Fail once and you’re gone. That’s the norm in many careers and jobs, irrespective of whether they are blue collar or blue operating room-gown jobs. A dish washer who breaks a pile of dishes, a surgeon who botches an arterial repair, a pilot who shows up drunk just once—all terminated.
Now, that’s pretty strict employee supervision. So, why is it that not only do some jobs allow for a lot more failure, but also allow for as much or more failure than success? Your reflex response is that it depends on the stakes and consequences of a mistake, such as a surgeon’s sewing up his scalpel in the patient’s chest—in the worst case, through “willful negligence”.
That’s true sometimes, but not always. Consider the overworked waiter who, stressed out by a lack of rest, snaps and is rude to just one patron, just once. That’s not fatal, lethal, willful or even ruinous for business, if a quick talk with him and a good night’s sleep will set him straight. Yet, many are fired for even more minor one-time transgressions and failures.
On the other hand, TV weathermen and a select few other professionals seem bulletproof, or more accurately, fireproof.
Toss a coin: “Heads” it will be sunny; “tails”, it will rain. Congratulations—you just completed your TV weatherman training course. If getting the weather forecast right at least half the time is the defining task for that job, you’ll qualify, at least in Vancouver, where a study a few years ago determined that the researched TV forecasts were right only 51% of the time.
Now, even though merely understanding what this means is more challenging than proving it, that report created or reinforced a public perception of massive failure.
But let’s be careful: Was the reported 49% failure rate uniform across long- and short-term forecasts, an average of all weather parameters, such as wind, barometric pressure, temperature, precipitation probability and predicted duration of a pattern? Then what is the degree of precision by which failure was measured: a deviation of more than 5% from the predicted parameters, e.g., temperature, wind velocity, rainfall? Or more than 20%? Suppose sleet was predicted, but hail fell instead? Was that a failure?
The freakonomics.com article “How Valid Are T.V. Weather Forecasts” (cited above), addresses these issues and complicates them by making this stunning point: Kansas City TV forecasters’ (no) precipitation predictions are right 85% of the time—but would also be right 86% of the time if the Kansas weathermen always made the prediction “no precipitation”. So even outstanding “success” can be no better than chance success achieved by rigidly repeating one forecast mantra.
Nonetheless, and all such complications aside, the main point stands: the TV weather(wo)man is perceived as a failure who won’t get fired for it, e.g., as a result of pressure from an outraged viewing public.
Weather Prediction Ain’t Brain Surgery?
Imagine getting quadruple bypasses or brain surgery right only 51% of the time or having only half of your patients survive their operations. It will be argued that the situations are completely different, that the TV weatherman, unlike the surgeon, has much less control over what he is responsible for or that what he is responsible for, e.g., clear presentation—rather than clear weather or an accurate heads-up about it or to the contrary—is not what is turning out wrong half the time.
The TV weatherman is presumably responsible only for reporting predictions, not making them, some will say. So his failure rate is close to zero, if he has no mishap, such as forgetting what to say or suddenly and mysteriously spouting nutty gibberish (which has happened to a couple of news reporters this past year and at least one weatherman, live on camera, in 2011).
Or if he is also responsible for making predictions, he is dealing with complex systems characterized by high unpredictability, and can be forgiven for doing no better than a coin toss (which still leaves unanswered the question of why bother with the expenses of meteorology, if a free coin toss will suffice—free, save for the cost of the coin).
If Blackjack Dealers Performed Like TV Weather(wo)men
If this logic is correct—if an employee is accountable only for reporting or is also responsible for predictions that are easily flawed by complexity, then why would a blackjack dealer in Las Vegas probably and quickly get the ax if the house consistently loses more than he takes in on his watch?
After all, the dealer is either only “reporting” to the players how the cards have turned out or is also making predictions about how they will turn out, when there are, as is the case with weather, significant random variables affecting the outcome.
In an honest casino, the dealer is not also responsible for controlling the cards, much as a weatherman is not responsible for controlling the weather or climate. Nonetheless, I imagine that if the dealer loses the biggest pots more half the time, he loses his job. (Merely losing half the time would not be sufficient for being axed, if most of those losses were dwarfed in dollar terms by the fewer, but much bigger wins.)
