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Charlie Munger on Getting Rich, Wisdom, Focus, Fake Knowledge and More

“In the chronicles of American financial history,” writes David Clark in Tao of Charlie Munger: A Compilation of Quotes from Berkshire Hathaway's Vice Chairman on Life, Business, and the Pursuit of Wealth, “Charlie Munger will be seen as the proverbial enigma wrapped in a paradox— he is both a mystery and a contradiction at the same time.”

On one hand, Munger received an elite education and it shows: He went to Cal Tech to train as a meteorologist for the Second World War and then attended Harvard Law School and eventually opened his own law firm. That part of his success makes sense.

Yet here's a man who never took a single course in economics, business, marketing, finance, psychology or accounting, and managed to become one of the greatest, most admired, and most honorable businessmen of our age, noted by essentially all observers for the originality of his thoughts, especially about business and human behavior. You don't learn that in law school, at Harvard or anywhere else.

Bill Gates said of him: “He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered.” His business partner Warren Buffett put it another way: “He comes equipped for rationality…I would say that to try and typecast Charlie in terms of any other human that I can think of, no one would fit. He's got his own mold.”

How does such an extreme result happen? How is such an original and unduly capable mind formed? In the case of Munger, it's clearly a combination of unusual genetics and an unusual approach to learning and life.

While we can't have his genetics, we can try to steal his approach to rationality. There's almost no limit to the amount one could learn from studying the Munger mind, so let's at least get started by running down some of his best ideas.

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Wisdom and Circle of Competence

“Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”
“Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”

Identify your circle of competence and use your knowledge, when possible, to stay away from things you don't understand. There are no points for difficulty at work or in life.  Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

Of course this relates to another of Munger's sayings, “People are trying to be smart—all I am trying to do is not to be idiotic, but it’s harder than most people think.”

And this reminds me of perhaps my favorite Mungerism of all time, the very quote that sits right beside my desk:

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

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Divergence

“Mimicking the herd, invites regression to the mean.”

Here's a simple axiom to live by: If you do what everyone else does, you're going to get the same result that everyone else gets. This means, taking out luck (good or bad), if you act average, you're going to be average. If you want to move away from average, you must diverge. You must be different. And if you want to outperform, you must be different and correct. As Munger would say, “How could it be otherwise?”

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Know When to Fold Em

“Life, in part, is like a poker game, wherein you have to learn to quit sometimes when holding a much-loved hand— you must learn to handle mistakes and new facts that change the odds.”

Mistakes are an opportunity to grow. How we handle adversity is up to us. This is how we become personally antifragile.

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False Models

Echoing Einstein, who said that “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” Munger said about his and Buffett's shift to acquiring high quality businesses for Berkshire Hathaway:

“Once we’d gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better businesses.”

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Being Lazy

“Sit on your ass. You’re paying less to brokers, you’re listening to less nonsense, and if it works, the tax system gives you an extra one, two, or three percentage points per annum.”

Time is the friend to a good business and the enemy of the poor business. It's also the friend of knowledge and the enemy of the new and novel. As Seneca said “Time discovers truth.”

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Investing is a Pari-mutual System

You’re looking for a mispriced gamble,” says Munger. “That’s what investing is. And you have to know enough to know whether the gamble is mispriced. That’s value investing.”  At another time he added: “You should remember that good ideas are rare— when the odds are greatly in your favor, bet heavily.

May the odds forever be in your favor. Actually, learning properly is one way you can tilt the odds in your favor.

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Focus

When asked about his success, Munger says, “I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”

Long attention spans allow for a deep understanding of subjects. When combined with deliberate practice focus allows you to increase your skills and get out of your rut. The Art of Focus is a divergent and correct strategy that can help you identify where the leverage points are and apply your effort toward them.

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Fake Knowledge

“Smart people aren’t exempt from professional disasters from overconfidence.”

We're so used to outsourcing our thinking to others that we've forgotten what it's like to really understand something from all perspectives. We've forgotten just how much work that takes. The path of least resistance, however, is just a click away. Fake knowledge, which comes from reading headlines and skimming the news seems harmless, but it's not because it makes us overconfident. It's better to remember a simple trick: anything you're getting easily through google or twitter is likely to be widely known and should not be given undue weight.

However, Munger adds, “If people weren’t wrong so often, we wouldn’t be so rich.

