Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

The Organized Mind

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, a book by Daniel Levitin, explores “how humans have coped with information and organization from the beginning of civilization. … It’s also the story of how the most successful members of society—from successful artists, athletes, and warriors, to business executives and highly credentialed professionals—have learned to maximize their creativity, and efficiency, by organizing their lives so that they spend less time on the mundane, and more time on the inspiring, comforting, and rewarding things in life.”

Memory

Memory is fallible. More than just remembering things wrongly, “we don’t even know we’re remembering them wrongly.”

The first humans who figured out how to write things down around 5,000 years ago were in essence trying to increase the capacity of their hippocampus, part of the brain’s memory system. They effectively extended the natural limits of human memory by preserving some of their memories on clay tablets and cave walls, and later, papyrus and parchment. Later, we developed other mechanisms —such as calendars, filing cabinets, computers, and smartphones— to help us organize and store the information we’ve written down. When our computer or smartphone starts to run slowly, we might buy a larger memory card. That memory is both a metaphor and a physical reality. We are off-loading a great deal of the processing that our neurons would normally do to an external device that then becomes an extension of our own brains, a neural enhancer.

These external memory mechanisms are generally of two types, either following the brain’s own organizational system or reinventing it, sometimes overcoming its limitations. Knowing which is which can enhance the way we use these systems, and so improve our ability to cope with information overload.

And once memory became external (written down and stored) our attention systems “were freed up to focus on something else.”

But we need a place (and a system) to organize all of this information.

The indexing problem is that there are several possibilities about where you store this report, based on your needs: It could be stored with other writings about plants, or with writings about family history, or with writings about cooking, or with writings about how to poison an enemy.

This brings us to two aspects of the human brain that are not given their due: richness and associative access.

Richness refers to the theory that a large number of the things you’ve ever thought or experienced are still in there, somewhere. Associative access means that your thoughts can be accessed in a number of different ways by semantic or perceptual associations— memories can be triggered by related words , by category names, by a smell, an old song or photograph, or even seemingly random neural firings that bring them up to consciousness.

Being able to access any memory regardless of where it is stored is what computer scientists call random access. DVDs and hard drives work this way; videotapes do not. You can jump to any spot in a movie on a DVD or hard drive by “pointing” at it. But to get to a particular point in a videotape, you need to go through every previous point first (sequential access). Our ability to randomly access our memory from multiple cues is especially powerful. Computer scientists call it relational memory. You may have heard of relational databases— that’s effectively what human memory is.

[…]

Having relational memory means that if I want to get you to think of a fire truck, I can induce the memory in many different ways. I might make the sound of a siren, or give you a verbal description (“ a large red truck with ladders on the side that typically responds to a certain kind of emergency”).

We categorize objects in a seemingly infinite number of ways. Each of those ways “has its own route to the neural node that represents fire truck in your brain.” Take a look at one way we can think of a firetruck.

Firetruck

Thinking about one memory or association activates more. This can be both a strength and a weakness.

If you are trying to retrieve a particular memory, the flood of activations can cause competition among different nodes, leaving you with a traffic jam of neural nodes trying to get through to consciousness, and you end up with nothing.

Organizing our Lives

The ancients Greeks came up with memory palaces and the method of loci to improve memory. The Egyptians became experts at externalizing information, inventing perhaps the biggest pre-google repository of knowledge, the library.

We don’t know why these simultaneous explosions of intellectual activity occurred when they did (perhaps daily human experience had hit a certain level of complexity). But the human need to organize our lives, our environment, even our thoughts, remains strong. This need isn’t simply learned, it is a biological imperative— animals organize their environments instinctively.

But the odd thing about the mind is that it doesn’t, on its own, organize things the way you might want it to. It’s largely an unconscious process.

It comes preconfigured, and although it has enormous flexibility, it is built on a system that evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to deal with different kinds and different amounts of information than we have today. To be more specific: The brain isn’t organized the way you might set up your home office or bathroom medicine cabinet. You can’t just put things anywhere you want to. The evolved architecture of the brain is haphazard and disjointed, and incorporates multiple systems, each of which has a mind of its own (so to speak). Evolution doesn’t design things and it doesn’t build systems— it settles on systems that, historically, conveyed a survival benefit (and if a better way comes along, it will adopt that). There is no overarching, grand planner engineering the systems so that they work harmoniously together. The brain is more like a big, old house with piecemeal renovations done on every floor, and less like new construction.

