An average work day is just another round

With the US Open Championship of tennis in full swing, its a good time to visit some wisdom drawn from the sport, e.g. the Tournament Theory! I stumbled across this in a post today by Tim Harford, the author of The Undercover Economist:

It should go without saying – but never does – that your boss is overpaid and underworked, while you and your colleagues toil long hours for peanuts. But beyond the fact that life is cruel, is there a rational explanation for this?

An economist called Ed Lazear has one. He noticed that in a sporting tournament – say, Wimbledon – players are paid for winning rather than for trying.

But they try anyway.

Lazear thinks the same is true of office life. Nobody thinks that Roger Federer’s cheque at Wimbledon is supposed to be his payment for turning up at the next tennis match. They realise it’s a reward for his past victories and a motivation for every other player to go away and practise, so that next year they will play better.

Your boss’s easy lifestyle and “fat cat” salary are just the same. They are not supposed to be a motivation for him, they are supposed to be a motivation for you and me and all the other workers who are struggling to get to the top of the heap. In fact, the more egregious his salary the more hard work it should squeeze out of everyone else who wants it.

The ideas were formalized by Edward Lazear and Sherwin Rosen in a paper in 1981. Subsequently the field has expanded and there is empirical data which agrees enough, that it is being accepted as an explanation for the general trend of high senior executive pay.

At the same time it all seems counter intuitive since one could argue that there are proper theories et al for determining incentives etc.

Practically though there’s no escaping this tournament, each day being just another round.

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On mentors, and growth

Jeremy Zawodny has an inspired thought from his experiences in flying, which he draws upon very neatly in Backseat Flying and Professional Mentoring:

…the best mentor is someone that's only a few steps ahead of you in the learning curve.

…there are times when I've had a good mentor to follow–someone I could strive to be more like in various ways: knowledge, skill, communication, etc. Those are the times when I made the greatest improvements in my job performance and felt like I had the most focus. Other times I've not been so lucky, lacking any real guide to model myself after and not sure what "better" looks like.

This has led me to conclude that good mentors are hard to find. Not only do they have to be open and receptive to the idea of you pestering them for help on various things, they also need to be a good match–someone you can look at and say "I really want to be more like that."…

Indeed.

Rock Paper Scissors, Go.

There is no dearth of fads in this world, but using the game of Rock Paper Scissors as a strategic decision tool is rich. It seems that it has been used in some key decisions in few scenarios atleast, also its been getting due attention from mass media e.g. this column in the Fortune magazine by Jennifer Crick:

You may ask, "Why not just toss a coin?" The difference is that while coin-tossing relies solely on random odds, RPS, despite what many people think, doesn't. What's fascinating about RPS is that it's a competition to simultaneously read your opponent's mind and prevent him from reading yours. And unlike other games that involve reading and misleading your opponent (like poker), you can't win RPS by bluffing alone. Eventually you have to show your hand.

Winning at RPS is all about knowing what your opponent is going to do. Successful strategizing involves a series of mental questions: "If you know that I know that you know that I know …" The popular name for this strategy is Sicilian Reasoning. Part of the trick is knowing when to stop the series; otherwise you risk overestimating your opponent's intelligence (and outwitting yourself). Another part is knowing where to start: Ask yourself, "Deep down, is my opponent rock, paper, or scissors?"

On the pop culture front, as also mentioned in the same article, there is a world RPS championship. More interesting is the competition between bots as mentioned on the RSBPC page. Sicilian Reasoning, as referenced in the article is just one of the strategies, but is most intriguing of the lot: it goes counter to what we normally do in real life – we over analyze the past patterns and lean in favour of winning moves, the Sicilian Reasoning advises biasing against the past moves. As mentioned in the RSBPC page the small programs do as well as complicated algorithms, there is even a mention of a one-liner implementation called 'Henny'.