Warren Berger: Improve Your Life by Improving Your Questions

The quality of your outcome depends on the quality of your questions. Through asking the right questions we can spark innovation and creativity, gain deeper knowledge in the topics that are most important to us, and propel us forward in our personal and professional pursuits.

Yet very few of us do it well — if we do it at all.

My guest on the podcast today is Warren Berger — journalist, speaker, best selling author, and self-proclaimed questionologist.

His insightful book, A More Beautiful Question, shows how the world’s leading innovators, education leaders, creative thinkers, and red-hot start-ups ask game-changing questions to nurture creativity, solve problems, and create new possibilities.

In this episode, we discuss the importance of asking the right questions, why they’re critical to your success, and how you may be one great question away from a major breakthrough.

You’ll also learn:

  • How Warren manages the constant input and stimulation from online consumption when it’s time to create.
  • The small habits that pack the biggest punch and make the most difference in Warren’s life
  • What makes a question more or less effective
  • How to create a culture where questions are welcome and encouraged
  • Why answering all your kids’ questions may be doing them a disservice — and what to do instead
  • What “collaborative inquiry” is and how to use it to get the most out of your teams in the workplace
  • How Warren transformed one of his most painful failures into one of his most proud achievements
  • Why Warren insists that everyone is creative, and what we can do to fan the flames of our own creativity

If you think you could improve the quality (and frequency) of your questions to enhance key areas of your life, this is not a conversation you’ll want to miss.



A transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($9).

Show Notes

You've gone from writing about business, then design, and now you're writing about questions. How did you find yourself at this moment in your career? [00:03:12]
Questioning is at the center of design thinking. [00:04:49]
What do you think of the state of freelance journalism today? [00:05:58]
Devaluing of journalistic content [00:07:14]
How do you personally filter and consume journalism and books? [00:08:05]
The enemy of creative: “There's so much media out there now that I feel like it's dangerous…” [00:08:50]
React Mode versus Create Mode [00:09:36]
How do you manage React Modes and Create Modes? [00:10:20]
Creating in a (metaphorical) cave [00:11:07]
“I have no choice, but to actually create something, because otherwise there's nothing else to do.” [00:11:55]
Does React Mode have to be in the morning? [00:12:06]
Find a routine that works for the individual. [00:13:46]
Manager's Schedule versus Creator's Schedule [00:14:32]
How do you make yourself focus? [00:15:59]
How do you say “no” to opportunities? [00:17:14]
The importance of creating sacred time blocks [00:18:06]
What kinds of things do you regret saying “yes” to? [00:18:46]
Using caution when agreeing to travel to event [00:20:09]
How much reading do you do? [00:20:46]
How do you organize your notes while writing a book? [00:21:58]
Organizing printed papers by subject [00:22:19]
Pruning the subject folders as you go [00:23:54]
Being creative on paper – literally [00:24:31]
The need to see everything in front of you at the same time [00:26:01]
Ken Burns' Vietnam documentary [00:27:10]
Getting Schooled by Garrett Keizer [00:27:58]
Do you stop reading if things aren't good? [00:28:58]
What would you say is the smallest habit that you have that makes a big difference? [00:29:32]
The importance of outdoor walking (or any slightly immersive activity) [00:30:04]
“Museums are the custodians of epiphanies.” [00:32:45]
What's the most surprising thing about creativity? [00:33:35]
Creativity and questioning seem to decline as we age. [00:33:59]
“We do not get rewarded for questioning.” [00:37:19]
“Questioning is seen as inefficient.” [00:38:47]
The “uncoolness” of asking questions. [00:39:39]
How “knowledge” gets in the way of asking. [00:40:45]
Innovation is about being the one who asks questions. [00:41:28]
What's the relationship between questions and being more creative? [00:41:41]
“Questioning is a tool that enables us to organize our thinking around what we don't know.” (The Right Question Institute) [00:42:15]
The awareness of what you don't know. [00:42:40]
The importance of questions for innovators in a variety of fields [00:43:45]
How can you coach people to improve their questioning skills? [00:46:07]
“A good question is a question that's rooted in curiosity.” [00:47:10]
The value of the outsider [00:48:43]
Why would an expert ask a novice question? [00:51:20]
What should parent or teacher do when children ask questions all of the time? [00:52:42]
Adults aren't simply “answer machines” for children – but they can be good question coaches [00:53:34]
Ownership of a question [00:54:54]
What do you struggle with more: questioning others or answering others? [00:56:15]
The problem of giving overly definitive answers [00:56:35]
How do you get a group of people to work on the same question? [00:58:19]
What is Collaborative Inquiry? [00:58:37]
Mission Statement or Mission Question (“How might we…?”) [01:00:24]
Who had the most impact on you intellectually when you were young? [01:03:29]
Warren talks about what he learned from the reaction to his book, Glimmer. [01:05:49]
The seeds of success can be found in failure. [01:09:34]
The problem with being “happy” when you fail. [01:11:25]
What's a common piece of advice about creativity that you're not buying? [01:15:38]
Everybody is creative. Don't separate “creatives” and “non-creatives”. [01:16:04]
The backlash to open office culture. [01:18:40]

People and Things Mentioned

Paul Graham
Ken Burns’ The Vietnam War
Getting Schooled by Garrett Keizer

Learn more about Warren on his website, Twitter, and through A More Beautiful Question.

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A complete list of all of our podcast episodes.


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Empathy and Decision Making: Making Compassionate Decisions

“The biggest deficit that we have in our society and in the world right now is an empathy deficit. We are in great need of people being able to stand in somebody else's shoes and see the world through their eyes.”

— Barack Obama

You don’t have to look hard to find quotes expounding the need for more empathy in society. As with Barack Obama’s quote above, we are encouraged to actively build empathy with others — especially those who are different from us. The implicit message in these pleas is that empathy will make us treat each other with more respect and caring and will help reduce violence. But is this true? Does empathy make us appreciate others, help us behave in moral ways, or help us make better decisions?

These are questions Paul Bloom tackles in his book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion. As the title suggests, Bloom’s book makes a case against empathy as an inherent force for good and takes a closer look at what empathy is (and is not), how empathy works in our brains, how empathy can lead to immoral outcomes despite our best intentions, and how we can improve our ability to have a positive impact by strengthening our intelligence, compassion, self-control, and ability to reason.

To explore these questions, we first need to define what we’re talking about.

What Is Empathy?

Empathy is an often-used word that can mean different things. Bloom quotes one team of empathy researchers who joke that “there are probably nearly as many definitions of empathy as people working on this topic.” For his part, Bloom defines empathy as “the act of coming to experience the world as you think someone else does.” This type of empathy was explored by philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment. Bloom writes:

As Adam Smith put it, we have the capacity to think about another person and “place ourselves in his situation and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, though weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them.”

This is the definition and view of empathy that Bloom devotes most of the book to exploring. This is the “standing in another man’s shoes” type of empathy from Barack Obama’s quote above, which Bloom calls emotional empathy.

“I feel your pain” is more than a metaphor. It's literal.

With emotional empathy, you actually experience a weaker degree of what somebody else feels. Researchers in recent years have been able to show that empathic responses of pain occur in the same area of the brain where real pain is experienced.

