Farnam Street http://www.farnamstreetblog.com Mon, 26 Jan 2015 21:27:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1 Vincent van Gogh on the Two Types of Idlers http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/van-gogh-letters-idlers/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/van-gogh-letters-idlers/#respond Mon, 26 Jan 2015 12:00:40 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19929 Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889)
Self-Portrait by Vincent van Gogh (1889)

The anthology Ever Yours: The Essential Letters, contains 265 of Vincent van Gogh’s letters, which is nearly a third of all the surviving letters he penned.

In a long and winding letter to his brother Theo dated Thursday, 24 June 1880, van Gogh shines light on his independent mind.

Now one of the reasons why I’m now without a position, why I’ve been without a position for years, it’s quite simply because I have different ideas from these gentlemen who give positions to individuals who think like them.

Later, in the same letter, he defines two types of idlers.

I’m writing you somewhat at random whatever comes into my pen; I would be very happy if you could somehow see in me something other than some sort of idler.

Because there are idlers and idlers, who form a contrast.

There’s the one who’s an idler through laziness and weakness of character, through the baseness of his nature; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one. Then there’s the other idler, the idler truly despite himself, who is gnawed inwardly by a great desire for action, who does nothing because he finds it impossible to do anything since he’s imprisoned in something, so to speak, because he doesn’t have what he would need to be productive, because the inevitability of circumstances is reducing him to this point. Such a person doesn’t always know himself what he could do, but he feels by instinct, I’m good for something, even so! I feel I have a raison d’être! I know that I could be a quite different man! For what then could I be of use, for what could I serve! There’s something within me, so what is it! That’s an entirely different idler; you may, if you think fit, take me for such a one.

In the springtime a bird in a cage knows very well that there’s something he’d be good for; he feels very clearly that there’s something to be done but he can’t do it; what it is he can’t clearly remember, and he has vague ideas and says to himself, ‘the others are building their nests and making their little ones and raising the brood’, and he bangs his head against the bars of his cage. And then the cage stays there and the bird is mad with suffering . ‘Look, there’s an idler’, says another passing bird — that fellow’s a sort of man of leisure. And yet the prisoner lives and doesn’t die; nothing of what’s going on within shows outside, he’s in good health, he’s rather cheerful in the sunshine. But then comes the season of migration.

Ever Yours: The Essential Letters sheds light on the turbulent and beautiful life of history’s greatest luminaries.

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The Difference Between Seeing and Observing http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/observation/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/observation/#respond Sun, 25 Jan 2015 17:20:51 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20293 The Art of Observation
In A Scandal in Bohemia, Sherlock Holmes teaches Watson the difference between seeing and observing:

“When I hear you give your reasons,” I remarked, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning, I am baffled until you explain your process. And yet I believe that my eyes are as good as yours.”

“Quite so,” he answered, lighting a cigarette, and throwing himself down into an armchair. “You see, but you do not observe. The distinction is clear. For example, you have frequently seen the steps which lead up from the hall to this room.”

“Frequently.”

“How often?”

“Well, some hundreds of times.”

“Then how many are there?”

“How many? I don’t know.”

“Quite so! You have not observed. And yet you have seen. That is just my point. Now, I know that there are seventeen steps, because I have both seen and observed.”

The difference between seeing and observing is fundamental to many aspects of life. Indeed, we can learn a lot from how Sherlock Holmes thinks. Noticing is even something that Nassim Taleb has chimed in on with Noise and Signal.

In the video below, Harvard Business School Professor Max Bazerman, author of The Power of Noticing: What the Best Leaders See, discusses how important it is not just to be able to focus, but to be a good noticer as well. What he’s really talking about is observation.

A number of years ago I had an opportunity to notice and I failed to do so and it’s been an obsession with me ever since. On March 10, 2005 I was hired by the U.S. Department of Justice in a landmark case that they were fighting against the tobacco industry. I was hired as a remedy witness. That is, I was hired to provide recommendations to the court about what the penalty would be if, in fact, the Department of Justice succeeded in its trial against the tobacco industry. I had spent a couple hundred hours working for the Department of Justice including submitting my written direct testimony which had been submitted to the court.

I was scheduled to be on the stand on May 4 where the tobacco industry attorneys would be asking me a series of questions. On April 30, a number of days before my May 4 testimony I was in Washington D.C. to meet with the Department of Justice attorneys to prepare for my time on the stand. When the day started the Department of Justice attorney that I had been working with said to me, “Professor Bazerman.” This occurred long after he had learned to call me Max. He said, “Professor Bazerman, the Department of Justice requests that you amend your testimony to note that the testimony would not be relevant if any of the following four conditions existed.”

