Author: Farnam Street

Power Laws: How Nonlinear Relationships Amplify Results

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

— Albert Allen Bartlett

Defining A Power Law

Consider a person who begins weightlifting for the first time.

During their initial sessions, they can lift only a small amount of weight. But as they invest more time, they find that for each training session, their strength increases a surprising amount.

For a while, they make huge improvements. Eventually, however, their progress slows down. At first, they could increase their strength by as much as 10% per session; now it takes months to improve by even 1%. Perhaps they resort to taking performance-enhancing drugs or training more often. Their motivation is sapped and they find themselves getting injured, without any real change in the amount of weight they can lift.

Now, let’s imagine that our frustrated weightlifter decides to take up running instead. Something similar happens. While the first few runs are incredibly difficult, the person’s endurance increases rapidly with the passing of each week, until it levels off and diminishing returns set in again.

Both of these situations are examples of power laws — a relationship between two things in which a change in one thing can lead to a large change in the other, regardless of the initial quantities. In both of our examples, a small investment of time in the beginning of the endeavor leads to a large increase in performance.

Power laws are interesting because they reveal surprising correlations between disparate factors. As a mental model, power laws are versatile, with numerous applications in different fields of knowledge.

If parts of this post look intimidating to non-mathematicians, bear with us. Understanding the math behind power laws is worthwhile in order to grasp their many applications. Invest a little time in reading this and reap the value — which is in itself an example of a power law!

A power law is often represented by an equation with an exponent:

Y=MX^B

Each letter represents a number. Y is a function (the result); X is the variable (the thing you can change); B is the order of scaling (the exponent); and M is a constant (unchanging).

If M is equal to 1, the equation is then Y=X^B. If B=2, the equation becomes Y=X^2 (Y=X squared). If X is 1, Y is also 1. But if X=2, then Y=4; if X=3, then Y=9, and so on. A small change in the value of X leads to a proportionally large change in the value of Y.

B=1 is known as the linear scaling law.

To double a cake recipe, you need twice as much flour. To drive twice as far will take twice as long. (Unless you have kids, in which case you need to factor in bathroom breaks that seemingly have little to do with distance.) Linear relationships, in which twice-as-big requires twice-as-much, are simple and intuitive.

Nonlinear relationships are more complicated. In these cases, you don’t need twice as much of the original value to get twice the increase in some measurable characteristic. For example, an animal that’s twice our size requires only about 75% more food than we do. This means that on a per-unit-of-size basis, larger animals are more energy efficient than smaller ones. As animals get bigger, the energy required to support each unit decreases.

One of the characteristics of a complex system is that the behavior of the system differs from the simple addition of its parts. This characteristic is called emergent behavior. “In many instances,” write Geoffrey West in Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies, “the whole seems to take on a life of its own, almost dissociated from the specific characteristics of its individual building blocks.”

This collective outcome, in which a system manifests significantly different characteristics from those resulting from simply adding up all of the contributions of its individual constituent parts, is called an emergent behavior.

When we set out to understand a complex system, our intuition tells us to break it down into its component pieces. But that’s linear thinking, and it explains why so much of our thinking about complexity falls short. Small changes in a complex system can cause sudden and large changes. Small changes cause cascades among the connected parts, like knocking over the first domino in a long row.

Let’s return to the example of our hypothetical weightlifter-turned-runner. As they put in more time on the road, constraints will naturally arise on their progress.

Recall our exponential equation: Y=MX^B. Try applying it to the runner. (We’re going to simplify running, but stick with it.)

Y is the distance the runner can run before becoming exhausted. That’s what we’re trying to calculate. M, the constant, represents their running ability: some combination of their natural endowment and their training history. (Think of it this way: Olympic champion Usain Bolt has a high M; film director Woody Allen has a low M.)

That leaves us with the final term: X^B. The variable X represents the thing we have control over: in this case, our training mileage. If B, the exponent, is between 0 and 1, then the relationship between X and Y— between training mileage and endurance — becomes progressively less proportional. All it takes is plugging in a few numbers to see the effect.

Let’s set M to 1 for the sake of simplicity. If B=0.5 and X=4, then Y=2. Four miles on the road gives the athlete the ability to run two miles at a clip.

Increase X to 16, and Y increases only to 4. The runner has to put in four times the road mileage to merely double their running endurance.

Here’s the kicker: With both running and weightlifting, as we increase X, we’re likely to see the exponent, B, decline! Quadrupling our training mileage from 16 to 64 miles is unlikely to double our endurance again. It might take a 10x increase in mileage to do that. Eventually, the ratio of training mileage to endurance will become nearly infinite.

We know this state, of course, as diminishing returns: the point where more input yields progressively less output. Not only is the relationship between training mileage and endurance not linear to begin with, but it also gets less linear as we increase our training.

And what about negative exponents?

It gets even more interesting. If B=−0.5 and X=4, then Y=0.5. Four miles on the road gets us a half-mile of endurance. If X is increased to 16, Y declines to 0.25. More training, less endurance! This is akin to someone putting in way too much mileage, way too soon: the training is less than useful as injuries pile up.

With negative numbers, the more X increases, the more Y shrinks. This relationship is known as an inverse power law. B=−2, for example, is known as the inverse square law and is an important equation in physics.

The relationship between gravity and distance follows an inverse power law. G is the gravitational constant; it’s the constant in Newton's law of gravitation, relating gravity to the masses and separation of particles, equal to:

6.67 × 10−11 N m2 kg−2

Any force radiating from a single point — including heat, light intensity, and magnetic and electrical forces — follows the inverse square law. At 1m away from a fire, 4 times as much heat is felt as at 2m, and so on.

Higher Order Power Laws

When B is a positive integer (a whole number larger than zero), there are names for the power laws.

When B is equal to 1, we have a linear relationship, as we discussed above. This is also known as a first-order power law.

Things really get interesting after that.

When B is 2, we have a second-order power law. A great example of this is kinetic energy. Kinetic energy = 1/2 mv^2

When B is 3, we have a third-order power law. An example of this is the power converted from wind into rotational energy.

Power Available = ½ (Air Density)( πr^2)(Windspeed^3)(Power Coefficient)

(There is a natural limit here. Albert Betz concluded in 1919 that wind turbines cannot convert more than 59.3% of the kinetic energy of the wind into mechanical energy. This number is called the Betz Limit and represents the power coefficient above.)[1]

The law of heat radiation is a fourth-order power law. Derived first by the Austrian physicist Josef Stefan in 1879 and separately by Austrian physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, the law works like this: the radiant heat energy emitted from a unit area in one second is equal to the constant of proportionality (the Stefan-Boltzmann constant) times the absolute temperature to the fourth power.[2]

There is only one power law with a variable exponent, and it’s considered to be one of the most powerful forces in the universe. It’s also the most misunderstood. We call it compounding. The formula looks like this:

Future Value = (Present Value)(1+i)^n

where i is the interest rate and n is the number of years.

Unlike in the other equations, the relationship between X and Y is potentially limitless. As long as B is positive, Y will increase as X does.

Non-integer power laws (where B is a fraction, as with our running example above) are also of great use to physicists. Formulas in which B=0.5 are common.

Imagine a car driving at a certain speed. A non-integer power law applies. V is the speed of the car, P is the petrol burnt per second to reach that speed, and A is the air resistance. For the car to go twice as fast, it must use 4 times as much petrol, and to go 3 times as fast, it must use 9 times as much petrol. Air resistance increases as speed increases, and that is why faster cars use such ridiculous amounts of petrol. It might seem logical to think that a car going from 40 miles an hour to 50 miles an hour would use a quarter more fuel. That is incorrect, though, because the relationship between air resistance and speed is itself a power law.