So “I feel your pain” isn’t just a gooey metaphor; it can be made neurologically literal: Other people’s pain really does activate the same brain area as your own pain, and more generally, there is neural evidence for a correspondence between self and other.

To make the shoe metaphor literal, imagine that you see somebody drop something heavy on their foot — you flinch because you know what this feels like and the parts of your brain that experience pain (the anterior insula and the cingulate cortex) react. You don’t feel the same degree of pain, of course — you didn’t drop anything on your foot after all — but it is likely that you have an involuntary physical reaction like a flinch, a facial grimace, or an audible outburst. This is an emotionally empathic response.

But there is another form of empathy that Bloom wants us to be aware of and consider differently. It relates to our ability to understand what is going on in the minds of others. Bloom refers to this form as cognitive empathy:

… if I understand that you are in pain without feeling it myself, this is what psychologists describe as social cognition, social intelligence, mind reading, theory of mind, or mentalizing. It's also sometimes described as a form of empathy—“cognitive empathy” as opposed to “emotional empathy.”

In this sense, cognitive empathy speaks to our capacity to understand what is going on in the minds of others. In the case of pain, which is where a lot of empathy research is done, we’re not talking about feeling any degree of pain, as we might with emotional empathy, but instead, we simply understand that the other person is feeling pain without feeling it ourselves. Cognitive empathy goes beyond pain — our ability to understand what is going on in somebody else’s mind is an important part of being human and is necessary for us to relate to each other.

Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics.

The brain is, of course, very complicated, so it is plausible that these two types of empathy could take place in the same part of the brain. So far, though, the research seems to indicate that they are largely separate:

In a review article, Jamil Zaki and Kevin Ochsner note that hundreds of studies now support a certain perspective on the mind, which they call “a tale of two systems.” One system involves sharing the experience of others, what we’ve called empathy; the other involves inferences about the mental states of others—mentalizing or mind reading. While they can both be active at once, and often are, they occupy different parts of the brain. For instance, the medial prefrontal cortex, just behind the forehead, is involved in mentalizing, while the anterior cingulate cortex, sitting right behind that, is involved in empathy.

The difference between cognitive and emotional empathy is important for understanding Bloom’s arguments. From Bloom’s perspective, cognitive empathy is “…a useful and necessary tool for anyone who wishes to be a good person—but it is morally neutral.” On the other hand, Bloom believes that emotional empathy is “morally corrosive,” and the bulk of his attack is directed at highlighting the pitfalls of relying on emotional empathy while making the case for cultivating and practicing “rational compassion” instead.

I believe that the capacity for emotional empathy, described as “sympathy” by philosophers such as Adam Smith and David Hume, often simply known as “empathy” and defended by so many scholars, theologians, educators, and politicians, is actually morally corrosive. If you are struggling with a moral decision and find yourself trying to feel someone else’s pain or pleasure, you should stop. This empathic engagement might give you some satisfaction, but it’s not how to improve things and can lead to bad decisions and bad outcomes. Much better to use reason and cost-benefit analysis, drawing on a more distanced compassion and kindness.

Here again, the definition of the terms is important for understanding the argument. Empathy and compassion are synonyms in many dictionaries and used interchangeably by many, but they have different characteristics. Bloom outlines the difference:

… compassion and concern are more diffuse than empathy. It is weird to talk about having empathy for the millions of victims of malaria, say, but perfectly normal to say that you are concerned about them or feel compassion for them. Also, compassion and concern don’t require mirroring of others’ feelings. If someone works to help the victims of torture and does so with energy and good cheer, it doesn’t seem right to say that as they do this, they are empathizing with the individuals they are helping. Better to say that they feel compassion for them.

Bloom references a review paper written by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki to help make the distinction clear. Singer and Klimecki write:

In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

To summarize, emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Emotional empathy could be simply described as “feeling what others feel,” cognitive empathy as “understanding what others feel,” and compassion as “caring about how others feel.”

Empathy and Morality

Many people believe that our ability to empathize is the basis for morality because it causes us to consider our actions from another’s perspective. “Treat others as you would like to be treated” is the basic morality lesson repeated thousands of times to children all over the world.

In this way, empathy can lead us to rely on our self-centered nature. If this is true, Bloom suggests that the argument in its simplest form would go like this:

Everyone is naturally interested in him- or herself; we care most about our own pleasure and pain. It requires nothing special to yank one’s hand away from a flame or to reach for a glass of water when thirsty. But empathy makes the experiences of others salient and important—your pain becomes my pain, your thirst becomes my thirst, and so I rescue you from the fire or give you something to drink. Empathy guides us to treat others as we treat ourselves and hence expands our selfish concerns to encompass others.

In this way, the willful exercise of empathy can motivate kindness that would never have otherwise occurred. Empathy can make us care about a slave, or a homeless person, or someone in solitary confinement. It can put us into the mind of a gay teenager bullied by his peers, or a victim of rape. We can empathize with a member of a despised minority or someone suffering from religious persecution in a faraway land. All these experiences are alien to me, but through the exercise of empathy, I can, in some limited way, experience them myself, and this makes me a better person.

When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.

When we consider the plight of others by imagining ourselves in their situation, we experience an empathic response that can cause us to evaluate the morality of our actions.

In an interview, Steven Pinker hypothesizes that it was an increase in empathy, made possible by the technology of the printing press and the resulting increase in literacy, that led to the Humanitarian Revolution during the Enlightenment. The increase in empathy brought about by our ability to read accounts of violent punishments like disembowelment and mutilation caused us to reconsider the morality of treating other human beings in such ways.

So in certain instances, empathy can play a role in motivating us to take moral action. But is an empathic response required to do so?

To use a classic example from philosophy—first thought up by the Chinese philosopher Mencius—imagine that you are walking by a lake and see a young child struggling in shallow water. If you can easily wade into the water and save her, you should do it. It would be wrong to keep walking.

What motivates this good act? It is possible, I suppose, that you might imagine what it feels like to be drowning, or anticipate what it would be like to be the child’s mother or father hearing that she drowned. Such empathic feelings could then motivate you to act. But that is hardly necessary. You don’t need empathy to realize that it’s wrong to let a child drown. Any normal person would just wade in and scoop up the child, without bothering with any of this empathic hoo-ha.

And so there has to be more to morality than empathy. Our decisions about what’s right and what’s wrong, and our motivations to act, have many sources. One’s morality can be rooted in a religious worldview or a philosophical one. It can be motivated by a more diffuse concern for the fates of others—something often described as concern or compassion…

I hope most people reading this would agree that failing to attempt to save a drowning child or supporting or perpetrating violent punishments like disembowelment would be at the very least morally reprehensible, if not outright evil.

But what motivates people to be “evil”? For researchers like Simon Baron-Cohen, evil is defined as “empathy erosion” — truly evil people lack the capacity to empathize, and it is this lack of empathy that causes them to act in evil ways. Bloom looks at the question of what causes people to be evil from a slightly different angle:

Indeed, some argue that the myth of pure evil gets things backward. That is, it’s not that certain cruel actions are committed because the perpetrators are self-consciously and deliberatively evil. Rather it is because they think they are doing good. They are fueled by a strong moral sense.