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Sit Quietly

Echoing Pascal, who said some version of ‘All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,' Munger adds an investing twist:  “It’s waiting that helps you as an investor, and a lot of people just can’t stand to wait.”

The ability to be alone with your thoughts, and turn ideas over and over, without the do something syndrome affects so many of us. A perfectly reasonable deviation is to hold your ground and await more information.

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Deal With Reality

“I think that one should recognize reality even when one doesn’t like it; indeed, especially when one doesn’t like it.”

Munger clearly learned from Joseph Tussman's wisdom. This means facing harsh truths that you have forced yourself to ignore. It means meeting the world on the worlds terms, not how you wish it would be. If this causes temporary pain, so be it. “Your pain,” writes Kahil Gibran in The Prophet, “is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”

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There is No Free Lunch

We like quick solutions that don't require a lot of effort. We're drawn to the modern equivalent of an old hustler selling an all curing tonic. Only the world does not work that way. Munger expands:

“There isn’t a single formula. You need to know a lot about business and human nature and the numbers…It is unreasonable to expect that there is a magic system that will do it for you.”

Acquiring knowledge is hard work. It's reading and adding to your knowledge so it compounds. It's going deep and developing fluency, something Darwin knew well.

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Maximization/Minimization

In business we often find that the winning system goes almost ridiculously far in maximizing and or minimizing one or a few variables— like the discount warehouses of Costco.

When everything is a priority nothing is a priority. Attempting to maximize competing variables is a recipe for disaster. Picking one variable, and relentlessly focusing on it, which is an effective strategy, diverges from the norm. It's hard to compete with businesses who have correctly identified the right variables to maximize or minimize. When you focus on one variable, you'll increase the odds you're quick and nimble — and can respond to changes in the terrain.

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Map and Terrain

At Berkshire there has never been a master plan. Anyone who wanted to do it, we fired because it takes on a life of its own and doesn’t cover new reality. We want people taking into account new information.”

Plans are maps that we become attached to. Once we've told everyone there is a plan and what that plan is, especially multi-year plans, we're psychologically more likely to hold to it because coming out and changing it would be admitting we're wrong. This creates a scenario where we're staking the odds against us in changing when things change. Detailed 5-year plans (that will clearly be wrong) are as disastrous as overly-general five year plans (which can never be wrong). Scrap it, isolate the key variables that you need to maximize and minimize, and follow the agile path blazed by Henry Singleton and followed by Buffett and Munger.

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The Keys to Good Government

There are three keys: honesty, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Munger says:

“In a democracy, everyone takes turns. But if you really want a lot of wisdom, it’s better to concentrate decisions and process in one person. It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in an enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.”

Lee Kuan Yew put it this way himself: “With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. . . . What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective, and efficient.”

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One Step At a Time

“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day— if you live long enough— most people get what they deserve.”

An incremental approach to life that reminds one of the nature of compounding. There will always be some going faster than you but we can learn from the Darwinian guide to overachieving your natural IQ. In order for this approach to be effective you need a long axis of time as well as continuous incremental progress.

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Getting Rich

“The desire to get rich fast is pretty dangerous.” 

Getting rich is a function of being happy with what you have, spending less than you make, and time.

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Mental Models

“Know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely— all of them, not just a few.”

Mental Models are the big ideas from multiple disciplines. While most people agree these are worth knowing, they often think they can identify which models will add the most value, and in so doing they miss something important. There is a reason that the “know nothing” index fund almost always beats the investors who think they “know.” Understanding this idea in greater detail, will change a lot of things including how you read. Acquiring the big ideas — without selectivity — is the way to mimic a know nothing index fund.

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Know-it-alls

“I try to get rid of people who always confidently answer questions about which they don’t have any real knowledge.”

Few things have made as much of a difference in my life as systemically eliminating (and when not possible, reducing the importance of) people who think they know the answer to everything.

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Stoic Resolve

“There’s no way that you can live an adequate life without many mistakes. In fact, one trick in life is to get so you can handle mistakes. Failure to handle psychological denial is a common way for people to go broke.”

While we all make mistakes, it's how we respond to failure that defines us.

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Thinking

“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”

“It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents. This is a great mental discipline.”

Thinking is a lot of work. “My first thought,” William Deresiewicz said in one of my favorite speeches, “is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.”

