What makes Warren Buffett a great investor? Is it the intelligence or the discipline?

I thought this excerpt from Warren Buffett’s 2011 interview in India was relevant to not only investing but also decision making. A member of the audience says to Buffett: “As we all know, you are an extremely intelligent person. At the same time, you are very disciplined with your investing approach. What makes Warren Buffett a great investor? Is it the intelligence or the discipline?”

Here is Warren’s response.

Warren: The good news I can tell you is that to be a great investor you don’t have to have a terrific IQ.

If you’ve got 160 IQ, sell 30 points to somebody else because you won’t need it in investing. What you do need is the right temperament. You need to be able to detach yourself from the views of others or the opinions of others.

You need to be able to look at the facts about a business, about an industry, and evaluate a business unaffected by what other people think. That is very difficult for most people.

Most people have, sometimes, a herd mentality which can, under certain circumstances, develop into delusional behavior. You saw that in the Internet craze and so on. I’m sure everybody in this room has the intelligence to do extremely well in investments.

Moderator: They’re all 160 IQs.

Warren: They don’t need it. I’m disappointed they haven’t sold off some already. The 160s won’t beat the 130s at all necessarily. They may, but they do not have a big edge. The ones that have the edge are the ones who really have the temperament to look at a business, look at an industry and not care what the person next to them thinks about it, not care what they read about it in the newspaper, not care what they hear about it on the television, not listen to people who say, “This is going to happen,” or, “That’s going to happen.”

You have to come to your own conclusions, and you have to do it based on facts that are available. If you don’t have enough facts to reach a conclusion, you forget it. You go on to the next one. You have to also have the willingness to walk away from things that other people think are very simple.

A lot of people don’t have that. I don’t know why it is. I’ve been asked a lot of times whether that was something that you’re born with or something you learn. I’m not sure I know the answer. Temperament’s important.

Moderator: That’s very good advice, to be detached from all the noise. You shouldn’t go with the herd.

Warren: If you don’t know the answer yourself don’t expect somebody else to tell you. If you don’t know the answer yourself and somebody else says they know the answer, don’t let that fact push you into coming to a conclusion about something that you don’t know enough to come to a conclusion on.

Stocks go up and down, there is no game where the odds are in your favor. But to win at this game, and most people can’t, you need discipline to form your own opinions and the right temperament, which is more important than IQ.

Pascal said it best: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.”

Warren: If you look at the typical stock on the New York Stock Exchange, its high will be, perhaps, for the last 12 months will be 150 percent of its low so they’re bobbing all over the place. All you have to do is sit there and wait until something is really attractive that you understand.

And you can forget about everything else. That is a wonderful game to play in. There’s almost nothing where the game is stacked in your favor like the stock market.

What happens is people start listening to everybody talk on television or whatever it may be or read the paper, and they take what is a fundamental advantage and turn it into a disadvantage. There’s no easier game than stocks. You have to be sure you don’t play it too often.

You need the discipline to say no.

Ajit: The discipline to say no, if you have that and you’re not willing to let people steamroll you into saying yes. If you have that discipline, that’s more than 50 percent of the battle.

Warren: Don’t do anything in life where, if somebody asks you the reason why you are doing it, the answer is “Everybody else is doing it.” I mean, if you cancel that as a rationale for doing an activity in life, you’ll live a better life whether it’s in the stock market or any place else.

I’ve seen more dumb things, and sometimes even illegal things, justified (rationalized) on the basis of “Everybody else is doing it.” You don’t need to do what everybody else is doing. It’s maddening, during the Internet craze when the bubble was going on.

Here’s your neighbor who’s got an IQ of 50 points below you, and he’s making all this easy money and your wife is telling you “This jerk next door is making money, and you’re smarter than he is. Why aren’t you making money?”

You have to forget about all those things. You have to do what works, what you understand, and if you don’t understand it and somebody else is doing it, don’t get envious or anything of the sort. Just go on and wait until you find something you understand.

From this video, a watermarked transcript of which is available for purchase.