When the perpetrators of violence or cruelty believe that their actions are morally justified, what motivates them? Bloom suggests that it can be empathy. Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with. We see this tendency play out in politics all the time.

Empathy often causes us to choose sides, to choose whom to empathize with.

Politicians representing one side believe they are saving the world, while representatives on the other side believe that their adversaries are out to destroy civilization as we know it. If I believe that I am protecting a person or group of people whom I choose to empathize with, then I may be motivated to act in a way I believe is morally justified, even though others may believe that I have harmed them.

Steven Pinker weighed in on this issue when he wrote the following in The Better Angels of our Nature:

If you added up all the homicides committed in pursuit of self-help justice, the casualties of religious and revolutionary wars, the people executed for victimless crimes and misdemeanors, and the targets of ideological genocides, they would surely outnumber the fatalities from amoral predation and conquest.

Bloom quotes Pinker and goes on to write:

Henry Adams put this in stronger terms, with regard to Robert E. Lee: “It's always the good men who do the most harm in the world.”

This might seem perverse. How can good lead to evil? One thing to keep in mind here is that we are interested in beliefs and motivations, not what’s good in some objective sense. So the idea isn’t that evil is good; rather, it’s that evil is done by those who think they are doing good.

So from a moral perspective, empathy can lead us astray. We may believe we are doing good or that our actions are justified but this may not necessarily be true for all involved. This is especially troublesome when we consider how we are affected by a growing list of cognitive biases.

Empathy and Biases

While empathy may not be required to motivate us to save a drowning child, it can still help us consider the differing experiences or suffering of another person thus motivating us to consider things from their perspective or thus act to relieve their suffering:

I see the bullied teenager and might be tempted initially to join in with his tormenters, out of sadism or boredom or a desire to dominate or be popular, but then I empathize—I feel his pain, I feel what it’s like to be bullied—so I don’t add to his suffering. Maybe I even rise to his defense. Empathy is like a spotlight directing attention and aid to where it’s needed.

On the surface this seems like an excellent case for the positive power of empathy; it shines a “spotlight” on a person in need and motivates us to help them. But what happens when we dig a little deeper into this metaphor? Bloom writes

… spotlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

He adds:

Further, spotlights only illuminate what they are pointed at, so empathy reflects our biases. Although we might intellectually believe that the suffering of our neighbor is just as awful as the suffering of someone living in another country, it’s far easier to empathize with those who are close to us, those who are similar to us, and those we see as more attractive or vulnerable and less scary. Intellectually, a white American might believe that a black person matters just as much as a white person, but he or she will typically find it a lot easier to empathize with the plight of the latter than the former. In this regard, empathy distorts our moral judgments in pretty much the same way that prejudice does.

We are all predisposed to care more deeply for those we are close to. From a purely biological perspective, we will care for and protect our children and families before the children or families of strangers. Our decision making often falls victim to narrow framing, and our actions are affected by biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating and our tendency to discount the pain of people we don’t like:

We are constituted to favor our friends and family over strangers, to care more about members of our own group than people from different, perhaps opposing, groups. This fact about human nature is inevitable given our evolutionary history. Any creature that didn’t have special sentiments toward those that shared its genes and helped it in the past would get its ass kicked from a Darwinian perspective; it would falter relative to competitors with more parochial natures. This bias to favor those close to us is general—it influences who we readily empathize with, but it also influences who we like, who we tend to care for, who we will affiliate with, who we will punish, and so on.

There are many causes for human biases — empathy is only one — but taking a step back, we can see how the intuitive gut responses motivated by emotional empathy can negatively affect our ability to make rational decisions.

Empathy’s narrow focus, specificity, and innumeracy mean that it’s always going to be influenced by what captures our attention, by racial preferences, and so on. It’s only when we escape from empathy and rely instead on the application of rules and principles or a calculation of costs and benefits that we can, to at least some extent, become fair and impartial.

While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry. Our preferences for whom to help or which organizations to support are affected by our biases. If we’re not careful, empathy can affect our ability to see the potential impacts of our actions. However, considering these impacts takes much more than empathy and a desire to do good; it takes awareness of our biases and mental effort to combat their effects:

… doing actual good, instead of doing what feels good, requires dealing with complex issues and being mindful of exploitation from competing, sometimes malicious and greedy, interests. To do so, you need to step back and not fall into empathy traps. The conclusion is not that one shouldn’t give, but rather that one should give intelligently, with an eye toward consequences.

In addition to biases like Liking/Loving and Disliking/Hating, empathy can lead to biases related to the Representative Heuristic. Actions motivated by empathy often fail to take the broader picture into account; the spotlight doesn’t encourage us to consider base rates or sample size when we make our decisions. Instead, we are motivated by positive emotions for a specific individual or small group:

Empathy is limited as well in that it focuses on specific individuals. Its spotlight nature renders it innumerate and myopic: It doesn’t resonate properly to the effects of our actions on groups of people, and it is insensitive to statistical data and estimated costs and benefits.

Part of the challenge that exists with empathy is this innumeracy that Bloom describes. It is impossible for us to form genuine empathic connections with abstractions. Conversely, if we see the suffering of one, empathy can motivate us to help make it stop. As Mother Theresa said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” This is what psychologists call “the identifiable victim effect.”

While many of us are motivated to be good and to make good decisions, it isn’t always cut and dry.

Perhaps an example will help illustrate.  On October 17, 1987, 18-month-old Jessica McClure fell 22 feet down an eight-inch-diameter well in the backyard of her home in Midland, Texas. Over the next 2 ½ days, fire, police, and volunteer rescuers worked around the clock to save her. Media coverage of the emergency was broadcast all over the world resulting in Jessica McClure becoming internationally known as “Baby Jessica” and prompting then-President Ronald Reagan to proclaim that “…everybody in America became the godmothers and godfathers of Jessica while this was going on.” The intense coverage and global awareness led to an influx of donations, resulting in an $800,000 trust being established in Jessica’s name.

What prompted this massive outpouring of concern and support? There are millions of children in need every day all over the world. How many of the people who sent donations to Baby Jessica had ever tried to help these faceless children? In the case of Baby Jessica, they had an identifiable victim, and empathy motivated many of them to help Jessica and her family. They could imagine what it might feel like for those poor parents and they felt genuine concern for the child’s future; all the other needy children around the world were statistical abstractions. This ability to identify and put a face on the suffering child and their family enables us to experience an empathic response with them, but the random children and their families remain empathically out of reach.

None of this is to say that rescuers should not have worked to save Jessica McClure — she was a real-world example of Mencius’s proverbial drowning child — but there are situations every day where we choose to help individuals at the cost of the continued suffering of others. Our actions often have diffuse and unknowable impacts.

If our concern is driven by thoughts of the suffering of specific individuals, then it sets up a perverse situation in which the suffering of one can matter more than the suffering of a thousand.