He then read to me four legal conditions that I didn’t understand. When he was done talking I said to him, “Why would you ask me to amend my testimony when you know that I didn’t understand what you just said to me.” And his response was because if you don’t agree, there’s a significant chance that senior leadership in the Department of Justice will remove you from the case before you are on the stand on May 4. To which I said, “Okay, I don’t agree to those changes.” And his response was, “Good. Let’s continue with your preparation.” I was jarred by the fact that something very strange had occurred. But I was overwhelmed in life. I was trying to help this case and I didn’t quite know what had occurred. But to this day I’m critical of the fact that I took no action. I did appear on trial on May 4 and the trial ended in early June.

But on June 17 I woke up in a hotel room in London. I was working with another client at the time. And I woke up early at 5:00 a.m. and I opened up The New York Times web edition and I read a story about Matt Myers, the president of Tobacco Free Kids, who had come forward to the media with evidence about how Robert McCallum, the number two official in the Department of Justice, was involved in attempting to get him to change his testimony. And I then read basically the same account that I had experienced back on April 30. Matt Myers had the insight to know that he should do something with this information about what had occurred in terms of the attempt to tamper with this testimony. And at that point it was straightforward to come forward to the media to speak to congressional representatives about what happened. And my own role received media attention as well.

But to this day I’m still struck by the fact that I didn’t come forward on April 30 when, in the back of my mind I knew something had occurred. The reason I tell you this story is because I think a lot of our failure to notice happens when we’re busy. It happens when we don’t know exactly what’s happening. But I think it’s our job as executives, as leaders, as professionals to act when we’re pretty sure that there’s something wrong. It’s our job to notice and to not simply be passive when we can’t quite figure out the evidence. It’s our job to take steps to figure out what’s going on and to act on critical information.

***

Follow your curiosity and learn about why your decision making environment matters.

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Remember Not to Trust Your Memory http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/memory/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/memory/#respond Thu, 22 Jan 2015 12:00:56 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20063 think

Memories are the stories that we tell ourselves about the past. Sometimes they adjust and leave things out.

In an interesting passage in Think: Why You Should Question Everything, Guy P. Harrison talks about the fallibility of memory.

Did you know that you can’t trust even your most precious memories?

They may come to you in great detail and feel 100 percent accurate, but it doesn’t matter. They easily could be partial or total lies that your brain is telling you. Really, the personal past that your brain is supposed to be keeping safe for you is not what you think it is. Your memories are pieces and batches of information that your brain cobbles together and serves up to you, not to present the past as accurately as possible, but to provide you with information that you will likely find to be useful in the present. Functional value, not accuracy, is the priority. Your brain is like some power-crazed CIA desk jockey who feeds you memories on a need-to-know basis only. Daniel Schacter, a Harvard memory researcher, says that when the brain remembers, it does so in a way that is similar to how an archaeologist reconstructs a past scene relying on an artifact here, an artifact there. The end result might be informative and useful, but don’t expect it to be perfect. This is important because those who don’t know anything about how memory works already have one foot in fantasyland. Most people believe that our memory operates in a way that is similar to a video camera. They think that the sights, sounds, and feelings of our experiences are recorded on something like a hard drive in their heads. Totally wrong. When you remember your past, you don’t get to watch an accurately recorded replay.

To describe to people how memory really works, Harrison puts it this way:

Imagine a very tiny old man sitting by a very tiny campfire somewhere inside your head. He’s wearing a worn and raggedy hat and has a long, scruffy, gray beard. He looks a lot like one of those old California gold prospectors from the 1800s. He can be grumpy and uncooperative at times, but he’s the keeper of your memories and you are stuck with him. When you want or need to remember something from your past, you have to go through the old codger. Let’s say you want to recall that time when you scored the winning goal in a middle-school soccer match. You have to tap the old coot on the shoulder and ask him to tell you about it. He usually responds with something. But he doesn’t read from a faithfully recorded transcript, doesn’t review a comprehensive photo archive to create an accurate timeline, and doesn’t double-check his facts before speaking. He definitely doesn’t play a video recording of the game for you. Typically, he just launches into a tale about your glorious goal that won the big game. He throws up some images for you, so it’s kind of like a lecture or slideshow. Nice and useful, perhaps, but definitely not reliable

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Frederick W. Taylor: Time Management Skills http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/frederick-w-taylor-time-management/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/frederick-w-taylor-time-management/#respond Wed, 21 Jan 2015 12:00:11 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20067 SteelMill_interior

There is no question that the tendency of the average man (in all walks of life) is toward working at a slow, easy gait, and that it is only after a good deal of thought and observation on his part or as a result of example, conscience, or external pressure that he takes a more rapid pace.

