Kind v Wicked Domains: Why Sports Champions Aren’t Your Success Gurus

Tiger Woods’ father gave him his first metal club, a putter, at the age of seven months. He set up Tiger’s high chair in the garage where he hit balls into a net, and Woods would watch for hours on end. Before Woods was two, the father son duo would go to the golf course to practice regularly. Woods was a local celebrity by the time he reached elementary school. He became nationally famous in college. Currently Woods is widely regarded as one of the greatest golfers, and one of the most famous athletes of all time. He is a role model of success to millions.

A young Tiger Woods

In another part of the world, a Hungarian named Laszlo Polgar believed that, “A genius is not born, but is educated and trained.” He believed in this idea so strongly that he wanted to test it with his own three daughters. Laszlo decided that chess would be a suitable field for the experiment. He surrounded them with chess books and hung portraits of famous chess players on the walls.

It worked. Susan, the oldest, began playing chess when she was four years old. Within six months, she was defeating adults. Sofia, the middle child, was a world champion by fourteen. A few years later, she became a grandmaster. Judit, the youngest, became the youngest player ever listed among the top one hundred chess players in the world. At fifteen years and four months old, she became the youngest grandmaster of all time.

The Polgar sisters with Laszlo Polgar

Like the Tiger Woods story, the Polgar sisters story is constantly used and abused in pop articles, books, TV shows as the ultimate lifehack for sureshot success. Laszlo’s experiment had worked so well that in the early 1990s he suggested that if his approach were applied to thousands of children, humanity could easily tackle problems like cancer and AIDS.

We often get carried away by such anecdotal stories. We start to believe that anything in the world can be mastered the same way—with hard work, grit, and focussed practice. The only problem is that chess, golf, poker, music (the fields most of the “success books” talk about) are not representative examples of all activities of life. Mastery in any of these fields doesn’t guarantee that one will master all other areas of life.

It is because knowledge and experience cannot be generalised this way. Skillset in one domain isn’t always transferrable to another domain, i.e., some skills are domain dependent. A great chess player isn’t automatically a great strategist. A good poker player isn’t automatically a good dealmaker.

A person can definitely be called “smart” if they are good at chess or poker, or any similar sport, but they are only as smart as a chess or a poker player can get. It doesn’t mean that they are smart in every field.

Sports like golf, chess, poker, cricket, football, baseball, basketball, etc., belong to something called “kind domains”. Sachin Tendulkar, Christiano Ronaldo, Gary Kasparov—all of them are kind domain players.

In kind domains, the rules are defined, patterns repeat over and over, and feedback is instant and accurate. There’s very little or no ambiguity. If you practice long and hard, you are bound to cover almost all the scenarios.

In many experiments, after glancing at a chessboard full of pieces, a professional chess player can instantly recreate it accurately on an empty board from memory. They can do it because they have encountered these patterns over and over in their career. But if you give them randomly scattered pieces on the board, they fail to recreate them. These patterns never existed during their practice.

In kind domains, there’s no trickery. Everybody follows the same set of rules, there are predefined boundaries for everybody, the consequences of mistakes are quickly apparent, and there are referees to call it out if somebody breaks rules. If you haven’t figured it our already, school education exists in the kind domain.

Life, on the other hand, is not kind. Life is “wicked”. In life, the rules are often unclear or incomplete. There may or may not be repetitive patterns. The patterns (if they exist at all) may not be obvious. Feedback is often delayed, inaccurate, or ambiguous.

In wicked domains, you get on the field but you don’t know which sport you are playing. It can start off looking similar to cricket, and then suddenly change to baseball, or something entirely different. The rules aren’t clear, and you aren’t sure if everything is happening randomly. Since there are no set rules, there are no referees, and there may nor may not be trickery involved in the game. You never know. You are never certain of anything.

In wicked domains, practice helps, but doesn’t guarantee anything. Being smart helps, but often a single mistake can overturn decades of smartness. Experience matters, but you don’t know for how long it’ll guarantee expertise.

In wicked domains, upsides and downsides aren’t evenly distributed, nothing is linear, and hence linear thinking doesn’t really help. If you are an investor or an entrepreneur, you are playing in a wicked domain.

People often make the mistake of relating chess and poker to life. They cannot be more wrong. All kind domain games, no matter how complex, have clearly defined probabilities.

Anything we can do in kind domains can be easily codified and transferred to machines. In 1997, IBM supercomputer Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the greatest chess player of all time. Deep Blue evaluated two hundred million positions per second. That is a tiny fraction of possible chess positions, but plenty enough to defeat a grandmaster. Similarly, a mechanically robust enough robot will have the capability of beating the best batsman in cricket.

Kasparov playing Deep Blue

This is because kind domain games rely more on tactics than strategies. Tactics are short combinations of moves that players use to get an immediate advantage. When players are studying patterns, they are in fact mastering tactics. On the other hand, a big-picture planning—how to manage little battles to win a war—is called strategy. But one can get very far in kind domains just by being very good in tactics—that is, knowing a lot of patterns—and still having only a basic understanding of strategy. Tactics, unlike strategies can be easily codified into a computer. Hence there’ll always be a Deep Blue for every kind domain grandmaster.

Wicked domain games, on the other hand, are full of uncertainties, and don’t comply to our probabilistic models. In business, stock market, war, and diplomacy, unless one has a good understanding of a high level strategy, one never has an advantage. Even having the best strategy still doesn’t guarantee anything.

Since wicked domain games don’t have any fixed set of patterns, our knowledge cannot be codified into a computer and therefore machines cannot win wars, beat the market, or build diplomatic relationships with other countries all by themselves. Human supervision is always required.

Unlike a game of poker that has a fixed set of cards known to all parties involved, an unknown card can pop-up randomly at any point in wicked domain games. Time tested tactics from kind domains fall flat in wicked domains.

Intuition is a very powerful tool in kind domain games. Since you are likely to meet with situations you’ve handled before (repeating patterns), you can intuitively devise tactics to deal with a situation. For example, a firefighter examines the fire patterns in a building to intuitively find ways to deal with the situation. But if you put a firefighter who is trained to deal with small fires to fight a skyscraper fire, his intuition will fail him.

One stark difference between a kind domain expert and a wicked domain expert is that kind domain experts intuitively choose a tactic and then evaluate, while wicked domain experts (who are devoid of repeating patterns) evaluate and then choose.

Rather than beginning by generating options, kind domain experts leap to a decision based on pattern recognition of surface features, for example, by glancing at the chess pieces. This time will probably be same as last time, so there’s no reason to think broadly before picking an option.

As any wicked domain investor knows, the past is not a good indicator of the future, and hence every problem is more of less brand new. Therefore wicked domain experts need a buffet of ideas to analyse before picking one. They spend mental energy to figure out what problem they are facing before matching a strategy to it.

When Albert Einstein said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and 5 minutes thinking about solutions,” it’s very likely he was talking about wicked domain problems. (It’s very unlikely that Einstein ever actually said this, but you get the idea.)

The current world is not so kind. The first thing we have to identify is what games we are playing and who we are listening to. Kind domain tactics won’t be useful in wicked domains, and kind domain experts cannot guide us in wicked domains. That is why analogies from chess, golf, cricket, football, baseball aren’t gonna help us much in life. Sports champions cannot be our life gurus.

The current world requires thinking that cannot fall back on previous experience. Like entrepreneurs, inventors, explorers, and scientists, we have to be comfortable dealing with unknown situations and make decisions with little or no information. We have to be able to intelligently pick strategies for problems we have never seen before. The current world demands creativity, and it will be dominated by generalists.

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