The Stoic Reading List

“The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.”— Marcus Aurelius

“The impediment to action advances action.What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius

You know the section after the last chapter that everyone ignores? Well that’s one of the first things I read. This is how I read a book. This is part of systematic skimming and allows me to get a feel for the authors vocabulary, a sense of what the book it about, how arguments are structured, and references and sources. It’s also a good place to find new reading material.

I received a pre-release copy of Ryan Holiday’s new book, The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, in the mail this week. The book comes out in a couple of weeks. In the back I came across something I wish I had found a few years ago when I first started reading philosophy, a stoic reading list.

The Big Three.

Stoicism is perhaps the only “philosophy” where the original, primary texts are actually cleaner and easier to read than any- thing academics have written afterward. Which is awesome because it means you can dive into the subject and go straight to the source.

1. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

I loved this book. I had read it before but it wasn’t the Hays translation, which made a world of difference for me.

There is one translation of Marcus Aurelius to read and that is Gregory Hays’s amazing edition for the Modern Library. Everything else falls sadly short. His version is completely devoid of any “thou’s” “arts” “shalls.” It’s beautiful and hauting. I’ve recommended this book to literally thousands of people at this point. Buy it. Change your life.

2. Letters of a Stoic by Seneca (see also: On the Shortness of Life).
This is one of the 5 books I recommend everyone read before their 30th birthday.

Seneca or Marcus are the best places to start if you’re looking to explore Stoicism. Seneca seems like he would have been a fun guy to know—which is unusual for a Stoic. I suggest starting with On the Shortness of Life (a collection of short essays) and then move to his book of letters (which are really more like essays than true correspondence).

3. Discourses by Epictetus.

Of the big three, Epictetus is the most preachy and least fun to read. But he will also from time to time express something so clearly and profoundly that it will shake you to your core.

But wait … there’s more.

Holiday points us to some other great authors too, which are in line with some stoic thinking.

Other Books that Holiday Recommends:

Some articles and online resources:

I’d also add Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault as a great place to start.

Over to you. Comments are open.
What’s on your stoic reading list?

Our Loss of Wisdom

“Practical wisdom is the combination of moral will and moral skill.”Aristotle

Barry Schwartz, author of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, on our loss of wisdom.

A wise person knows when and how to make the exception to every rule, as the janitors knew when to ignore the job duties in the service of other objectives. A wise person knows how to improvise, as Luke did when he re-washed the floor. Real-world problems are often ambiguous and ill-defined and the context is always changing. A wise person is like a jazz musician — using the notes on the page, but dancing around them, inventing combinations that are appropriate for the situation and the people at hand. A wise person knows how to use these moral skills in the service of the right aims. To serve other people, not to manipulate other people. And finally, perhaps most important, a wise person is made, not born. Wisdom depends on experience, and not just any experience. You need the time to get to know the people that you’re serving. You need permission to be allowed to improvise, try new things, occasionally to fail and to learn from your failures. And you need to be mentored by wise teachers.

(via swissmiss)

the WAR of ART and the Unlived Life

A voracious reader and best-selling author emailed me shortly after my post Anne Lamott: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. He proceeded to tell me the book was full of terrible advice, the self-help equivalent of “follow your passion.” In its place he offered up Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art, which not only describes the experience of writing but deals with the broader subject of overcoming obstacles to success.

Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember our rule of thumb: The more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.

Resistance is experienced as fear; the degree of fear equates the strength of Resistance. Therefore, the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul.

Here is a telling passage, next to which I wrote, in the margin, “The writer who doesn’t write, the person who doesn’t live.” Talking about the unlived life and resistance Pressfield writes:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance. Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write , a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be. If you believe in God (and I do) you must declare Resistance evil, for it prevents us from achieving the life God intended when He endowed each of us with our own unique genius. Genius is a Latin word; the Romans used it to denote an inner spirit, holy and inviolable, which watches over us, guiding us to our calling. A writer writes with his genius; an artist paints with hers; everyone who creates operates from this sacramental center. It is our soul’s seat, the vessel that holds our being-in-potential, our star’s beacon and Polaris.