***

From Frederick W. Taylor’s 1904 book Shop Management, which appeared long before his Principles of Scientific Management (1911). Taylor is considered the father of management consulting.

The natural laziness of men is serious, but by far the greatest evil from which both workmen and employers are suffering is the systematic soldiering which is almost universal under all of the ordinary schemes of management and which results from a careful study on the part of the workmen of what they think will promote their best interests.

The writer was much interested recently to hear one small but experienced golf caddie boy of twelve explaining to a green caddie who had shown special energy and interest the necessity of going slow and lagging behind his man when he came up to the ball, showing him that since they were paid by the hour, the faster they went, the less money they got, and finally telling him that if he went too fast the other boys would give him a licking.

This represents a type of systematic soldiering which is not, however, very serious, since it is done with the knowledge of the employer, who can quite easily break it up if he wishes.

The greater part of the systematic soldiering, however, is done by the men with the deliberate object of keeping their employers ignorant of how fast work can be done.

So universal is soldiering for this purpose that hardly a competent workman can be found in a large establishment, whether he works by the day or on piecework, contract work or under any of the ordinary systems of compensating labor, who does not devote a considerable part of his time to studying just how slowly he can work and still convince his employer that he is going at a good pace.

The causes for this are, briefly, that practically all employers determine upon a maximum sum which they feel it is right for each of their classes of employees to earn per day, whether their men work by the day or piece.

Each workman soon finds out about what this figure is for his particular case, and he also realizes that when his employer is convinced that a man is capable of doing more work than he has done, he will find sooner or later some way of compelling him to do it with little or no increase of pay.

Employers derive their knowledge of how much of a given class of work can be done in a day from either their own experience, which has frequently grown hazy with age, from casual and unsystematic observation of their men, or at best from records which are kept, showing the quickest time in which each job has been done. In many cases the employer will feel almost certain that a given job can be done faster than it has been, but he rarely cares to take the drastic measures necessary to force men to do it in the quickest time, unless he has an actual record, proving conclusively how fast the work can be done.

It evidently becomes for each man’s interest, then, to see that no job is done faster than it has been in the past. The younger and less experienced men are taught this by their elders, and all possible persuasion and social pressure is brought to bear upon the greedy and selfish men to keep them from making new records which result in temporarily increasing their wages, while all those who come after them are made to work harder for the same old pay.

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The Difference Between Good And Bad Organizations http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/ben-horowitz-good-and-bad-organizations/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/ben-horowitz-good-and-bad-organizations/#respond Tue, 20 Jan 2015 12:00:10 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=17777 bureaucracy

Which organization do you work for?

This excerpt is from one of the best business leadership books I’ve ever read: The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers

At Opsware I used to teach a management expectations course because I deeply believed in training. I made it clear that I expected every manager to meet with her people on a regular basis.

Then one day, while I happily went about my job, it came to my attention that one of my managers hadn’t had a one-on-one meeting with any of his employees in more than six months. While I knew to “expect what I inspect,” I did not expect this. No one-on-one in more than six months? How was it possible for me to invest so much time thinking about management, preparing materials, and personally training my managers and then get no one-on-ones for six months? Wow, so much for CEO authority. If that’s how the managers listen to me, then why do I even bother coming to work?

I thought that leading by example would be the sure way to get the company to do what I wanted. Lord knows the company picked up all of my bad habits, so why didn’t they pick up my good habits? Had I lost the team? I recalled a conversation I’d had with my father many years ago regarding Tommy Heinsohn, the Boston Celtics basketball coach at the time. Heinsohn had been one of the most successful coaches in the world, including being named coach of the year and winning two NBA championships.

However, he had gone downhill fast and now had the worst record in the league. I asked my father what happened. He said, “The players stopped paying attention to his temper tantrums. Heinsohn used to yell at the team and they’d respond. Now they just ignore him.” Was the team now ignoring me? Had I yelled at them one time too many?

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that while I had told the team “what” to do, I had not been clear about “why” I wanted them to do it. Clearly, my authority alone was not enough to get them to do what I wanted. Given the large number of things that we were trying to accomplish, managers couldn’t get to everything and came up with their own priorities. Apparently, this manager didn’t think that meeting with his people was all that important and I hadn’t explained to him why it was so important.

So why did I force every manager through management training? Why did I demand that managers have one-on-ones with employees? After much deliberation with myself, I settled on an articulation of the core reason and I called up the offending manager’s boss— I’ll call him Steve— and told him that I needed to see him right away.

When Steve came into my office I asked him a question: “Steve, do you know why I came to work today?”

Steve: “What do you mean, Ben?”