Consider this, then, as an analogy: You have an old house and everything is a bit outdated, but you’re satisfied. You add a room air conditioner during one particularly hot summer. A few years later, when you have more money, you decide to add a central air-conditioning system. But you don’t remove that room unit in the bedroom— why would you ? It might come in handy and it’s already there, bolted to the wall. Then a few years later, you have a catastrophic plumbing problem—pipes burst in the walls. The plumbers need to break open the walls and run new pipes, but your central air-conditioning system is now in the way, where some of their pipes would ideally go. So they run the pipes through the attic, the long way around. This works fine until one particularly cold winter when your uninsulated attic causes your pipes to freeze. These pipes wouldn’t have frozen if you had run them through the walls, which you couldn’t do because of the central air-conditioning. If you had planned all this from the start, you would have done things differently, but you didn’t— you added things one thing at a time, as and when you needed them.

Or you can use Sherlock Holmes’ analogy of a memory attic. As Holmes tells Watson, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as your choose.”

Levitin argues that we should learn “how our brain organizes information so that we can use what we have, rather than fight against it.” We do this primarily through the key processes of encoding and retrieval.

(Our brains are) built as a hodgepodge of different systems, each one solving a particular adaptive problem. Occasionally they work together, occasionally they’re in conflict, and occasionally they aren’t even talking to one another. Two of the key ways that we can control and improve the process are to pay special attention to the way we enter information into our memory— encoding—and the way we pull it out— retrieval.

We’re busier than ever. That’s not to say that it’s information overload, as there are arguments to why that doesn’t exist. Our internal to-do list is never satisfied. We’re overwhelmed with things disguised as wisdom or even information and we’re forced to sort through the nonsense. Levitin implies that one consequence to this approach is that we’re losing things. Our keys. Our driver’s licenses. Our iPhone. And it’s not just physical things. “we also forget things we were supposed to remember, important things like the password to our e-mail or a website, the PIN for our cash cards— the cognitive equivalent of losing our keys.”

These are important and hard to replace things.

We don’t tend to have general memory failures; we have specific, temporary memory failures for one or two things. During those frantic few minutes when you’re searching for your lost keys, you (probably) still remember your name and address, where your television set is, and what you had for breakfast —it’s just this one memory that has been aggravatingly lost. There is evidence that some things are typically lost far more often than others: We tend to lose our car keys but not our car, we lose our wallet or cell phone more often than the stapler on our desk or soup spoons in the kitchen, we lose track of coats and sweaters and shoes more often than pants. Understanding how the brain’s attentional and memory systems interact can go a long way toward minimizing memory lapses.

These simple facts about the kinds of things we tend to lose and those that we don’t can tell us a lot about how our brains work, and a lot about why things go wrong.

The way this works is fascinating. Levitin also hits on a topic that has long interested me. “Companies,” he writes, “are like expanded brains, with individual workers functioning something like neurons.”

Companies tend to be collections of individuals united to a common set of goals, with each worker performing a specialized function. Businesses typically do better than individuals at day-to-day tasks because of distributed processing. In a large business, there is a department for paying bills on time (accounts payable), and another for keeping track of keys (physical plant or security). Although the individual workers are fallible, systems and redundancies are usually in place, or should be, to ensure that no one person’s momentary distraction or lack of organization brings everything to a grinding halt. Of course, business organizations are not always prefectly organized, and occasionally, through the same cognitive blocks that cause us to lose our car keys, businesses lose things, too— profits, clients, competitive positions in the marketplace.

In today’s world it’s hard to keep up. We have pin numbers, phone numbers, email addresses, multiple to-do lists, small physical objects to keep track of, kids to pick up, books to read, videos to watch, nearly infinite websites to browse, and so on. Most of us, however, are still largely using the systems to organize and maintain this knowledge that were put into place in a less informatic time.