Another instance of a power law is the area of a square. Double the length of two parallel sides and the area quadruples. Do the same for a 3D cube and the area increases by a factor of eight. It doesn’t matter if the length of the square went from 1cm to 2cm, or from 100m to 200m; the area still quadruples. We are all familiar with second-order (or square) power laws. This name comes from squares, since the relationship between length and area reflect the way second-order power laws change a number. Third-order (or cubic) power laws are likewise named due to their relationship to cubes.

Using Power Laws in Our Lives

Now that we’ve gotten through the complicated part, let’s take a look at how power laws crop up in many fields of knowledge. Most careers involve an understanding of them, even if it might not be so obvious.

“What's the most powerful force in the universe? Compound interest. It builds on itself. Over time, a small amount of money becomes a large amount of money. Persistence is similar. A little bit improves performance, which encourages greater persistence which improves persistence even more. And on and on it goes.”

— Daniel H. Pink, The Adventures of Johnny Bunko

The Power Behind Compounding

Compounding is one of our most important mental models and is absolutely vital to understand for investing, personal development, learning, and other crucial areas of life.

In economics, we calculate compound interest by using an equation with these variables: P is the original sum of money. P’ is the resulting sum of money, r is the annual interest rate, n is the compounding frequency, and t is the length of time. Using an equation, we can illustrate the power of compounding.

If a person deposits $1000 in a bank for five years, at a quarterly interest rate of 4%, the equation becomes this:

Future Value = Present Value * ((1 + Quarterly Interest Rate) ^ Number of Quarters)

This formula can be used to calculate how much money will be in the account after five years. The answer is $2,220.20.

Compound interest is a power law because the relationship between the amount of time a sum of money is left in an account and the amount accumulated at the end is non-linear.

In A Random Walk Down Wall Street, Burton Malkiel gives the example of two brothers, William and James. Beginning at age 20 and stopping at age 40, William invests $4,000 per year. Meanwhile, James invests the same amount per year between the ages of 40 and 65. By the time William is 65, he has invested less money than his brother, but has allowed it to compound for 25 years. As a result, when both brothers retire, William has 600% more money than James — a gap of $2 million. One of the smartest financial choices we can make is to start saving as early as possible: by harnessing power laws, we increase the exponent as much as possible.

Compound interest can help us achieve financial freedom and wealth, without the need for a large annual income. Members of the financial independence movement (such as the blogger Mr. Money Mustache) are living examples of how we can apply power laws to our lives.

As far back as the 1800s, Robert G. Ingersoll emphasized the importance of compound interest:

One dollar at compound interest, at twenty-four per cent., for one hundred years, would produce a sum equal to our national debt. Interest eats night and day, and the more it eats the hungrier it grows. The farmer in debt, lying awake at night, can, if he listens, hear it gnaw. If he owes nothing, he can hear his corn grow. Get out of debt as soon as possible. You have supported idle avarice and lazy economy long enough.

Compounding can apply to areas beyond finance — personal development, health, learning, relationships and more. For each area, a small input can lead to a large output, and the results build upon themselves.

Nonlinear Language Learning

When we learn a new language, it’s always a good idea to start by learning the 100 or so most used words.

In all known languages, a small percentage of words make up the majority of usage. This is known as Zipf’s law, after George Kingsley Zipf, who first identified the phenomenon. The most used word in a language may make up as much as 7% of all words used, while the second-most-used word is used half as much, and so on. As few as 135 words can together form half of a language (as used by native speakers).

Why Zipf’s law holds true is unknown, although the concept is logical. Many languages include a large number of specialist terms that are rarely needed (including legal or anatomy terms). A small change in the frequency ranking of a word means a huge change in its usefulness.

Understanding Zipf’s law is a central component of accelerated language learning. Each new word we learn from the most common 100 words will have a huge impact on our ability to communicate. As we learn less-common words, diminishing returns set in. If each word in a language were listed in order of frequency of usage, the further we moved down the list, the less useful a word would be.

Power Laws in Business, Explained by Peter Thiel

Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal (as well as an early investor in Facebook and Palantir), considers power laws to be a crucial concept for all businesspeople to understand. In his fantastic book, Zero to One, Thiel writes:

Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

And:

In 1906, economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered what became the “Pareto Principle,” or the 80-20 rule, when he noticed that 20% of the people owned 80% of the land in Italy—a phenomenon that he found just as natural as the fact that 20% of the peapods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. This extraordinarily stark pattern, when a small few radically outstrip all rivals, surrounds us everywhere in the natural and social world. The most destructive earthquakes are many times more powerful than all smaller earthquakes combined. The biggest cities dwarf all mere towns put together. And monopoly businesses capture more value than millions of undifferentiated competitors. Whatever Einstein did or didn’t say, the power law—so named because exponential equations describe severely unequal distributions—is the law of the universe. It defines our surroundings so completely that we usually don’t even see it.

… [I]n venture capital, where investors try to profit from exponential growth in early-stage companies, a few companies attain exponentially greater value than all others. … [W]e don’t live in a normal world; we live under a power law.

The biggest secret in venture capital is that the best investment in a successful fund equals or outperforms the entire rest of the fund combined.

This implies two very strange rules for VCs. First, only invest in companies that have the potential to return the value of the entire fund. … This leads to rule number two: because rule number one is so restrictive, there can’t be any other rules.

…[L]ife is not a portfolio: not for a startup founder, and not for any individual. An entrepreneur cannot “diversify” herself; you cannot run dozens of companies at the same time and then hope that one of them works out well. Less obvious but just as important, an individual cannot diversify his own life by keeping dozens of equally possible careers in ready reserve.

Thiel teaches a class called Startup at Stanford, where he hammers home the value of understanding power laws. In his class, he imparts copious wisdom. From Blake Masters’ notes on Class 7:

Consider a prototypical successful venture fund. A number of investments go to zero over a period of time. Those tend to happen earlier rather than later. The investments that succeed do so on some sort of exponential curve. Sum it over the life of a portfolio and you get a J curve. Early investments fail. You have to pay management fees. But then the exponential growth takes place, at least in theory. Since you start out underwater, the big question is when you make it above the water line. A lot of funds never get there.

To answer that big question you have to ask another: what does the distribution of returns in [a] venture fund look like? The naïve response is just to rank companies from best to worst according to their return in multiple of dollars invested. People tend to group investments into three buckets. The bad companies go to zero. The mediocre ones do maybe 1x, so you don’t lose much or gain much. And then the great companies do maybe 3-10x.

But that model misses the key insight that actual returns are incredibly skewed. The more a VC understands this skew pattern, the better the VC. Bad VCs tend to think the dashed line is flat, i.e. that all companies are created equal, and some just fail, spin wheels, or grow. In reality you get a power law distribution.

Thiel explains how investors can apply the mental model of power laws (more from Masters’ notes on Class 7):

…Given a big power law distribution, you want to be fairly concentrated. … There just aren’t that many businesses that you can have the requisite high degree of conviction about. A better model is to invest in maybe 7 or 8 promising companies from which you think you can get a 10x return. …

Despite being rooted in middle school math, exponential thinking is hard. We live in a world where we normally don’t experience anything exponentially. Our general life experience is pretty linear. We vastly underestimate exponential things.

He also cautions against over-relying on power laws as a strategy (an assertion that should be kept in mind for all mental models). From Masters’ notes:

One shouldn’t be mechanical about this heuristic, or treat it as some immutable investment strategy. But it actually checks out pretty well, so at the very least it compels you to think about power law distribution.

Understanding exponents and power law distributions isn’t just about understanding VC. There are important personal applications too. Many things, such as key life decisions or starting businesses, also result in similar distributions.

Thiel then explains why founders should focus on one key revenue stream, rather than trying to build multiple equal ones:

Even within an individual business, there is probably a sort of power law as to what’s going to drive it. It’s troubling if a startup insists that it’s going to make money in many different ways. The power law distribution on revenues says that one source of revenue will dominate everything else.