Me: “Why did I bother waking up? Why did I bother coming in? If it was about the money, couldn’t I sell the company tomorrow and have more money than I ever wanted? I don’t want to be famous, in fact just the opposite.”

Steve: “I guess.”

Me: “Well, then why did I come to work?”

Steve: “I don’t know.”

Me: “Well, let me explain. I came to work because it’s personally very important to me that Opsware be a good company. It’s important to me that the people who spend twelve to sixteen hours a day here, which is most of their waking life, have a good life. It’s why I come to work.”

Steve: “Okay.”

Me: “Do you know the difference between a good place to work and a bad place to work?”

Steve: “Umm, I think so.”

Me: “What is the difference?”

Steve: “Umm, well . . .”

Me: “Let me break it down for you. In good organizations, people can focus on their work and have confidence that if they get their work done, good things will happen for both the company and them personally. It is a true pleasure to work in an organization such as this. Every person can wake up knowing that the work they do will be efficient, effective, and make a difference for the organization and themselves. These things make their jobs both motivating and fulfilling.

In a poor organization, on the other hand, people spend much of their time fighting organizational boundaries, infighting, and broken processes. They are not even clear on what their jobs are, so there is no way to know if they are getting the job done or not. In the miracle case that they work ridiculous hours and get the job done, they have no idea what it means for the company or their careers. To make it all much worse and rub salt in the wound, when they finally work up the courage to tell management how fucked-up their situation is, management denies there is a problem, then defends the status quo, then ignores the problem.”

Steve: “Okay.”

Me: “Are you aware that your manager Tim has not met with any of his employees in the past six months?”

Steve: “No.”

Me: “Now that you are aware, do you realize that there is no possible way for him to even be informed as to whether or not his organization is good or bad?”

Steve: “Yes.”

Me: “In summary, you and Tim are preventing me from achieving my one and only goal. You have become a barrier blocking me from achieving my most important goal. As a result, if Tim doesn’t meet with each one of his employees in the next twenty-four hours, I will have no choice but to fire him and to fire you. Are we clear?”

Steve: “Crystal.”

If you liked that you’ll love the book — The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers. You’ll also love this insight from Charlie Munger on bureaucracies.

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Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/big-data-as-a-lens-on-human-culture/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/big-data-as-a-lens-on-human-culture/#respond Mon, 19 Jan 2015 12:00:46 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=17073 BigData

“Which would help you more if your quest was to learn about contemporary human society—unfettered access to a leading university’s department of sociology, packed with experts on how societies function, or unfettered access to Facebook, a company whose goal is to help mediate human social relationships online?”

In 2005, when Erez Aiden Jean-Baptiste Michel were grad students, they spent a lot of time “thinking about the kinds of scopes scientists had access to and the ways in which those scopes made science possible. We became intrigued by what seemed like an off-the-wall idea. For a long time, both of us had been interested in the study of history.”

But how does big data and history combine?

At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature. Big data is going to change the humanities, transform the social sciences, and renegotiate the relationship between the world of commerce and the ivory tower.

Fascinated by how human culture changes over time, they ended up writing a book Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture.

Some of these changes are dramatic, but often they are so subtle as to be largely invisible to the unaided brain. Wouldn’t it be great, we thought, if we had something like a microscope to measure human culture, to identify and track all those tiny effects that we would never notice otherwise? Or a telescope that would allow us to do this from a great distance— on other continents, centuries ago? In short, was it possible to create a kind of scope that, instead of observing physical objects, would observe historical change?

[…]

As we were mulling this somewhat esoteric question, a revolution was occurring elsewhere that would sweep us up in its wake and lead millions of people to share our strange fascination. At its core, this big data revolution is about how humans create and preserve a historical record of their activities. Its consequences will transform how we look at ourselves. It will enable the creation of new scopes that make it possible for our society to more effectively probe its own nature.

Ten thousand years ago, shepherds lost track of their sheep much like we lose track of things today. To solve this problem they hit upon the notion of counting.

In retrospect, it might seem surprising that something as mundane as the desire to count sheep was the impetus for an advance as fundamental as written language. But the desire for written records has always accompanied economic activity, since transactions are meaningless unless you can clearly keep track of who owns what. As such, early human writing is dominated by wheeling and dealing: a menagerie of bets, chits, and contracts. Long before we had the writings of the prophets, we had the writings of the profits. In fact , many civilizations never got to the stage of recording and leaving behind the kinds of great literary works that we often associate with the history of culture. What survives these ancient societies is, for the most part, a pile of receipts. If it weren’t for the commercial enterprises that produced those records, we would know far, far less about the cultures that they came from.

Today many commercial enterprises make their living off those records. Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the like keep digital and often personal and permenant records of your activity.