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Choose Your Associates Wisely

“Oh, it’s just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life. It ought to be taught as a catechism. . . . But wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.”

No comment needed there.

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Complement Tao of Charlie Munger with this excellent Peter Bevelin Interview.

Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on the Relationship between Vulnerability and Love

In 1923 the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, which endures as a timeless classic meditation on living.

The essence of his brilliance is captured on the section on love.

So much of meaning in life comes from the willingness to lean into things that make us vulnerable.

One of the biggest lessons I have learned about being the friend that my friends deserve, is that I have to put myself out there. It's the exposure of the self, not the protection, that creates meaning.

When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.

A few sentences later, he hits on the need for vulnerability.

[I]f in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter and weep, but not all of your tears.

As for finding love, we cannot direct the course.

And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.

As for your desires, turning into vulnerability, Gibran, who echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson's sentiment when he said ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,' writes:

To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged hear and give thanks for another day of loving.

Love is process, not an outcome.

In The Prophet, Gibran goes on to explore the tension in love between intimacy and independence. Complement with Richard Feynman's beautiful Letter to his wife Arlene.

Tribal Leadership: The Key To Building Great Teams

Have you ever wondered about internal organization dynamics and why some groups of people (who aren't on the same team) are more successful than others? Why different “tribes” inside the organization seem to be at war with one another lowering performance in increasing politics? Why certain groups of people never seem to do anything? Or why its hard to move into the next level? Read on.

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Tribal Leadership

Organizations are a collection of small towns wrapped into a bigger city. Each small town is full of people from slackers to sherifs. While the people in the towns are different, the roles are similar. In their book, Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization, Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, call these small towns tribes.

Tribes consist of groups of people from 20-150. (You can think of the test to identify whether someone is in your tribe as stopping to say “hello” and have a brief chat when you pass them on the street.) When the tribe approaches 150, a number that comes from Robin Dunbar's research that was popularized in The Tipping Point, it naturally splits into two.

Importantly, tribes are not (necessarily) teams. Yet tribes are how work gets done in organizations. They have the ability to render the latest corporate culture efforts from CEOs useless. “In companies,” Logan and his co-authors write, “tribes decide whether the new leader is going to flourish or get taken out. They determine how much work is going to get done, and of what quality.”

As you can imagine some tribes want to change the world while others are content to take a lot of coffee breaks. What compels one tribe of people to constantly evolve and move forward and another to stagnate (succumbing to the Red Queen Effect)? The leaders of the tribe.

More than others, tribal leaders influence the culture of their respective tribes. Ambitious leaders focus on growing, adapting, and upgrading the tribal culture to improve the tribes standing in the organization. If they are successful, the tribe members reward them with “cult like loyalty.” (This explains the phenomenon of promotions in a lot of organizations: When the tribe leader is promoted, a lot of the tribe members follow suit.)

Organizations are the sum of the tribes. Some are moving in the same direction while others veer in another. Some tribes propel while yet others add friction. Some tribes attract talent and others eject it. Performance is set not by the individual tribe leader but by the aggregation of them.

Tribal leadership is a process not an outcome and most people are blind to the dynamics of their tribes. Like all of our mental models, when you learn to see your company as a tribe, you can't unsee it. Things just click.

Logan and his co-authors simplify the dynamics of tribal leadership into 5 stages and they arrange the tools accordingly. Each stage has different “leverage points” to move to the next stage. “Each stage,” they write, “gets more done and has more fun than the one before it.”

Companies are never fully in one stage. They may have various tribes in Stage Two all the way to (hopefully) Stage Five. The more tribes you have operating at higher levels the better the company's performance, at least in theory.

Every tribe has a dominant culture, which we can peg on a one-to-five scale, with the goal being stability at Stage Four, and on occasion leaps to Stage Five.

The leverage points to move from Stage Two to Stage Three is not the same as those you need at Stage Three to move to Stage Four. (A lot of business and self-help books fail to realize this point. Perspective advice is more contextual than people realize.)

Let's look at the Five Stages before looking at the leverage points.

The Five Tribal Stages

Stage One (2%): This is the “life sucks” camp. Logan and his co-authors likely this to street gangs and people that come to work with hostility and despair.