The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload shows us how to organize our time better, “not just so we can be more efficient but so we can find more time for fun, for play, for meaningful relationships, and for creativity.”

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.

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.

Henry Miller on Friendship

Henry Miller Chapbook

Shortly after his 80th birthday, Henry Miller wrote an essay on aging. More of a treatise on living life, it was published in 1972 in a chapbook titled On Turning Eighty. Only 200 copies of the book were ever made, with each signed and numbered by the author.

In one section, Miller comments on the complicated relationship between aging and friendship.

What most people fear when they think of old age is the inability to make new friends. If one ever had the faculty of making friends one never loses it however old one grows. Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer. I have never had any trouble making friends, in fact, it has sometimes been a hindrance, this facility for making friends. There is an adage which says that one may judge a man by the company he keeps. I often wonder about the truth of this. All of my life I have been friends with individuals belonging to vastly different worlds. I have had, and still have, friends who are nobodies, and I must confess they are among my best friends. I have been friends with criminals and with the despised rich. It is my friends who have kept me alive, who have given me the courage to continue, and who have also often bored me to tears. The one thing I have insisted on with all of my friends, regardless of class or station in life, is to be able to speak truthfully. If I cannot be open and frank with a friend, or he with me, I drop him.

On love and friendship, Miller writes:

The ability to be friends with a woman, particularly the woman you love, is to me the greatest achievement. Love and friendship seldom go together. … In all of my life I have known only a few couples who were friends as well as lovers.

Although the most expensive book I’ve ever purchased, On Turning Eighty, was a wonderfully fascinating read.

12 Books Every Investor Should Read

philip-fisher-common-stocks-uncommon-profits

If you’re looking for something to read that will improve your ability as an investor, I’d recommend any of the books below. All 12 of them are deeply informative and will leave an impact on you.

1. The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham
Described as “by far the best book on investing ever written” by none other than Warren Buffett. “Chapters 8 and 20 have been the bedrock of my investing activities for more than 60 years,” he says. “I suggest that all investors read those chapters and reread them every time the market has been especially strong or weak.”

2. The Little Book that Beats the Market by Joel Greenblatt
As Buffett says, investing is simple but not easy. This book focuses on the simplicity of investing. Greenblatt, who has average annualized returns of about 40% for over 20 years, explains investing using 6th grade math and plain language. Putting it into practice is another story.

3. Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb
The core of Taleb’s other books — The Black Swan and Antifragile — can be found in this early work. One of the best parts, for me, was the notion of alternative histories. “Mother Nature,” he writes, “does not tell you how many holes there are on the roulette table.” This book teaches you how to look at the world probabilistically. After you start doing that, nothing is ever the same again.

4. The Most Important Thing by Howard Marks
“This is a rarity,” Buffett writes of Howard Marks’ book, “a useful book.” More than teaching you the keys to successful investment, it will teach you about critical thinking.

5. Poor Charlie’s Almanack by Charlie Munger
Charlie Munger is perhaps the smartest man I don’t know. This book is a curated collection of his speeches and talks that can’t help but leave you smarter. Munger’s wit and wisdom come across on every page. This book will improve your thinking and decisions. It will also shine light upon psychological forces that make you a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest. Read and re-read.

6. Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits by Philip Fisher
Buffett used to say that he was 85% Benjamin Graham and 15% Phil Fisher. That was a long time ago, the Buffett of today resembles more Fisher than Graham. Maybe there is something to buying and holding great companies.

7. The Dao of Capital by Mark Spitznagel
Spitznagel presents the methodology of Austrian Investing, where one looks for positional advantage. Nassim Taleb, commenting on the book wrote: “At last, a real book by a real risk-taking practitioner. You cannot afford not to read this!”

8. Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist by Roger Lowenstein
This book, perhaps more than any other, has changed the lives of many of my friends and investors because this is how many of them first discovered Warren Buffett and value investing.

9. The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success
An outstanding book detailing eight extraordinary CEO’s and the unconventional methods they used for capital allocation. One of them, Henry Singleton, had a unique view on strategic planning.