According to one expert analysis of blackjack, under ideal gambler circumstances, a blackjack dealer’s odds of winning are comparable to those reported weatherman’s odds of predictive success.
Describing blackjack as the casino game that offers gamblers the best odds, an FAQ at bjrnet.com, says, “A single deck game with Las Vegas Strip rules and double after splitting allowed actually gives the player a +0.1% advantage. This assumes, of course, that the player uses the ‘correct” basic strategy.”
Fortunately for the dealers, there is a huge pool of incompetent players who are more cooperative and predictable than the weather and who vastly outnumber card counters and other very skillful gamblers.
Now compare roulette. There the situation is even worse for the croupier: The odds naturally favor the house on every spin in a one-on-one with a gambler. (Of course, offsetting those favorable odds for the house are the large bets placed on such long shots.)
A big bet on the rare win can be painful for the casino and croupier. If the house lost and lost big at one croupier’s table as often as TV weathermen are wrong, the croupier would have about the same odds of keeping his job as he would of winning on a bet placed on another croupier’s spin.
The Yankees: Overpaid Failures?
But, if you think TV weather(wo)men have it cushy, consider some of the most failure-prone professionals that exist: baseball players. How long would a Wall Street account executive last if he made big money for his firm on 1/3rd of his deals and lost twice as much on the remaining 2/3rds?
Yet, that’s a stellar performance in baseball—a batting average of .333! It’s not just Wall Street that is far more strict. Consider McDonald’s: A burger flipper remembers the ketchup, salt and pickle 1/3rd of the time, forgets it the rest. Chucked out the door faster than you can say “Chuck E Cheese”.
It may be countered that “failure” is one thing, “error” is another and “negligence” a third. The burger boy gets fired for two, maybe all three of these, so he “deserves it”. Compare that with a company that sends out 100,000 brochures, but gets a normal low response rate, say less than 10%. In this case, nobody should get fired.
Not only is that mail-out likely to be at worst only a failed marketing campaign, rather than an erroneous or negligent one, e.g., one caused by dumb, sloppy, ineffective ad content or distribution strategy, it is also very likely to be a “failure”, only if defined in narrow mathematical or binary terms that define “no response” as failure.
Many real estate agents do spectacularly well, indeed, despite “failing” to sell anything to the vast majority of property shoppers. What’s more, virtually none of that “failure” will be due to error of any kind. Those are just the odds.
The distinction between forgivable failure and unforgivable failure (including negligence) or error is only as clear as the distinctions among talent, effort and natural constraints on performance. A batting average of only .333 is considered great (Rogers Hornsby’s .358 lifetime average’s being the highest ever), .450 fantastic (although even lower than Vancouver TV weather(wo)man’s mediocre .510). But why?
Do we idolize “sluggers” who bat .400 because of a deep scientific understanding of the physics and physiology involved in baseball or just because such averages are statistically rare? Is it not possible that big league baseball averages would be much higher if the players tried harder or were more talented?
Accepting .333 as a standard of excellence is arguably setting up the players to fail and to be insanely well-rewarded for it. The same logic applies to “grade inflation” in high schools, colleges and universities.
The Cushiest Jobs in the World
So it seems that, in terms of allowing or even encouraging failure, the cushiest jobs in the world include TV weather(wo)man, professional baseball player and real estate agent. But there is one more that merits a mention, especially because it is widely regarded as just about the most important job in the world: being the President of the United States.
How many presidents get more than half of what they want legislatively, in foreign policy, in economic and financial initiatives, in environmental protection/exploration bills, social program expansion or cutbacks, etc., etc.?
Without having to be math whizzes (like U.S. Naval Academy science graduate and qualified submarine commander President Jimmy Carter), presidents can easily confirm that their overall batting averages are highly unlikely to beat the reported .510 of Vancouver TV weather(wo)men—especially when they have to deal with congressional gridlock and adversarial politics.
Nonetheless, note how many get re-elected, despite a very high “failure” rate, i.e., do not get “fired”.
Many things besides having a fireproof job factor into making a job cushy. But knowing that you can relax and not worry much about failures is hard to beat for comfort, unless the job is an out-an-out window-watching sinecure, which the presidency of the United States definitely is not….
…since the Oval Office desk faces the door.