Stage Two (25%): In this stage, life doesn't suck, only your life. In this stage, Logan et al. write, people are “passively antagonistic; they cross their arms in judgment yet never really get interested enough to spark any passion. Their laughter is quietly sarcastic and resigned. The Stage Two talk is that they've seen in all before and watched it all fail. A person at Stage Two will often try to protect his or her people from the intrusion of management.” This tribe is largely a collection of victims. This is what we see in Government Departments or The Office. Innovation is almost non-existent. Urgency is reserved for the coffee break. Accountability is rare.

Stage Three (49%): Moving along the continuum from “my life sucks” (Stage Two) we arrive at “I'm great (and you're not)”. “Within the Stage Three culture,” Logan and his coauthors write, “knowledge is power, so people hoard it, from client contacts to gossip about the company.” At this Stage people need to win, especially if that means you lose. On an individual basis, these people are generally competent but form a collection of “lone warriors,” who want to help but experience near continuous disappointment when “others don't have their ambition of skill.” These people, however, are willing to do the work. The most common complaints for people at this level is that they are too busy, they have no time, and they have crappy support.

Stage Four (22%): This is the progress from I'm great (Stage Three) to we're great (Stage Four). The journey is not measured in equidistant miles between each stage and the gulf between Three and Four is much larger than from Two to Three. In this Stage if you take the tribe away, “the person's sense of self suffers a loss.” Leaders in this Stage feel “pulled by the group.” Stage Four tribes have an outside adversary (whereas those operating in Stages Two and Three often have internal ones.) “The rule for Stage Four,” writes Logan et al., is “the bigger the foe, the more powerful the tribe.” These tribes have little patience for the politics, personal agendas, and Office-style performance that dominate Stage Three. Like a transplant that doesn't take, the group rejects these people.

Stage Five (2%): “Stage Five's T-shirt,” write Logan et al., “would read life is great.” The language here is one of potential and making history. “Teams at Stage Five have produced miraculous innovations. The team that produced the first Macintosh was at Stage Five. … This stage is pure leadership, vision, and inspiration.” These teams often revert back to Stage Four to regroup before attempting to summit again.

tribal-leadership

“Tribal leadership,” argues Logan and his co-authors, “focuses on two things: the words people use and the types of relationships they form.” Moving from Stage to Stage means using different leverage points.

Leverage Points And Success Indicators to Upgrade Tribal Culture

For a person at Stage One:

  • Go where the action is.
  • Start hanging around people at Stage Two.
  • “Cut ties with people who share the “life sucks” language.

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “life sucks” language to “my life sucks.”
  • Passive apathy replaces despairing hostility.
  • Cuts ties with people at Stage One.

For a person at Stage Two:

  • Start building one-on-one relationships especially with people at Stage Three.
  • “In one-on-one sessions, show her how her work makes an impact.”
  • Assign short duration projects that require little nagging (as that might reinforce the “my life sucks” language that dominates this Stage.)

The success indicators here are:

  • A move away from “my life sucks” to “I'm great.”
  • Name-dropping and bragging.
  • Lone warrior fighting the good fight.

For a person at Stage Three:

  • Encourage them to form three person relationships (we expand on this in our learning community).
  • Encourage them to work on projects bigger than something they could tackle by themselves.
  • The way they've worked to achieve the success they've had up to this point won't get them where they need to go. Focus on bigger goals and inviting people in to help them.
  • Point to role models who use the “we” language and the success they've achieved.

The success indicators here are:

  • They will use “we” instead of “I.”
  • Their network expands from a few dozen to several hundred.
  • Working less but getting more done.

For a Person at Stage Four:

  • “Stabilize by ensuring (relationships) are based on values, advantages, and opportunity.”
  • Encourage opportunistic behaviour to accomplish greatness.
  • Recruiting others to the tribe who share values.
  • “Perform regular oil changes with the team. In this process, she should lead a discussion about (1) what is working well, (2) what is not working well, and (3) what the team can do to make things that are not working well, work.”

Success indicators here are:

  • A switch from “we're great” to “life is great”
  • Networks include a “stunning amount of diversity.”
  • Time allocations are based on values and noble missions.
  • Exemplar of the tribes values.

Tribal Leadership is a fascinating book that goes on to offer more strategies for leading others (and ourselves) through the stages. In our learning community we dive into some of the strategies the book offers for growing your network.

