The Lindy Effect: Things That Age In Reverse

In June 1964, the author Albert Goldman published an article in The New Republic magazine in which he presented the “cautionary fable” of showbiz conversations in a New York deli called Lindy.

It was here that the in-the-know comedians gathered to gossip about their peers. The number of appearances a comedian made, the reasoning went, had an impact upon the likelihood of future appearances. Later, actors who hung out there discussed that Broadway shows that lasted for, say, one hundred days, had a future life expectancy of a hundred more. For those that lasted two hundred days, the life expectancy was two hundred more. This heuristic came to be known as the Lindy Effect.

According to the Lindy Effect, non-perishable items such as ideas increase in life expectancy with every day of their life—unlike perishable items such as humans.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb explores the Lindy Effect in-depth in his Incerto series. He starts off by illustrating the difference between perishable and non-perishable items in The Black Swan:

“In a developed country a newborn female is expected to die at around 79, according to insurance tables. When she reaches her 79th birthday, her life expectancy, assuming that she is in typical health, is another 10 years. At the age of 90, she should have another 4.7 years to go. At the age of 100, 2.5 years. At the age of 119, if she miraculously lives that long, she should have about nine months left. As she lives beyond the expected date of death, the number of additional years to go decreases.”

Human beings are perishable. Life expectancy decreases as one gets older. When you see a 6 year old kid and her 80 year old grandfather, you can predict with confidence that the kid will survive her grandfather. But with projects and business ventures, you usually witness the opposite effect.

“Let’s say a project is expected to terminate in 79 days, the same expectation in days as the newborn female has in years. On the 79th day, if the project is not finished, it will be expected to take another 25 days to complete. But on the 90th day, if the project is still not completed, it should have about 58 days to go. On the 100th, it should have 89 days to go. On the 119th, it should have an extra 149 days. On day 600, if the project is not done, you will be expected to need an extra 1,590 days. As you see, the longer you wait, the longer you will be expected to wait.”

With something non-perishable, say a technology or an idea, it is very likely that the old is expected to have a longer expectancy than the young. If a business is eighty years old, and another one is ten years old, the older business is expected to live eight times as long as the new one. Taleb further illustrates the idea in Antifragile:

“If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “ageing” like persons, but “ageing” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy.”

If you want to know how long the non-perishable will endure, then the first question you should ask is how long it has already existed. The older it is, the more likely it is to go on surviving. As the great Benoît Mandelbrot wrote, “For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the non-perishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.”

Lindy Effect is very important mental model for us to think straight because we often overestimate the “young” and don’t give enough credit to the “old”—one that has survived and has stood the test of time—thereby revealing both a mental error and a logical bias. New things are often easier to hype up, but it’s also true that the new and young are fragile, and often fail the most. 99 out of 100 new startups are likely to go out of business, but that is not the case with older businesses.

Lindy Effect is also important because we are bad predictors of the future. We overestimate the future—way more than necessary. When asked what would happen in the next 5 years, a technologist recently told me that AI would replace most of our menial jobs. Clearly he didn’t know what he was talking about. While it may be debatable wheter AI will replace jobs, but that’s definitely not happening in the next 5 years. Obviously he didn’t know about Lindy. Before understanding the future, Taleb probes us to understand our past.

“Tonight I will be meeting friends in a restaurant (tavernas have existed for at least twenty-five centuries). I will be walking there wearing shoes hardly different from those worn fifty-three hundred years ago by the mummified man discovered in a glacier in the Austrian Alps. At the restaurant, I will be using silverware, a Mesopotamian technology, which qualifies as a “killer application” given what it allows me to do to the leg of lamb, such as tear it apart while sparing my fingers from burns. I will be drinking wine, a liquid that has been in use for at least six millennia. The wine will be poured into glasses, an innovation claimed by my Lebanese compatriots to come from their Phoenician ancestors, and if you disagree about the source, we can say that glass objects have been sold by them as trinkets for at least twenty-nine hundred years. After the main course, I will have a somewhat younger technology, artisanal cheese, paying higher prices for those that have not changed in their preparation for several centuries.”

We are surrounded by things that have been there for centuries, and are likely to remain for centuries, according to Lindy. But if asked to predict how a future restaurant would look like, we would have spaceships, jumpsuits, and distant galaxies in the picture.

“Had someone in 1950 predicted such a minor gathering, he would have imagined something quite different. So, thank God, I will not be dressed in a shiny synthetic space-style suit, consuming nutritionally optimised pills while communicating with my dinner peers by means of screens. The dinner partners, in turn, will be expelling airborne germs on my face, as they will not be located in remote human colonies across the galaxy. The food will be prepared using a very archaic technology (fire), with the aid of kitchen tools and implements that have not changed since the Romans (except in the quality of some of the metals used). I will be sitting on an (at least) three-thousand-year-old device commonly known as the chair (which will be, if anything, less ornate that its majestic Egyptian ancestor). And I will be not be repairing to the restaurant with the aid of a flying motorcycle. I will be walking or, if late, using a cab from a century-old technology, driven by an immigrant—immigrants were driving cabs in Paris a century ago (Russian aristocrats), same as in Berlin and Stockholm (Iraqis and Kurdish refugees), Washington, D.C. (Ethiopian postdoc students), Los Angeles (musically oriented Armenians), and New York (multinationals) today.”

This reminds me of the Back To The Future film series. While still one of my favourites, it highly exaggerated 2015.

This brings me to yet another aspect of Lindy—fragility. Something is fragile when, rather than adapting and surviving, it shatters into pieces at its first major shock. Anything that isn’t Lindy-proof—or doesn’t age in reverse—is fragile. Because at the end, time is the greatest judge of all.

I might hide fragility and be able to fool investors and accountants in the short-term with a well-grounded business plan and steady earnings involving a lot of hidden risk, but I cannot fool time. Time will eventually reveal them. Think Theranos and Enron. A bad business cannot stand the test of time, even if it looks good on paper for a while. To become Lindy-proof you have to think long-term.

“Lindy answers the age-old meta-questions: Who will judge the expert? Who will guard the guard? (Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?) Who will judge the judges? Well, survival will.”

— Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Skin In The Game

New technology is often better, especially when the old is inherently fragile. Electric engines are ageing in reverse while petrol and diesel engines are perishable and fragile. All Tesla has to do is survive long enough for electric to eliminate gasoline. Couple of decades back, IBM was huge and fragile in front of newer and smaller companies like Apple and Microsoft.

A business that has been running for a couple of years is very likely to go on for a couple more. Therefore survival is a very important factor to be considered, especially in the beginning of a venture. While innovation and entrepreneurship might look like a race where the business or the idea at the right time in the right place wins—it’s however not true. The winner is the one who finishes last—one who has the last mover advantage.

“The overwhelming importance of future profits is counterintuitive even in Silicon Valley. For a company to be valuable it must grow and endure, but many entrepreneurs focus only on short-term growth. They have an excuse: growth is easy to measure, but durability isn’t. Those who succumb to measurement mania obsess about weekly active user statistics, monthly revenue targets, and quarterly earnings reports. However, you can hit those numbers and still overlook deeper, harder-to-measure problems that threaten the durability of your business.”

— Peter Thiel, Zero to One

Having said that, most new things—books, technologies, ideas, businesses will be fragile. Most innovations are failures, and most books are flops—that’s just reality. But this shouldn’t discourage anybody from trying. Focus on making your ideas Lindy-proof, even if it doesn’t make sense sometimes. It doesn’t matter if it makes sense or not, as long as it works.

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