Steve Jobs on Creativity

“Originality depends on new and striking combinations of ideas.”
— Rosamund Harding


In a beautiful article for The Atlantic, Nancy Andreasen, a neuroscientist who has spent decades studying creativity, writes:

[C]reative people are better at recognizing relationships, making associations and connections, and seeing things in an original way—seeing things that others cannot see. … Having too many ideas can be dangerous. Part of what comes with seeing connections no one else sees is that not all of these connections actually exist.

The same point of view is offered by James Webb Young, who many years earlier, wrote:

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

A lot of creative luminaries think about creativity in the same way.

In I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words, editor George Beahm draws on more than 30 years of media coverage of Steve Jobs in order to find Jobs’ most thought-provoking insights on many aspects of life and creativity.

In one particularly notable excerpt Jobs says:

Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things. And the reason they were able to do that was that they’ve had more experiences or they have thought more about their experiences than other people. Unfortunately, that’s too rare a commodity. A lot of people in our industry haven’t had very diverse experiences. So they don’t have enough dots to connect, and they end up with very linear solutions without a broad perspective on the problem. The broader one’s understanding of the human experience, the better design we will have.

The more you learn about, the more you can connect things. This becomes an argument for a broad-based education. In his 2005 commencement address to the class of Stanford, Jobs makes the case for learning things that, at the time, may not offer the most practical benefit. Over time, however, these things add up to give you a broader base of knowledge from which to connect ideas:

Throughout the campus every poster, every label on every drawer, was beautifully hand calligraphed. Because I had dropped out and didn’t have to take the normal classes, I decided to take a calligraphy class to learn how to do this. I learned about serif and san serif typefaces, about varying the amount of space between different letter combinations, about what makes great typography great. It was beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture, and I found it fascinating.

None of this had even a hope of any practical application in my life. But ten years later, when we were designing the first Macintosh computer, it all came back to me.

While education is important for building up a repository for which you can connect things, it’s not enough. You need broad life experiences as well.

I, Steve: Steve Jobs in His Own Words is full of things that will make you think.

19 More Book Recommendations from Billionaire Charlie Munger

munger_l

In Book Recommendations from Billionaire Charlie Munger That will Make you Smarter, we covered off some of the books that he’s recommended to readers and Berkshire Hathaway shareholders over the years. As a voracious reader himself, however, he has even more recommendations. Here are 19 others Munger has recommended to the curious reader.

1. No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality
Harris is a great detective and systematically works her way though the currently popular explanations, such as birth order, and explains why none of these solve the mystery of human individuality.

2. Darwin’s Blind Spot: Evolution Beyond Natural Selection
Ryan takes the view that cooperation, not competition, is a factor in natural selection. The dependence, for example, of flowering plans on insects and birds for pollination is symbiosis, or cooperation. Mixing symbiosis with Darwin’s theory we come to a more accurate picture of the natural world.

3. Man’s Search For Meaning
The book sheds light on the horrible experiences of Auschwitz and what they taught Viktor Frankl about life, love, and our search for meaning. When all seems hopeless, why is it that some people push forward while others subside.

4. The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe without Design
In the eighteenth century, William Paley argued that a watch is too complicated to happen by accident and so too are living things. Darwin undercut that argument with his discovery of natural selection and here Dawkins offers an elegant riposte. Natural selection has no purpose, it is an unconscious, automatic, and blind watchmaker.

5. Judgment in Managerial Decision Making
This is hands down the most useful book on management decision-making that I’ve ever read. Seriously.

6. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language
Pinker, one of the world’s foremost experts on language and the mind, explores how language works, how we learn it, and how it evolves. He lands on the site of language being a human instinct, birthed by evoltuion.

7. Master of the Game: Steve Ross and the Creation of Time Warner
This is a biography of Steve Ross, whose career spanned from Wall Street to Hollywood, by an award-winning journalist. Ross was a polarizing figure, both revered and reviled, who sought out risky deals culminating in the empire of Time Warner.