Every sun casts a shadow, and genius’s shadow is Resistance. As powerful as is our soul’s call to realization, so potent are the forces of Resistance arrayed against it. Resistance is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, harder to kick than crack cocaine. We’re not alone if we’ve been mowed down by Resistance; millions of good men and women have bitten the dust before us. And here’s the biggest bitch: We don’t even know what hit us. I never did. From age twenty-four to thirty-two, Resistance kicked my ass from East Coast to West and back again thirteen times and I never even knew it existed. I looked everywhere for the enemy and failed to see it right in front of my face.

Have you heard this story: Woman learns she has cancer, six months to live. Within days she quits her job, resumes the dream of writing Tex-Mex songs she gave up to raise a family (or starts studying classical Greek, or moves to the inner city and devotes herself to tending babies with AIDS). Woman’s friends think she’s crazy; she herself has never been happier. There’s a postscript. Woman’s cancer goes into remission.

Is that what it takes? Do we have to stare death in the face to make us stand up and confront Resistance? Does Resistance have to cripple and disfigure our lives before we wake up to its existence? How many of us have become drunks and drug addicts, developed tumors and neuroses, succumbed to painkillers, gossip, and compulsive cell-phone use, simply because we don’t do that thing that our hearts , our inner genius, is calling us to? Resistance defeats us. If tomorrow morning by some stroke of magic every dazed and benighted soul woke up with the power to take the first step toward pursuing his or her dreams, every shrink in the directory would be out of business. Prisons would stand empty. The alcohol and tobacco industries would collapse, along with the junk food , cosmetic surgery, and infotainment businesses, not to mention pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, and the medical profession from top to bottom. Domestic abuse would become extinct, as would addiction, obesity, migraine headaches, road rage, and dandruff.

Look in your own heart. Unless I’m crazy, right now a still, small voice is piping up , telling you as it has ten thousand times before, the calling that is yours and yours alone. You know it. No one has to tell you. And unless I’m crazy, you’re no closer to taking action on it than you were yesterday or will be tomorrow. You think Resistance isn’t real? Resistance will bury you.

The War of Art has been added to my growing list of the best books on writing.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things

Ben Horowitz: The Hard Thing About Hard Things

The problem with most business books is they present a formula for problems that ultimately have no formula. You’re reading something with no practical value and you’re not really learning anything. There is no formula for dealing with complexity that’s always changing. “There’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble,” writes Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things. The book is one of the best business books I’ve read in a long time.

The hard thing isn’t setting a big, hairy, audacious goal. The hard thing is laying people off when you miss the big goal. The hard thing isn’t hiring great people. The hard thing is when those “great people” develop a sense of entitlement and start demanding unreasonable things. The hard thing isn’t setting up an organizational chart. The hard thing is getting people to communicate within the organization that you just designed. The hard thing isn’t dreaming big. The hard thing is waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat when the dream turns into a nightmare.

Most management books focus on how to avoid screwing up – or at least covering your ass if you do. Ben provides insight into what to do after you screw up.

Just because there is no formula doesn’t mean things are hopeless. Advice and experience can help guide us. But that’s the difference between Ben’s book and most: he shows you what it’s really like to make hard decisions, without offering you a three step formula. Horowitz walks you through his considerations, deliberations, thoughts, mistakes, regrets, difficulties. Through that journey, we learn. “Circumstances may differ, but the deeper patterns and the lessons keep resonating.”

Fear. Here is an interesting point on fear that’s representative and telling.

It taught me that being scared didn’t mean I was gutless. What I did mattered and would determine whether I would be a hero or a coward. I have often thought back on that day, realizing that if I’d done what Roger had told me to do, I would have never met my best friend. That experience also taught me not to judge things by their surfaces. Until you make the effort to get to know someone or something, you don’t know anything. There are no shortcuts to knowledge, especially knowledge gained from personal experience. Following conventional wisdom and relying on shortcuts can be worse than knowing nothing at all.

Seeing the world though different lenses.

Looking at the world through such different prisms helped me separate facts from perception. This ability would serve me incredibly well later when I became an entrepreneur and CEO. In particularly dire circumstances when the “facts” seemed to dictate a certain outcome, I learned to look for alternative narratives and explanations coming from radically different perspectives to inform my outlook. The simple existence of an alternate, plausible scenario is often all that’s needed to keep hope alive among a worried workforce.

We can’t do everything.

My father turned to me and said, “Son, do you know what’s cheap?”
Since I had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, I replied, “No, what?”
“Flowers. Flowers are really cheap. But do you know what’s expensive?” he asked.
Again, I replied, “No, what?” He said, “Divorce.”

