A Few Lessons

shane

Looking back on my first years out of school and the countless mistakes I made, I can’t help but feel that any success I’ve enjoyed is more through dumb luck than any particular brilliance on my part.

Through Farnam Street, I detail my journey of self-discovery and learning. Basically, I explore two things in parallel:

First is the enduring search for how we should live and what it means to live a good life. And second, more practically, I explore things we can learn and connect that better equip us to solve problems by thinking.

While unqualified, I’m often asked to give advice to young people who are just beginning their own journey of self-discovery. With that disclaimer, let me share a few things that I’ve learned in the hopes that these help you navigate your journey.

1. Learn to say “I don’t know.”
Being caught without an opinion on something can be the kiss of death for the modern knowledge worker. This fosters an environment where we borrow our opinions from others without doing the necessary thinking.

And to make matters worse, once blurted out, we feel the need to defend these borrowed opinions because we don’t want to appear inconsistent. So we end up defending a superficial opinion based on the thoughts of others all because we couldn’t say three simple words: “I don’t know.”

2. Learn the difficult skill of changing your mind.
When was the last time you changed your mind on something? If you’re honest, it was probably a long time ago. We tend to accumulate knowledge and assume, even in the face of evidence to the contrary, that we are right.

The point here is to re-examine your conclusions and attitudes. When someone has a better one, adopt it. Seek evidence that contradicts what you think and try to explain it.

3. Your reputation for helping others is the most important thing.
Harry Truman had a saying that resonates a lot with me: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

The thirst for credit fuels our ego. When culturally reinforced, this leads to predictably disastrous outcomes. Ego often prevents us from being as generous as we would like. It causes us to show how smart we are by making others look bad rather than making them look good.

Ego causes us to withhold information. And so on. When your ego gets too big, people won’t want to work with you. Help others achieve their goals and you’ll be amazed at the places you’ll go.

4. Knowing what to avoid is often more valuable than knowing what you think you want.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is invert the problem. It’s often as helpful to know what you want to avoid as what you want. Things that ruin lives tend to be predictable over time.

Avoid debt or leverage as well as over-consumption of drugs and alcohol. But there are some less obvious things to avoid.

For instance, when you start out in the workforce you’re looking for a cool place to work, but the person you work for is important, too.

Generally you want to work with people who have three traits: intelligence, energy and integrity. Avoid at all costs the seductive allure of smart people that lack integrity.

5. Mistakes.
Just because we’ve lost our way doesn’t mean that we are lost forever. In the end, it’s not the failures that define us so much as how we respond. Learn to recognize mistakes and correct them. (see #2.)

6. Goal-orientated people mostly fail.
Goal-oriented people mostly fail. What you really want is a system that increases your odds of success. Even if that system only improves the odds a little it adds up over a long life.

7. Friendships.
Friendship is more than just being there for your friends. Being a great friend means that you let your friends be there for you.

Mental Models: The Mind’s Search Algorithm

Mental models are tools for the mind.

In his talk: Academic Economics: Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, in 2003, Charlie Munger honed in on why we like to specialize.

The big general objection to economics was the one early described by Alfred North Whitehead when he spoke of the fatal unconnectedness of academic disciplines, wherein each professor didn’t even know of the models of the other disciplines, much less try to synthesize those disciplines with his own … The nature of this failure is that it creates what I always call ‘man with a hammer’ syndrome. To a man with only a hammer, every problem looks pretty much like a nail. And that works marvellously to gum up all professions, and all departments of academia, and indeed most practical life. So, what do we do, Charlie? The only antidote for being an absolute klutz due to the presence of a man with a hammer syndrome is to have a full kit of tools. You don’t have just a hammer. You’ve got all the tools.

The more models you have from outside your discipline and the more you iterate through them when faced with a challenge in a checklist sort of fashion, the better you’ll be able to solve problems.

Models are additive. Like LEGO. The more you have the more things you can build, the more connections you can make between them and the more likely you are to be able to determine the relevant variables that govern the situation.

And when you learn these models you need to ask yourself under what conditions will this tool fail? That way you’re not only looking for situations where the tool is useful but also situations where something interesting is happening that might warrant further attention.

