Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Critical Mass


In nuclear physics, critical mass is the minimum amount of a given fissile material necessary to achieve a self-sustaining fission chain reaction. A subcritical mass is a mass of fissile material that does not have the ability to sustain a fission chain reaction. In our purposes, we can think subcritical mass as a waste, in a sense that we didn´t achieve the reaction we wanted. A supercritical mass is a mass in which there is an increasing rate of fission. In our purposes, we should understand that all the excess material or effort after the critical mass is reached is wasted or a source of unintended consequences or reactions. Sometimes supercritical mass can cause more troubles than good results.

Critical mass can be described as a point at which something, for example, an idea or a virus, is dominant enough to grow, or sustain, a process, reaction or adopting new technology. Critical mass has many other names like, the tipping point, the minimal effective dose, break-even point, etc.

Hard to know when critical mass is achieved

It is pretty easy to know when we have enough critical mass in physical reactions before they happen. When it comes to real life everything is much harder. Most of the times, these moments can only be determined afterwards. When the critical mass is reached, the reaction will accelerate quickly. Most of the times, it is hard to stop the reaction until the acceleration changes into deceleration of the reaction. For example, the flu is unstoppable in every flu season. After the critical mass of people become sick, the flu is unstoppable until it has reached its peak. This point of no return is very hard to define, if not impossible in many cases.

Critical mass (Tipping Point) in social epidemics

Malcolm Gladwell has written a book called Tipping Point, which describes the three rules of social epidemics which are:

  1. The law of the few: All the social epidemics have some people with the special set of social skills involved. These people have vast social networks, are trusted by others, and willing to share their information with them.
  2. The stickiness factor: All the sticky messages have some common characteristics: they are simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional, and are told through stories.
  3. They are spread through the right environments: These environments are usually optimal for spreading epidemics.

When all these three rules are working at the same time, we have better possibilities to spread our ideas for other people. If one of these things are missing, reaching the critical mass of people is improbable. To reach a tipping point, social epidemics are spread through the combinations of many psychological tendencies like social proof and availability bias. We will come back to these things when I have introduced more mental models.

Critical mass of expertise/skill

Critical mass of expertise or skill is reached only after we have had enough deliberate practice. On average, this takes thousands of hours and many years, depending on the amount of competition and talent we have. In highly competitive fields, like popular sports, for example tennis, many of us will never reach the critical mass of skill. This point can be enough income from tennis to be a professional. In working life, critical mass of expertise may help us to get into the point where we become irreplaceable. Then we can have a possitility to choose how much we work, when we work and to whom we work for. At this point, we have many choices to choose from and no one else to tell us what to do. Most of the people never reach this point.

Minimum Effective Dose (MED)

The minimum effective dose is the amount of work, medicine, and resources, that will produce the desired outcome. In medicine, all the extra dose may produce unintended and unwanted consequences for the human body. If we look at the packaging of the medicine, we see many warnings about side-effects like headache from the medicine we use for feeling or getting better. Without reaching the MED, we cannot get better and using medicine becomes a wasted effort. We can also have many things we really don´t want to do, but we have to, like cleaning the house. MED is the amount of cleaning needed to have our house clean enough for us to live in. The amount of cleaning should be the amount that the most vulnerable of the people who live in the house can stay healthy.

Critical mass is one of the most important models in the latticework. But, in order to understand it better, we need to introduce more models. In other words, critical mass of understanding this model well enough is not possible until we understand more models. We will get back into it many times later.

Peak, Anders Ericsson
4 Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss
Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell


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