For example, if you’re an entrepreneur who opens a coffee shop, you’ll have a lot of ways you can make money. You can sell coffee, cakes, paintings, merchandise, and more. But each of those things will not contribute to your success in an equal way. While there is value in the discovery process, once you’ve found the variable that matters most, you should place more time on that one and less on the others. The importance of finding this variable cannot be overstated.

He also acknowledges that power laws are one of the great secrets of investing success. From Masters’ notes on Class 11:

On one level, the anti-competition, power law, and distribution secrets are all secrets about nature. But they’re also secrets hidden by people. That is crucial to remember. Suppose you’re doing an experiment in a lab. You’re trying to figure out a natural secret. But every night another person comes into the lab and messes with your results. You won’t understand what’s going on if you confine your thinking to the nature side of things. It’s not enough to find an interesting experiment and try to do it. You have to understand the human piece too.

… We know that, per the power law secret, companies are not evenly distributed. The distribution tends to be bimodal; there are some great ones, and then there are a lot of ones that don’t really work at all. But understanding this isn’t enough. There is a big difference between understanding the power law secret in theory and being able to apply it in practice.

The key to all mental models is knowing the facts and being able to use the concept. As George Box said, “all models are false but some are useful.” Once we grasp the basics, the best next step is to start figuring out how to apply it.

The metaphor of an unseen person sabotaging laboratory results is an excellent metaphor for how cognitive biases and shortcuts cloud our judgement.

Natural Power Laws

Anyone who has kept a lot of pets will have noticed the link between an animal’s size and its lifespan. Small animals, like mice and hamsters, tend to live for a year or two. Larger ones, like dogs and cats, can live to 10-20 years, or even older in rare cases. Scaling up even more, some whales can live for 200 years. This comes down to power laws.

Biologists have found clear links between an animal’s size and its metabolism. Kleiber’s law (identified by Max Kleiber) states that an animal’s metabolic rate increases at three-fourths of the power of the animal’s weight (mass). If an average rabbit (2 kg) weighs one hundred times as much as an average mouse (20g), the rabbit’s metabolic rate will be 32 times the mouse’s. In other words, the rabbit’s structure is more efficient. It all comes down to the geometry behind their mass.

Which leads us to another biological power law: Smaller animals require more energy per gram of body weight, meaning that mice eat around half their body weight in dense foods each day. The reason is that, in terms of percentage of mass, larger animals have more structure (bones, etc.) and fewer reserves (fat stores).

Research has illustrated how power laws apply to blood circulation in animals. The end units through which oxygen, water, and nutrients enter cells from the bloodstream are the same size in all animals. Only the number per animal varies. The relationship between the total area of these units and the size of the animal is a third-order power law. The distance blood travels to enter cells and the actual volume of blood are also subject to power laws.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

As we have seen, a small change in one area can lead to a huge change in another. However, past a certain point, diminishing returns set in and more is worse. Working an hour extra per day might mean more gets done, whereas working three extra hours is likely to lead to less getting done due to exhaustion. Going from a sedentary lifestyle to running two days a week may result in greatly improved health, but stepping up to seven days a week will cause injuries. Overzealousness can turn a positive exponent into a negative exponent. For a busy restaurant, hiring an extra chef will mean that more people can be served, but hiring two new chefs might spoil the proverbial broth.

Perhaps the most underappreciated diminishing return, the one we never want to end up on the wrong side of, is the one between money and happiness.

In David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how diminishing returns relate to family incomes. Most people assume that the more money they make, the happier they and their families will be. This is true — up to a point. An income that’s too low to meet basic needs makes people miserable, leading to far more physical and mental health problems. A person who goes from earning $30,000 a year to earning $40,000 is likely to experience a dramatic boost in happiness. However, going from $100,000 to $110,000 leads to a negligible change in well-being.

Gladwell writes:

The scholars who research happiness suggest that more money stops making people happier at a family income of around seventy-five thousand dollars a year. After that, what economists call “diminishing marginal returns” sets in. If your family makes seventy-five thousand and your neighbor makes a hundred thousand, that extra twenty-five thousand a year means that your neighbor can drive a nicer car and go out to eat slightly more often. But it doesn’t make your neighbor happier than you, or better equipped to do the thousands of small and large things that make for being a good parent.

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Footnotes
  • 1

    http://www.raeng.org.uk/publications/other/23-wind-turbine

  • 2

    https://www.britannica.com/science/Stefan-Boltzmann-law

Susan Cain: Leading the “Quiet Revolution”

For decades, introversion was looked at as something to overcome, almost like an illness. The way to win in life was through charisma, outspokenness, and self-promotion.

Even now, in an increasingly noisy world, introverts may feel added pressure to take one of two paths: force themselves into more extroverted behavior, or become even more reserved and shrink back to themselves.

My guest Susan Cain says both paths are wrong and in fact, rob the world of the unique contributions introverts make when they choose to be true to themselves.

Susan knows what she’s talking about. A self-proclaimed introvert, she wrote the New York Times bestselling book, Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking and delivered one of the most popular TED talks ever delivered, with nearly 18 million views to date.

Whether you consider yourself an extrovert, an introvert, or an ambivert (those lucky bastards in the middle) you’ll find a ton of value in this interview.

We cover a lot of ground, including:

  • How to find your “sweet spot” no matter what your stimulation preferences are
  • How to tap into your deepest wells of thought and creativity
  • What “free trait theory” is, and how it can help you accomplish the most important goals in your life
  • The truth about collaboration and it’s effects on the creative process
  • How she and her extrovert husband manage important differences in their life (like stereo volume)
  • How not being honest with your own narrative slows personal growth and development
  • The key to living a meaningful life that energizes and sustains you

And much, much more.

Listen

Transcript

A full transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately.

Learn More About Susan

You can learn more about Susan on Twitter or by visiting her website.

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The Fairness Principle: How the Veil of Ignorance Helps Test Fairness

“But the nature of man is sufficiently revealed for him to know something of himself and sufficiently veiled to leave much impenetrable darkness, a darkness in which he ever gropes, forever in vain, trying to understand himself.”

— Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America

The Basics

If you could redesign society from scratch, what would it look like?

How would you distribute wealth and power?

Would you make everyone equal or not? How would you define fairness and equality?

And — here’s the kicker — what if you had to make those decisions without knowing who you would be in this new society?

Philosopher John Rawls asked just that in a thought experiment known as “the Veil of Ignorance” in his 1971 book, Theory of Justice.

Like many thought experiments, the Veil of Ignorance could never be carried out in the literal sense, nor should it be. Its purpose is to explore ideas about justice, morality, equality, and social status in a structured manner.

The Veil of Ignorance, a component of social contract theory, allows us to test ideas for fairness.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows who they are. They lack clues as to their class, their privileges, their disadvantages, or even their personality. They exist as an impartial group, tasked with designing a new society with its own conception of justice.

As a thought experiment, the Veil of Ignorance is powerful because our usual opinions regarding what is just and unjust are informed by our own experiences. We are shaped by our race, gender, class, education, appearance, sexuality, career, family, and so on. On the other side of the Veil of Ignorance, none of that exists. Technically, the resulting society should be a fair one.

In Ethical School Leadership, Spencer J. Maxcy writes:

Imagine that you have set for yourself the task of developing a totally new social contract for today's society. How could you do so fairly? Although you could never actually eliminate all of your personal biases and prejudices, you would need to take steps at least to minimize them. Rawls suggests that you imagine yourself in an original position behind a veil of ignorance. Behind this veil, you know nothing of yourself and your natural abilities, or your position in society. You know nothing of your sex, race, nationality, or individual tastes. Behind such a veil of ignorance all individuals are simply specified as rational, free, and morally equal beings. You do know that in the “real world,” however, there will be a wide variety in the natural distribution of natural assets and abilities, and that there will be differences of sex, race, and culture that will distinguish groups of people from each other.