8. In The Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives
This book is no surprise to those who follow Munger closely. He loves learning about engineering cultures.

9. A Universe out of Nothing
Bestselling author and acclaimed physicist Lawrence Krauss looks at the biggest question of all: how everything that exists came to be in the first place. “Where did the universe come from? What was there before it? What will the future bring? And finally, why is there something rather than nothing?”

10. Barbarians at the Gate: The Fall of RJR Nabisco
A fascinating look at corporate America and Wall Street culture during the 80s by a masterful storyteller.

11. The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success
A book that details the extraordinary success of CEOs who took a radically different approach to corporate management.

12. Distant Force: A Memoir of the Teledyne Corporation and the Man Who Created It, with an Introduction to Teledyne Technologies
Henry Singleton, the creator of Teledyne detailed in this book, was one of the eight unconventional CEOs mentioned above. If there was a businessman hall of fame, Singleton would be on the first ballot.

13. Hard Drive: Bill Gates and the Making of the Microsoft Empire
How Bill Gates transformed an industry when everyone was trying to prevent him. Gates wasn’t always the richest person in the world.

14. Fortune’s Formula: The Untold Story of the Scientific Betting System That Beat the Casinos and Wall Street
Our man Claude Shannon comes up again with his fascinating work with John Kelly. Together they applied the science of information theory to make as much money as they could as fast as they could.

15. Conspiracy of Fools: A True Story
An intimate exposure of Enron’s implosion. Think it can’t happen again? Think again.

16. The Martians of Science: Five Physicists Who Changed the Twentieth Century
If science had a hall of fame the five men from this book, born at the turn of the twentieth century in Budapest – Theodore von Kármán, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann, and Edward Telle – would all be members. Their work underpinned some of the most important political developments of the twentieth century.

17. Einstein: His Life and Universe
Munger, who reads every Einstein biography, considers this one from Walter Isaacson to be the best.

18. Getting It Done: How to Lead When You’re Not in Charge
An interesting book full of practical ideas that takes a realistic view of organizations and asks how, in a world of matrix management and chaos, do we lead when we are not the one in charge?

19. The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
One of Munger’s all-time heroes was Ben Franklin. This autobiography was written as a letter of instruction in the ways of the world.

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Journalists, and Others

Jamie Whyte

A lot of our day is spent trying to convince people of something. To do this we often make arguments as to why our product or service is better, or, more commonly why our own opinion is right and yours is wrong. But few of us understand the art of argumentation.

Crimes Against Logic: Exposing the Bogus Arguments of Politicians, Priests, Journalists, and Other Serial Offenders, a book by Jamie Whyte, “aims to help fill the gap left by the education system,” in the ways that our reasoning can go wrong. “The logic equivalent of one of those troubleshooting guides in your car or computer manual.”

Errors in logic are not visible.

When a car breaks down, anyone can see that it has even if he knows nothing about how cars work. Reasoning is different. Unless you know how reasoning can go wrong, you can’t see that it has. The talking doesn’t stop, no steam emerges from the ears, the eyes don’t flash red.

Until Google invents a device that exposes our errors in reasoning we need to rely on ourselves. And most of us don’t know a lot about the ways that reasoning can go wrong. Whyte argues that we’ve become a nation of suckers.

Schools and universities pack their minds with invaluable pieces of information— about the nitrogen cycle, the causes of World War II, iambic pentameter, and trigonometry— but leave them incapable of identifying even basic errors of logic. Which makes for a nation of suckers, unable to resist the bogus reasoning of those who want something from them, such as votes or money or devotion.

Often, when we can’t tell good logic from bad we turn to cynicism, “discounting everything said by anyone in a position of power or influence.”

But cynicism is a poor defense, because it doesn’t help to tell good reasoning from bad. Believing nothing is just as silly as believing everything. Cynicism, like gullibility, is a symptom of underdeveloped critical faculties.

