Asymmetry: Lack of equivalence between parts of something; lack of symmetry.

Reading Taleb has got me thinking about the asymmetries of daily life, their mathematical properties, and its consequences. For example, the asymmetry inherent in optionality (i.e.having the option but not the obligation) can be seen in choice of career. i.e. Some professions have much more exit options than other professions (Ex: consulting, product management, sales, programming).

This is also the basis of preferring trial and error in those domains where there exists asymmetry in the payoff function. i.e. In those cases where the costs of failing are low but the benefits of success are unbounded (Ex: startups, drug discovery, finding products etc). Thus recognizing this asymmetry implies optimizing for tinkering and iterating in these domains.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into things but it’s interesting that asymmetric encryption is the mathematical basis on which modern anonymity and trust systems are built. The asymmetry lies in both being able to disseminate the public key widely while keeping the private key private as well as the asymmetry of one-way functions that are easy to compute on every input but hard to invert.

Another example is the software library QuickCheck. It uses generative generate tests to try to find cases that violate a system specification. Regardless of the number of times it succeeds, just one test failing any time in the future is enough to find bugs. This asymmetry of outcomes can be used to find extremely rare bugs. Perhaps there are other examples where asymmetry is exploited this way but I don’t know of any.

A useful mental model I’ve often used is asymmetric risk modeling. Basically, when deciding on some course of action, check if the outcome is asymmetrically good or bad. Ex: Drunk driving is asymmetrically bad with the upside being you may reach home early but the downside being you die. An example of an asymmetric opportunity would be meeting new people or reading new books. Worst case, you waste some time but the upside is you could meet people that could change your life or find new perspectives that change the way you think for all future time.

I find asymmetry deeply interesting. There’s many things about this topic I’ve left out and I plan to explore this topic further in future posts.