Something about that joke, which was not really a joke, made me realize that I had run out of time. Up until that point, I had not really made any serious choices. I felt like I had unlimited bandwidth and could do everything in life that I wanted to do simultaneously. But his joke made it suddenly clear that by continuing on the course I was on, I might lose my family. By doing everything, I would fail at the most important thing. It was the first time that I forced myself to look at the world through priorities that were not purely my own. I thought that I could pursue my career, all my interests, and build my family. More important, I always thought about myself first. When you are part of a family or part of a group, that kind of thinking can get you into trouble, and I was in deep trouble. In my mind, I was confident that I was a good person and not selfish, but my actions said otherwise.

The best thing about startups.

Marc (Andreessen): “Do you know the best thing about startups?”
Ben: “What?”
Marc: “You only ever experience two emotions: euphoria and terror. And I find that lack of sleep enhances them both.”

The type of friends you need in your life.

No matter who you are, you need two kinds of friends in your life. The first kind is one you can call when something good happens, and you need someone who will be excited for you. Not a fake excitement veiling envy, but a real excitement. You need someone who will actually be more excited for you than he would be if it had happened to him. The second kind of friend is somebody you can call when things go horribly wrong—when your life is on the line and you only have one phone call. Who is it going to be?

Doing the hard things, not the fun things. Ben had a lot of mentors, Bill Campbell was one of them. Being present and letting people know where they stand is incredibly important. Four star General Stan McChrystal couldn’t have been the leader he was without being out there with the troops sleeping in the same conditions with the same risk. Here is an incredibly important lesson on leadership that most people miss.

After seven weeks, we came to an agreement with EDS. They would buy Loudcloud for $ 63.5 million in cash and assume its associated liabilities and cash burn. We would retain the intellectual property, Opsware, and become a software company . EDS would then license our software to run both Loudcloud and the larger EDS for $ 20 million per year. I thought it was a great deal for both EDS and us. It was certainly far better than bankruptcy. I felt 150 pounds lighter. I could take a deep breath for the first time in eighteen months. Still, it wouldn’t be easy. Selling Loudcloud meant selling about 150 employees to EDS and laying off another 140.

I called Bill Campbell to tell him the good news: The deal was signed and we would be announcing it in New York on Monday. He replied, “Too bad you can’t go to New York and be part of the announcement; you’ll have to send Marc.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You need to stay home and make sure everybody knows where they stand. You can’t wait a day. In fact, you can’t wait a minute. They need to know whether they are working for you, EDS, or looking for a fucking job.” Damn. He was right. I sent Marc to New York and prepared to let people know where they stood. That small piece of advice from Bill proved to be the foundation we needed to rebuild the company. If we hadn’t treated the people who were leaving fairly, the people who stayed would never have trusted me again. Only a CEO who had been through some awful, horrible, devastating circumstances would know to give that advice at that time.

Figuring out what the customer wants is the innovator’s job. And innovation requires a combination of skills.

It turns out that is exactly what product strategy is all about—figuring out the right product is the innovator’s job, not the customer’s job. The customer only knows what she thinks she wants based on her experience with the current product. The innovator can take into account everything that’s possible, but often must go against what she knows to be true. As a result, innovation requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and courage.

I’ve talked about the important role that coding will play in the future. Horowitz offers a simple lessons for programmers and managers alike: “all decisions were objective until the first line of code was written. After that, all decisions were emotional.”

Tell it like it is. When you start losing the truth is the first thing to go and everyone sees it.

One of the most important management lessons for a founder/ CEO is totally unintuitive. My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.

As a young CEO, I felt the pressure— the pressure of employees depending on me, the pressure of not really knowing what I was doing, the pressure of being responsible for tens of millions of dollars of other people’s money. As a consequence of this pressure, I took losses extremely hard. If we failed to win a customer or slipped a date or shipped a product that wasn’t quite right, it weighed heavily on me. I thought that I would make the problem worse by transferring that burden to my employees. Instead, I thought I should project a positive, sunny demeanor and rally the unburdened troops to victory. I was completely wrong.