“The Fairness Principle: When contemplating a moral action, imagine that you do not know if you will be the moral doer or receiver, and when in doubt err on the side of the other person.”

— Michael Shermer, The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity Toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom

The Purpose of the Veil of Ignorance

Because people behind the Veil of Ignorance do not know who they will be in this new society, any choice they make in structuring that society could either harm them or benefit them.

If they decide men will be superior, for example, they must face the risk that they will be women. If they decide that 10% of the population will be slaves to the others, they cannot be surprised if they find themselves to be slaves. No one wants to be part of a disadvantaged group, so the logical belief is that the Veil of Ignorance would produce a fair, egalitarian society.

Behind the Veil of Ignorance, cognitive biases melt away. The hypothetical people are rational thinkers. They use probabilistic thinking to assess the likelihood of their being affected by any chosen measure. They possess no opinions for which to seek confirmation. Nor do they have any recently learned information to pay undue attention to. The sole incentive they are biased towards is their own self-preservation, which is equivalent to the preservation of the entire group. They cannot stereotype any particular group as they could be members of it. They lack commitment to their prior selves as they do not know who they are.

So, what would these people decide on? According to Rawls, in a fair society all individuals must possess the following:

  • Rights and liberties (including the right to vote, the right to hold public office, free speech, free thought, and fair legal treatment)
  • Power and opportunities
  • Income and wealth sufficient for a good quality of life (Not everyone needs to be rich, but everyone must have enough money to live a comfortable life.)
  • The conditions necessary for self-respect

For these conditions to occur, the people behind the Veil of Ignorance must figure out how to achieve what Rawls regards as the two key components of justice:

  • Everyone must have the best possible life which does not cause harm to others.
  • Everyone must be able to improve their position, and any inequalities must be present solely if they benefit everyone.

However, the people behind the Veil of Ignorance cannot be completely blank slates or it would be impossible for them to make rational decisions. They understand general principles of science, psychology, politics, and economics. Human behavior is no mystery to them. Neither are key economic concepts, such as comparative advantage and supply and demand. Likewise, they comprehend the deleterious impact of social entropy, and they have a desire to create a stable, ordered society. Knowledge of human psychology leads them to be cognizant of the universal desire for happiness and fulfillment. Rawls considered all of this to be the minimum viable knowledge for rational decision-making.

Ways of Understanding the Veil of Ignorance

One way to understand the Veil of Ignorance is to imagine that you are tasked with cutting up a pizza to share with friends. You will be the last person to take a slice. Being of sound mind, you want to get the largest possible share, and the only way to ensure this is to make all the slices the same size. You could cut one huge slice for yourself and a few tiny ones for your friends, but one of them might take the large slice and leave you with a meager share. (Not to mention, your friends won’t think very highly of you.)

Another means of appreciating the implications of the Veil of Ignorance is by considering the social structures of certain species of ants. Even though queen ants are able to form colonies alone, they will band together to form stronger, more productive colonies. Once the first group of worker ants reaches maturity, the queens fight to the death until one remains. When they first form a colony, the queen ants are behind a Veil of Ignorance. They do not know if they will be the sole survivor or not. All they know, on an instinctual level, is that cooperation is beneficial for their species. Like the people behind the Veil of Ignorance, the ants make a decision which, by necessity, is selfless.

The Veil of Ignorance, as a thought experiment, shows us that ignorance is not always detrimental to a society. In some situations, it can create robust social structures. In the animal kingdom, we see many examples of creatures that cooperate even though they do not know if they will suffer or benefit as a result. In a paper entitled “The Many Selves of Social Insects,” Queller and Strassmann write of bees:

…social insect colonies are so tightly integrated that they seem to function as single organisms, as a new level of self. The honeybees' celebrated dance about food location is just one instance of how their colonies integrate and act on information that no single individual possesses. Their unity of purpose is underscored by the heroism of workers, whose suicidal stinging attacks protect the single reproducing queen.

We can also consider the Tragedy of the Commons. Introduced by ecologist Garrett Hardin, this mental model states that shared resources will be exploited if no system for fair distribution is implemented. Individuals have no incentive to leave a share of free resources for others. Hardin’s classic example is an area of land which everyone in a village is free to use for their cattle. Each person wants to maximize the usefulness of the land, so they put more and more cattle out to graze. Yet the land is finite and at some point will become too depleted to support livestock. If the people behind the Veil of Ignorance had to choose how the common land should be shared, the logical decision would be to give each person an equal part and forbid them from introducing too many cattle.

As N. Gregory Mankiw writes in Principles of Microeconomics:

The Tragedy of the Commons is a story with a general lesson: when one person uses a common resource, he diminishes other people's enjoyment of it. Because of this negative externality, common resources tend to be used excessively. The government can solve the problem by reducing use of the common resource through regulation or taxes. Alternatively, the government can sometimes turn the common resource into a private good.

This lesson has been known for thousands of years. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle pointed out the problem with common resources: “What is common to many is taken least care of, for all men have greater regard for what is their own than for what they possess in common with others.”

In The Case for Meritocracy, Michael Faust uses other thought experiments to support the Veil of Ignorance:

Let’s imagine another version of the thought experiment. If inheritance is so inherently wonderful — such an intrinsic good — then let’s collect together all of the inheritable money in the world. We shall now distribute this money in exactly the same way it would be distributed in today’s world… but with one radical difference. We are going to distribute it by lottery rather than by family inheritance, i.e, anyone in the world can receive it. So, in these circumstances, how many people who support inheritance would go on supporting it? Note that the government wouldn’t be getting the money… just lucky strangers. Would the advocates of inheritance remain as fiercely committed to their cherished principle? Or would the entire concept instantly be exposed for the nonsense it is?

If inheritance were treated as the lottery it is, no one would stand by it.

[…]

In the world of the 1% versus the 99%, no one in the 1% would ever accept a lottery to decide inheritance because there would be a 99% chance they would end up as schmucks, exactly like the rest of us.

And a further surrealistic thought experiment:

Imagine that on a certain day of the year, each person in the world randomly swaps bodies with another person, living anywhere on earth. Well, for the 1%, there’s a 99% chance that they will be swapped from heaven to hell. For the 99%, 1% might be swapped from hell to heaven, while the other 98% will stay the same as before. What kind of constitution would the human race adopt if annual body swapping were a compulsory event?! They would of course choose a fair one.

“In the immutability of their surroundings the foreign shores, the foreign faces, the changing immensity of life, glide past, veiled not by a sense of mystery but by a slightly disdainful ignorance.”

— Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

The History of Social Contract Theory

Although the Veil of Ignorance was first described by Rawls in 1971, many other philosophers and writers have discussed similar concepts in the past. Philosophers discussed social contract theory as far back as ancient Greece.

In Crito, Plato describes a conversation in which Socrates discusses the laws of Athens and how they are responsible for his existence. Finding himself in prison and facing the death penalty, Socrates rejects Crito’s suggestion that he should escape. He states that further injustice is not an appropriate response to prior injustice. Crito believes that by refusing to escape, Socrates is aiding his enemies, as well as failing to fulfil his role as a father. But Socrates views the laws of Athens as a single entity that has always protected him. He describes breaking any of the laws as being like injuring a parent. Having lived a long, fulfilling life as a result of the social contract he entered at birth, he has no interest in now turning away from Athenian law. Accepting death is essentially a symbolic act that Socrates intends to use to illustrate rationality and reason to his followers. If he were to escape, he would be acting out of accord with the rest of his life, during which he was always concerned with justice.