The Mind’s Search Engine

In Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers, Roger Martin looks at our mental search engine.

Now for the final step in the design of the mentally choiceful stance: the search engine, as in ‘How did I solve these problems?’ ‘Obviously,’ you will answer yourself, ‘I was using a simple search engine in my mind to go through checklist style, and I was using some rough algorithms that work pretty well in many complex systems.’ What does a search engine do? It searches. And how do you organize an efficient search? Well, algorithm designers tell us you have to have an efficient organization of the contents of whatever it is you are searching. And a tree structure allows you to search more efficiently than most alternative structures.

How a tree structure helps simplify search: A detection algorithm for ‘Fox.’
How a tree structure helps simplify search: A detection algorithm for ‘Fox.’

So what’s Munger’s search algorithm?

(from an interview with Munger via Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers:)

Extreme success is likely to be caused by some combination of the following factors: a) Extreme maximization or minimization of one or two variables. Example[:] Costco, or, [Berkshire Hathaway’s] furniture and appliance store. b) Adding success factors so that a bigger combination drives success, often in nonlinear fashion, as one is reminded of the concept of breakpoint or the concept of critical mass in physics. You get more mass, and you get a lollapalooza result. And of course I’ve been searching for lollapalooza results all my life, so I’m very interested in models that explain their occurrence. [Remember the Black Swan?] c) an extreme of good performance over many factors. Examples: Toyota or Les Schwab. d) Catching and riding some big wave.

Charlie Munger’s lollapalooza detection algorithm, represented as a tree search.
Charlie Munger’s lollapalooza detection algorithm, represented as a tree search.

(via Diaminds: Decoding the Mental Habits of Successful Thinkers)

A good search algorithm allows you to make your mental choices clear. It makes it easier for you to be mentally choiceful and to understand the reasons why you’re making these mental choices.

Now, what should go on the branches of your tree of mental models? Well, how about basic mental models from a whole bunch of different disciplines? Such as: physics (non-linearity, criticality), economics (what Munger calls the ‘super-power’ of incentives), the multiplicative effects of several interacting causes (biophysics), and collective phenomena – or ‘catching the wave’ (plasma physics). How’s that for a science that rocks, by placing at the disposal of the mind a large library of forms created by thinkers across hundreds of years and marshalling them for the purpose of detecting, building, and profiting from Black Swans?

The ‘tree trick’ has one more advantage – a big one: it lets you quickly visualize interactions among the various models and identify cumulative effects. Go northwest in your search, starting from the ’0’ node, and the interactions double with every step. Go southwest, on the other hand, and the interactions decrease in number at the same rate. Seen in this rather sketchy way, Black Swan hunting is no longer as daunting a sport as it might seem at first sight.

Bruce Lee: The Four Basic Philosophical Approaches

Wan_Kam_Leung_and_Bruce_Lee

As found in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life, which provides unique insight into the mind of Bruce Lee through his private letters and writing.

1. Aboutism keeps out any emotional responses or other genuine involvement — as though we were things. In therapy, Aboutism is found in rationalization and intellectualization, and in the “interpretation” games where the therapist says “This is what your difficulties are about.” This approach is based on noninvolvement.

2. With Shouldism you grow up completely surrounded by what you should and should not do, and you spend much of your time playing this game with yourself—the game I call the “top dog/underdog game” or the “self improvement game” or the “self-torture game.” Shouldism is based on the phenomenon of dissatisfaction.

3. The Existential (“is-ism”) approach is the external attempt to achieve truth, but what is truth? Truth is one of what I call the “fitting games.”

4. Gestalt attempts to understand the existence of any event through the way it comes about, which tries to understand becoming by the how, not the why, through the all-pervasive gestalt formation; through the unfinished situation, which is a biological factor. In other words, in Gestalt therapy we try to be consistent with every other event, especially with Nature, because we are part of nature.

6 Books Bill Gates Recommended for TED 2015

Bill Gates

Bill Gates, long an avid reader, attended the TED conference again this year and continued his tradition of recommending books to fellow attendees.