Google will remember every word of that angry e-mail long after we’ve forgotten the name of the person we sent it to. Facebook’s photos will chronicle the details of that night at the bar even if we woke up with a fuzzy brain and a massive hangover. If we write a book, Google scans it; if we take a photo, Flickr stores it; if we make a movie, YouTube streams it.

These digital breadcrumbs provide a lens on human culture. To answer the question posed at the top:

On the one hand, the members of the sociology faculty benefit from brilliant insights culled from many lifetimes dedicated to learning and study. On the other hand, Facebook is part of the day-to-day social lives of a billion people. It knows where they live and work, where they play and with whom, what they like, when they get sick, and what they talk about with their friends. So the answer to our question may very well be Facebook.

Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture chronicles a seven-year quest to quantify cultural change through the lens of Google’s archive of books. This is both big data and long data. The core of the project is to explore how word usage changes over time and hypothesize about what that means to culture.

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The Best Books of 2014: Your Overall Favorites http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/books-2014-reader-favorites/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/books-2014-reader-favorites/#respond Thu, 15 Jan 2015 12:00:23 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20049 best reads 2014

From how to read books and raise kids to philosophy and finance.




The third annual (2012, 2013) look at your favorite reads featured on Farnam Street. You’re a well-read bunch.

In no particular order:

Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader

FIASCO is the shocking story of one man’s education in the jungles of Wall Street. As a young derivatives salesman at Morgan Stanley, Frank Partnoy learned to buy and sell billions of dollars worth of securities that were so complex many traders themselves didn’t understand them. In his behind-the-scenes look at the trading floor and the offices of one of the world’s top investment firms, Partnoy recounts the macho attitudes and fiercely competitive ploys of his office mates.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Since its original publication nearly thirty years ago, Getting to Yes has helped millions of people learn a better way to negotiate. One of the primary business texts of the modern era, it is based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, a group that deals with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution.

It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

Despite the age-old saying, individuals everywhere still have a hard time realizing that it’s not all about them. Robin Dreeke uses his research and years of work in the field of interpersonal relations and behavior to help readers focus on building relationships with others in “It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone”. As the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program within the Counterintelligence Division, Dreeke has used the techniques listed in “It’s Not All About Me” with skilled professionals within the FBI as well as with sales professionals, educators and individuals across the country and world.

Collected Maxims and Other Reflections

Deceptively brief and insidiously easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s shrewd, unflattering analyses of human behavior have influenced writers, thinkers, and public figures as various as Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

A must read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why do some children succeed while others fail? The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character.

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition

You’ll learn the six universal principles, how to use them to become a skilled persuader—and how to defend yourself against them. Perfect for people in all walks of life, the principles of Influence will move you toward profound personal change and act as a driving force for your success.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Meditations: A New Translation

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition

Seeking Wisdom is the result of Bevelin’s learning about attaining wisdom. His quest for wisdom originated partly from making mistakes himself and observing those of others but also from the philosophy of super-investor and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger. A man whose simplicity and clarity of thought was unequal to anything Bevelin had seen.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

Confessions of a Sociopath takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Written from the point of view of a diagnosed sociopath, it unveils these men and women who are “hiding in plain sight” for the very first time.

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How To Think http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/how-to-think-2/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/how-to-think-2/#respond Wed, 14 Jan 2015 12:00:33 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=20036 Farnam Street Newsletter

I wrote a response on quora recently to the question ‘how do I become a better thinker’ that generated a lot of attention and feedback so I thought I’d build on that a little and post it here too.

***

Thinking is not IQ. When people talk about thinking they make the mistake of thinking that people with high IQs think better. That’s not what I’m talking about. I hate to break it to you but unless you’re trying to get into Mensa, IQ tests don’t matter as much as we think they do. After a certain point, that’s not the type of knowledge or brainpower that makes you better at life, happier, or more successful. It’s a measure sure, but a relatively useless one.

If you want to outsmart people who are smarter than you, temperament and life-long learning are more important than IQ.

Two of the guiding principles that I follow on my path towards seeking wisdom are: (1) Go to bed smarter than when you woke up; and (2) I’m not smart enough to figure everything out myself, so I want to ‘master the best of what other people have already figured out.’

Acquiring wisdom, is hard. Learning how to think is hard. It means sifting through information, filtering the bunk, and connecting it to a framework that you can use. A lot of people want to get their opinions from someone else. I know this because whenever anyone blurts out an opinion and I ask why, I get some hastily re-phrased sound-byte that doesn’t contextualize the problem, identify the forces at play, demonstrate differences or similarities with previous situations, consider base rates, or … anything else that would demonstrate some level of thinking. (One of my favorite questions to probe thinking is to ask what information would cause someone to change their mind. Immediately stop listening and leave if they say ‘I can’t think of anything.’)