The Irrelevant Right

Jack has offered some opinion— that President Bush invaded Iraq to steal its oil, let’s say—with which his friend Jill disagrees. Jill offers some reasons why Jack’s opinion is wrong and after a few unsuccessful attempts at answering them, Jack petulantly retorts that he is entitled to his opinion.

The fallacy lies in Jack’s assumption that this retort is somehow a satisfactory reply to Jill’s objections, while, in fact, it is completely irrelevant.

Jack is just changing the subject to one of rights, not addressing the issue. Here is a simple way of putting it.

The fallacy lies in Jack’s assumption that this retort is somehow a satisfactory reply to Jill’s objections, while, in fact, it is completely irrelevant.

We consider our opinions to be sacred.

Many people seem to feel that their opinions are somehow sacred, so that everyone else is obliged to handle them with great care. When confronted with counterarguments, they do not pause and wonder if they might be wrong after all. They take offense.

So the next time someone says you have a right to your own opinion, mentally go back and see if they are addressing your argument or just changing the subject. If you really want to have fun, you can ask them what duties do rights impose on others?

Motives

When my sister was fifteen, she thought she had fat thighs. Occasionally, she would demand to know, “My thighs are fat, aren’t they?”

“No darling,” my parents would reply, “you have nice thighs; you’re a beautiful girl.”

Well, that confirmed it. “You’re just saying that!” was the constant refrain as my sister took our parents’ protestations to the contrary to confirm all her worst fears.

My sister was committing the Motive Fallacy. She thought that by exposing our parents’ motives for expressing an opinion— to make her feel better and shut her up— she had shown the opinion to be false. But she hadn’t. It is perfectly possible to have some interest in holding or expressing an opinion and for that opinion to be true. A man may stand to gain a great deal of peace and quiet from telling his wife that he loves her. But he may really love her nevertheless. It suits most to believe they are of better than average looks, and at least 44 percent of the 90 percent who believe this actually are. My sister’s legs were not fat. In other words, you don’t show someone’s opinion false just by showing that he has a motive for holding it.

This happens when billions of dollars are at risk too.

The motive fallacy is another way that we end a debate. You don’t actually refute the positions of the other person, you simply change the subject.

First, you are discussing some issue, such as whether my sister has fat thighs, and then, after the fallacy is committed, you find yourself talking about the motives of those involved in the discussion. Perhaps this is why the fallacy is so popular. It turns all discussions— be they about economic policy, religion, or thighs— into discussions about our alleged motives and inner drives.

Authority

The fallacy lies in confusing two quite different kinds of authority. There is the kind of authority your parents, football referees, and parking attendants have: the power to decide certain matters. For example, your parents have the power to decide when you will go to bed. Hence, in answer to the question “Why is 8:00 P.M. my bedtime?” the answer “Because I say so” is quite right; your parents are, quite literally, the authors of your bedtime. But it is not up to them whether or not Jesus was conceived without the help of sexual intercourse. Mary’s being a virgin at the time of Jesus’s birth is beyond the will of your parents, or indeed anybody else’s (with the possible exception of Jesus’s parents). So your father’s answer “Because I say so” is quite wrong when the question is “Why should I believe in the virgin birth?” The matter exceeds the scope of his parental authority.

Yet, there is another metaphorical sense of “authority” on which the answer “Because I say so” is sometimes reasonable, even when literal authority is absent, namely, the expert kind of authority. If someone is an expert on some subject (or an authority on the topic, as it is often put) then his opinion is likely to be true— or, at least, more likely to be true than the opinion of a non-expert. So, appealing to the opinion of such an authority— i.e., an expert— in support of your view is perfectly OK. It is indirect evidence for your opinion.

We can’t all be experts on everything. When laypeople sit around debating evolutionary biology, quantum physics, developmental economics, and the like, as the government’s reckless education policies mean they increasingly do, one of the best pieces of evidence likely to be put forward is simply “Because Nobel laureate Joe Bloggs says so.” …

The Authority Fallacy should now be clear. It occurs when the first literal type of authority, whereby someone has the power to make certain decisions, is confounded with the second metaphorical type, whereby someone is an expert and so likely to be right about some matter of fact.

