Everybody says you should play the long game, but few tell you how. With the Lindy Effect, a simple yet powerful idea, you’ll instantly become a better long-term thinker.
Playing the long game means betting on things that last. Only problem is that we don’t know what will last.
You want to gain knowledge that will stay relevant your entire life, for example, so you’re picking what to read. Which book should you spend your time on? Lindy tells you. You’re thinking about investing in a technology for the long run. How do you pick which one? Lindy also tells you.
The Lindy Effect
In the sixties, a group of comedians used to meet regularly at Lindy’s Deli in New York City. After years in the business, they noticed something peculiar:1 If a show had been running for a long time, it’s likely it would keep running.
The longer something survives, the more likely it is that it will keep surviving in the future. If something has been relevant for 30 years, we can expect it to be relevant for 30 more. This is the Lindy Effect.
Princeton professor Richard Gott tested the Lindy Effect in 1993, predicting which theatre shows would last and which wouldn’t. He was proven right with 95% accuracy.2
But wait, this can’t make sense. Let’s say I asked you to make a long-term investment in one of two people. One is a woman in her twenties, the other a man in his eighties. In this case, you’d pick the young woman. And you’d be right: we can expect the woman to live another sixty years, while the man maybe has another five or ten, even though he has been around for longer. So let me introduce a key distinction.
Something is either perishable or nonperishable. If it’s organic, if it can be physically destroyed, or if it has an expiration date, it’s perishable. You and me are perishable. Our cars and houses are perishable. But the concepts of humanity, cars, and houses are not. A recording of a show can be lost in a fire. The show itself is ephemeral.
The Lindy Effect only applies to nonperishables. We can’t reasonably expect a week-old apple in our cupboard to last one more week. Perishables have a finite life. But we can expect a song that’s been relevant for 25 years to stay relevant for 25 more.
Now that we have all the information we need, here’s N. N. Taleb’s definition of the Lindy Effect, from Antifragile:
For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy.
Let me make that more concrete with some examples.
Going back to choosing what to learn, a book from the seventies that’s still in print has been relevant for fifty years. According to Lindy, we can expect it to be relevant for fifty more. A book from last year may stay relevant for a long time, but the chances of that happening are low. It’s a riskier bet.
Say you wanted to predict what will still be around in the year 2200. Here’s a table for that:
|Likely Relevant in 2200
|Likely Not Relevant in 2200
|The Wealth of Nations
by A. Smith (1776)
|Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty (2013)
|Trains (c. 3838 BC)
by W. A. Mozart (1791)
|I Love It
by Icona Pop (2012)
by W. Shakespeare (c. 1600)
by R. Chavkin (2019)
I’ll remind you that we’re talking about probabilities. Of course there will be exceptions. The Lindy Effect is a heuristic, not a law. Everything that is 200 years old now was, at some point, one year old.
Still, when investing anything, be it time, money, or resources, keep the Lindy Effect top of mind. You’ll be able to cut through the noise to get to the signal, and you’ll be a better long-term thinker.
If you want to know what will be, look at what has been.
- Eliazar, Iddo (2017). Lindy’s Law. Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 486(), 797–805. doi:10.1016/j.physa.2017.05.077