Inside a Miracle: The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team

Few people know the details about one of the greatest stories in sports history. A classic David versus Goliath story that happened at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid when the U.S. Olympic Hockey team played the Soviets.

While the U.S. team had won the gold at the Squaw Valley Olympics in 1960, they hadn't done much since then. The only notable showing was 5th place at the 1976 games. The Soviets, on the other hand, came into the 1980 Olympics having won 12 of the previous 15 world championships and 4 Olympic gold medals in a row. The Soviet record since Squaw Valley was 27-1-1.

In fact, the Soviets were so good, that in 1979 there was no NHL all-star game. Instead they just invited the Soviets to play a three-game series called the Challenge Cup. The U.S.S.R crushed the best players in the NHL 6-0 in the deciding game.

The Soviets beating the U.S. hockey team at the 1980 Olympics was as close to a sure thing as you could imagine, or so it seemed. Only things didn't play out the way either team expected.

In his book, 99: Stories of the Game, the legendary Wayne Gretzky tells the incredible story of what transpired.

“In the United States,” Gretzky writes, “the goal was to build a team that, while not having much chance of winning, would at least not embarrass the country.”

Herb Brooks was hired as coach. If there was one guy in the program who wasn't playing to avoid embarrassment, it was Brooks.

Eighty of the best college players were invited to Colorado Springs in July of 1979 to compete for a roster spot (remember at the time the Olympic games were for amateurs). Although it wasn't so much a competition as formality. Brooks had won three NCAA championships coaching Minnesota, so he pretty much knew the 23 man roster he wanted.

A bit of leadership …

Brooks took one of the assistant coaches aside and said “A lot of these guys hate each other, and the only way I can think to make them a team is for all of them to hate me. You're going to have to keep all the pieces together and be the guy they can lean on, because they're not going to be able to lean on me. I'm going to be the same to all of them. I'm going to be tough on all of them.”

In a warm up game before the Olympics at Madison Square Garden, team USA lost to the Russians 10-3. The players were in awe of the opponent.

Brooks has spent a lot of time in Russia learning some of their systems. Herb discovered that when the Russians played hockey, they didn't shoot the puck unless they thought they could score, and so although it might look as if they had fewer than ten shots on goal, they were shots that counted. …

[I]t was all about puck possession. The Russian team didn't have to work as hard in defense because they had the puck so often. When a lot of people watch hockey, they don't seem to focus on that. A big part of my game (Gretzky) was the forecheck—chasing a defenseman down, lifting his stick, and taking the puck. If you take the puck off a defenseman or player in his own end, you don't have as many players to beat in order to score or to make a play.

An unexpected bit of ego and overconfidence …

The first medal-round game featured the Soviets and Americans. The game was played at 5 p.m. but didn't air on ABC until 8 p.m. “One of the most memorable moments in American sports history would be watched by most Americans three hours after it happened,” Gretzky tells us.

In the locker room just ahead of the game, Herb Brooks gave the most inspirational speech of his life. He told the guys, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. The moment is yours.”

The players skated onto the ice and looked up. The arena was packed. People were waving American flags everywhere. In the first minutes, the Americans surprised the Soviets with how fast and emotionally they played. Still the Soviets scored first. Then the unexpected happened.

Buzz Schneider took a slapshot and beat the legendary Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, tying the game. The Soviets quickly scored again and it looked like the first period would end that way when Dave Christian picked up the puck in his own zone with only five seconds left. Rather than play till the whistle, a lesson we all learn at one point or another and one that was drilled into me by my high-school football coach, the Soviets had let up thinking the period was over. Christian shot the puck up ice, Mark Johnson chased it down, deked Tretiak, and scored with only one second left. Tie game.

In the second period, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled a surprise move. He replaced Tretiak—a guy known as one of the best goalies of all time—with his backup, Vladimir Myshkin. I've (Gretzky) had the opportunity to sit down with Tretiak and hear his opinion about it. Tretiak was the biggest star in Russia—and maybe still is, thanks to what he did in '72 as a twenty-year-old goalie—and I think it used to drive Tikhonov crazy. He wanted to show everyone that his coaching was the reason they were winning the Olympics, not Tretiak's goaltending. And to this day, Tretiak thinks that's why he was pulled.

“Don't change a thing. Don't change a thing because they've changed goalies. Don't change a thing. Play the same way,” Brooks was heard telling his team.