Thinking is hard work. I get it. You don’t have time to think but that doesn’t mean you get a pass from me. I want to think for myself, thank you.

***

So one effective thing you can do if you want to think better is to become better at probing other people’s thinking. Ask questions. Simple ones are better. “Why” is the best. If you ask that three or four times you get to a place where you’re going to understand more and you’ll be able to tell who really knows what they are talking about. Shortcuts in thinking are easy, and this is how you tease them out. Not to make the other person look bad – don’t do this maliciously – but to avoid mistakes, air assumptions, and discuss conclusions.

Another thing you can do is to slow down. Make sure you give yourself time to think. I know, it’s a fast-paced internet world where we get some cultural machoism points for answering on the spot but unless it has to be decided at that very moment, simply say “let me think about that for a bit and get back to you.” The world will not end while you think about it.

You should also probe yourself. Try and understand if you’re talking about something you really know something about or if you’re just regurgitating some talking head you heard on the news last night. Your life will become instantly better and your mind clearer if you simply stop the latter. You’re only fooling yourself and if you don’t understand the limits of what you know, you’re going to get in trouble.

***

Learning how to think really means continuously learning.

How can we do that?

First we need a framework to put things on so we can remember, integrate, and make them available for use.

A Latticework of Mental Models, if you will.

Acquiring knowledge may seem like a daunting task. There is so much to know and time is precious. Luckily, we don’t have to master everything. To get the biggest bang for the buck we can study the big ideas from physics, biology, psychology, philosophy, literature, and sociology.

Our aim is not to remember facts and try to repeat them when asked. We’re going to try and hang these ideas on a latticework of mental models. Doing this puts them in a useable form and enables us to make better decisions.

A mental model is simply a representation of an external reality inside your head. Mental models are concerned with understanding knowledge about the world.

Decisions are more likely to be correct when ideas from multiple disciplines all point towards the same conclusion.

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Let’s make every attempt not to be the man with only a hammer.

Charlie Munger further elaborates:

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

These models generally fall into two categories: (1) ones that help us simulate time (and predict the future) and better understand how the world works (e.g. understanding a useful idea from like autocatalysis), and (2) ones that help us better understand how our mental processes lead us astray (e.g., availability bias).

When our mental models line up with reality they help us avoid problems. However, they also cause problems when they don’t line up with reality as we think something that isn’t true. So Beware.

In Peter Bevelin’s masterful book Seeking Wisdom, he highlights Munger talking about autocatalysis:

If you get a certain kind of process going in chemistry, it speeds up on its own. So you get this marvellous boost in what you’re trying to do that runs on and on. Now, the laws of physics are such that it doesn’t run on forever. But it runs on for a goodly while. So you get a huge boost. You accomplish A – and, all of a sudden, you’re getting A + B + C for awhile.

But knowing is not enough. You need to know how to apply this to other problems outside of the domain in which you learned it.

Munger continues:

Disney is an amazing example of autocatalysis … They had those movies in the can. They owned the copyright. And just as Coke could prosper when refrigeration came, when the videocassette was invented, Disney didn’t have to invent anything or do anything except take the thing out of the can and stick it on the cassette.

***

What models do we need?

I keep a running list that I’m filling in over time, but really how we store and sort these are individual preferences. The framework is not a one-stop-shop, it’s how it fits into your brain.

How can we acquire these models?

There are several ways to acquire the models, the first and probably best source is reading. Even Warren Buffett says reading is one of the best ways to get wiser.

But sadly if your goal is wisdom acquisition, you can’t just pick up a book and read it. You need to Learn How To Read A Book all over again. Most people look at my reading habits (What I’m Reading) and think that I speed read. I don’t. I think that’s a bunch of hot air. If you think you can pick up a book on a subject you’re unfamiliar with and in 30 minutes become an expert … well, good luck to you. Please go back to getting your opinions from twitter.

Focus on the big, simple ideas.

Focus on deeply understanding the simple ideas (see Five Elements of Effective Thinking). These simple ideas, not the cutting-edge ones are the ones you want to hang on your latticework. The latticework is important because it makes the knowledge useable – you not only recall but you internalize.

But the world is always changing … what should we learn first?

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is to try and learn the cutting-edge research first. The way we prioritize learning has huge implications beyond the day-to-day. When we chase the latest thing, we’re really jumping into an arms race (see: The Red Queen Effect). We have to spend more and more of our time and energy to stay in the same place.

Despite our intentions, learning in this way fails to take advantage of cumulative knowledge. We’re not adding, we’re only maintaining.

