Getting monkeys off your back

I’m mortally scared every time I make pulav. Now, I’m reputed to be a pretty good pulav maker – at least the wife and the mother-in-law will vouch for this, and it is this reputation that puts pressure on me every time I stand throwing spices into the pressure cooker. “The law of averages will soon catch up with me”, I think, and hope that this is not the time it will catch up.

Normally, if you make pulav seven times, and each time make it better than the previous time, you begin to think you’re becoming an expert in that and you can do no wrong thenceforth. I don’t feel that way. Knowing myself fairly well, I know it’s nigh impossible for me to hit 100% accuracy in pretty much anything that I do – at best I can hit a 90%. That I got a “hit” seven times in a row means that the coin fell on the 90% side seven times, and even assuming a Markovian process (success or failure of this batch of pulav is unrelated to previous performances), it gives me a 10% chance of failure each time I make it!

The thing with making pulav in a pressure cooker is that when it comes out well, it comes out great, but it can go spectacularly wrong. I don’t use formal measures for the amount of rice and water I use – it is all based on rules of thumb (literally – sometimes I stick my thumb into the mixture in the pressure cooker to feel if the amount of water is right). And I know that if I put too much water, it can end up being a soggy mess. At the other end, it can end up not cooking at all, or worse, burning.

So when a couple of months back my pulav went marginally wrong (slightly watery, but not inedible) – it made me feel happy. It made me feel happy that the law of averages had caught up with me, and that it didn’t result in a spectacular failure! Sometimes when you know that you are due for a failure, it can be self-reinforcing and result in spectacular failures. So it helps to take a mild fall once in a while that gives you the assurance that you’re human after all, and doesn’t put undue pressure on you the next time.

So what do you think about your continued successes, in the kitchen, at the workplace, and elsewhere? Does that make you feel better or worse? Does it lead to a sense of hubris, or greater self-doubt? Do leave a comment here and let me know.

One thought on “Getting monkeys off your back”

  1. I get that no one hits the bulls-eye every time, but how did you arrive at the estimate of 90%? The way I see it, I would either:

    1. Refrain from calculating my odds the first fifteen to twenty times–which is about an year of real time–and then calculate my accuracy.

    2. Go all Bayesian on that figure. Assume a prior of 90%, and update my true odds with the outcome of each successive trial. Over ten trials or so, it should get pretty close to an estimate of my actual cooking prowess.

    Either way, I can see that this thinking helps cushion failed trials, especially because we tend to remember the most recent outcome in a series most vividly, but it seems a little pessimistic to me. But thinking you are “due for a failure” is entirely at odds with the assumption that it’s a Markovian process, no?

    It’s an interesting observation that if you believe you are “due for a failure”, you retain a memory of the past trials and their outcomes. Since you also (obviously) actively influence the outcome of this trial, the process is no longer Markovian! The law of averages is mostly poor statistical thinking. The actual statistical law here is the law of large numbers, which requires independent events and many, many trials, neither of which apply here.

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