A lucky bounce …

In the third period, the Soviets looked dominant again. Then, on a rush, a shot from Dave Silk slipped through a Soviet defenceman's skate right onto Mark Johnson's stick. Before Myshkin could move, it was in the net and the score was tied (3-3). A minute later, the American captain, Mike Eruzione, scored.

Now the Americans were leading, just ten minutes away from a shot at a gold medal. Brooks kept walking up and down the bench saying, “Play your game. Play your game.” He repeated it a thousand times at least.

Jimmy Craig (the American goaltender) was in the zone. He wasn't going to get scored on. When a goalie is in that kind of zone, especially in the playoffs, his ability to anticipate the shot is as good as the rest of his skill set. And Craig wasn't alone—the whole team was flying out there. When you go into a series without the sense of entitlement the Russians had, it gives you the intensity you need to get to that extra level.

The gamed ended 4-3 for the U.S. The Americans swarmed the ice. They could hardly believe it—they had to keep telling themselves, “We beat them. We. Beat. Them.”

It was the first game the Soviets had lost at the Olympics in 12 years.

There are several lessons one can take away from this story—Brooks' leadership to make the team hate him more than each other; Tikhonov's ego pulling the legendary Tretiak to show the world how amazing he was; and the importance of playing to the whistle come to mind. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is that when the conditions are right, a group of “average people” can come together and get non-average results.

99: Stories of the Game goes on to tell 98 other stories about the game of hockey.

Krista Tippett: On Generous Listening and Asking Better Questions

Krista Tippett, whose wonderful book Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living distills many of her conversations, offers us a window into exploring ourselves and others, through generous listening and asking better questions by moving away from the false refuge of certitude.

On the art of starting new kinds of conversations Tippett offers shining wisdom, countering the notion that we need to win or lose.

I find myself drawn to black holes in common life— painful, complicated, shameful things we can scarcely talk about at all, alongside the arguments we replay ad nauseam, with the same polar opposites defining, winning, or losing depending on which side you’re on, with predictable dead-end results. The art of starting new kinds of conversations, of creating new departure points and new outcomes in our common grappling, is not rocket science. But it does require that we nuance or retire some habits so ingrained that they feel like the only way it can be done. We’ve all been trained to be advocates for what we care about. This has its place and its value in civil society, but it can get in the way of the axial move of deciding to care about each other.

Listening is an everyday act, and perhaps art, that many of us neglect.

Listening is more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.

Tippett introduces us to generous listening, language she picked up from a conversation with Rachel Naomi Remen, who uses it to describe what doctors should practice. Tippett explains:

Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability— a willingness to be surprised, to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity. The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self and one’s own best words and questions.

Of the many reasons we would want to engage and renew our listening skills, asking better questions is near the top.

[W]e trade mostly in answers— competing answers— and in questions that corner, incite, or entertain. In journalism we have a love affair with the “tough” question, which is often an assumption masked as an inquiry and looking for a fight. … My only measure of the strength of a question now is in the honesty and eloquence it elicits.

Questions are the means by which we explore ourselves, each other, and the world.

If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking a better question.

Questions themselves can offer no immediate need of answers. Counter to our notion that everything must have an answer, some of the most worthwhile questions are the ones with no immediate answers.

And yet we insist on dividing so much of life into competing certainties.

We want others to acknowledge that our answers are right. We call the debate or get on the same page or take a vote and move on. The alternative involves a different orientation to the point of conversing in the first place: to invite searching— not on who is right and who is wrong and the arguments on every side; not on whether we can agree; but on what is at stake in human terms for us all. There is value in learning to speak together honestly and relate to each other with dignity, without rushing to common ground that would leave all the hard questions hanging.

In a way answers are like the goals that Scott Adams brought to our attention — a false, but comforting, refuge. Yet, for many of us probing ourselves with questions about how we should live and what it means to be a citizen in a global world, it is in the search that we find meaning.

Kristin Dombek: The Selfishness of Others

I'll bet you think this article is about you.

“We all know selfishness when we see it,” writes essayist Kristin Dombek opening The Selfishness of Others: An Essay on The Fear of Narcissism. She's right. We see it everywhere from TV to family and lovers. Playing in the tension between pathology and common selfishness, her book offers a thought-provoking look at how narcissism became a cultural phenomenon and repository for our fears.