Furthermore, not only are we more likely to empathize with the identifiable victim, our empathy has its limits in scale as well. If we hear that an individual in a faraway land is suffering, we may have an empathic response, but will that response be increased proportionally if we learned that thousands or millions of people suffered? Adam Smith got to the heart of this question in The Theory of Moral Sentiments when he wrote:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connection with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labors of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquility, as if no such accident had happened.

Empathy can inadvertently motivate us to act to save the one at the expense of the many. While the examples provided are by no means clear-cut issues, it is worth considering how the morality or goodness of our actions to help the few may have negative consequences for the many.

Charlie Munger has written and spoken about the Kantian Fairness Tendency, in which he suggests that for certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.

For certain systems to be moral to the many, they must be unfair to the few.

Empathy and Reason

We are emotional creatures, then, but we are also rational beings, with the capacity for rational decision-making. We can override, deflect, and overrule our passions, and we often should do so. It’s not hard to see this for feelings like anger and hate—it’s clear that these can lead us astray, that we do better when they don’t rule us and when we are capable of circumventing them.

While we need kindness and compassion and we should strive to be good people making good decisions, we are not necessarily well served by empathy in this regard; emotional empathy’s negatives often outweigh its positives. Instead, we should rely on our capacity to reason and control our emotions. Empathy is not something that can be removed or ignored; it is a normal function of our brains after all, but we can and do combine reason with our natural instincts and intuitions:

The idea that human nature has two opposing facets—emotion versus reason, gut feelings versus careful, rational deliberation—is the oldest and most resilient psychological theory of all. It was there in Plato, and it is now the core of the textbook account of cognitive processes, which assumes a dichotomy between “hot” and “cold” mental processes, between an intuitive “System 1” and a deliberative “System 2.”

We know from Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow that these two systems are not inherently separate in practice. They are both functioning in our brains at the same time.

Some decisions are made faster due to heuristics and intuitions from experiences or our biology, while other decisions are made in a more deliberative and slow fashion using reason. Bloom writes:

We go through a mental process that is typically called “choice,” where we think about the consequences of our actions. There is nothing magical about this. The neural basis of mental life is fully compatible with the existence of conscious deliberation and rational thought—with neural systems that analyze different options, construct logical chains of argument, reason through examples and analogies, and respond to the anticipated consequences of actions.

We have an impulsive, emotional, and intuitive decision-making system in System 1 and a deliberative, reasoning, and (sometimes) rational decision-making system in System 2.

We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than leveraging our ability to empathize

We will always have emotional reactions, but on average our decision making will be better served by improving our ability to reason rather than by leveraging our ability to empathize. One way to increase our ability to reason is to focus on improving our self-control:

Self-control can be seen as the purest embodiment of rationality in that it reflects the working of a brain system (embedded in the frontal lobe, the part of the brain that lies behind the forehead) that restrains our impulsive, irrational, or emotive desires.

While Bloom is unabashedly against empathy as an inherent force for good in the world, he is also a firm supporter of being and doing good. He believes that the “feeling with” nature of emotional empathy leads us to make biased and bad decisions despite our best intentions and that we should instead foster and encourage the “caring for” nature of compassion while combining it with our intelligence, self-control, and ability to reason:

… none of this is to deny the importance of traits such as compassion and kindness. We want to nurture these traits in our children and work to establish a culture that prizes and rewards them. But they are not enough. To make the world a better place, we would also want to bless people with more smarts and more self-control. These are central to leading a successful and happy life—and a good and moral one.


[Editor's note: Where you see boldface in block quotes, emphasis has been added by Farnam Street.]

Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You

Consider the daily schedule of famed novelist Haruki Murakami. When he’s working on a novel, he starts his days at 4 am and writes for five or six continuous hours. Once the writing is done, he spends his afternoons running or swimming, and his evenings, reading or listening to music before a 9 pm bedtime. Murakami is known for his strict adherence to this schedule.

In contrast, consider the schedule of entrepreneur, speaker, and writer Gary Vaynerchuk. He describes his day (which begins at 6 am) as being broken into tiny slots, mostly comprising meetings which can be as short as three minutes. He makes calls in between meetings. During the moments between meetings and calls, he posts on just about every social network in existence and records short segments of video or speech. In short, his day, for the most part, involves managing, organizing, and instructing other people, making decisions, planning, and advising.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.”

— Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

The numerous articles we have all read about the schedules and routines of successful people like these often miss the point. Getting up at 4 am does not make someone an acclaimed novelist, any more than splitting the day into 15-minute segments makes someone an influential entrepreneur.

What we can learn from reading about the schedules of people we admire is not what time to set our alarms or how many cups of coffee to drink, but that different types of work require different types of schedules. The two wildly different workdays of Murakami and Vaynerchuk illustrate the concept of maker and manager schedules.

Paul Graham of Y Combinator first described this concept in a 2009 essay. From Graham’s distinction between makers and managers, we can learn that doing creative work or overseeing other people does not necessitate certain habits or routines. It requires consideration of the way we structure our time.

What’s the Difference?

A manager’s day is, as a rule, sliced up into tiny slots, each with a specific purpose decided in advance. Many of those slots are used for meetings, calls, or emails. The manager’s schedule may be planned for them by a secretary or assistant.

Managers spend a lot of time “putting out fires” and doing reactive work. An important call or email comes in, so it gets answered. An employee makes a mistake or needs advice, so the manager races to sort it out. To focus on one task for a substantial block of time, managers need to make an effort to prevent other people from distracting them.

Managers don’t necessarily need the capacity for deep focus — they primarily need the ability to make fast, smart decisions. In a three-minute meeting, they have the potential to generate (or destroy) enormous value through their decisions and expertise.

A maker’s schedule is different. It is made up of long blocks of time reserved for focusing on particular tasks, or the entire day might be devoted to one activity. Breaking their day up into slots of a few minutes each would be the equivalent of doing nothing.

A maker could be the stereotypical reclusive novelist, locked away in a cabin in the woods with a typewriter, no internet, and a bottle of whiskey to hand. Or they could be a Red Bull–drinking Silicon Valley software developer working in an open-plan office with their headphones on. Although interdisciplinary knowledge is valuable, makers do not always need a wide circle of competence. They need to do one thing well and can leave the rest to the managers.

Meetings are pricey for makers, restricting the time available for their real work, so they avoid them, batch them together, or schedule them at times of day when their energy levels are low. As Paul Graham writes:

When you're operating on the maker's schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That's no problem for someone on the manager's schedule. There's always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker's schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

It makes sense. The two work styles could not be more different.

A manager’s job is to, well, manage other people and systems. The point is that their job revolves around organizing other people and making decisions. As Andrew Grove writes in High Output Management:

…a big part of a middle manager’s work is to supply information and know-how, and to impart a sense of the preferred method of handling things to the groups under his control and influence. A manager also makes and helps to make decisions. Both kinds of basic managerial tasks can only occur during face-to-face encounters, and therefore only during meetings. Thus, I will assert again that a meeting is nothing less than the medium through which managerial work is performed. That means we should not be fighting their very existence, but rather using the time spent in them as efficiently as possible.

A maker’s job is to create some form of tangible value. Makers work alone or under a manager, although they might have people working with them. “Maker” is a very broad category. A maker could be a writer, artist, software developer, carpenter, chef, biohacker, web designer, or anyone else who designs, creates, serves, and thinks.