I realized my error during a conversation with my brother in-law, Cartheu. At the time, Cartheu worked for AT& T as a telephone lineman (he is one of those guys who climb the poles). I had just met a senior executive at AT& T, whom I’ll call Fred, and I was excited to find out if Cartheu knew him. Cartheu said, “Yeah, I know Fred. He comes by about once a quarter to blow a little sunshine up my ass.” At that moment, I knew that I’d been screwing up my company by being too positive.

Why should you it like it is? A few reasons: it builds trust; smart people will see through the lies anyways; it fosters a positive culture and ensures everyone is working from the same page with the same information. The pressure to be positive as a leader is incredible. People are looking to you and you want to inspire them. But the best way to do that is to be real with them. For example, if you’re trying to foster a culture where failure is ok, but you don’t get up there and talk about one of your massive personal failures, the culture won’t even have a chance to change.

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is the best business book I’ve read in a long time. Perhaps one of the best ever.

(Image source)

The Psychology of Persuasion

“We all fool ourselves from time to time...to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”

“We all fool ourselves from time to time…to keep our thoughts and beliefs consistent with what we have already done or decided.”

I get a lot of emails from people asking me how they can learn to persuade others.

Learning about the ways people (honestly and dishonestly) influence you is one of the best things to learn early in life. But it’s never too late.

The go to book on the subject is Robert Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Cialdini has spent a lifetime researching the psychology of compliance.

The book highlights six principles of persuasion, which most commonly and effectively are used by compliance practitioners.

We all employ them and fall victim to them, to some degree, in our daily interactions with neighbors, friends, lovers, and offspring. But the compliance practitioners have much more than the vague and amateurish understanding of what works than the rest of us have. … It is odd that despite their current widespread use and looming future importance, most of us know very little about our automatic behavior patterns . Perhaps that is so precisely because of the mechanistic, unthinking manner in which they occur. Whatever the reason, it is vital that we clearly recognize one of their properties: They make us terribly vulnerable to anyone who does know how they work.

These principles work via near automatic response – a “nearly mechanical process by which the power within these weapons can be activated, and the consequent exploitability of this power by anyone who knows how to trigger them.”

Reciprocation
This principle suggests people will be nice if you are. Therefore, if you do something first, by giving them something or doing something nice for them, it is more likely to come back to you. The key is to go first. And, at least in this case, size doesn’t matter. Something as small as a pen has been shown to influence people well beyond its monetary value.

Reciprocation is the basis of cashing in points, calling in a favor, owing other people one, etc.

The reason it works so well is that you have two choices, you either act in a socially approved way by giving in to a request or decline and face (perceived or real) shame. And we want to say yes because this is a way to avoid confrontation.

Reciprocation also works on multiple levels. We are more likely to trust someone who trusts us. We share secrets with people who share secrets with us.

One way to resist this is to refuse the initial favor or gift. Once you accept, it becomes a lot harder.

Consistency

Once we have made a choice or taken a stand, we will encounter personal and interpersonal pressures to behave consistently with that commitment.

It’s easier to get people to comply with requests that they see as consistent with what they’ve already said (especially in your presence.) This is the basis for one of the best interview hacks, I’ve ever seen. If you ask people to state their priorities and goals and then align your proposals with that in mind you make it harder for people to say no.

If you start to see yourself as a devil’s advocate for example, you will reinforce that idea by acting like a devil’s advocate.

Consistency is also the basis for the Ikea Effect and why a little pain makes something more attractive.

Say less at work and you’ll be more flexible when things change. Also examine why you want to comply and if things have changed. And keep a decision journal so you can see how often you’re wrong — there is no point holding on to bad ideas.

Once you’ve got a man’s self-image where you want it, he should comply naturally with a whole range of your requests that are consistent with this new view of himself.

Social proof

we…use the actions of others to decide on proper behavior for ourselves.

Ever wonder why TV shows use laugh tracks. It’s so you know when to laugh. I’ll let you sit on that one for a minute.

People will more likely say yes when they see other people doing it too. This is amplified in situations of uncertainty, where we look to others for cues on what we should do. This can be dangerous. If you are in an emergency, you might look around you for clues on what to do and how to act. Others, of course, might do the same thing. This is why, in an emergency, you need to give explicit instructions. You should always point to someone in a crowd, and say, you call 911. Point to another person and ask them to do something.

Cialdini writes:

In the process of examining the reactions of other people to resolve our uncertainty, however, we are likely to overlook a subtle but important fact. Those people are probably examining the social evidence, too.