1. Business Adventures, by John Brooks

Warren Buffett recommended this book to me back in 1991, and it’s still the best business book I’ve ever read. Even though Brooks wrote more than four decades ago, he offers sharp insights into timeless fundamentals of business, like the challenge of building a large organization, hiring people with the right skills, and listening to customers’ feedback. (Here’s a free download of one of my favorite chapters, “Xerox Xerox Xerox Xerox.”)

2. The Bully Pulpit, by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin studies the lives of America’s 26th and 27th presidents to examine a question that fascinates me: How does social change happen? Can it be driven solely by an inspirational leader, or do other factors have to lay the groundwork first? In Roosevelt’s case, it was the latter. Roosevelt’s famous soft speaking and big stick were not effective in driving progressive reforms until journalists at McClure’s and other publications rallied public support.

3. On Immunity, by Eula Biss

The eloquent essayist Eula Biss uses the tools of literary analysis, philosophy, and science to examine the speedy, inaccurate rumors about childhood vaccines that have proliferated among well-meaning American parents. Biss took up this topic not for academic reasons but because of her new role as a mom. This beautifully written book would be a great gift for any new parent.

4. Making the Modern World, by Vaclav Smil

The historian Vaclav Smil is probably my favorite living author, and I read everything he writes. In this book, Smil examines the materials we use to meet the demands of modern life, like cement, iron, aluminum, plastic, and paper. The book is full of staggering statistics. For example, China used more cement in just three years than the U.S. used in the entire 20th century! Above all, I love to read Smil because he resists hype. He’s an original thinker who never gives simple answers to complex questions.

5. How Asia Works, by Joe Studwell

Business journalist Joe Studwell produces compelling answers to two of the greatest questions in development economics: How did countries like Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and China achieve sustained, high growth? And why have so few other countries managed to do so? His conclusion: All the countries that become development success stories (1) create conditions for small farmers to thrive, (2) use the proceeds from agricultural surpluses to build a manufacturing base that is tooled from the start to produce exports, and (3) nurture both these sectors with financial institutions closely controlled by the government.

6. How to Lie with Statistics, by Darrell Huff

I picked this one up after seeing it on a Wall Street Journal list of good books for investors. It was first published in 1954, but it doesn’t feel dated (aside from a few anachronistic examples—it has been a long time since bread cost 5 cents a loaf in the United States). In fact, I’d say it’s more relevant than ever. One chapter shows you how visuals can be used to exaggerate trends and give distorted comparisons. It’s a timely reminder, given how often infographics show up in your Facebook and Twitter feeds these days. A great introduction to the use of statistics, and a great refresher for anyone who’s already well versed in it.

Source

The Books That Influenced Thomas Schelling

schelling_postcard
Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

Here is what Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling, who won the prize for “having enhanced our understanding of conflict and cooperation through game-theory analysis,” that culminated in The Strategy of Conflict, had to say about which books influenced him and why.

These books give readers a taste of the best in natural science, social science, classical and modern history and literary style.

The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

I have had a fascination with evolutionary biology, provoked by such beautiful books as George Gaylord Simpson’s This View of Life, but had never picked up a copy of Darwin’s original work until ten years ago. I have rarely had such pleasure and excitement in reading a sustained piece of scientific reasoning and presentation of evidence. It is technically accessible to any intelligent reader. It is a genuinely participatory experience.

History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides

I knew that classical Greece produced people at least as smart as people anywhere today, but until I read this I had no idea how modern they were in their thinking. Nothing written in this century can touch Thucydides (or the people he quotes) for subtlety of political and diplomatic discourse and strategy. I like Rex Warner’s translation in the Penguin edition, but some readers may need large print. If you like it go on to Herodotus and Xenophon.

Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior by Erving Goffman.
I was hooked on Goffman from the time I read “On Face Work,” the first essay in this collection. If you like this try “Stigma,” “Forms of Talk,” and “Asylums.” He looks at the same people we look at doing the same things we see them doing, and he sees things we can’t see without his help. He once pointed out to me that a woman can be naked with her husband without embarrassment, naked with her sister without embarrassment, but not naked without embarrassment in the presence of both.

