Archive for May, 2012|Monthly archive page


In Posts on May 5, 2012 at 11:53 am

I’m not good with certain kinds of details, which alarms me both because I understand facility with details to be part of intelligence and because details themselves are extremely important. For example, global finance is essentially a multitrillion-dollar trade in details: you think the Malaysian central bank will allow the ringgit to depreciate in a bid for export competitiveness in its garment sector, but I know that the prime minister has asked that politically sensitive increases in the price of imported rice be left until after the next election; we bet, my detail is better than yours, and I become rich at your expense. I wouldn’t want a career built on profitably exploiting these kinds of minutiae: I wouldn’t enjoy it, or, I think, be terribly good at it.

My problem isn’t that I can’t understand details, but that I often don’t care about them because they seem to miss the big picture. I sympathize with Eduardo Saverin, the Facebook cofounder whose share in the company Mark Zuckerberg diluted down to two percent with a duplicitous contract. Some stupid contract has nothing to do with the “real” question of who founded Facebook and got it off the ground. How can a sentence on a piece of paper change everything? Similarly, I had a finance professor who used to receive free seat upgrades by complaining about his seat, knowing that the airline’s policy was to placate complainers by upgrading them. This worked on every flight for a few years, until he received a handwritten letter from the company telling him never to fly with them again. He told this story with pride, but I felt embarrassed to hear it, and worried about the resources the airline had to spend stopping people from gaming its systems, as well as about the generic, fuzzy “guiltiness” of my professor.

Acknowledging that indifference to details is not the way to win a court case or launch a hedge fund, I want to argue for the wisdom of seeing things in broad, holistic strokes. In the examples above, a piercing intelligence in handling details (dilution in a contract, a company’s complaints policy) was matched by a pseudo-autistic indifference to their contexts. This indifference leads to the creation of powerful externalities: embittered ex-friends who launch lengthy court cases, exasperated airline executives who may discontinue generous policies for everyone, and the psychological weight of having betrayed another’s trust for money, control, or legroom. Economic theory has been rife with detail-oriented people inclined to ignore these externalities simply because they can’t be bothered to quantify them, and it has taken some brilliant and courageous thinkers to incline the discipline to see Zuckerberg and my finance professor as something other than heroes of rationality, people who won “something for nothing.” The wisdom of vagueness is the sense that such an assessment cannot be true—the voice that protests, if intuitively and incoherently, that the trust of your friends, the sanctity of your conscience, and your wholesome treatment of strangers are not actually “nothing,” and may even be the details that really matter.