Relating this to government and democracy, Whyte points out the power of the people also comes with the ability to make the wrong choices.

All democratic politicians agree that ultimate political authority lies with The People. On other matters they may disagree. One may think private schools an abomination, the other that the state should have no role in education. Each tries to convince the public that her view is right, knowing that popular opinion will decide the matter. But, “decide the matter” does not mean determine who is right. The People cannot do that; no one can by mere decision make a state monopoly on education superior to a private system, or vice versa. Public opinion decides the matter only insofar as it chooses which policy will be adopted. And the public is perfectly capable of choosing the inferior policy. If it were not, if popular opinion were invariably correct, then politicians would have no serious leadership role to play; government could be conducted by a combination of opinion pollsters and bureaucrats.

Spotting this fallacy is easy, simply ask yourself if the source offered up as an authority is indeed an expert on the matter in question. If not, ask them to explicitly walk you though the argument.

Crimes Against Logic goes on to introduce you to other logical fallacies that you and others use every day. If you’re interested in improving your own arguments and spotting errors in the arguments of others, this is a good starting place.

Marcus Aurelius: Debts and Lessons

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius has been read for 1800 or so years now and he’s arguably just as relevant today as he was when he was ruler of the Roman Empire.

Plato

Aurelius, the ruler of the Roman Empire for almost two decades, was also the author of the immortal Meditations. “Yet the title,” writes Gregory Hays in the introduction, “is one that Marcus himself would surely have rejected. He never thought of himself as a philosopher. He would have claimed to be, at best, a diligent student and a very imperfect practitioner of a philosophy developed by others.” Everyone who reads Meditations—from elementary school children to presidents—takes away some lessons. Be wary though, the book presents a dim view of human life.

To understand Meditations, we must first understand the role of philosophy in ancient life.

While there was certainly an academic side to philosophy back then it also had a more practical side expected to provide a design for living—”a set of rules to live one’s life by.” A need not met by ancient religion, “which privileged ritual over doctrine and provided little in the way of moral and ethical guidelines.” Philosophy was expected to fill the gap.

“The questions that Meditations tries to answer are metaphysical and ethical ones,” Hays writes. These are timeless questions that we are still asking. Why are we here? How can I cope with the stresses and pressures of daily life? How can I do what is right? How can I cope with loss and pain? How can I handle misfortune? How do we live when we know that one day we won’t?

Book one, a special section entitled Debts and Lessons, is “distinguished from the rest of the work by its autobiographical nature.” It consists of seventeen entries in which Aurelius reflects upon what he has learned from various influential individuals in his life.

Here are some lessons we can draw from book one.

Do Your Own Work

(From my first teacher): Not to support this side or that in chariot-racing, this fighter or that in the games. To put up with discomfort and not make demands. To do my own work, mind my own business, and have no time for slanderers.

Read Attentively

(From Rusticus) To read attentively-not to be satisfied with “just getting the gist of it.” And not fall for every smooth talker.

The Greatest Compliment

(From Sextus) … To show intuitive sympathy for friends, tolerance to amateurs and sloppy thinkers. His ability to get along with everyone: Sharing his company was the highest of compliments.

The Ruthlessness of Good Families

(From Fronto) … To recognize the malice, cunning, and hypocrisy that power produces, and the peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from “good families.”

Staying on the Path

(From Maximus) … The sense he gave of staying on the path rather than being kept on it.

From his adopted father, Aurelius learned:

Compassion. Unwavering adherence to decisions, once he’d reached them. Indifference to superficial honors. Hard work. Persistence. Listening to anyone who could contribute to the public good. His dogged determination to treat people as they deserved. A sense of when to push and when to back off. … His searching questions at meetings. A kind of single-mindedness, almost, never content with first impressions, or breaking off the discussion prematurely. His consistency to friends-never getting fed up with them or playing favorites. Self-reliance, always. And cheerfulness. And his advanced planning (well in advance) and his discreet attention to even minor things. His restrictions on acclamations-and all attempts to flatter him. … His stewardship of the treasury. His willingness to take responsibility—and blame—for both. … And his attitude to men: no demagoguery, no currying favor, no pandering. Always sober, always steady, and never vulgar or a prey to fads.