10. The Misbehavior of Markets: A Fractal View of Financial Turbulence by Benoit Mandelbrot
A critique of modern finance theory, which usually gets built on the underlying assumption that distributions are normal. Nassim Taleb calls this “the most realistic finance book ever published.”

11. Why Stocks Go Up (and Down) by William Pike
This is a basics book on the fundamentals of equity and bond investing – financial statements, cash flows, etc. A good place to start on the nuts and bolts. If you’re looking to learn accounting also check out The Accounting Game: Basic Accounting Fresh from the Lemonade Stand, I’m serious. This is the book I recommended to classmates in business school with no accounting background to get them up to speed quickly.

12. Bull: A History of the Boom and Bust, 1982-2004 by Maggie Mahar
The first and perhaps best book written on the market’s historic run, which started in 1982 and ended in the early 2000s. Mahar reminds readers that euphoria and blindness are a regular part of bull markets – lessons we should have learned from studying history.

Keep in mind that if investing were as easy as buying a book and reading it, we’d all be rich.

Alan Watts: Why Modern Civilization is a Vicious Circle

Alan Watts The Wisdom of Insecurity

“When we compare human with animal desire,” writes philosopher Alan Watts in The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety, “we find many extraordinary differences.” Watts offers an interesting perspective on an age-old argument — that our society has its priorities messed up, that we need to live in the moment.

The animal tends to eat with its stomach, and the man with his brain. When the animal’s stomach is full, he stops eating, but the man is never sure when to stop. When he has eaten as much as his belly can take, he still feels empty, he still feels an urge for further gratification. This is largely due to anxiety, to the knowledge that a constant supply of food is uncertain. Therefore eat as much as you can while you can. It is due, also, to the knowledge that, in an insecure world pleasure is uncertain. Therefore the immediate pleasure of eating must be exploited to the full, even though it does violence to the digestion.

Human desire tends to be insatiable. We are so anxious for pleasure that we can never get enough of it. We stimulate our sense organs until they become insensitive, so that if pleasure is to continue they must have stronger and stronger stimulants. In self-defence the body gets ill from the strain, but the body wants to go on and on. The brain is in pursuit of happiness, and because the brain is much more concerned about the future than the present it conceives happiness as the guarantee of an indefinitely long future of pleasures. Yet the brain also knows that it does not have an indefinitely long future, so that, to be happy, it must try to crowd all of the pleasures of paradise and eternity into the span of a few years.

This is why modern civilization is in almost every respect a vicious circle.

The root of this frustration is that we live for the future. Yet the future is never, as we move forward it becomes the present.

To pursue (the future) is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.

Thus the “brainy” economy designed to produce this happiness is a fantastic vicious circle which must either manufacture more and more pleasures or collapse-providing a constant titillation of the ears, eyes, and nerve ends with incessant streams of almost inescapable noise and visual distractions.

Watts argues that one of the ills of modern society is that we believe sleep to be a waste of time, that life is short. Interestingly, we’d rather watch TV and chase our fantasies than rest.

Animals spend much of their time dozing and idling pleasantly, but, because life is short, human beings must cram into the years the highest possible amount of consciousness, alertness, and chronic insomnia so as to be sure not to miss the last fragment of startling pleasure.

Our quest for never-ending stimulation comes with a high cost. We become “incapable of real pleasure, insensitive to the most acute and subtle joys of life.” The more common the pleasure the less it interests us. We’d rather watch TV.

Watts tears into our wants and makes us question our desires.

Generally speaking, the civilized man does not know what he wants. He works for success, fame, a happy marriage, fun, to help other people, or to become a “real person.” But these are not real wants because they are not actual things. They are the by-products, the flavours and atmospheres of real things-shadows which have no existence apart from some substance. Money is the perfect symbol of all such desires, being a mere symbol of real wealth, and to make it one’s goal is the most blatant example of confusing measurements with reality.

Based on this we cannot, says Watts, call ourselves materialistic. We are in love with not things, but “measures, not solids but surfaces.”

The Wisdom of Insecurity: A Message for an Age of Anxiety is one of those books that makes you question not only yourself but the fabric of civilization.