Making anything significant requires time — lots of it — and having the right kind of schedule can help. Take a look at the quintessential maker schedule of the prolific (to say the least) writer Isaac Asimov, as described in his memoir:

I wake at five in the morning. I get to work as early as I can. I work as long as I can. I do this every day of the week, including holidays. I don't take vacations voluntarily and I try to do my work even when I'm on vacation. (And even when I'm in the hospital.)

In other words, I am still and forever in the candy store [where he worked as a child]. Of course, I'm not waiting on customers; I'm not taking money and making change; I'm not forced to be polite to everyone who comes in (in actual fact, I was never good at that). I am, instead, doing things I very much want to do — but the schedule is there; the schedule that was ground into me; the schedule you would think I would have rebelled against once I had the chance.

The Intersection Between Makers and Managers

It is far from unusual for a person’s job to involve both maker and manager duties. Elon Musk is one example. His oft-analyzed schedule involves a great deal of managing as the head of multiple major companies, but he also spends an estimated 80% of his time on designing and engineering. How does he achieve this? Judging from interviews, Musk is adept at switching between the two schedules, planning his day in five-minute slots during the managerial times and avoiding calls or emails during the maker times.

The important point to note is that people who successfully combine both schedules do so by making a clear distinction, setting boundaries for those around them, and adjusting their environment in accordance. They don’t design for an hour, have meetings for an hour, then return to designing, and so on. In his role as an investor and adviser to startups, Paul Graham sets boundaries between his two types of work:

How do we manage to advise so many startups on the maker's schedule? By using the classic device for simulating the manager's schedule within the maker's: office hours. Several times a week I set aside a chunk of time to meet founders we've funded. These chunks of time are at the end of my working day, and I wrote a signup program that ensures [that] all the appointments within a given set of office hours are clustered at the end. Because they come at the end of my day these meetings are never an interruption. (Unless their working day ends at the same time as mine, the meeting presumably interrupts theirs, but since they made the appointment it must be worth it to them.) During busy periods, office hours sometimes get long enough that they compress the day, but they never interrupt it.

Likewise, during his time working on his own startup, Graham figured out how to partition his day and get both categories of work done without sacrificing his sanity:

When we were working on our own startup, back in the ’90s, I evolved another trick for partitioning the day. I used to program from dinner till about 3am every day, because at night no one could interrupt me. Then, I'd sleep till about 11am, and come in and work until dinner on what I called “business stuff.” I never thought of it in these terms, but in effect I had two workdays each day, one on the manager's schedule and one on the maker's.

Murakami also combined making and managing during his early days as a novelist. As with many other makers, his creative work began as a side project while he held another job. Murakami ran a jazz club. In a 2008 New Yorker profile, Murakami described having a schedule similar to Graham’s in his days running a startup. He spent his days overseeing the jazz club — doing paperwork, organizing staff, keeping track of the inventory, and so on. When the club closed after midnight, Murakami started writing and continued until he was exhausted. After reaching a tipping point with his success as a writer, Murakami made the switch from combining maker and manager schedules to focusing on the former.

In Deep Work, Cal Newport describes the schedule of another person who combines both roles, Wharton professor (and our podcast guest) Adam Grant.

To produce at your peak level you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Though Grant’s productivity depends on many factors, there’s one idea in particular that seems central to his method: the batching of hard but important intellectual work into long, uninterrupted stretches. Grant performs this batching at multiple levels. Within the year, he stacks his teaching into the fall semester, during which he can turn all of his attention to teaching well and being available to his students. (This method seems to work, as Grant is currently the highest-rated teacher at Wharton and the winner of multiple teaching awards.)

During the fall semester, Grant is in manager mode and has meetings with students. For someone in a teaching role, a maker schedule would be impossible. Teachers need to be able to help and advise their students. In the spring and summer, Grant switches to a maker schedule to focus on his research. He avoids distractions by being — at least, in his mind — out of his office.

Within a semester dedicated to research, he alternates between periods where his door is open …, and periods where he isolates himself to focus completely and without distraction on a single research task. (He typically divides the writing of a scholarly paper into three discrete tasks: analyzing the data, writing a full draft, and editing the draft into something publishable.) During these periods, which can last up to three or four days, he’ll often put an out-of-office auto-responder on his e-mail so correspondents will know not to expect a response. “It sometimes confuses my colleagues,” he told me. “They say, ‘You’re not out of office, I see you in your office right now!’” But to Grant, it’s important to enforce strict isolation until he completes the task at hand.

“A woodpecker can tap twenty times on a thousand trees and get nowhere, but stay busy. Or he can tap twenty-thousand times on one tree and get dinner.”

— Seth Godin, The Dip

The Value of Defining Your Schedule

We all know the benefits of a solid routine — it helps us to work smarter, look after our health, plan the trajectory of our days, achieve goals, and so on. That has all been discussed a million times and doubtless will be discussed a million more. But how often do we think about how our days are actually broken up, about how we choose (or are forced) to segment them? If you consider yourself a maker, do you succeed in structuring your day around long blocks of focused work, or does it get chopped up into little slices that other people can grab? If you regard yourself as a manager, are you available for the people who need your time? Are those meetings serving a purpose and getting high-leverage work done, or are you just trying to fill up an appointment book? If you do both types of work, how do you draw a line between them and communicate that boundary to others?

Cal Newport writes:

We spend much of our days on autopilot—not giving much thought to what we are doing with our time. This is a problem. It’s difficult to prevent the trivial from creeping into every corner of your schedule if you don’t face, without flinching, your current balance between deep and shallow work, and then adopt the habit of pausing before action and asking, “What makes the most sense right now?”

There are two key reasons that the distinction between maker and manager schedules matters for each of us and the people we work with.

First, defining the type of schedule we need is more important than worrying about task management systems or daily habits. If we try to do maker work on a manager schedule or managerial work on a maker schedule, we will run into problems.

Second, we need to be aware of which schedule the people around us are on so we can be considerate and let them get their best work done.

We shouldn’t think of either type of work as superior, as the two are interdependent. Managers would be useless without makers and vice versa. It’s the clash which can be problematic. Paul Graham notes that some managers damage their employees’ productivity when they fail to recognize the distinction between the types of schedules. Managers who do recognize the distinction will be ahead of the game. As Graham writes:

Each type of schedule works fine by itself. Problems arise when they meet. Since most powerful people operate on the manager's schedule, they're in a position to make everyone resonate at their frequency if they want to. But the smarter ones restrain themselves, if they know that some of the people working for them need long chunks of time to work in.

Makers generally avoid meetings and similar time-based commitments that don’t have a direct impact on their immediate work. A 30-minute meeting does not just take up half an hour of an afternoon. It bisects the day, creating serious problems. Let’s say that a computer programmer has a meeting planned at 2 pm. When they start working in the morning, they know they have to stop later and are prevented from achieving full immersion in the current project. As 2 pm rolls around, they have to pause whatever they are doing — even if they are at a crucial stage — and head to the meeting. Once it finishes and they escape back to their real work, they experience attention residue and the switching costs of moving between tasks. It takes them a while — say, 15 to 20 minutes — to reach their prior state of focus. Taking that into account, the meeting has just devoured at least an hour of their time. If it runs over or if people want to chat afterwards, the effect is even greater. And what if they have another meeting planned at 4 pm? That leaves them with perhaps an hour to work, during which they keep an eye on the clock to avoid being late.