Social contract theory is concerned with the laws and norms a society decides on and the obligation individuals have to follow them. Socrates’ dialogue with Plato has similarities with the final scene of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. At the end of the play, John Proctor is hung for witchcraft despite having the option to confess and avoid death. In continuing to follow the social contract of Salem and not confessing to a crime he obviously did not commit, Proctor believes that his death will redeem his earlier mistakes. We see this in the final dialogue between Reverend Hale and Elizabeth (Proctor's wife):

HALE: Woman, plead with him! […] Woman! It is pride, it is vanity. […] Be his helper! What profit him to bleed? Shall the dust praise him? Shall the worms declare his truth? Go to him, take his shame away!

 

ELIZABETH: […] He have his goodness now. God forbid I take it from him!

In these two situations, individuals allow themselves to be put to death in the interest of following the social contract they agreed upon by living in their respective societies. Earlier in their lives, neither person knew what their ultimate fate would be. They were essentially behind the Veil of Ignorance when they chose (consciously or unconsciously) to follow the laws enforced by the people around them. Just as the people behind the Veil of Ignorance must accept whatever roles they receive in the new society, Socrates and Proctor followed social contracts. To modern eyes, the decision both men make to abandon their children in the interest of proving a point is not easily defensible.

Immanuel Kant wrote about justice and freedom in the late 1700s. Kant believed that fair laws should not be based on making people happy or reflecting the desire of individual policymakers, but should be based on universal moral principles:

Is it not of the utmost necessity to construct a pure moral philosophy which is completely freed from everything that may be only empirical and thus belong to anthropology? That there must be such a philosophy is self-evident from the common idea of duty and moral laws. Everyone must admit that a law, if it is to hold morally, i.e., as a ground of obligation, must imply absolute necessity; he must admit that the command, “Then shalt not lie,” does not apply to men only, as if other rational beings had no need to observe it. The same is true for all other moral laws properly so called. He must concede that the ground of obligation here must not be sought in the nature of man or in the circumstances in which he is placed, but sought a priori solely in the concepts of pure reason, and that every other precept which is in certain respects universal, so far as it leans in the least on empirical grounds (perhaps only in regard to the motive involved), may be called a practical rule but never a moral law.

How We Can Apply This Concept

We can use the Veil of Ignorance to test whether a certain issue is fair.

When my kids are fighting over the last cookie, which happens more often than you'd imagine, I ask them to determine who will spilt the cookie. The other person picks. This is the old playground rule, “you split, I pick.” Without this rule, one of them would surely give the other a smaller portion. With it, the halves are as equal as they would be with sensible adults.

When considering whether we should endorse a proposed law or policy, we can ask: if I did not know if this would affect me or not, would I still support it? Those who make big decisions that shape the lives of large numbers of people are almost always those in positions of power. And those in positions of power are almost always members of privileged groups. As Benjamin Franklin once wrote: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

Laws allowing or prohibiting abortion have typically been made by men, for example. As the issue lacks real significance in their personal lives, they are free to base decisions on their own ideological views, rather than consider what is fair and sane. However, behind the Veil of Ignorance, no one knows their sex. Anyone deciding on abortion laws would have to face the possibility that they themselves will end up as a woman with an unwanted pregnancy.

In Justice as Fairness: A Restatement, Rawls writes:

So what better alternative is there than an agreement between citizens themselves reached under conditions that are fair for all?

[…]

[T]hreats of force and coercion, deception and fraud, and so on must be ruled out.

And:

Deep religious and moral conflicts characterize the subjective circumstances of justice. Those engaged in these conflicts are surely not in general self-interested, but rather, see themselves as defending their basic rights and liberties which secure their legitimate and fundamental interests. Moreover, these conflicts can be the most intractable and deeply divisive, often more so than social and economic ones.

 

In Ethics: Studying the Art of Moral Appraisal, Ronnie Littlejohn explains:

We must have a mechanism by which we can eliminate the arbitrariness and bias of our “situation in life” and insure that our moral standards are justified by the one thing all people share in common: reason. It is the function of the veil of ignorance to remove such bias.

When we have to make decisions that will affect other people, especially disadvantaged groups (such as when a politician decides to cut benefits or a CEO decides to outsource manufacturing to a low-income country), we can use the Veil of Ignorance as a tool for making fair choices.

As Robert F. Kennedy (the younger brother of John F. Kennedy) said in the 1960s:

Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

When we choose to position ourselves behind the Veil of Ignorance, we have a better chance of creating one of those all-important ripples.

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How to Remember What You Read

“I cannot remember the books I have read any more than the meals I have eaten; even so, they have made me.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book?

The answer is simple but not easy.

It's not what they read. It's how they read. Passive readers forget things almost as quickly as they read them. Active readers, on the other hand, retain the bulk of what they read.

There is another difference between these two types of readers: The quantity of reading affects them differently. Passive readers who read a lot are not much further ahead than passive readers who read a little. If you're an active reader, however, things are different.

The more that active readers read, the better they get. They develop a latticework of mental models to hang ideas on, further increasing retention. They learn to differentiate good arguments and structures from bad ones. They make better decisions because they know what fits with the basic structure of how the world works. They avoid problems. The more they read, the more valuable they become. The more they read, the more they know what to look for.

Think back to the books you studied in school. Despite the passage of time, most us remember a lot about them. Even if the details are fuzzy, we can doubtless recall the basic plots, main characters, notable themes, and motifs. We didn't just passively read those books. We actively read them. We had class discussions, took turns reading parts aloud, acted out scenes, or maybe even watched film adaptations. No matter how long it has been since we set foot in a classroom, we all probably remember Animal Farm.

Having a deliberate strategy for anything we spend a lot of time on is a sensible approach. But most people don't consciously try to get the most out of the time they invest in reading.

For us to get the most out of each book we read, it is vital to have a plan for recording, reflecting on, and putting into use the conclusions we draw from the information we consume. In this article, we will look at a strategy for deriving the maximum benefit from every single page you read.

First, let's clear up some common misconceptions about reading. Here's what I know:

  • Quality matters more than quantity. If you read just one book a week but fully appreciate and absorb it, you'll be far better off than someone who skims through half the library without paying much attention.
  • Speedreading is bullshit. The only way to read faster is to actually read more.
  • Book summary services miss the point. I know a lot of companies charge ridiculous prices for access to summaries written by some 22-year-old with zero life experience, but the point of reading for fluency is to acquire a repository of facts and details. Nuance, if you will. In this sense, you understand a bit more about why things work.
  • Fancy apps and tools are not needed. A notebook, index cards, and a pen will do just fine. (For those of you wanting a simple and searchable online tool to help, Evernote is the answer.)
  • We don't need to read stuff we find boring.
  • We don't need to finish the entire book. 

“Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest. And books themselves seemed to reflect this idea. Which is why the plot of every book ever can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something'.”

— Matt Haig, Reasons to Stay Alive

Before Reading

Choose Your Books Wisely
There are no rules when it comes to choosing books. We don't have to read bestsellers, or classics, or books everyone else raves about. This isn't school and there are no required reading lists. Focus on some combination of books that: (1) stand the test of time; (2) pique your interest; or (3) resonate with your current situation.

The more interesting and relevant we find a book, the more likely we are to remember its contents in the future.

For older books or those that have been translated, check which version is considered to be the best. For example, the Hayes translation of Marcus Aurelius' Meditations is regarded as being truest to the original text, while also having a modern feel.

Get Some Context
A good place to start is by doing some preliminary research on the book. Some books – for example, A Confederacy of Dunces and The Palm Wine Drinkard – have a very different meaning once we know a bit about the life of the author.