[...]

The way he kept public actions within reasonable bounds-games, building projects, distributions of money and so on-because he looked to what needed doing and not the credit to be gained from doing it.

[...]
You could have said of him (as they say of Socrates) that he knew how to enjoy and abstain from things that most people find it hard to abstain from and all too easy to enjoy. Strength, perseverance, self-control in both areas: the mark of a soul in readiness-indomitable.

Still curious? Meditations is part of the Stoic Reading List.

Henry Miller on Turning 80, Fighting Evil, And Why Life is the Best Teacher

Henry Miller On Turning Eighty

Only 200 copies of Henry Miller’s 1972 chapbook, On Turning Eighty, were ever printed; each hand-numbered and signed. How I ended up with copy 48 is a story for another day. The book contains 3 essays, one of which is on aging and living a fulfilling life. Learning life-lessons from some of the wisest people has long fascinated me. And Miller’s short essay is full of them.

Henry Miller Chapbook

Reflecting back on his many lessons he reframes success into the little things.

If at eighty you’re not a cripple or an invalid, if you have your health, if you still enjoy a good walk, a good meal (with all the trimmings), if you can sleep without first taking a pill, if birds and flowers, mountains and sea still inspire you, you are a most fortunate individual and you should get down on your knees morning and night and thank the good Lord for his savin’ and keepin’ power. If you are young in years but already weary in spirit, already on the way to becoming an automaton, it may do you good to say to your boss — under your breath, of course — “Fuck you, Jack! You don’t own me!” … If you can fall in love again and again, if you can forgive your parents for the crime of bringing you into the world, if you are content to get nowhere, just take each day as it comes, if you can forgive as well as forget, if you can keep from growing sour, surly, bitter and cynical, man you’ve got it half licked.

It’s the little things that matter, not fame, success, wealth.

He also colorfully comments on the fundamental nature of people and our relatively unchanging views on them.

Despite the knowledge of the world which comes from wide experience, despite the acquisition of a viable everyday philosophy, one can’t help but realize that the fools have become even more foolish and the bores more boring.

[...]

One thing seems more and more evident to me now — people’s basic character does not change over the years. … Far from improving them, success usually accentuates their faults or short-comings. The brilliant guys at school often turn out to be not so brilliant once they are out in the world. If you disliked or despised certain lads in your class you will dislike them even more when they become financiers, statesmen or five star generals. Life forces us to learn a few lessons, but not necessarily to grow.

In a passage that reminds me of Alan Watts, Miller praises living in the here and now and reflects on the cheerfulness of old age.

The future of the world is something for philosophers and visionaries to ponder on. All we ever really have is the present, but very few of us ever live it. I an neither a pessimist nor an optimist. To me the world is neither this nor that, but all things at once, and to each according to his vision.

Marcus Aurelius

At eighty I believe I am a far more cheerful person than I was at twenty or thirty. I most definitely would not want to be a teenager again. Youth may be glorious, but it is also painful to endure. Moreover, what is called youth is not youth in my opinion, it is rather something like premature old age.

I was cursed or blessed with a prolonged adolescence; I arrived at some seeming maturity when I was past thirty. It was only in my forties that I really began to feel young. By then I was ready for it. (Picasso once said: “One starts to get young at the age of sixty, and then it’s too late.”) By this time I had lost many illusions, but fortunately not my enthusiasm, nor the joy of living, nor my unquenchable curiosity. Perhaps it was this curiosity—about anything and everything—that made me the writer I am. It has never left me. Even the worst bore can elicit my interest, if I am in the mood to listen.