Consider walking into a restaurant in a foreign city. You’re starving and have no idea “what’s good” here. Luckily, there happens to be a section of the menu labelled “most popular dishes,” and that’s exactly what you’re likely to order.

Social poof is not all bad. It’s one of the main ways we learn in life. I’ve written extensively on this one before.

Liking
You prefer to comply with requests from people you like more than from people you don’t like. Go figure. One way people exploit this is to find ways to make themselves like you. Do you like golf? Me too. Do you like football? Me too. Although often these are genuine, sometimes they’re not. One way to get people to like you is to establish quick rapport.

This is the basis for tupperware parties. Who can say no to a good friend?

You also like people more if they like you. This is why Joe Girard, the world’s “greatest car salesman,” sends every customer a holiday card with the message “I like you.” And you know what, it works. People go back to him.

Oh, and by the way, I like you.

Authority
This relates to our tendency to be persuaded by authority figures, that is people who demonstrate knowledge, confidence, and credibility on the topic. Something as simple as informing your audience of your credentials before you speak, for example, increases the odds you will persuade the audience. Beware of those wearing uniforms or engineering rings as those are rather overt signs of authority.

We’re taught from a young age to listen to those in charge. And most times this works out ok but sometimes it doesn’t.

Consider this, the co-pilot is never supposed to let the plane crash no matter what, even in a simulator. The pilot, however, is the authority figure. So in simulators they’ve had the pilot do things that are so obviously wrong that an idiot would know that what he’s doing would lead to a crash. But the co-pilot just sits there because the pilot is the authority figure and a meaningful percentage of the time the plane crashes.

Scarcity

It is easy enough to feel properly warned against scarcity pressures, but it is substantially more difficult to act on that warning.

We all want something other people don’t or can’t have. If you offer people something rare or scarce, they are more likely to want it.

I just bought a book off amazon and interestingly on the page they said “Only 2 left in stock.” That’s scarcity. I better order now, or I might have to wait. And I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to miss out.

* * *

If you haven’t already I suggest you pick up a copy of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

Lincoln’s Last Writing

lincoln

Famously provoked by Lincoln’s speech, John Wilkes Booth was quoted as saying “That means citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever give.” And he made it so.

Only moments before the Presidential carriage left the White House on the evening of April 14th on the way to Ford’s Theater, Lincoln wrote out this pass to allow George Ashmun, a Congressman from Massachusetts and chairman of the 1860 National Republican Convention, into the White House in the morning. The prolific writer, whose works are captured in the beautiful two volume set Lincoln: Speeches and Writings: 1832-1858 and 1859-1865, laid down his pen for the last time.

Allow Mr. Ashmun and friend to come in at 9 A. M. tomorrow.

The Deliberative President

Obama

Here are some excerpts from Robert Gates’ Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War that look at some of the decision making aspects under Bush and Obama.

Obama was the most deliberative president I worked for. His approach to problem solving reminded me of Lincoln’s comment on his approach to decision making: “I am never easy when I am handling a thought, till I have bounded it north, and bounded it south, and bounded it east, and bounded it west.” As Obama would tell me on more than one occasion, “I can’t defend it unless I understand it.” I rarely saw him rush to a decision when circumstances allowed him time to gather information , analyze, and reflect. He would sometimes be criticized for his “dilatory” decision making, but I found it refreshing and reassuring, especially since so many pundits and critics seem to think a problem discovered in the morning should be solved by evening. As a participant in that decision-making process, I always felt more confident about the outcome after thorough deliberation. When the occasion demanded it, though, Obama could make a big decision— a life-and-death decision— very fast.

Keep in mind that Gates worked for 8 different presidents. So when he says Obama was the most deliberative president he worked for, he’s coming from a place of experience. But how do you foster deliberation? Obama made some decisions that were controversial with his top senior appointments. Here’s an example,

The president wanted Jim Steinberg, who had been deputy national security adviser under President Clinton, to become deputy secretary of state. Having been a deputy twice myself, I suspect Jim did not want to return to government as a deputy anything. In order to persuade Steinberg to accept the offer, Obama agreed to his request that he be made a member of the Principals Committee and have a seat in National Security Council meetings as well as one on the Deputies Committee. As far as I know, no deputy had ever been given an independent chair at the principals’ table.