For older books, try to understand the historical context. For books written in an unfamiliar country, try to understand the cultural context. Some helpful questions to ask include:

  • Why did the author write this? (Did they have an agenda?)
  • What is their background?
  • What else have they written?
  • Where was it written?
  • What was the political, economic, and cultural situation at the time of writing?
  • Has the book been translated or reprinted?
  • Did any important events — a war, an economic depression, a change of leadership, the emergence of new technology — happen during the writing of the book?

Know Why You're Reading the Book
What are you reading this book for? Entertainment? To understand something or someone you don't know? To get better at your job? To improve your health? To learn a skill? To help build a business?

You have to have some idea of what you want to get from the book. You don't just want to collect endless amounts of useless information. That will never stick.

Skim the Index, Contents, and Preface
Before starting to read a book (particularly non-fiction), skim through the index, contents page, preface, and inside jacket to get an idea of the subject matter.  (This article on how to read a book is a brilliant introduction to skimming.) The bibliography can also indicate the tone of a book. The best authors often read hundreds of books for each one they write, so a well-researched book should have a bibliography full of interesting texts. After you've read the book, peruse the bibliography and make a note of any books you want to read next.

Match the Book to Your Setting or Situation
Although it's not always practical, matching books to our location and circumstances can be powerful. Books will have a greater resonance as they become part of an experience rather than just supplementing it.

When choosing books, take a look at your own situation and decide on genres or authors that might help you overcome any current challenges. Whatever your state of affairs, someone has been in the same place. Someone has felt the same feelings and thought the same thoughts and written about it. It's up to you to find that book.

For example:

  • Traveling or on holiday? Match books to the location — Jack Kerouac or John Muir for America; Machiavelli for Italy; Montaigne’s Essays, Ernest Hemingway, or Georges Perec for France; and so on. Going nowhere in particular? Read Vladimir Nabokov or Henry Thoreau.
  • Dealing with grief? Read When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi, Torch by Cheryl Strayed, or anything by Tarah Brach.
  • Having a crisis about your own mortality? (It happens to us all.) Read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life or Theodore Zeldin’s The Hidden Pleasures of Life.
  • Dealing with adversity? Lose your job? Read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle Is the Way.
  • Dissatisfied with your work? Read Linchpin by Seth Godin, Mastery by Robert Greene, or Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.

If I were a Dr., I'd prescribe books. They can be just as powerful as drugs.

While Reading

You'll remember more if you do the following seven things while you're reading.

Make Notes
Making notes is perhaps the single most important part of remembering what you read.

The best technique for notetaking is whichever one works for you and is easy to stick to. You need to create your own system. Some people prefer to record notes on index cards or in a commonplace book; others prefer a digital system. Notes are especially useful if you write on a regular basis, although everyone (not just writers) can benefit from making them.

Start by writing a short summary of each chapter and transcribing any meaningful passages or phrases. If you are unsure how to simplify your thoughts, imagine that someone has just tapped you on the shoulder and asked you to explain the chapter you just finished reading. They have never read this book and lack any idea of the subject matter. How would you explain it to them?

In The 3 Secrets That Help Me Write and Think, Robert Greene describes his notetaking process this way:

When I read a book, I am looking for the essential elements in the work that can be used to create the strategies and stories that appear in my books. As I am reading a book I underline important passages and sections and put notes … on the side.

After I am done reading I will often put it aside for up to a week and think deeply about the lessons and key stories that could be used for my book project. I then go back and put these important sections on notecards.

David Foster Wallace recommends a similar form of active reading (for more, see Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing):

Not just reading a lot, but paying attention to the way the sentences are put together, the clauses are joined, the way the sentences go to make up a paragraph. Exercises as boneheaded as you take a book you really like, you read a page of it three, four times, put it down, and then try to imitate it word for word so that you can feel your own muscles trying to achieve some of the effects that the page of text you like did. If you're like me, it will be in your failure to be able to duplicate it that you'll actually learn what's going on. It sounds really, really stupid, but in fact, you can read a page of text, right? And “Oh that was pretty good…” but you don't get any sense of the infinity of choices that were made in that text until you start trying to reproduce them.

Stay Focused
Decide that for the time you will be reading, you will focus on the book and nothing else. No quick Twitter checks. No emails. No cell phone. No TV. No staring into midair. Understanding and absorbing a book requires deep focus, especially if the subject matter is dense or complex. Remember, we are aiming for active reading. Active reading requires focus and the ability to engage with the author. (Focus is hard work. If you're lost, start here.)

Referring to the time before the internet, Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows: “In the quiet spaces opened up by the prolonged, undistracted reading of a book, people made their own associations, drew their own inferences and analogies, fostered their own ideas. They thought deeply as they read deeply.”

If you're struggling to stay focused on a particularly difficult or lengthy book, decide to read a mere 25 pages of it a day. It takes only a few minutes to nibble away at a challenging text. Completing a long book in this manner might take months, but at least you will have read it without getting overwhelmed or bored.

Mark Up the Book
Most of us were taught as children to treat books as something sacred – no folding the page corners, and no writing in the margins, ever. However, if you want to remember what you read, forget about keeping books pristine. I've spent a lot of time helping my kids unlearn the rule that books are not to be written in.

In fact, go crazy with marginalia. The more you write, the more active your mind will be while reading.

Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages, and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author. Some people recommend making your own index of key pages or using abbreviations (Maria Popova of Brain Pickings writes “BL” next to any beautiful language, for example).

The first time you write in a book can be unnerving, but in the long term, it leads to a rich understanding and a sense of connection with the author.

Billy Collins has written a beautiful poem on the joys of marginalia: “We have all seized the white perimeter as our own / and reached for a pen if only to show / we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages; / we pressed a thought into the wayside / planted an impression along the verge. /… ‘Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love.'”

Stop and Build a Vivid Mental Picture
Building vivid mental pictures is one of the most effective techniques for remembering anything, not least what we read. When you come across an important passage or concept, pause and visualize it. Make the picture as salient and distinctive as possible.

Make Mental Links
Books do not exist in a vacuum. Every concept or fact can be linked to countless others. Making an effort to form our own links is a fruitful way to better remember what we read.

Nicholas Carr writes in The Shallows:

The bond between book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiriting new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. And the very existence of the attentive, critical reader provides the spur for the writer's work. It gives the author confidence to explore new forms of expression, to blaze difficult and demanding paths of thought, to venture into uncharted and sometimes hazardous territory.

Keep Mental Models in Mind

Mental models enable us to better understand and synthesize books. Some of the key ways we can use them include:

