He who sends you favored cuts
Leaving you in piece
I was on a date a few weeks back (because I'm 32, my parents are antsy, and I have to "show effort"), and she asked me to define (spiritual) faith. I thought that was a tad heavy for a first date question (but props to her for knowing what she wanted), and there was no second date, so I guess I need to work on my first date interview questions. However, it got me thinking more about trust and faith in a broader sense. I remember telling a friend in the venture capital space a while back that I always thought his best skill was building connections between people, not just through introductions, but by somehow generating trust in ways very few other people could. Hold up, isn't that what the prophets did? It seems to me that the value of trust/faith dictates the vast majority of our day-to-day decisions and interactions.
Faith, to me, is the willingness and extent to which we're willing to trust without any concrete, first-hand evidence. Depending on the situation and tradeoffs, it shouldn't be unreasonable to proceed with less than 100% confidence. In fact, how many decision points do we make that are truly risk-free? With perfect trust, there's no need for faith, but in the absence of trust, faith is all you have. Sometimes, trust built up in another similar, albeit separate, scenario is enough to significantly reduce the amount of faith that is required, and that's where things get interesting for me.
Faith in Products/Branding
So, how do you decide what products to buy? If it's a race to the bottom in terms of price, why don't people go to Aliexpress/Alibaba/Taobao instead of Amazon? Even if we were to assume cases where logistical convenience is identical, that little prime symbol is arguably worth its weight in virtual gold, isn't it? Even if we were to prove that the item in question came from the exact same factory building, I'd bet it'd still be difficult to convince an average customer to order from the alternatives to Amazon. I think that's a testament to the degree of trust that Amazon has built with its client base, and the amount of goodwill/faith that a customer is willing to extend when making new purchases from new vendors under that same Amazon umbrella.
Brand loyalty introduces a certain degree of comfort and dependency. How much does it take to sway a customer to try a totally different brand? And how much do brands spend to maintain their customers' loyalty vs trying to steal that of their competitors? In these cases, I see two different scenarios: one where a brand is attempting to be the best, or at least clearly better than its competitors, and another where the brand is just maintaining the standard of 'good enough,' banking on customer inertia and laziness to primarily maintain the status quo. The former case is a bit easier to think about for me: just a matter of trying to prove superiority and quality to the customer, finding that sweet spot where the customers' internal metrics drives them to the product(s) in question. In essence, it's minimizing the amount of faith that the customer needs to have for them to believe that they're getting the best deal, however they're making that decision.
That second case though, is significantly more interesting to me. Over time, I assume everyone starts to build up some inertia, fueled by small instances of faith that are validated and rewarded (or alternatively, small instances of faith that haven't been betrayed). When confronted with a new option, how much is that inertia worth? For a concrete example, even if Aliexpress started their version of Prime and kept their prices, I don't think all customers would jump to the new option with their wallets wide open. For me, even if I were out of a job that reimburses me, I'd probably still continue purchasing mechanical components from McMaster, despite the upcharge and shipping costs. I live much closer to Grainger and Home Depot, but even if they expanded their catalogs to a comparable level, I'm not sure I'd make the switch, and keep in mind that this is for basic fasteners and tooling, arguably as independent of branding as you can get. Actually, at this point, I don't even know that I would order directly from the vendors that McMaster themselves go to. My trust has been built with McMaster, not the original vendors.
Hmm, maybe there's a third case worth considering: when does that lack of trust not matter? I'd argue trust can't be built from nothing. You have to start with some faith. Maybe it's expendable, inconsequential income worth risking. Maybe it's an unavoidable need and limited options. It's not just about innovation and objective utility. I think new products are likewise dependent on the customers' quota of faith.
Faith in Hiring
I've also been involved in hiring/interviews a lot in my current gig. It's messy, imperfect, and frustrating. We build some trust by reviewing resumes, virtual video interviews, and onsite Q&A's, but then you'll still need to have some faith that the employee can deliver when you need him/her to. Referrals, portfolios, slide decks, and face-to-faces can only go so far. It's unrealistic, perhaps even unreasonable, to assume that any employee can match the drive, the expectations, and the priorities of the employer. No matter how many rounds the interview has, whether it has homework or not, whether it focuses on "soft skills" or not, the process to me is just a super-condensed way of building up trust with a stranger and minimizing the faith you need to comfortable offer the person a position.