Software entrepreneur Ray Ozzie has a specific technique for handling potential interruptions — the four-hour rule. When he’s working on a product, he never starts unless he has at least four uninterrupted hours to focus on it. Fractured blocks of time, he discovered, result in more bugs, which later require fixing.

In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain describes an experiment to figure out the characteristics of superior programmers:

…more than six hundred developers from ninety-two different companies participated. Each designed, coded, and tested a program, working in his normal office space during business hours. Each participant was also assigned a partner from the same company. The partners worked separately, however, without any communication, a feature of the games that turned out to be critical.

When the results came in, they revealed an enormous performance gap. The best outperformed the worst by a 10:1 ratio. The top programmers were also about 2.5 times better than the median. When DeMarco and Lister tried to figure out what accounted for this astonishing range, the factors that you’d think would matter—such as years of experience, salary, even the time spent completing the work—had little correlation to outcome. Programmers with ten years’ experience did no better than those with two years. The half who performed above the median earned less than 10 percent more than the half below—even though they were almost twice as good. The programmers who turned in “zero-defect” work took slightly less, not more, time to complete the exercise than those who made mistakes.

It was a mystery with one intriguing clue: programmers from the same companies performed at more or less the same level, even though they hadn’t worked together. That’s because top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said that their workspace was acceptably private, compared to only 19 percent of the worst performers; 76 percent of the worst performers but only 38 percent of the top performers said that people often interrupted them needlessly.

A common argument makers hear from people on a different schedule is that they should “just take a break for this!” — “this” being a meeting, call, coffee break, and so on. But a distinction exists between time spent not doing their immediate work and time spent taking a break.

Pausing to drink some water, stretch, or get fresh air is the type of break that recharges makers and helps them focus better when they get back to work. Pausing to hear about a coworker’s marital problems or the company’s predictions for the next quarter has the opposite effect. A break and time spent not working are very different. One fosters focus, the other snaps it.

Remember Arnold Bennett's words: “You have to live on this 24 hours of time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use … is a matter of the highest urgency.”

Is Sugar Slowly Killing Us? My conversation with Gary Taubes

It seems that nowadays, aside from religion and politics, one of the most hotly debated topics is that of nutrition.

Should we eat high carb diets? Low carb? High fat? High protein? What about wheat or gluten? Should we eat meat or adopt a vegan diet?

There are as many opinions as there are people — and books, magazines and websites are overflowing with information showing you the “right” way to eat and exercise to lose weight.

But if “eating less and moving more” is all it takes to lose weight and enjoy a healthy lifestyle, why are so many of us fat and getting fatter?

In today’s episode, I chat with Gary Taubes, bestselling author of three books, The Case Against Sugar (2016), Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It (2011) and Good Calories, Bad Calories (2007).

We talk about the sharp rise of obesity and diabetes in America, the structural hurdles to effective nutrition research, and explore the common myth that a calorie is just a calorie.

Here are a few other things you’ll learn in this interview:

  • How diets shifted in the last century, and what impact it’s having on our bodies today.
  • Why a carb isn’t just a carb — and why you should know the difference
  • Is the sugar industry the new Big Tobacco?
  • What role genetics play in our health, and how much is under our control
  • Why humans are so attracted to sugar and how to break the habit
  • Gary’s suggestions to improve your health, drop body fat and feel terrific
  • The benefits of fasting and how you can try it out yourself

And a bunch more.

If you think at all about your health, give this podcast a listen. And please add to the conversation by sharing your thoughts on Twitter or Facebook.




A transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($9).

Show Notes

  • What is Gary's daily diet? [00:02:18]
  • Is nutritional science in a worse state when compared to other areas of medical science? [00:03:10]
  • Gary historical take on nutritional science. [00:03:50]
  • What role does genetics pay in obesity and diabetes? [00:07:52]
  • Gary's thought on the Mediterranean diet. [00:09:57]
  • Statistics showing the increase in diabetes. [00:10:50]
  • Slow Motion Disasters [00:12:09]
  • Why are we seeing an increase in diabetes and obesity? [00:13:21]
  • Sugar's transition from luxury to staple. [00:15:49]
  • What sugar does inside our bodies. [00:20:17]
  • Why did diabetes specialists initially think that sugar didn't contribute to diabetes? [00:22:44]
  • How scientists discovered insulin resistance [00:24:48]
  • Why are people so attracted to sugar? [00:29:03]
  • Charles Mann on sugar as an addictive substance [00:32:24]
  • A history of “calories in, calories out” [00:33:43]
  • “Bringing this all back to insulin resistance…” [00:44:45]
  • There is very little discussion of the mechanisms that lead to obesity. [00:46:41]
  • What is the role of fibre? [00:48:42]
  • Denis Burkitt's role in bringing fiber into the conversation on obesity. [00:50:20]
  • The development of technology and the recent interest in gut biomes [00:55:52]
  • What has surprised Gary the most in his own research and exploration [00:57:03]
  • The Nutrition Science Initiative [00:57:53]
  • “If anything, at this point in time, we've done more harm than good.” [00:59:24]
  • What will it take for the nutritional research community to get more rigorous? [01:03:47]
  • How to use the research mindset from physics research to help support nutritional research [01:09:31]
  • What would your harshest critics say about your intellectual honesty? [01:12:39]
  • “I do have one advantage that [research scientists] don't have.” [01:16:16]
  • Will the sugar industry eventually be vilified like the tobacco industry? [01:20:25]
  • What practical tips can somebody take to improve and protect their own health? [01:24:15]
  • How Gary sometimes sees himself as the Grinch Who Stole Christmas [01:25:39]
  • What are the worst starchy vegetables? [01:29:27]
  • What's your take on gluten? [01:29:58]
  • One big problem with nutrition studies [01:32:23]
  • Fasting [01:33:13]
  • Gary's experiments with intermittent fasting [01:37:37]
  • What's the next subject that you're writing about? [01:38:22]


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29 of the Most Gifted and Highly Recommended Books

It started with a simple question:

What book (or books) have you given away to people the most and why?

The email was sent to an interesting subset of people I’ve interacted with over the past year — CEOs, entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, hedge fund managers, and more.

While not everyone replied, and some of those that did preferred not to have attributions to them, I think you’ll find the resulting list contains a lot of gems. One book is over $400. (We ordered that one and will share what we learn.)