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

I bought a copy in 1943 because it fit in my pocket and I was vaguely aware that it was a classic. I read it for an hour on a streetcar and was captivated by the story, the style and the purported author. It is an endlessly digressive autobiography that begins with his conception and barely gets up to his birth. Sterne writes a lovely, leisurely sentence that can wind on for three hundred words and you never lose your way or have to look back.

The Face of Battle by John Keegan

I have a book on baseball that says fear is the fundamental factor in hitting, and hitting with the bat is the fundamental act of baseball. For John Keegan, a distinguished military historian, fear is the fundamental factor in exposing oneself to enemy weapons, and exposing oneself is the fundamental act of combat, as he vividly describes, at the level of the individual soldier, the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. A superbly thoughtful history of military combat.

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson and B. F. Skinner.

Seuss-isms: A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out and Those Already on Their Way

Seuss-isms!

Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, was the famous children’s book author. He was also a philosopher. Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out…and Those Already on Their Way offers a taste of some of his wit and wisdom.

Be True To Yourself

You have brains in your head.
You have feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself
any direction you choose.
You’re on your own. And you know what you know.
And YOU are the guy who’ll decide where to go.
Oh, the Places You’ll Go

Listen to Good Advice

Then he spoke great Words of Wisdom
as he sat there on that chair:
“To eat these things,” said my uncle,
“you must exercise great care.
You may swallow down what’s solid …
BUT … you must spit out the air.”
My Uncle Terwilliger on the Art of Eating Popovers

Think Before You Speak

My father had warned me, “Don’t babble. Don’t bray.
For you never can tell who might hear what you say.”
My father had warned me, “But button your lip.”
And I guess that I should have. I made a bad slip.
Steak for Supper

Tell the Truth

“Stop telling such outlandish tales.
Stop turning minnows into whales.”
And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Focus

This was no time for play.
This was no time for fun.
This was no time for games.
There was work to be done.
The Cat in the Hat Comes Back

Don’t Be Afraid to Accept Help

I floated twelve days without toothpaste or soap.
I practically, almost, had given up hope
When someone up high shouted, “Here! Catch the rope!”
Then I knew that my troubles had come to an end
And I climbed the rope, calling, “Thank you, my friend!”
I had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew

Expect the Unexpected

I heard a strange ‘peep’ and I took a quick look
And you know what I saw with the look that I took?
A bird laid an egg on my ‘rithmetic book!
Marco Comes Late

Try New Things

I do not like
green eggs
and ham!
I do not like them,
Sam I am.

You do not like them.
So you say.
Try them! Try them!
And you may.
Try them and you may, I say
Green Eggs and Ham

Take Chances

The places I hiked to!
The roads that I rambled
To find the best eggs
that have ever been scrambled!
If you want to get eggs
you can’t buy at a store,
You have to do things
never thought of before.
Scrambled Eggs Super

Reading Expands Your Horizons

The more that you read,
the more things you will know.
The more that you learn,
the more places you’ll go.
I Can Read with My Eyes Shut!

Be Grateful

When you think things are bad,
when you feel sour and blue,
when you start to get mad …
you should do what I do!
Just tell yourself, Duckie,
you’re really quite lucky!
Some people are much more …
oh, ever so much more …
oh muchly much-much more
unlucky than you.
Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

Embrace your strengths

Shout loud, “I am lucky to be what I am!
Thank goodness I’m not just a clam or a ham
Or a dusty old jar of sour gooseberry jam!
I am what I am!
Happy Birthday to You

Be Proactive

UNLESS someone like you cares a whole lot,
nothing is going to get better,
It’s not.
The Lorax

Remain Humble

The rabbit felt mighty
important that day
On top of the hill
in the sun where he lay.
He felt SO important
up there on that hill
That he started bragging
as animals will …
The Big Brag

Learn to Improvise

“All I need is a reindeer. …”
The Grinch looked around.
But, since reindeer are scarce, there was none to be found.
Did that stop the old Grinch?
No! The Grinch simply said,
“If I can’t find a reindeer, I’ll make one instead!”
So he called his dog, Max. Then he took some red thread,
And he tied a big horn on the top of his head.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Seuss-isms! A Guide to Life for Those Just Starting Out…and Those Already on Their Way dispenses invaluable life advice like only Dr. Seuss can.