What is wrong with the narcissist she asks?

This is harder to know. If you see the smile on the face of a murderer, you must run. But if you are unlucky enough to love someone who seems suddenly so into himself that he doesn't care who he hurts, someone who turns from warm to gone when he doesn't need you, so self-adoring or wounded he meets criticism with violence or icy rage, who turns into another person in front of your eyes, or simply turns away when he said he'd be there—if you love someone who seems to have the particular twenty-first-century selfishness in some more subtle, or worse, invisible way, you will likely go to the internet for help.

The internet of course offers answers to even the wrong questions.

You'll read, in that seizable portion of the self-help internet we might call, awkwardly, the narcisphere, a story that can change the way you see everything if you start believing in it, giving you the uncanny but slightly exciting sensation that you're living in a movie. It's familiar, this movie, as if you've seen in before and it's a creepy one, but you have the most important role in the script. You're the hero.

The basic script plays out like this.

At first, the narcissist is extraordinarily charming, even kind and sweet. Then, after a while, he seems full of himself. It could be a “he” or a “she,” but let's stick with “he.” That's what you start to think, when you know someone like this: he's full of himself. But the narcissist is empty.

Normal, healthy people are full of self, a kind of substance like a soul or personhood that, if you have it, emanates warmly from inside of you toward the outside of you. No one knows what it is, but everyone agrees that narcissists do not have it. Disturbingly, however, they are often better than anyone else at seeming to have it. Because what they have inside is empty space, they have had to make a study of the selves of others in order to invent something that looks and sounds like one. Narcissists are imitators par excellence. The murderer plagiarized most of his manifesto, obviously and badly, but often narcissists are so good at imitating that you won't even notice. And they do not copy the small, boring parts of selves. They take what they think are the biggest, most impressive parts of other selves, and devise a hologram of self that seems superpowered. Let's call it “selfiness,” this simulacrum of a superpowered self. Sometimes they seem crazy or are really dull, but often, perhaps because they have had to try harder than most to make it, the selfiness they've come up with is qualitatively better, when you first encounter it, than the ordinary, naturally occurring selves of normal, healthy people.

[…]

Because for the narcissist, this appreciation of you is entirely contingent on the idea that you will help him to maintain his selfiness. If you do not, or if you are near him when someone or something does not, then God help you. When that picture shatters, his hurt and his rage will be unmatched in its heat or, more often, its coldness. He will unfriend you, stop following you, stop returning your emails, stop talking to you completely. He will cheat on you without seeming to think it's a big deal, or break up with you, when he has said he'd be with you forever. He will fire you casually and without notice. Whatever hurts most, he will do it. Whatever you need the most, he will withhold it. He cannot feel other people's feelings, but he is uncannily good at figuring out how to demolish yours.

[…]

It isn't that the narcissist is just not a good person; she's like a caricature of what we mean by “not a good person.” She's not just bad; she's a living, breathing lesson in what badness is.

Immanuel Kant offered a formulation for how to do the right thing: Asking yourself, if everyone acted this way, would the world be a better place? Good people, we tend to believe, will treat others as the ends themselves, not the means. Narcissists, along with psychopaths, do the opposite. For them, people are the means toward other ends. “If everyone were to follow suit,” Dombek writes, “the world would go straight to hell.”

The realization that the narcissist, not so much selfish as not really having a self, changes everything. Suddenly you can see them for what they are: puppets or clowns. While they may look human, they are not.

So what should you do when you are confronted with a narcissist?

It seems no matter what you answer, you'll be haunted forever. With equal certainty the internet offers two pieces of common advice: love them and expect nothing and hope that they change, or run as fast and as far as you can.

If the prevailing wisdom that narcissism is becoming more and more common is indeed true, today's prevailing advice doesn't scale.

Kant's advice no longer holds. But that is not the worst of it. Running is an act of the very same coldness described by the diagnosis. What if the only way to escape a narcissist is to act like one yourself?

The question of the selfishness of others, though, leads quickly to the very difficult question of how we know things about others at all, and the mind-knotting question of how we know things at all.

Dombek goes on to explore provocative questions of ourselves—most of us can be put in environments where we display situational narcissisms; why is having a boyfriend or boss like having a villain; why do the narcissistic descriptions of others (“in moments you quietly bury deep inside you”) remind you of yourself.