Two Forms of Human Motivation: Gain And Prevent Pain

Prevent Pain Task Examples

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” — Mark Twain

Popular psychology leads us to believe that we can unpack motivation in two broad categories: to gain something or to prevent the loss of something. Each time we do something, from washing the dishes to spending money, it is for one of those reasons.

Steve McClatchy argues in his fascinating book Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example that this applies to business as well.

Ask yourself: Is the purpose of your weekly meeting to identify new target clients or figure out how to improve the process of taking new orders? Or do you use it to go over meeting protocols and talk about employee lateness or inventory status? Is it a Gain meeting that will move your business forward, or is it a Prevent Pain meeting that will simply keep you from falling behind?

These two factors push us to make decisions. While sometimes they act together there is always one in the lead role.

“Tasks that you are driven toward by Gain produce more significant positive results in your life and your business than tasks that you are driven toward by Prevent Pain.”



When we are doing something to gain, we are focusing on something we want – we are not worried about losing something. We are trying to make things better. On the other hand, when you do something to prevent pain, you’re doing something you have to do, like laundry. This is unfulfilling. We do it because we want clean clothes not because we intrinsically enjoy it.

Preventing pain tasks never go away. There is always something to do that doesn’t advance our life forward but only maintains where we are. While we cross these things off a list, they come back tomorrow and the next day. The more our days are filled with this checkboxing the more we feel run down. And if we don’t do it, someone will bring it to our attention — even if that someone is ourselves. McClatchy argues that these preventing pain tasks are “have to” tasks.

[L]et’s say someone is waiting for you to complete a task. If you don’t do it, the person waiting will eventually catch you at the elevator, call you on the phone, send you an e-mail, stop you in the hall, send a reminder in the mail, or come knocking on your door and say, “Hey, did you ever get a chance to…?” Whether it’s a manager, colleague, client, family member, neighbor, roommate, bill collector, or someone else, that person will want to know if you did what you were supposed to do. That is the nature of a “have to,” or Prevent Pain, task. The pain that you should have prevented will visit you eventually if you don’t complete it.

One of the best ways to distinguish under which category something falls is to ask yourself if you have to do it.

“There is no “have to” with a Gain task, because there are no consequences if you choose not to pursue Gain in your life.”



Paradoxically, the very things we don’t have to do are the very things that lead to positive results in life.

If you continue to do solely what is necessary to survive every day, all you will accomplish is preventing pain from coming your way. To move your life or your business forward from where it is today and to see an improvement, you must do something extraordinary— something that you didn’t have to do at all. You must pursue Gain.

There are three attributes to a gain task:
1. A gain task is never urgent;
2. You don’t have to complete a gain; and
3. You can’t delegate it to anyone else.

Burnout, McClatchy writes, is caused “when people feel that they have been working too hard for too long and have nothing to show for it.” That is, they are doing too much preventing pain and not enough gain.

Not understanding how this moves us to be out of balance, companies often resort to perks to promote efficiency. Rarely, however, is this new time used towards Gain-oriented tasks. Instead, we often find ourselves with more time to prevent pain.

Although many companies do their best by offering perks such as a flexible work schedule, child care, or financial services, these things can only help you manage life more efficiently. They can’t give your life direction, momentum, or balance.

The very efficiency of these perks only adds to the office culture, which has “become a race to complete our to-do list and meet expectations.” McClatchy argues that what’s lost in all of this is balance.

The idea of work-life balance is inherently combative. It suggests a discord between two vital parts of life: work being what we have to do, and life being what we want to do . It suggests that these are two opposing forces between which we must constantly make choices— and that when we choose to give time or thought to one, the other loses. This constant battle between work and personal pursuits puts one in a perpetual state of conflict; furthermore, it suggests that personal and professional goals are out of alignment or mutually exclusive and that achieving both is therefore unattainable.

The Japanese word for death by overwork is karoshi.



In response to the balance crisis McClatchy proposes gain.

Goals are the ticket out of any sense of depression. They improve and offset the losses or decay in our lives so we don’t end up in a rut. They alleviate that feeling that you have worked hard and accomplished nothing. When you are working toward Gain, you end the day feeling like you have made progress and are moving forward. And the momentum you’ve created makes you feel balanced and energized— like today is better than yesterday, like you are better than you were yesterday. It gives hope for the future. It lets us sleep at night knowing that because we are working hard, things are getting better all the time. That sounds like balance. That sounds like satisfaction and happiness to me.