“The way I give books away is basically I read a book I get excited about and then get it for like nine people over the next couple weeks and then move onto some other book I'm excited about and start pushing that on everyone. At the moment, I've been giving Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's Option B to a lot of people. Reading it helped me understand what someone mourning a loss is going through better than I ever had before. So the first people I thought of were those I know currently in mourning, and I sent it to most of them. Then I sent it to some other people who are close with the people who are grieving, because it's also very useful (and fascinating) as a guide for how to support someone coping with a loss.”
— Tim Urban, author of Wait But Why

Kennedy and King by Levingston. “The reason I am giving it is because I don’t think most people have a good enough understanding of the civil rights movement and why Trump is so reviled by those who made that progress in the ‘60s.”
— The source of this suggestion prefers to remain anonymous

“I started giving books away after I met Mohnish Pabrai and I saw that he was doing it. First book I gave away was the Checklist Manifesto. Now I am constantly giving books away – my own, those of friends, and those that I think will be interesting. Sometimes I just give away my own, personal copy, and sometimes I give away a number that I buy in from the publisher. Other books (that I’ve given away) have included: Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Shipping Man, Dangerous Odds by Marissa Lankester, Sapiens, Homo Deus, Cialdini’s Pre-suasion, Peter Bevelin’s books (Seeking Wisdom, All I Want To Know Is Where I'm Going To Die So I'll Never Go ThereA Few Lessons for Investors and Managers), Alice Shroeder’s biography of Buffett.”
— Guy Spier, Aquamarine Capital Management

“I make it a point to give everyone Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth by Nick Murray when they ask about my investing philosophy and my career. No single book has been more formative or more influential on how I give advice to others, and how I think about my own financial future.”
Downtown Josh Brown

Resilience by Eric Greitens. It’s a book I give someone whenever I find out they’re going through some type of adversity. In Resilience, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens (and now governor of Missouri) shares a series of letters written between him and a SEAL buddy who was going through a rough time in his life with alcoholism, job loss, and PTSD. Greitens calls upon his background in philosophy to provide insights and advice for his struggling friend on how to develop resilience in the face of adversity and suffering. Greitens’ book is by far the best I’ve ever read on the subject. Every page has some nugget of wisdom on how you can become more resilient to big adversities, or just life’s mundane struggles. Along the way you’re treated to personal war stories from Greitens’ SEAL days, as well as excerpts from Thucydides, Aristotle, and Aquinas.”
— Brett McKay, The Art of Manliness

Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull. The book is a cutting look into the machine gambling industry and the nature of addiction. It paints a telling portrait of who gets addicted and the games designed to take advantage of them.”
— Nir Eyal, author of Hooked

Chapters in My Life by Frederick Taylor Gates. Charlie Munger says that extreme outcomes – good and bad – often educate best. With useful detail, these memoirs recount the extreme good outcome of Gates, a Baptist minister with no business education or business experience, who came to be lauded by John D. Rockefeller as the greatest businessman he ever encountered, better than Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie.”
— Peter Kaufman, CEO of Glenair and Editor of Poor Charlie’s Almanack (I realize this is a very expensive book, so I’ve ordered it and will share what I learn with you).

The Power Broker – a perfect book on the relentless nature of accruing power, and how it can be wielded without a large public persona. As a counter-weight – Jane Jacobs' biography. One of the few people to defeat Bob Moses, AND she came to Toronto, AND the godmother of advocating for urban planning in a dense manner. Deep Work + So Good They Can’t Ignore You – Cal hit's the nail on the head – it's not about passion, it's about solving problems. Biographies – Arnold, Steve Martin, George Carlin – honest insight on how people succeeded, self-awareness, and more. Dumas' Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo. Just great fiction, and too many entrepreneurs don't take the time to appreciate that. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Sivers – just no-nonsense entrepreneur advice. No platitudes, not aspirational/inspirational – just the hard info.”
— Sol Orwell,

“I love gifting The Specialist, a tiny little book written in the ‘30s by Chic Sale. It’s about a fictional carpenter called Lem Putt, who builds crappers. But these outhouses are the most considered, the most empathetic constructions you can imagine. He’ll suggest techniques like locating the outhouse past the wood pile, so when folks are going out to use the bathroom, they can come back with wood in their hands, rather than making it obvious they've just been doing their business. When you see how much thought and craft can go into building a bogger, you understand how much better we can all be at our chosen craft. Oh, and because it has been around forever, it's fun gifting old school second hand versions, that feel like they've already inspired other folks to elevate their craft. I hope it makes the recipient feel more like they're receiving ancient wisdom that has already served others well.”
— Andy Fallshaw, CEO of Bellroy

The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop.”
— Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe

Frederick Lewis Allen's book The Big Change. It explains technology and social change better than any book I've come across. There are so many small lessons about how America works — culturally and economically — that I've never seen articulated elsewhere. “
— Morgan Housel, Partner at the Collaborative Fund

“I like to give The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Balthasar Gracián and The Waste Books by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Both are collections of aphorisms and notes around similar themes: how to live, how to grow and improve as a person, what success means, and how to understand and work with people as they are – not as we wish they would be. They are also quite witty, making them a joy to read. Gracián was a 17th-century Jesuit priest and administrator, and Lichtenberg was an 18th-century scientist and academic. Neither author is fond of the many failings of human behavior (many of which we’d categorize today as cognitive biases), and they don’t pull their punches. The aphoristic style also makes these books wonderful for repeated browsing. I’ve read them both many times, and every other page is dog-eared to mark a particularly insightful section. Time with either of these books is time well-invested.”
— Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA

“I run a small team of about 10 remote employees, and we have had to reinvent ourselves completely more than a few times in the decade Nerd Fitness has been in business. For that reason, I've given “Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson to everybody on Team Nerd Fitness – it's a fast, fun, thought-provoking parable that has helped us pivot faster, embrace change, and seek out challenges rather than shy away from them. When it comes to peers and friends, I've gifted Ryan Holiday's “Ego is the Enemy” more times than I can count (along with reading it multiple times myself) – it's a great reminder that we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to growth and success.”
— Steve Kamb, author of Level Up Your Life

The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk

hammurabi's code

Almost 4,000 years ago, King Hammurabi of Babylon, Mesopotamia, laid out one of the first sets of laws.

Hammurabi’s Code is among the oldest translatable writings. It consists of 282 laws, most concerning punishment. Each law takes into account the perpetrator’s status. The code also includes the earliest known construction laws, designed to align the incentives of builder and occupant to ensure that builders created safe homes:

  1. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction firm, and the house which he has built collapses and causes the death of the owner of the house, that builder shall be put to death.
  2. If it causes the death of the son of the owner of the house, they shall put to death a son of that builder.
  3. If it causes the death of a slave of the owner of the house, he shall give to the owner of the house a slave of equal value.
  4. If it destroys property, he shall restore whatever it destroyed, and because he did not make the house which he builds firm and it collapsed, he shall rebuild the house which collapsed at his own expense.
  5. If a builder builds a house for a man and does not make its construction meet the requirements and a wall falls in, that builder shall strengthen the wall at his own expense.

Hammurabi became ruler of Babylon in 1792 BC and held the position for 43 years. In the era of city-states, Hammurabi grew his modest kingdom (somewhere between 60 and 160 square kilometers) by conquering several neighboring states. Satisfied, then, with the size of the area he controlled, Hammurabi settled down to rule his people.

“This world of ours appears to be separated by a slight and precarious margin of safety from a most singular and unexpected danger.”

