Nate Silver on Learning, Intuition, Boredom, and Changing Jobs

The Harvard Business Review recently sat down with Nate Silver, everyone’s favorite stat nerd and author of The Signal and the Noise, for an interview. The whole thing is worth the read, but I enjoyed the following two exchanges.

On learning and intuition:

HBR: What about if I’ve read your book and I’m just starting college or a little younger and I’m trying to think actually maybe this statistician/data scientist role is something that I’m interested in? What do I study? How much education do I need? What’s that base for plugging into some of these jobs?

Silver:  Again, I think the applied experience is a lot more important than the academic experience. It probably can’t hurt to take a stats class in college.

But it really is something that requires a lot of different parts of your brain. I mean the thing that’s toughest to teach is the intuition for what are big questions to ask. That intellectual curiosity. That bullshit detector for lack of a better term, where you see a data set and you have at least a first approach on how much signal there is there. That can help to make you a lot more efficient.

That stuff is kind of hard to teach through book learning. So it’s by experience. I would be an advocate if you’re going to have an education, then have it be a pretty diverse education so you’re flexing lots of different muscles.

You can learn the technical skills later on, and you’ll be more motivated to learn more of the technical skills when you have some problem you’re trying to solve or some financial incentive to do so. So, I think not specializing too early is important.

On being listened to, being bored at work, and changing jobs:

HBR: You’ve had obviously some very public experience with the fact that even when the data is good and the model is good, people can push back a lot for various reasons, legitimate and otherwise. Any advice for once you’re in that position, you have a seat at the table, but the other people around the table are really just not buying what you’re selling?

Silver: If you can’t present your ideas to at least a modestly larger audience, then it’s not going to do you very much good. Einstein supposedly said that I don’t trust any physics theory that can’t be explained to a 10-year-old. A lot of times the intuitions behind things aren’t really all that complicated. In Moneyball that on-base percentage is better than batting average looks like ‘OK, well, the goal is to score runs. The first step in scoring runs is getting on base, so let’s have a statistic that measures getting on base instead of just one type of getting on base.’ Not that hard a battle to fight.

Now, if you feel like you’re expressing yourself and getting the gist of something and you’re still not being listened to, then maybe it’s time to change careers. It is the case [that] people who have analytic talent are very much in demand right now across a lot of fields so people can afford to be picky to an extent.

Don’t take a job where you feel bored. If it’s challenging, you feel like you’re growing, you have good internal debates, that’s fine. Some friction can be healthy. But if you feel like you’re not being listened to, then you’re going just want to slit your wrists after too much longer. It’s time to move on.

Excellent advice.

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