If we are to prioritize learning, we should focus on ideas that change slowly – these tend to be the ones from the hard sciences. (see Adding Mental Models to Your Toolbox)

The models that come from hard science and engineering are the most reliable models on this Earth. And engineering quality control – at least the guts of it that matters to you and me and people who are not professional engineers – is very much based on the elementary mathematics of Fermat and Pascal: It costs so much and you get so much less likelihood of it breaking if you spend this much… And, of course, the engineering idea of a backup system is a very powerful idea. The engineering idea of breakpoints – that’s a very powerful model, too. The notion of a critical mass – that comes out of physics – is a very powerful model.

To help further prioritize learning

From : What Should I Read?

Knowledge has a half-life. The most useful knowledge is a broad-based multidisciplinary education of the basics. These ideas are ones that have lasted, and thus will last, for a long time. And by last, I mean mathematical expectation; I know what will happen in general but not each individual case.

Integrating Knowledge

(Source: Adding Mental Models to Your Toolbox)

Our world is mutli-dimensional and our problems are complicated. Most problems cannot be solved using one model alone. The more models we have the better able we are to rationally solve problems. But if we don’t have the models we become the proverbial man with a hammer.

To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you only have one model you will fit whatever problem you face to the model you have. If you have more than one model, however, you can look at the problem from a variety of perspectives and increase the odds you come to a better solution.

No one discipline has all the answers, only by looking at them all can we come to grow worldly wisdom.

Charles Munger illustrates the importance of this:

Suppose you want to be good at declarer play in contract bridge. Well, you know the contract – you know what you have to achieve. And you can count up the sure winners you have by laying down your high cards and your invincible trumps.

But if you’re a trick or two short, how are you going to get the other needed tricks? Well, there are only six or so different, standard methods: You’ve got long-suit establishment. You’ve got finesses. You’ve got throw-in plays.

You’ve got cross-ruffs. You’ve got squeezes. And you’ve got various ways of misleading the defense into making errors. So it’s a very limited number of models. But if you only know one or two of those models, then you’re going to be a horse’s patoot in declarer play…

If you don’t have the full repertoire, I guarantee you that you’ll over-utilize the limited repertoire you have – including use of models that are inappropriate just because they’re available to you in the limited stock you have in mind.

As for how we can use different ideas, Munger again shows the way …

Have a full kit of tools … go through them in your mind checklist-style. … [Y]ou can never make any explanation that can be made in a more fundamental way in any other way than the most fundamental way.

When you combine things you get lollapalooza effects — the integration of more than one effect to create a non-linear response.

A two-step process for making effective decisions

There is no point in being wiser unless you use it for good. You know, as Aunt May put it to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

(Source: A Two-step Process for Making Effective Decisions)

Personally, I’ve gotten so that I now use a kind of two-track analysis. First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered? And second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things-which by and large are useful, but which often misfunction.

One approach is rationality-the way you’d work out a bridge problem: by evaluating the real interests, the real probabilities and so forth. And the other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions-many of which are wrong.

This is the path, the rest is up to you.

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The Books That Influenced Edward O. Wilson http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/wilson-books-influenced/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/wilson-books-influenced/#respond Tue, 13 Jan 2015 12:00:28 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19966 harvard guide to influential books

Too often life gets in the way of reading and thinking. Rarely are we given a chance to look back at what influenced our thinking. Sometimes these are small fragments — words, thoughts, marginalia, ideas, or even a book.

The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking contains an annotated listing of the books that mattered to over a hundred Harvard University faculty members along with some commentary on why.

Here is Pulitzer-winning writer and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s contribution.

I was an adolescent, from fifteen to eighteen years of age, when I encountered the books that were to have the most profound and lasting influence on my life. Thereafter I read thousands of books, many of equal or superior quality, and put most to good use; but I have to confess that individually they have had a steadily declining effect on my world view, style and ambition. Hence I can only offer you works that might, either literally or as examples of a genre, influence a certain kind of young person to take up a career as a biologist and naturalist. More I cannot promise.

Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Even as a small child I dreamed of going on faraway expeditions to collect insects and other animals. This book set my imagination on fire, and I was thereafter a nesiophile, a lover of islands, the concrete symbols of new worlds awaiting exploration. The compulsion was one of the mental factors that led me in later years to develop (with Robert H. MacArthur) the theory of island biogeography, which has become an influential part of ecology.

Heredity and Its Variability by Trofim D. Lysenko

Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was, false in conception, political in aim, and very nearly the death of Soviet genetics, I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. It appealed to my mood of rebelliousness. It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.