  • Confirmation bias: Which parts of this book am I ignoring? Does this book confirm my opinions? (Okay, but does it actually affirm your beliefs or are you just seeing what you want to see? If you cannot think of a single point in the book that you disagreed with, confirmation bias is perchance distorting your reasoning.)
  • Bayesian updating: What opinions should I change in light of this book? How can I update my worldview using the information in it? Keep in mind the words of John Maynard Keynes: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”
  • Pareto principle: Which parts of this book are most important and contain the most information? If I had to cut 99% of the words in this book, what would I leave? Many authors have to reach a certain word or page count, resulting in pages (or even entire chapters) containing fluff and padding. Even the best non-fiction books are often longer than is imperative to convey their ideas. (Note that the Pareto principle is less applicable for fiction books.)
  • Leverage: How can I use lessons from this book to gain a disproportionate advantage? Can I leverage this new knowledge in a tangible way?
  • Incentives: What motivates the characters or the author? What are they seeking? What is their purpose? Here’s how Kurt Vonnegut described the importance of incentives in books: “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”
  • Availability bias: Are the books I have recently read affecting how I perceive this one? How are my neoteric experiences shaping my reading? Am I assigning undue importance to parts of this book because they are salient and memorable?
  • Stereotyping tendency: Am I unconsciously fitting the author, characters, or book in general into a particular category? Or is the author stereotyping their characters? Remember, there is no such thing as a good stereotype.
  • Social proof: How is social proof — the number of copies sold, bestseller status, the opinions of others — affecting my perception of this book? Is the author using social proof to manipulate readers? It is not unusual for authors to buy their way onto bestseller lists, providing social proof which then leads to substantial sales. As a result, mediocre books can end up becoming popular. It’s a classic case of the emperor having no clothes, which smart readers know to look out for.
  • Narrative instinct: Is the author distorting real events to form a coherent narrative? This is common in biographies, memoirs, and historical texts. In The Value of Narrativity in the Representation of Reality, Hayden White explains our tendency to meld history into a narrative: “So natural is the impulse to narrate, so inevitable is the form of narrative for any report of the way things really happened, that narrativity could appear problematical only in a culture in which it was absent… narrative is a metacode, a human universal… Narrative becomes a problem only when we wish to give to real events the form of story… This value attached to narrativity in the representation of real events arises out of a desire to have real events display the coherence, integrity, fullness, and closure of an image of life that is and can only be imaginary. The notion that sequences of real events possess the formal attributes of the stories we tell about imaginary events could only have its origin in wishes, daydreams, reveries. Does the world really present itself to perception in the form of well-made stories, with central subjects, proper beginnings, middles, and ends, and a coherence that permits us to see “the end” in every beginning? Or does it present itself more in the forms that the annals and chronicle suggest, either as mere sequence without beginning or end or as sequences of beginnings that only terminate and never conclude? And does the world, even the social world, ever really come to us as already narrativized, already “speaking itself” from beyond the horizon of our capacity to make scientific sense of it? Or is the fiction of such a world, a world capable of speaking itself and of displaying itself as a form of a story, necessary for the establishment of that moral authority without which the notion of a specifically social reality would be unthinkable?”
  • Survivorship bias: Is this (non-fiction) book a representation of reality or is the author failing to account for base rates? Survivorship bias is abundant in business, self-help, and biographical books. A particular case of a successful individual or business might be held as the rule, rather than the exception.
  • Utility: If a book offers advice, does it have practical applications? At what point do diminishing returns set in?

Put It Down If You Get Bored
As a general rule, people who love reading never, ever finish a crappy book.

As Schopenhauer once wrote, “one can never read too little of bad, or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.” Life is much too short to finish a bad book.

Nancy Pearl advocates the Rule of 50. This entails reading the first 50 pages of a book and then deciding if it is worth finishing. The Rule of 50 has an interesting feature: once you are over the age of 50, subtract your age from 100 and read that many pages. Pearl writes:

And if, at the bottom of Page 50, all you are really interested in is who marries whom, or who the murderer is, then turn to the last page and find out. If it's not on the last page, turn to the penultimate page, or the antepenultimate page, or however far back you have to go to discover what you want to know… When you are 51 years of age or older, subtract your age from 100, and the resulting number (which, of course, gets smaller every year) is the number of pages you should read before you can guiltlessly give up on a book…When you turn 100, you are authorized (by the Rule of 50) to judge a book by its cover.

Nassim Taleb also emphasizes the importance of never finishing a substandard book:

The minute I was bored with a book or a subject, I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether – when you are limited to the school material and you get bored, you have a tendency to give up and do nothing or play hooky out of discouragement… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading. So the number of the pages absorbed could grow faster than otherwise. And you find gold, so to speak, effortlessly, just as in rational but undirected trial-and-error-based research.

“The things you're looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine percent of them is in a book.”

— Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

After Reading

Most people think that consuming information is the same as learning information. This idea is flawed.

The basic process of learning consists of reflection and feedback. We learn ideas gained through experiences – ours or others – that remain unchallenged unless we make the time to reflect on them. If you read something and you don't make time to think about what you've read, your conclusions will be shaky.

The Feynman Technique
The Feynman technique is named after the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. You can think of it as an algorithm for guaranteed learning. There are four simple steps: choose a concept; teach it to a toddler; identify gaps and go back to the source material; and review and simplify.

Think About What You Can Apply
So, you've finished the book. Now what? How can you use what you have learned? Don't just go away with a vague sense of “oh yeah, I should totally do what that author says.” Take the time to make a plan and decide how to implement key lessons from the book.

Reading alone is not enough. We have to contextualize the knowledge. When does it work? When doesn't it work? Where can I apply it? What are the key variables? The list goes on. If you can take something you've read and apply it immediately, it will reinforce the learning and add context and meaning.

Teach What You Have Learned
Teaching others is a powerful way to embed information in your mind. This is part of the Feynman technique.

Upon completing a book, grab the nearest (willing) person and tell them about what you have learned. You'll have to remove or explain the jargon, describe why this information has meaning, and walk them through the author's logic. It sounds simple. After you try it the first time, you'll realize it's not easy.

If there is no one around who is interested, try talking to yourself. That's what I do … but maybe I'm crazy.

And if that doesn't work, write a review on Amazon or Goodreads, or post about it on Reddit or anywhere else where people are likely to be interested.

One of the benefits of our virtual reading group is that people are forced to actually think about what they are learning. We ask weekly questions on the assigned reading, and responses are diverse and thoughtful. The jargon goes away and people remove blind spots. It's incredible to watch. The result is that after reading a book with us, people say “I've retained so much more than I would have if I did it on my own.”

It was Schopenhauer who said, “When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process.” To escape this, you need to reflect on your views and see how they stand up to feedback.

Catalogue Your Notes
There are endless ways of organizing your notes – by book, by author, by topic, by the time of reading. It doesn't matter which system you use as long as you will be able to find the notes in the future.

Having a catalogue of everything you learn from reading creates a priceless resource which can be consulted whenever you need an idea, want inspiration, or want to confirm a thought. Over the years, you will build up a bank of wisdom to refer to in times of crisis, uncertainty, or need. It is hard to convey quite how valuable this can prove to be.

As General Mattis wrote: “Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before. It doesn't give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

The options for cataloguing your notes include:

  • A box of index cards, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading. Index cards can be moved around.
  • A commonplace book (again, ideally organized by topic, author, or time of reading).
  • A digital system, such as Evernote, OneNote, or plain old Microsoft Word. Digital systems have the added benefit of being searchable, which can save a lot of time if you refer to your notes on a regular basis.

Schedule time to read and review these notes.

Reread (If Necessary)

Great books should be read more than once. While rereading them can seem like a waste of time because there are so many other books to read, this is a misunderstanding of the learning process. The best time to start rereading a great book is right after finishing. The goal is not to read as many books as possible; I've tried that and it doesn't work. The goal is to gain as much wisdom as you can.

Rereading good books is of tremendous importance if we want to form lasting memories of the contents. Repetition is crucial for building memories. As Seneca wrote: “You should be extending your stay among writers whose genius is unquestionable, deriving constant nourishment from them if you wish to gain anything from your reading that will find a lasting place in your mind.”

There's no better way to finish this article than with the wise words of Henry Thoreau:

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations. Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage. They have no cause of their own to plead, but while they enlighten and sustain the reader his common sense will not refuse them. Their authors are a natural and irresistible aristocracy in every society, and, more than kings or emperors, exert an influence on mankind.

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The Art of Having an Informed Opinion

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

The first thing they always do is tell you what they think. When someone has an opinion about everything, they want to share it with you. They often tout stats and research as if they had an imaginary checklist of facts they need to be able to rattle off to establish themselves as an expert in a field they actually know very little about. Because they have an opinion on everything, they are quick to judge others – for their lack of opinions, for their lack of knowledge, for their lack of outrage … the list goes on.

I'm a firm believer that you can learn something from everyone. Sometimes that effort is more time-consuming than others. People who have opinions about everything barf so much noise that it's hard to find the signal. Your brain has to work overtime to figure out if they did the work to come up with their opinions themselves or if they're simply regurgitating some op-ed in a newspaper. Over time, opinionated people also end up in their own prisons and they try to take you with them.

