Why is March Madness so Compelling (and why should it matter to you)?

I have to admit it – I’m not a big basketball guy.  Where I grew up, there wasn’t a lot of fandom, since most of us were Yankee fans, and then maybe Giants or Jets ( eventually resolving to Steelers for me), and the NBA was a distant concern. That is until I discovered March Madness.  When this tournament starts, I’m all in, rooting for young men I’ve never heard of like they were my own children, and weeping over my broken bracket. Why?

Well, its incredibly popular, so there’s that. There are millions of brackets picked every year. Obama famously picks a bracket and does a good job at it. And then there’s the wonderful, inherent difficulty of picking a perfect bracket. Indeed, its nearly impossible. NCAA.com puts it this way:

“It is incredibly difficult to pick a Final Four correctly. In the past six years of Bracket Challenge Game, the percentage of perfect Final Fours has ranged from zero to 1.36 percent.”

From that same article, check out the last few years:

2016 (1) North Carolina, (2) Villanova, (2) Oklahoma, (10) Syracuse .0093%
2015 (1) Kentucky, (1) Wisconsin, (1) Duke, (7) Michigan State 1.36%
2014 (1) Florida, (2) Wisconsin, (7) Connecticut, (8) Kentucky .0063%
2013 (1) Louisville, (4) Michigan, (4) Syracuse, (9) Wichita State 0%
2012 (1) Kentucky, (2) Ohio State, (2) Kansas, (4) Louisville, .22%
2011 (3) Connecticut, (4) Kentucky, (8) Butler, (11) Florida 0%

What’s the point? I think we live our lives like we’re able to predict our own championship. That is, since we are the heroes of our own story, and we wall want to be cutting down the net at the end.  We see ourselves as a doctor, president, famous actor, and plan accordingly. The trouble is, its impossible to predict our lives for some of the same reasons we cannot predict the winner of March Madness.

One would think that with all of the super computers and experience we have with the tournament that we’d be better at picking which teams would land in the Final Four, but why can’t we? March Madness is compelling, frustrating, entertaining mostly due to the nature of this complexity, but when it comes to our lives, it aint so funny.  What can we learn about life through the lens of college basketball and prevent unnecessary misery? 

Reviewing the laws of complexity  I came up with three. Scan it and pick out the tips from complexity science if you’re in a hurry.

a) Human Behavior

Human behavior varies in countless ways. If a player is sick, responds poorly to pressure, or gets distracted by the bright lights of the tournament, you can be assured that his or her performance will be affected. This isn’t just isolated to the basketball court, as this article shows that almost sport sees serious symptoms arise in their athletes, as discussed here:

“Tabloid tales of sportsmen behaving badly often mask deeper psychological problems, she said. “Alcoholism, gambling and promiscuity are all associated with depression and stress.”

Human behavior is something we muse about a lot but don’t do anything about.  Men will say they don’t understand women, parents don’t understand teenagers, and so on.  Complexity tip:  Get educated on the dimensions of human personality. Read books about topics like parenting a teen, and leverage personality tests like Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, or the Big Five, which give us a vocabulary to understand each other. Vocabulary will not make the complexity go away, but it will enable you to design experiments with people that could improve your relationships with them.

b) Shifting Landscape – This term usually means that the rules change while you’re doing something. That is, a situation moves from Complicated to Complex when the rules that the system operates on change.  In experiences like the NCAA Tourney, the rules don’t change, but the experience itself does. Though smaller tourney’s exist, being in the Big Dance means you’ll face teams you’ve never faced, play in places you’ve never been, and have pressures most haven’t experienced. Why does this matter?  When you get that new manager at work, are you ready for change? Regular folks run into this stuff all the time and yet proceed as if nothing will change in their jobs, that somehow the way your shop ran yesterday is tied to some immutable law of physics. Better to think of life in the idea of seasons, and seasons change. What is true from summer isn’t true for winter.  Getting a new manager, or even by getting older, the rules change around you.  Complexity tip: get ahead of the change. Through planning (see Search  sparc cars), brainstorm in advance of such events if you can, or shortly after. That new manager shows up, you better get that mind map out and refactor it with components of finding a new gig.

c) Computational Complexity (number of nodes)  –  The math on picking a perfect bracket is so challenging that math professors don’t agree on the odds.  One claims a 1 in 9.2 quintillion chance, the other more optimist math dude claims 1 in 128 billion.  Either way, you’re odds of becoming an Astronaut or President of the United States is better (a mere 1 in 10 million).  The reason for this is that there are 64 teams, so the equations start around 2^63 power. This is a much higher number than the number of stars in the sky.

Why does this matter to your life?  How many people do you know? I bet its more than 63.  I also bet that while some of your life is predicable, the tough parts are closer to the young folks on the NCAA courts.  The difficult thing for regular life is to recognize when you’re in a space that’s new. Complexity tip: use the pause button on decisions if you’re sensing a new level of complexity. Delayed decisions are typically better ones.

I think sports are popular because they are inherently unpredictable, despite copious data points.  There’s no script, but there is plenty of drama. Now, if that doesn’t sound like life, what does?


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