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The Average and the Extreme

The recent state of our children got me thinking about two competing ideas.

For some context, we recently arrived in Australia from Canada on a family vacation.

Our kids—like any other humans—are suffering a bit from jet lag (14-hour time difference).

On more than a few occasions they have been quite ... testy. Perhaps there is such a thing as a perma-tantrum. Maybe that's it.

This happens back home as well, but my wife, my mother-in-law, and I have just been dealing with it at a more intense and frequent level, here in Australia.

So, with this context, here are the two competing ideas.

Idea 1: Hard cases make bad law

I had to look this up. I first heard Malcolm Gladwell mention it on a podcast as a favourite quote of his. Apparently, it dates back to the early 1800s.

Here is what this phrase means, directly from Wikipedia:

Hard cases make bad law is an adage or legal maxim meaning that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law that would cover a wider range of less extreme cases.

An extreme case is a poor basis for a general law.

Kids who are in perma-tantrum mode due to a 14-hour jet lag is a bit of an extreme case.

Even if you're not a parent reading this, you might have an opinion on the following question.

Given that my wife and I seem to be dealing with an extreme case, should we:

A. Just let it go.

B. React and set some new behaviour-based rules for the rest of our vacation.

Before you answer, let me give you the second idea.

Idea 2: Tail events drive everything

If you're unfamiliar with the concept, tail events are events that occur very rarely and have a very high impact.

COVID-19, 9/11, you get the idea. Tail events don't need to be that far-reaching, they can be much closer to home as well.

The unexpected death of an immediate family member for instance.

One of my favourite writers—Morgan Housel—has written a lot about the impact of tail events.

Tail events are extreme cases.

Perhaps you can see the little dilemma that's forming. The two competing ideas.

Back to our little parenting question.

Even if you're not a parent, given what I've explained about tail events, in order to deal with our perma-tantruming-jet-lagged children should we:

A. Just let it go.

B. React and set some new behaviour-based rules for the rest of our vacation.

Resolving the Dilemma

As I've thought through these seemingly competing ideas, I think the resolution lies in your answer to another question.

How do you feel about the average behaviour?

In our parenting case, the average means the way that our kids usually behave—when they're not jet lagged.

In the case of COVID-19, the average could mean the way we behave during a normal cold and flu season.

Suppose you feel good about your average behaviour, then your best option is likely to ignore the extreme case.

Conversely, if you're looking to improve your average behaviour, an extreme case is a great place to learn from.

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