Survival Overcomes Pure Performance

Survival Overcomes Pure Performance

“In a single instant of time, pure performance is all that matters, but, over a prolonged period of time, survival overcomes pure performance.” (Cf. Luca Delanna)[1]

Playing Russian Roulette

Many years ago, I was working as a young research engineer in the steel industry. We were simulating heat transfers in the steel blast furnaces and in slabs during their heating in ovens. One of my colleagues had a magnificent mustache.

I remember that one night, we have tested on site our model. That was very exciting but also awfully warm. When we went back to the hotel, taking our helmets off, we found out laughing that his mustache had disappeared. The hairs had been burnt by the heat of the furnace.

Later, the team has been invited to dine at the home of the HR VP. At the end of the dinner, our host took out a revolver and a 9mm round. He put the bullet in the barrel, spun that barrel, and asked me to play Russian Roulette (I still wonder why). Everyone was starring at me. After a few seconds of hesitation, I fired to the ceiling. Fortunately (for the ceiling and the well-set table beneath it), nothing happened. Yet everyone was laughing like crazy (except me).

This taught me two lessons.

The first lesson is that I had to be very careful with (some) HR VPs as well as with any kind of social pressure.

The second and most important lesson is about a barbaric term: ergodicity.

Conflating Ensemble and Time Probability

Let us start with an illustration.

If you play Russian Roulette only once, the odds that you die are 1/6 or around 16%.

This is also true at the (large) ensemble level. If, say, 1000 people play Russian Roulette once each, the average death rate of this ensemble of people should be around 16%. The more people in the ensemble, the closer the death rate will be 16%. This is the Law of Large Numbers.

But consider now the probability over time to die or survive Russian Roulette. If you play several times, your chances of survival are (1/ 6) ^ n, where 1/ 6 are your chances of dying with one round, and n is the number of rounds played. Useless to say that after a few rounds, your chance to survive decreases rapidly to 0. Over time, you will die.

This implies that the average odds to die of the ensemble playing Russian Roulette cannot be deduced from the odds of a single person playing Russian Roulette several times (in a row or not). This situation is non-ergodic.

In an ergodic situation, the average outcome of the group is the same as the average outcome of the individual over time. A family wealth with two working parents and two young children is an illustration of ergodicity until the children leave home and earn money on their own.

As a result, in a non-ergodic situation, do not conflate ensemble probabilities and time probabilities.

Survival Overcomes Pure Performance

What does it mean in your life? Here is what I learned.

When I was young, I believed that success would come with performance.

That meant skiing as fast as possible, sailing even when weather forecasts were not favorable, working very long hours…

Later, I understood that performance was indeed important, yet insufficient. This performance was dedicated to others. So, a community of friends, a group of colleagues, or anyone sharing a common interest became as important as mere performance…

Still later, looking at the many lives of individuals I used to admire, I noticed how game-overs are common. People get bankrupt. Strong leaders disappear miserably in the night. Top athletes die in accidents while practicing their sport. Many great people end up suffering from depression or burnout[2]. As a result, so many lose not only their job but also their beloved partners, their children…

So, here the secret I learned. This is my takeaway for you today:

In general, success requires performance. It also requires a community of people recognizing this performance. AND ABOVE ALL IT REQUIRES YOUR SURVIVAL. Survival overcomes pure performance.

This is a call to action to every one of us.

To your continued success


[1] Luca Delanna, Ergodicity: Definition, Examples, And Implications, As Simple As Possible. A great book I recommend.

[2] As an illustration, a business organization is often non-ergodic. A (cynical) HR VP calculates that “only 2%” of the workforce suffers from burnout. Yet this represents a probability of ruin of 100% for each of the individuals who overworked.

You may also like these articles and Luca Delanna’s book:

PMO or TMO, Three Key Differences

Seven Tips for a Great Career in Project Management

Luca Delanna’s book about Ergodicity

Philippe Husser

Advancing Transformations in a Complex World

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