“You rarely have time for everything you want in this life, so you need to make choices. And hopefully your choices can come from a deep sense of who you are.” — Fred Rogers



Modern prioritizing models fall into the urgency trap.

… [T]he letters A, B, and C have traditionally represented the urgency or the deadline that a task has. A task that’s due immediately or today is assigned an A. Tasks that are due soon get a B, and a C is due next week or maybe next month, something you eventually have to complete. So really, all you need to do to turn a C into an A using this approach is to procrastinate long enough. Don’t do it now; just wait.

[...]

This method of prioritizing makes a task’s life cycle look something like this:

That’s due in a month? Oh, that is so a C. I’ve got 30 days. I won’t forget; it’s important, but I have a whole month, so I’m not looking at that now …

That’s due next week, isn’t it? Okay, let’s make that a B. I’ll put that on my radar screen. I can’t let that fall through the cracks; it’s coming up next week. That’s huge. Okay, that’s a B, but I have other things, I have As to work on today, so that will have to wait …

That’s due today ?! What happened? Okay, that is my biggest A today! I need to drop everything else to get it done— this is a four-alarm fire! I need to finish this right now!

Every possible task, no matter how trivial could become an A in this approach. And when everything can be the top priority, we have trouble distinguishing between what is truly important and what isn’t.

Explaining why “prioritizing in relation to urgency doesn’t work,” McClatchy tells the following story:

Let’s say you have a Monday morning trash pickup in your neighborhood. On Sunday night, when you are very comfortable, relaxing at home with your family, is getting up to take out the trash an A, B, or C? For most people it’s a C. If you forget to do it before you go to bed, then it becomes a B on Monday morning. You still have a few hours before they come! What about when you hear the trash truck coming down the street? It’s A time now, baby! Urgency has forced you to run to the street, yelling after the truck with the trash collectors cheering you on to throw your bag into the back before the truck turns the corner. You made it! Woo-hoo! What an accomplishment. Didn’t it feel great? Congratulations, you have just taken out the trash. And according to that task’s deadline, you have just checked off an A on your list for today. You should feel good all day about that one. However, what did you really accomplish ? Not much; you really only took out the trash. And guess what? The bag inside is already filling up for next week.

“The things that will bring you the greatest results in your life don’t have a deadline.”



Another way to prioritize is to ask what results will this task produce in my life? Flip it around.

A, B, and C should represent the results that a task produces for you personally after you’ve completed it. So an A represents your Gain tasks, the most significant result-producing tasks that you will ever accomplish or experience in your life. They are based on results, not deadlines. When you look back on your life on your 100th birthday, you will remember your A tasks.

Both B and C are “have to,” or Prevent Pain, tasks that someone— or something—will bring to your attention if you don’t do them. Both can have urgency attached to them, but here’s the difference: someone, somewhere is keeping track of if and when you complete a B task. In other words, you not only have to complete a B, but you have to do it well or on time because it is being documented. For example, handing in your monthly report at work is a B; people will notice whether or not you did it on time. … In contrast, no one is keeping track of how well you complete a C task. Anyone who would keep track of how well you take out the trash or check your e-mail has too much time on his hands.

The old maxim that “whatever gets measured, gets done” has been attributed to many different authors and thinkers over the years. It essentially means that if you are in a management position and you want your employees to complete something, then you need to measure it, track it, require that it be done by a certain time, and then record performance surrounding it. In other words, if you communicate standards clearly, then they will be reached. This is true as long as what’s measured makes sense. But another maxim, which has been attributed to Albert Einstein, goes like this: “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” This should speak to organizations as they determine what they need to measure and record and as they set metrics accordingly. However, as far as prioritizing is concerned, once the metric has been set, the task becomes a B for everyone who needs to follow it, because it is recorded and it affects performance ratings.

Balanced to do list

Decide: Work Smarter, Reduce Your Stress, and Lead by Example goes on to break gain into creation versus consumption and offer insights into how we can reshape our decisions around how we manage our time.