An Essay on Morals by Philip Wylie

When I was a seventeen-year-old college student, these Menckenesque essays broke me out of the fundamentalist Protestant faith in which I had been raised and moved me toward the secular humanism with which I increasingly identify today. I still find Wylie a delightful read.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

The perfect young man’s book: a vision of a pure life devoted to the search for scientific truth, above money grubbing and hypocrisy. How I longed to be like Arrowsmith, to find my mentor in a real Gottlieb. The feeling was intensified when I discovered Jack London’s Martin Eden shortly afterward.

What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

This taut little book, which I encountered as a college freshman, invited biologists to think of life in more purely physical terms. Schrodinger was right of course, as witness the rise of molecular biology soon afterward. For me his arguments suggested delicious mysteries and great challenges. (Later, I was especially pleased when a reviewer likened my own book Genes, Mind, and Culture, published with C. J. Lumsden in 1981, to What Is Life? saying that it offered a comparable challenge from biology to the social sciences.)

Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist by Ernst Mayr

By defining the biological species in strong, vital language and connecting the process of species formation to genetics, Mayr opened a large part of natural history to a more scientific form of analysis. This is an example of a very heuristic work, which invited young scientists to join an exciting quest in field research. More than forty years after its publication, I am still wholly involved in this effort.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I hope that I have not missed the editors’ purpose entirely by listing books that affected one rather rebellious adolescent in the 1940s, but I was quite surprised myself when I came up with this list after careful reflection. Let me make partial amends by citing the work that I pull off the shelf most often, and gives me the greatest pleasure, now that I am in my fifties: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. For this work reflects the point to which I have come, in company with such a magnificent spirit who “bears in mind that all that is rational is akin, and that it is in man’s nature to care for all men, and that we should not embrace the opinion of all, but of those alone who live in conscious agreement with Nature.

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How Play Enriches Our Creative Capacity http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/eeesntialism-play-mckeown/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2015/01/eeesntialism-play-mckeown/#respond Mon, 12 Jan 2015 13:00:49 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19596 play
“Play doesn’t just help us to explore what is essential. It is essential in and of itself.” — Greg McKeown

The value of playing cannot be over-stated. From Einstein and Seneca to Steve Jobs and Google.

“Bob Fagan, a researcher who has spent fifteen years studying the behavior of grizzly bears, discovered bears who played the most tended to survive the longest.” Jaak Panksepp concluded something similar in Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, where he wrote, “One thing is certain, during play, animals are especially prone to behave in flexible and creative ways.”

In Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg Mckeown argues that “when we play, we are engaged in the purest expression of our humanity, the truest expression of our individuality.”

Play expands our minds in ways that allow us to explore: to germinate new ideas or see old ideas in a new light. It makes us more inquisitive, more attuned to novelty, more engaged.

Play fuels exploration in at least three ways.

First, play broadens the range of options available to us. It helps us to see possibilities we otherwise wouldn’t have seen and make connections we would otherwise not have made. It opens our minds and broadens our perspective. It helps us challenge old assumptions and makes us more receptive to untested ideas . It gives us permission to expand our own stream of consciousness and come up with new stories.

Or as Albert Einstein once said, “When I examine myself and my methods of thought , I come to the conclusion that the gift of fantasy has meant more to me than my talent for absorbing positive knowledge.” (As found in János: The Story of a Doctor.)

Second, play is an antidote to stress, and this is key because stress, in addition to being an enemy of productivity, can actually shut down the creative, inquisitive, exploratory parts of our brain. You know how it feels: you’re stressed about work and suddenly everything starts going wrong. You can’t find your keys, you bump into things more easily, you forget the critical report on the kitchen table. Recent findings suggest this is because stress increases the activity in the part of the brain that monitors emotions (the amygdala), while reducing the activity in the part responsible for cognitive function (the hippocampus)—the result being, simply, that we really can’t think clearly.

Play causes stress to (temporarily) melt away.

Finally, as Edward M. Hallowell, a psychiatrist who specializes in brain science, explains, play has a positive effect on the brain. “The brain’s executive functions,” he writes in Shine: Using Brain Science to Get the Best from Your People, “include planning, prioritizing, scheduling, anticipating, delegating, deciding, analyzing— in short, most of the skills any executive must master in order to excel in business.” Play stimulates parts of the brain involved in logical reasoning and carefree exploration.

Hallowell continues:

Columbus was at play when it dawned on him that the world was round. Newton was at play in his mind when he saw the apple tree and suddenly conceived of the force of gravity. Watson and Crick were playing with possible shapes of the DNA molecule when they stumbled upon the double helix. Shakespeare played with iambic pentameter his whole life. Mozart barely lived a waking moment when he was not at play. Einstein’s thought experiments are brilliant examples of the mind invited to play.

Perhaps Roald Dahl said it best: “A little nonsense now and then, is cherished by the wisest men.”

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