My dad was a doctor. A Professor of Pathology. He was a man of science and a teacher. He was a humble, quiet-spoken man, despite his reputation as one of the world’s most respected Pathologists. Whenever I met his students, they would corner me for hours telling me how much they adored him. A year after he died, University College Dublin created a student award ’The Peter Dervan Memorial Medal for Excellence in Cancer Pathology’. He was my hero.
If there were ever a polar opposite profession to my dad’s, it is advertising. Which is why he was always intrigued and a little bemused with my interest in advertising from an early age. He claims I used to ask him about the ads in his Sunday newspapers, when I was as young as 10 or 11. That said, he bought me my first advertising book - ‘Ogilvy On Advertising’. Not a bad choice for a man with no marketing experience or knowledge himself.
Medicine and advertising are miles away from each other, but both rely on decision-making. As a Pathologist, my dad had to make high-stress decisions on a regular basis. I remember one story where he had to recommend treatment for a young boy that discovered a tumor in his arm. It was growing rapidly. Do you amputate to stop it spreading, but lose the arm? Or do you treat it and wait, but risk that the cancer spreads? Two of the world’s most famous Pathologist advised the parents that they should amputate. My dad disagreed and asked them to wait. He believed it was benign and would stop growing. The boy’s father bet on my dad and didn’t amputate. The tumor continued to grow. But then it stopped, and started to shrink. The boy went on to live a healthy life.
Decisions like this are not just about facts and knowledge. Doctors are human. It is less risky to recommend amputation. If you amputate, you lose the arm, and perhaps save a life - but they wouldn’t know for sure if it were the right decision. If you wait - we find out, but it may be too late. I often wondered, many years later, how he made these decisions under such pressure, week in, week out. How can you become confident in your prediction, while not becoming overconfident? How do you push for the decision you think is correct, when it is it is personally less risky to go the other direction? I think it the answer is because he had all the characteristics of a great decision-maker. He was a fox.
“Study the past” - he’d tell me over and over. He’d remind me that any fool could learn from his own mistakes. The wise man learns from mistakes of others. But dad was only partly right here. At least when it comes to marketing. We don’t even make fool-status. We don’t learn from our own mistakes. We make them over and over. We get blinded by our wedded views about how marketing works. We trip ourselves up with simple schoolboy errors. We believe things without questioning them. And won’t open the door to the possibility that our beliefs are flawed. Ego plays a role. So does fear. As does pain.
But we can learn to make fewer mistakes. The goal genuinely is to learn. Learn to make better decisions over time. I’ve been lucky to work with and learn from people that think and behave in ways similar to what Professor Tetlock described. Fox marketers. They study the past. They challenge assumptions. They have theories, but look for the evidence. They understand that human behaviour is messy and communications are nuanced. They are skeptical but not cynical. They have strong opinions, but these are loosely held. They are open to discovering that they are wrong. They think, not in certainties, but in probabilities. Which is why they experiment.
While I suspect that many of those that most influenced me were born foxes, I believe these characteristics can be learned. I say this, because I am a hedgehog. A hedgehog that believes in being a fox.