perpetual beta

Perpetual beta:  The degree to which one is committed to belief updating and self-improvement.  It is roughly 3x a better predictor of a super-forecaster than intelligence.

  • Philip Tetlock, “Superforecasting”

I’ve been brushing my teeth multiple times daily (for the most part…) for 34 years.  With 3 decades of experience, I should be a master tooth brusher.  And for the first 3-5 years of brushing my teeth, I improved significantly on a weekly, monthly and annual basis.  But ever since I turned 8 (at that time I had the hand eye coordination and strength to brush all of my teeth effectively), marginal gains became more and more challenging and my growth trajectory flattened.  Using the number of cavities in the past decade relative to the first as a means for comparison, I’ve trended flat to worse over time.

This trend can be applied to other mundane activities (e.g. driving, hand writing, dish washing) that we do daily.  And if we’re honest with ourselves, we can probably apply this to our careers, relationships, and other so-called important activities (e.g. volunteer work, exercise).

It’s interesting that as a society we are often rewarded or respected for “time served / experience” even though that experience doesn’t usually make us worthy of the additional respect.

“Wow, look at the Smiths, they’ve been married for 30 years.  I don’t know how they do it but that’s amazing.”


“Joe’s run 38 marathons in 30 states over the past two decades.  I’d love to get his advice how how I should prepare for my first sub 45 min 10K.”


“Linda’s been with the firm for 2 years longer than the other applicants for manager.  She has the experience, therefore, she should be promoted.”

In the past month, I’ve heard similar lines of rationale as the statements above.  But in each case, experience did not make them experts.  In the case of the married couple, they’re married in name only (MINO “trademarked – SL!”).  They emotionally checked out at year 10 but they’re too stubborn or lazy to fix the problem or file for divorce.  For the serial marathoner, he walk / runs each race and has never finished under 6 hours.  He has never hired a coach or followed a training plan and therefore has no knowledge of what it takes to train for a 10K.  And while Linda has more experience, the additional two years have been spent on one specific project so she is not better qualified than the other applicants for manager.

So what does it take to improve, to become an expert tooth brusher, husband, distance runner, manager?

In the book, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise, author Anders Ericsson argues that in order to become an expert at any task / activity / game, experience isn’t enough.  You must:

  1. approach the activity with a plan
  2. deliberately practice that plan (first mastering fundamentals, then moving to more nuanced aspects)
  3. develop framework / set of principles that you can apply broadly to the activity
  4. push outside your comfort zones and through adversity
  5. solicit feedback from coaches / experts (incorporate feedback loops if possible)
  6. repeat over and over again

When describing what made superforecasters “super” in his book Superforecasting – The Art and Science of Prediction, Philip Tetlock points out the key difference.  Superforecasters:

  1. develop a growing set of mental models they apply broadly to each prediction so as to remove any psychological biases (eg Fermi Paradox, Bayesian updating), increase their efficiency, and continue to improve over time
  2. obsess over the details of the most important data / evidence
  3. constantly seek out feedback as they want to understand what decision led them astray and then they systematically alter their approach

When I was young my mom and dad bought me a new pair of shoes if I made it in the “No Cavity Club” (in addition to an abundance of praise, my dentist had my picture hung on the wall with all the other club members).  By age 8, I was a 3 year “No Cavity Club” awardee and as I watched that club grow smaller each year, I grew more competitive and focused on ensuring I made the wall (and adding to my collection of crazy colored Chuck Taylor high tops).  With a built in feedback loop and incentive structure in place, I flossed and brushed with not only regularity but also an uncanny focus.

And I continued to improve.

Until I received my first cavity.

And I was no longer in the club.

And I stopped caring as much and started going through the motions.

And my second and third cavities came soon after.

And my growth trajectory flattened.

Thanks so much for your time,