With this attribute goes another which I prize above everything else, and that is the sense of wonder. No matter how restricted my world may become I cannot imagine it leaving me void of wonder. In a sense I suppose it might be called my religion. I do not ask how it came about, this creation in which we swim, but only to enjoy and appreciate it.

Henry Miller

Reflecting on the value of learning from idiots, Miller writes that life is the ultimate teacher.

I think the teacher (with a capital T) ranks with the sage and the seer. It is our misfortune not to be able to breed such animals. What is called education is to me utter nonsense and detrimental to growth. Despite all the social and political upheavals we have been through the authorized educational methods throughout the civilized world remain, in my mind at least, archaic and stultifying. They help to perpetuate the ills which cripple us. William Blake said: “The tigers of wrath are wider than the horses of instruction.” I learned nothing of value at school. I don’t believe I could pass a grammar school test on any subject even today. I learned more from idiots and nobodies than from professors of this and that. Life is the teacher, not the Board of Education.

Part of living in the present is an Epicurean desire for enjoyment and making a conscious choice, in old age, to not know certain ills.

I don’t believe in health foods or diets either. I have probably been eating all of the wrong things all of my life — and I have thrived on it. I eat to enjoy my food. Whatever I do I do first for enjoyment. I don’t believe in regular check-ups. If there is something wrong with me, I’d rather not know about it, because then I could only worry about it and aggravate the condition. Nature often remedies our ills better than the doctor can. I don’t believe there is a prescription for a long life. Besides, who wants to live to be a hundred? What’s the point of it? A short life and a merry one is far better than a long life sustained by fear, caution and perpetual medical surveillance. With all the progress medicine has made over the years we still have a pantheon of incurable diseases. The germs and microbes seem to have the last word always. When all else fails the surgeon steps in, cuts us to pieces, and clears us out of our last penny. And that’s progress for you.

The best part about growing old is the sense of context that allows you to really learn what is truly important.

Perhaps the most comforting thing about growing old gracefully is the increasing ability not to take things too seriously. One of the big differences between a genuine sage and a preacher is gayety. When the sage laughs it is a belly laugh; when the preacher laughs, which is all too seldom, it is on the wrong side of the face. …

With advancing age my ideals, which I usually deny possessing, have definitely altered. My ideal is to be free of ideals, free of principles, free of isms and ideologies. I want to take to the ocean of life like a fish takes to the sea. As a young man I was greatly concerned about the state of the world, today, though I still rant and rave, I am content simply to deplore the state of affairs. It may sound smug to speak thus but in reality it means that I have become more humble, more aware of my limitations and those of my fellow man. I no longer try to convert people to my view of things, nor to heal them. Neither do I feel superior because they appear to be lacking in intelligence.

He continues with perhaps my favorite passage …

One can fight evil but against stupidity one is helpless. … I have accepted the fact, hard as it may be, that human beings are inclined to behave in ways that would make animals blush. The ironic, the tragic thing is that we often behave in ignoble fashion from what we consider the highest motives. The animal makes no excuse for killing his prey; the human animal, on the other hand, can invoke God’s blessing when massacring his fellow men. He forgets that God is not on his side but at his side.

On Turning Eighty, is a wonderfully fascinating read on the perspective that 80 years gives you.

21 of Bill Clinton’s Favorite Books

Bill Clinton

I’m always curious to see what other people are reading. It’s one of the ways I figure out what to read next. This list, from 1993, of Bill Clinton’s 21 favorite books is worth a look. Certainly not what I expected.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
Of this book, James Baldwin said: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings liberates the reader into life simply because Maya Angelou confronts her own life with such a moving wonder, such a luminous dignity.”

Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
A book from the Stoic reading list. Aurelius has been relevant for over 1800 years, and I bet he’ll still be relevant in another 1800.

The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker
Examining the meaning of human existence, this book won the Pulitzer prize in 1974. “In bold contrast to the predominant Freudian school of thought, Becker tackles the problem of the vital lie — man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality. In doing so, he sheds new light on the nature of humanity and issues a call to life and its living that still resonates more than twenty years after its writing.”

Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963, Taylor Branch
The story of the American civil rights movement.

Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton
He’s not biased at all, nope.

Lincoln, David Herbert Donald
What’s a President without a favorite Lincoln book. You could do a lot worse than this portrait of Abraham Lincoln’s life by Pulitzer Prize–winning author David Herbert Donald.

The Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot
The “culminating achievement” by a man considered to be one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century.

Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison
A book about race in America, to be sure, but more than that it’s a book about the “human race stumbling down the path to identity, challenged and successful to varying degrees.” The world, in all of its complexities is a tricky place, and few realize this more than the invisible man, who leaves us with these words: “And it is this which frightens me: Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilizations to the Eve of the Twenty-First Century, David Fromkin
Gregory McNamee summed it up best: “Historians and philosophers of history have long debated whether the human story is one of constant improvement and progress, or whether history is instead a wheel that leads us again and again to the same place–the same choices, the same errors. … David Fromkin is an unabashed partisan of the first school. In his view, the logic of history leads to “the only civilization still surviving, the scientific one of the modern world,” the civilization of capitalism and technology.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
With One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel García Márquez unleashed Latin American literature to a world-wide audience.

The Cure at Troy: A Version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Seamus Heaney
“Seamus Heaney’s version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Written in the fifth century BC, this play concerns the predicament of the outcast hero, Philoctetes, whom the Greeks marooned on the island of Lemnos and forgot about until the closing stages of the Siege of Troy. Abandoned because of a wounded foot, Philoctetes nevertheless possesses an invincible bow without which the Greeks cannot win the Trojan War. They are forced to return to Lemnos and seek out Philoctetes’ support in a drama that explores the conflict between personal integrity and political expediency.”

King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa, Adam Hochschild
“Hochschild’s superb, engrossing chronicle focuses on one of the great, horrifying and nearly forgotten crimes of the century: greedy Belgian King Leopold II’s rape of the Congo, the vast colony he seized as his private fiefdom in 1885,” wrote Publisher’s Weekly.

The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis
“This classic has drawn thousands of readers down the ages, including Henry VIII’s chancellor Thomas More, John Wesley, Irish patriot Daniel O’Connell and St Ignatius of Loyola, who reputedly would offer the book as a gift to acquaintances.” — Kirkus

Homage to Catalonia, George Orwell
Orwell went to Spain in 1936 to report on the Civil War and instead joined the fight against the Fascists. This book describes the war as witnessed by Orwell.

The Evolution of Civilizations: An Introduction to Historical Analysis, Carroll Quigley
“A comprehensive and perceptive look at the factors behind the rise and fall of civilizations.”

Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, Reinhold Niebuhr
A continually relevant study in ethics and politics, the book was Niebuhr’s break from “progressive religion and politics toward a more deeply tragic view of human nature and history.”

The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron
“Magnificent…It is one of those rare books that show us our American past, our present – ourselves – is a dazzling shaft of light…A triumph” — New York Times

Politics as a Vocation, Max Weber
A book that clearly resonated with Clinton and one he could likely add more than a few chapters to.

You Can’t Go Home Again, Thomas Wolfe
A portrait of America and Europe from the Great Depression to the years leading up to WWII through the story of a young writer trying to make his mark on the world.

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright
This is the second time this book comes recommended. In my interview with Samuel Arbesman, he called this book “a wonderful exploration of how the world has become more complicated and better over time, improving each of our lives.”

The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats, William Butler Yeats
All of the poems authorized by Yeats for inclusion in his standard canon.

Richard Feynman’s Letter on What Problems to Solve

"The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to."
“No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”

In a letter dated February 3rd, 1966, included in the wonderful anthology Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, Feynman timelessly describes “worthwhile problems.” We tend to think of these problems as the big ones, though they need not be.

The letter, is part of a chain of communication that started with a former student, Koichi Manom, who had written to extend his congratulations. Feynman asked him what he was doing. Koichi responded: “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere … a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.”

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depend on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.

Sincerely,

Richard P. Feynman.