Steinberg’s presence on the Principals Committee gave State two voices at the table— two voices that often disagreed. Steinberg would often stake out a position in the Deputies Committee that was at odds with what Hillary believed, then express that position in meetings of the principals and even with the president. Let’s just say that having two State Department positions on an issue was an unnecessary complication in the decision-making process …

Obama also took a “team of rivals” approach, (a play on Lincoln selecting 3 key rivals for Cabinet appointments) for example, by appointing Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.

Obama also actively encouraged bad news and disagreement.

Less than two weeks after the inaugural, at the end of his weekly meeting with Mullen and me, the president asked me to remain behind for a private conversation. He asked me whether everything was going okay. I told him I thought the team was off to a good start, the chemistry was good, and the principals were working well together. … As Obama had done before on several occasions with all the principals, he encouraged me always to speak up and to be sure to give him bad news or to express disagreement. He concluded with what I thought was a very insightful observation twelve days into his presidency: “What I know concerns me. What I don’t know concerns me even more. What people aren’t telling me worries me the most.” It takes many officials in Washington years to figure that out; some never do.

While Gates isn’t as explicit on the decision process under Bush, we get some insights. At one point, talking about the U.S. role of the Israeli attack on the reactor in Syria (under Bush), he writes:

On our side, a very sensitive and difficult security challenge had been debated openly with no pulled punches. The president heard directly from his senior advisers on a number of occasions and had made a tough decision based on what he heard and on his own instincts. And there had been no leaks. Although I was unhappy with the path we had taken, I told Hadley the episode had been a model of national security decision making. In the end, a big problem was solved and none of my fears were realized. It is hard to criticize success. But we had condoned reaching for a gun before diplomacy could be brought to bear, and we had condoned another preventive act of war. This made me all the more nervous about an even bigger looming national security problem.

The Ability To Focus And Make The Best Move When There Are No Good Moves

"The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world."

“The indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world.”

Decisions where outcomes (and therefore probabilities) are unknown are often the hardest. The default method problem solving often falls short.

Sometimes you have to play the odds and sometimes you have to play the calculus.

There are several different frameworks one could use to get a handle on the indeterminate vs. determinate question. The math version is calculus vs. statistics. In a determinate world, calculus dominates. You can calculate specific things precisely and deterministically. When you send a rocket to the moon, you have to calculate precisely where it is at all times. It’s not like some iterative startup where you launch the rocket and figure things out step by step. Do you make it to the moon? To Jupiter? Do you just get lost in space? There were lots of companies in the ’90s that had launch parties but no landing parties.

But the indeterminate future is somehow one in which probability and statistics are the dominant modality for making sense of the world. Bell curves and random walks define what the future is going to look like. The standard pedagogical argument is that high schools should get rid of calculus and replace it with statistics, which is really important and actually useful. There has been a powerful shift toward the idea that statistical ways of thinking are going to drive the future.

With calculus, you can calculate things far into the future. You can even calculate planetary locations years or decades from now. But there are no specifics in probability and statistics—only distributions. In these domains, all you can know about the future is that you can’t know it. You cannot dominate the future; antitheories dominate instead. The Larry Summers line about the economy was something like, “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but anyone who says he knows what will happen doesn’t know what he’s talking about.” Today, all prophets are false prophets. That can only be true if people take a statistical view of the future.

— Peter Thiel

And this quote from The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers by Ben Horowitz:

I learned one important lesson: Startup CEOs should not play the odds. When you are building a company, you must believe there is an answer and you cannot pay attention to your odds of finding it. You just have to find it. It matters not whether your chances are nine in ten or one in a thousand; your task is the same. … I don’t believe in statistics. I believe in calculus.

People always ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves. It’s the moments where you feel most like hiding or dying that you can make the biggest difference as a CEO. In the rest of this chapter, I offer some lessons on how to make it through the struggle without quitting or throwing up too much.

… I follow the first principle of the Bushido—the way of the warrior: keep death in mind at all times. If a warrior keeps death in mind at all times and lives as though each day might be his last, he will conduct himself properly in all his actions. Similarly, if a CEO keeps the following lessons in mind, she will maintain the proper focus when hiring, training , and building her culture.

It’s interesting to me that the skill that stands out to Horowitz is one that we can use to teach how to think and one Tyler Cowen feels is in short supply. Cowen says:

The more information that’s out there, the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.