A lot's been said about universities being a credentialing center rather than teaching real skills, but isn't that the most effective and consistent source of trust for a potential employer? Now, I've met plenty of people from "lower-tier" schools that could engineer circles around me, and I'd be the first to tell you that despite my "high-tier" education, there are many basic things even in my current job that I'm embarrassingly bad at, but I don't know that a person's skillset and know-how can be more succinctly and convincingly captured on a piece of paper than the name of the school and the reputation that it carries. You have to play the odds, and absent any other information from the candidate himself/herself, the educational branding and the inertial trust that it has built up over time may be all you have to work with.
Thinking in terms of trust/faith gives me a whole new appreciation for referrals. I was never a big fan of them when I first left school and was looking for a job. I honestly could not understand why they would carry more weight than the full body of my work, if only someone would take the time to read through it "properly." That gives me the sense that trust transfers by association a little better than faith. Or maybe faith by definition starts out significantly smaller than trust. Impressive words on paper asking for faith don't hold up too well to inertial trust, even if it's by association.
Faith in Research
So, I'm totally keyed in on this "inertial trust" thing I've been yammering about, and it totally fits for what I think research is all about. We start off much like the interview process, with a bunch of possibly-related credentials and past work that buys a researcher enough startup faith for funding (or at least the opportunity) to work on something new, which by definition is something that has not yet generated much proof or trust. Over time, powered by the tears of graduate students who don't know any better and had more faith to expend than the people funding the project, the subject matter presumably builds more trust, whether in its viability or its utter lack of efficacy.
This flow between trust and faith in research is pretty interesting to me. Whereas we're trying to find the minimal-faith requirement in interviews/hiring/buying, usually in a condensed period of time, the whole point of the research process is to steadily decrease the necessary faith and in turn build trust. The most impactful lesson I've gotten out of my current gig was to stop agonizing over procedure or protocol and just understand that at the end of the day, any research I do or prototype I build needs to eventually make the higher-ups comfortable to continue moving forward.
Effectively, it's about building trust at a fast enough rate to secure funding to keep building trust. How much is that worth? And how much faith is necessary for each incremental step? The recursive nature of it all makes my head hurt. Most interestingly (to me), it would appear that the higher the initial faith requirement, the more valuable each bit of incremental trust added to that inertial trust becomes. The value likewise goes up as the those bits of incremental trust become more scarce and increasingly difficult to achieve.
Faith in the Process
Speaking as someone who really didn't work in the main business of flight projects, I always thought the space industry (and JPL's place in it) was rather peculiar. It was typical for us to both take part in submitting to as well as review project proposals and requests for funding. On a technical level, I don't know that JPL was necessarily any more qualified or capable than any other organization to get certain projects done. Our onsite facilities were outdated, our resources were stretched thin (especially for non-flight projects), and much of the technical work often got outsourced elsewhere anyhow (to both other companies and overzealous interns). Why continue coming to the old guard, so to speak?
When we're talking about very challenging problems that not only have been solved by a select few but also failed by many more, maybe it's just natural to stick with tried and true? For things like space flight in particular, sample sizes are still relatively tiny, and the costs for each attempt are high, so I can't imagine there's much incentive to deviate from the successful steps that were taken before. In the case of new competitors like SpaceX, does their success mean that they've come across a better process? Or is it that the previous process was overkill? Or are they engaging in a risky corner cutting game and then just playing the odds?
Some steps may be totally redundant. Others may just be sanity checks that might as well be skipped. However, each one arguably builds more confidence, and again, reduces the faith necessary to believe in success, whether or not it catches a mistake or leads to systemic improvement. Surely no process can catch all potential problems, but enough still needs to be done to justify the investment and cost.
This may be the most significant adjustment I've been trying to manage and facilitate in the transition from the research to commercial space. Before (and arguably also now), I had next to no faith in reliable operation for anything I've built, especially after it leaves my hands. It's pretty much a given to me that some form of upkeep or maintenance or even rebuild is necessary, owing to the prototypical nature of research. It's never a matter of if something will go wrong, but when and how bad. That's unrealistic for a product, especially ones deployed in any meaningful quantity. There's no personal switch I can flick to just magically "do better" and produce infallible output. I can't even control aspects of subsystems outside of the ones I'm personally responsible for. The only path forward is to trust in the process, built on faith that its success in past implementations is enough to get the current project to where it needs to be.
Faith in the Big Guy Upstairs
I guess this brings up back full circle to what spiritual faith means to me. There's no process here to leads me closer to a guarantee, no method that necessarily builds a higher comfort level, or really any past evidence that I can trust at face value. This blind conviction in the absence of reliable priors is what makes faith so powerful and so difficult. Really, maybe it's the ultimate "trust, but verify." When we're just talking about the difference between eternal damnation and salvation, no big deal, right?
tldr; sometimes the step isn't where your foot thought it would be...