needed to be enough development in computing power, aerodynamics, thermodynamics, and other fields.  Brian Lui argues that the probability of success of any of these greatly lowers the probability of success in getting to the moon.  In order to create great things, upside decay must be avoided.

So what causes upside decay?  Brian Luis says it' caused by a lack of virtue.  What does virtue have to do with long-tail upside?  It turns out that the cause of upside decay is the existence of weak ties.  Weak ties are like friends-of-friends, strong ties are like your friends.  It turns out that you're more likely to get a job through a network of weak ties than strong ties.  Your strong tie network is more likely to overlap with you and know the exact same job openings, while weak ties would have a wider outreach.  And how do you form weak ties?  Through virtue.

Is this the scientific basis for Karma?

I'm reminded of the idea of the Honest Broker.

Honest Brokers play a hidden but vital role in communities without a history of legal protections and stable institutions. Their influence and power is built solely on a reputation for straight talk and trustworthy dealings. They are true brokers, intermediaries between others. They aren’t going to participate in your deal, no matter what it is. They are go-betweens, really. But do not underestimate the power of this kind of brokerage. Whatever you need—a loan, a building permit, political influence, a place to land a private jet, whatever—they will introduce you to the right people and steer you away from the sharks.

"And they do this for a very simple reason: their prestige is enhanced by making these connections. In many cases, they don’t even want to be paid. Or let me put that differently—you repay them by becoming a trusted contact for them in future dealings. The Honest Broker may help you for free right now, but don’t be surprised to get asked for assistance on something completely different months or even years later.

But the Honest Broker plays the long-term game

Questions, suggestions, complaints?  Email me me at [email protected].  Feedback welcome.

If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with a friend or two.  And feel free to send anything you find interesting to me!

Have a great week,


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