Last week I finished reading Ahead of the Curve, Inside the Baseball Revolution, which is a book about the dramatic changes in evaluating baseball talent in the last decade or so. Don't worry, this isn't a nerdy baseball article, although I suspect many of you would be perfectly OK with that. However, the book got me thinking about how often we make big decisions in sub-optimal ways.
Baseball people know that the save is a generally worthless stat. If you do the math on baseball history, a generally average pitcher will hold a 3 run lead for one inning 95% of the time. Yet every team in baseball will hold their best relief pitcher for the 9th, even if means using a less reliable reliever in the 7th inning when the bases are loaded with no outs. That is the time when the game is really on the line, and that is the time to use the best pitcher in the bullpen. However, nobody will do it because that is not how it's done. If the middling reliever blows the game in the 7th and you never even use the best reliever nobody will criticize the manager. However, if you play to the math and use the closer in the 7th and don't win, you'll be crucified by the talking heads. It's herd immunity from criticism, which for most people, is better than optimizing the results but facing some criticism along the way.
This got me thinking about all the ways we do the same thing in everyday life. Many really big decisions in life come down to following the expected route through life. Here are a few just off the top of my head.
Home Ownership: It's well ingrained in Americans that if you are an adult and don't own your own home you are kind of a failure. We all know home ownership is a responsible thing to do, and is also a great investment. Home prices rose an inflation-adjusted 103% from 1890-2005. If you aren't good at math, that is less than 1% a year. Great investment? There are plenty of good reasons to own a home, but the real reason many do is because they think it's what you do when you are an adult.
Marriage: I just saw an article this week (that I forgot to bookmark) claiming "Millennials" are ruining society because they aren't getting married at the same rate as previous generations. Getting married is the right thing to do, and it grants you herd immunity from criticism, even if the marriage fails. In our society a failed marriage is better than no marriage. How is that not a crazy position to take?
How many kids rack up six figures of college debt getting an English degree because it's been drilled into them since kindergarten that they have to go to college to be successful? The college grad working at Starbucks with a mortgage sized student loan is higher on the social ladder than the high school grad who may own his own lawn care business at age 22. Who is really the more responsible adult there?
I could go on and on about the things that shape American society that when looked at closely, don't really hold up. BTW, I have three college degrees, a wife, and a house. I'm not above running with the herd! Although I am hopeful that in the last half of my life I'll be less concerned with herd immunity, from criticism. Herd immunity from bacteria is still a very good thing!