The problem comes from how we see the world. Our opinions are often rooted in how we think the world should work, according to our morals, values, and principles. If we see the world through the lens of our opinions, much of what happens will not agree with us. This is feedback, and how we respond to this feedback is key.

The world never tells you that you're wrong; it only gives you outcomes.

When an outcome is not what you want it to be, things get tough. You can ignore the result and continue to think that you're right. This protects your ego. It also carries the risk of your continuing to believe something that isn't true. Alternatively, you can calibrate your believability on the subject at hand by lowering the odds that you're right. For example, maybe you gave yourself an 85 out of 100 for the ability to hold a firm opinion on this subject, and now you lower your score to 75. If the world continues to provide undesirable outcomes, eventually you get the hint and change your beliefs. Finally, you can give up your opinions and just respond to the world as it is. This option is the hardest.

People who can't change their minds never move forward. Worse still, they see themselves as heroes. And I mean “heroes” in the Hollywood sense. They hold opinions that have been proven wrong over and over again. And they pay a dear price.

They stop getting promoted. Their work colleagues avoid them. Their friends call less often. Their disagreeable dispositions mean that people don't want them around. They are prisoners of their beliefs. They want everyone to see that they're right. If they persist long enough, the only people they have in their circles are people who have the same (incorrect) worldview.

If you insist on having an opinion, carry a mental scorecard. Start it with 50/50 on all subjects and adjust it based on outcomes. Use a decision journal. When you're right – and “right” means that you're right for the right reasons – you raise your score. When you're wrong, lower the score. Over time, you'll calibrate your circle of competence.

If that sounds like a lot of work, just say, “I don't have an opinion on that; why don't you tell me how you got to have such a firm one? It sounds like I could learn something.”

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Life Lessons from a Self-Made Billionaire: My Conversation with Ray Dalio

Are you in love with your own ideas regardless of how good they are?
Would you like to make better decisions and fewer mistakes?
Would you like to improve the most important relationships in your life?

These are just some of the topics I discuss with my guest, Ray Dalio.

Ray Dalio is the founder of the world’s largest hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, and is the author of the new book Principles: Life and Work. He is also a leading figure in the world of philanthropy, is an avid supporter of transcendental meditation, and has appeared on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world. His recent TED Talk on the topic of an idea meritocracy has already been viewed over a million times.

Ray gave me over an hour and a half of his time, and I didn’t waste a minute of it. We cover a lot of ground, including:

  • How most people are caught up in the “blizzard” of noise and information, and how Ray learned to operate above it
  • How predicting a financial collapse just before one of the most prosperous eras in US history almost ruined him — and why he’s grateful he was wrong
  • Ray’s meditation practices and a simple exercise you can use to foster more creativity, be more insightful, and eliminate stress
  • The one question Ray started asking himself that instantly improved how he made important decisions
  • Why the best decision isn’t always the one you have in your head — and how to know when to sacrifice your favorite ideas in exchange for the best ideas
  • The “two yous” that wrestle inside everybody, and how to help them get along
  • Why “tough love” is the greatest gift you can give somebody
  • The most common mistake we make every day that can bring our progress to a screeching halt
  • The five-step process Ray uses after a mistake has been made to make sure learning and growth occur

And much, much more.

Look, when you get the chance to ask one of the world’s most successful people how they did it, you should probably listen to what they have to say. I guarantee this will be time well spent.

Enjoy!

Listen

Transcript

A full transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately.

Show Notes

Ray tells the story of punching his boss in his face. [00:02:34]
What a typical day is like for the manager of the world's largest hedge fund [00:04:00]
Shane asks Ray how he filters what's valuable and what's noise when so many people throw information at him [00:05:25]
How Ray came to Transcendental Meditation [00:06:24]
The basics of Transcendental Meditation [00:07:05]
Ray's biggest influences in the 1960s,1970s, and 1980s [00:10:01]
Reading versus experiences [00:11:39]
How did Bridgewater almost go bankrupt? [00:12:04]
One of the most valuable experiences of his life [00:14:40]
The value of thoughtful disagreement and radical open-mindedness [00:15:40]
Learning to look at history for knowledge [00:16:41]
How to use a decision journal [00:18:14]
How long did it take you to figure out the value of stress-testing ideas? [00:20:15]
Idea-meritocratic decision-making is the best decision-making [00:21:36]
There are two things you need to do to be successful [00:21:55]
Thoughtful disagreement is not an easy thing for people [00:22:22]
What is an idea meritocracy? [00:22:43]
The difference between an autocratic decision maker and a democratic decision maker [00:23:50]
What is believability? [00:25:13]
How do people transition into an idea meritocracy? [00:26:44]
The equal values of meaningful work and meaningful relationships [00:29:16]
How can you tell that someone will respond well to an idea meritocracy? [00:30:19]
Understanding whether you're a teacher, student, or peer [00:32:27]
What advice would you have for somebody who doesn't work in an idea meritocracy but wants to improve? [00:33:49]
Are people more successful at Bridgewater with some experience or straight out of school? [00:35:42]
Which one of the principles of an idea meritocracy is most often misunderstood? [00:36:45]
Why is “tough love” one of the best gifts you can give somebody? [00:38:12]
Has your implementation of the principles of idea meritocracy changed over the years? [00:39:44]
What technology tools do you use to aid in decision-making or giving feedback? [00:40:32]
“Pain + reflection = progress” [00:42:04]
Can you define a culture of radical transparency? [00:45:06]
Radical transparency isn't for everybody [00:46:27]
Due to technology, radical transparency is happening anyway [00:47:40]
When radical transparency goes wrong, how does it go wrong? [00:48:49]
The importance of environment [00:49:17]
“There's no disagreement about strengths…” [00:52:03]
How do you foster open-mindedness in yourself or in others? [00:52:33]
Are social gatherings similar to work gatherings? [00:54:05]
The two things that Ray requires in a relationship [00:55:36]
Do other organizations like Bridgewater? [00:56:17]
Is leadership innate or can it be learned? [00:57:43]
The leadership program at Bridgewater [00:59:55]
Who are the masterminds behind the development program at Bridgewater? [01:01:05]
“2017 is going from the second stage of my life to my third stage…” [01:02:55]
The three life stages [01:03:14]
Does Ron worry about the next generation of leadership at Bridgewater? [01:04:43]
How do the principles at Bridgewater extend to philanthropy? [01:06:13]
In what ways will the future be the same as today? [01:09:13]
First-order versus second-order consequences [01:12:11]
With the growth of algorithmic thinking, who is at risk of losing their job? [01:14:08]
Machine-created art versus human-created art: does it matter? [01:15:10]
What's the most common mistake that successful people make? [01:15:53]
Why are many successful people unhappy? [01:16:31]
The connection between community and happiness [01:18:12]
How would a Universal Basic Income interact with a person's need for purpose? [01:19:37]
Ray's wife's experiences with low-income schools and disengaged students [01:20:58]
What is the overarching decision-making process at Bridgewater? [01:23:28]
“Rather than thinking about what our decision is, we spent more time thinking about what our criteria for making our decision are.” [01:23:54]
Ray's five steps to success [01:25:58]
Is the reflection process the most important? [01:27:41]
What advice would you give to a class of high school students? [01:28:33]

People, Events, and Books

Ray’s TED Talk
Bridgewater Associates
President John F. Kennedy
Steve Jobs
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Mexican Debt Crisis
Vince Lombardi
Adam Grant and his book Originals
Robert Keegan and his book, An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization
Warren Buffett

Learn More About Ray

You can learn more about Ray on Twitter and Facebook or by visiting his website, www.principles.com.

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