— Arthur Conan Doyle

Hammurabi was a fair leader and concerned with the well-being of his people. He transformed the area, ordering the construction of irrigation ditches to improve agricultural productivity, as well as supplying cities with protective walls and fortresses. Hammurabi also renovated temples and religious sites.

By today’s standards, Hammurabi was a dictator. Far from abusing his power, however, he considered himself the “shepherd” of his people. Although the Babylonians kept slaves, they too had rights. Slaves could marry other people of any status, start businesses, and purchase their freedom, and they were protected from mistreatment.

At first glance, it might seem as if we have little to learn from Hammurabi. I mean, why bother learning about the ancient Babylonians? They were just barbaric farmers, right?

It seems we’re not as different as it appears. Our modern beliefs are not separate from those of people in Hammurabi’s time; they are a continuation of them. Early legal codes are the ancestors of the ones we now put our faith in.

Whether a country is a dictatorship or democracy, one of the keys to any effective legal system is the ability for anyone to understand its laws. We’re showing cracks in ours and we can learn from the simplicity of Hammurabi’s Code, which concerned itself with practical justice and not lofty principles. To even call it a set of laws is misleading. The ancient Babylonians did not appear to have an equivalent term.

Three important concepts are implicit in Hammurabi’s Code: reciprocity, accountability, and incentives.

We have no figures for how often Babylonian houses fell down before and after the implementation of the Code. We have no idea how many (if any) people were put to death as a result of failing to adhere to Hammurabi’s construction laws. But we do know that human self-preservation instincts are strong. More than strong, they underlie most of our behavior. Wanting to avoid death is the most powerful incentive we have. If we assume that people felt and thought the same way 4000 years ago, we can guess at the impact of the Code.

Imagine yourself as a Babylonian builder. Each time you construct a house, there is a risk it will collapse if you make any mistakes. So, what do you do? You allow for the widest possible margin of safety. You plan for any potential risks. You don’t cut corners or try to save a little bit of money. No matter what, you are not going to allow any known flaws in the construction. It wouldn’t be worth it. You want to walk away certain that the house is solid.

Now contrast that with modern engineers or builders.

They don’t have much skin in the game. The worst they face if they cause a death is a fine. We saw this in Hurricane Katrina —1600 people died due to flooding caused in part by the poor design of hurricane protection systems in New Orleans. Hindsight analysis showed that the city’s floodwalls, levees, pumps, and gates were ill designed and maintained. The death toll was worse than it would otherwise have been. And yet, no one was held accountable.

Hurricane Katrina is regarded as a disaster that was part natural and part man-made. In recent months, in the Grenfell Tower fire in London, we saw the effects of negligent construction. At least 80 people died in a blaze that is believed to have started accidentally but that, according to expert analysis, was accelerated by the conscious use of cheap building materials that had failed safety tests.

The portions of Hammurabi’s Code that deal with construction laws, as brutal as they are (and as uncertain as we are of their short-term effects) illustrate an important concept: margins of safety. When we construct a system, ensuring that it can handle the expected pressures is insufficient.

A Babylonian builder would not have been content to make a house that was strong enough to handle just the anticipated stressors. A single Black Swan event — such as abnormal weather — could cause its collapse and in turn the builder’s own death, so builders had to allow for a generous margin of safety. The larger the better. In 59 mph winds, we do not want to be in a house built to withstand 60 mph winds.

But our current financial systems do not incentivize people to create wide margins of safety. Instead, they do the opposite — they encourage dangerous risk-taking.

Nassim Taleb referred to Hammurabi’s Code in a New York Times opinion piece in which he described a way to prevent bankers from threatening the public well-being. His solution? Stop offering bonuses for the risky behavior of people who will not be the ones paying the price if the outcome is bad. Taleb wrote:

…it’s time for a fundamental reform: Any person who works for a company that, regardless of its current financial health, would require a taxpayer-financed bailout if it failed should not get a bonus, ever. In fact, all pay at systemically important financial institutions — big banks, but also some insurance companies and even huge hedge funds — should be strictly regulated.

The issue, in Taleb’s opinion, is not the usual complaint of income inequality or overpay. Instead, he views bonuses as asymmetric incentives. They reward risks but do not punish the subsequent mistakes that cause “hidden risks to accumulate in the financial system and become a catalyst for disaster.” It’s a case of “heads, I win; tails, you lose.”

Bonuses encourage bankers to ignore the potential for Black Swan events, with the 2008 financial crisis being a prime (or rather, subprime) example. Rather than ignoring these events, banks should seek to minimize the harm caused.

Some career fields have a strict system of incentives and disincentives, both official and unofficial. Doctors get promotions and respect if they do their jobs well, and risk heavy penalties for medical malpractice. With the exception of experiments in which patients are fully informed of and consent to the risks, doctors don’t get a free pass for taking risks that cause harm to patients.

The same goes for military and security personnel. As Taleb wrote, “we trust the military and homeland security personnel with our lives, yet we don’t give them lavish bonuses. They get promotions and the honor of a job well done if they succeed, and the severe disincentive of shame if they fail.”

Hammurabi and his advisors were unconcerned with complex laws and legalese. Instead, they wanted the Code to produce results and to be understandable by everyone. And Hammurabi understood how incentives work — a lesson we’d be well served to learn.

When you align incentives of everyone in both positive and negative ways, you create a system that takes care of itself. Taleb describes Law 229 of Hammurabi’s Code as “the best risk-management rule ever.” Although barbaric to modern eyes, it took into account certain truisms. Builders typically know more about construction than their clients do and can take shortcuts in ways that aren’t obvious. After completing construction, a builder can walk away with a little extra profit, while the hapless client is unknowingly left with an unsafe house.

The little extra profit that builders can generate is analogous to the bonus system in some of today’s industries. It rewards those who take unwise risks, trick their customers, and harm other people for their own benefit. Hammurabi’s system had the opposite effect; it united the interests of the person getting paid and the person paying. Rather than the builder being motivated to earn as much profit as possible and the homeowner being motivated to get a safe house, they both shared the latter goal.

The Code illustrates the efficacy of using self-preservation as an incentive. We feel safer in airplanes that are flown by a person and not by a machine because, in part, we believe that pilots want to protect their own lives along with ours.

When we lack an incentive to protect ourselves, we are far more likely to risk the safety of other people. This is why bankers are willing to harm their customers if it means the bankers get substantial bonuses. And why male doctors prescribed contraceptive pills to millions of female patients in the 1960s, without informing them of the risks (which were high at the time). This is why companies that market harmful products, such as fast food and tobacco, are content to play down the risks. Or why the British initiative to reduce the population of Indian cobras by compensating those who caught the snakes had the opposite effect. Or why Wells Fargo employees opened millions of fake accounts to reach sales targets.

Incentives backfire when there are no negative consequences for those who exploit them. External incentives are based on extrinsic motivation, which easily goes awry.

When we have real skin in the game—when we have upsides and downsides—we care about outcomes in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. We act in a different way. We take our time. We use second-order thinking and inversion. We look for evidence or a way to disprove it.

Four thousand years ago, the Babylonians understood the power of incentives, yet we seem to have since forgotten about the flaws in human nature that make it difficult to resist temptation.