Category: Learning

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 1

“Peace is not a piece of paper,
but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

— Roger Fisher


(Don't want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Why are most negotiations so awful? Why do we go into them ready to defend our turf to the death, only to find that our opponent is doing the same? Roger Fisher argues that this is a natural outcome, but one that we need to learn to avoid if we’re going to get things done and maintain good relationships in life. His bestseller Getting to Yes shows the way.

Fisher graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1948, in the same class as Charlie Munger, and by 1958 he was a full-time professor. Over a long career specializing in high-stakes negotiation, Fisher played a role in the outcome of the Camp David Accords, the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, and the apartheid negotiations in South Africa, among other events. He operated at the highest level. (We've covered his ideas on giving better feedback before.)

In 1981, Fisher released his magnum opus, Getting to Yes, a short treatise on negotiating in a different way. Fisher recognized that the contentious, heels-dug-in style of most negotiators failed because it either failed to get results, or if it did, destroyed a relationship in the process. He asked the simple question: If being a hard-ass is one style and being a softie is another, is there a third, better style?

Yes there is, and Fisher called it Principled Negotiation. While most businesspeople are now aware of the term Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, and most are familiar with the phrase Hard on the issues, soft on the people, very few know that Fisher introduced those concepts in his bestselling book, and even fewer have actually read and applied what he had to teach.

So, how do we negotiate better?

An Intro to Principled Negotiation

How does principled negotiation differ from the traditional kind? It’s an attempt to create a win-win in a situation that doesn’t obviously offer one. And as we know, of the four kinds of possible relationships, win-win is the only sustainable one over time. That’s why we want to learn Fisher’s approach. Here’s how he describes it:

There is a third way to negotiate, a way neither hard nor soft, but rather hard and soft. The method of principled negotiation developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project is to decide issues on their merits rather than through a haggling process focused on what each side says it will and won’t do. It suggests that you look for mutual gains whenever possible, and that where your interests conflict, you should insist that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side. The method of principled negotiation shows you how to obtain what you are entitled to and still be decent. It enables you to be fair while protecting you against those who would take advantage of your fairness.

The most wonderful part of Fisher’s ideas on negotiation is that they don't require any secrecy. In fact, Fisher thinks it's just the opposite, saying that Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better. That’s our kind of strategy.

Step One: Separate the People from the Problem

Early in the book, Fisher lays out the goal of better negotiation with three criteria.

Any method of negotiation may be fairly judged by three criteria: It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible. It should be efficient. And it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties. (A wise agreement can be defined as one that meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and take community interests into account.)

The first step of the process is to separate the people from the problem. Fisher’s method of depersonalizing in negotiation is the same method he advises to give better feedback. Why? Because it works! People are emotional creatures — you and I included. In order to deal with each other fairly, we must do our best to move from personal attack into the realm of reason and merit, even when our every fiber is telling us to attack. If we don't, we miss a chance to build the exact sort of win-win relationship we’d love to have. We fail to understand people.

This human aspect of negotiation can be either helpful or disastrous. The process of working out an agreement may produce a psychological commitment to a mutually satisfactory outcome. A working relationship where trust, understanding, respect, and friendship are built up over time can make each new negotiation smoother and more efficient. And people’s desire to feel good about themselves, and their concern for what others will think of them, can often make them more sensitive to another negotiator’s interests.

On the other hand, people get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened. They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perceptions with reality. Routinely, they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say. Misunderstanding can reinforce prejudice and lead to reactions that produce counteractions in a vicious circle; rational exploration of possible solutions becomes impossible and a negotiation fails. The purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interest of both parties.

It’s important to understand the point: There are major transmission errors in a negotiating process. What’s heard is frequently not what’s said or intended. And once a negative feedback loop has been initiated, it can be very hard to pull out. A certain critical mass of bad blood ends the negotiation. This doesn't have to happen — one thing that separates us from lesser animals is the ability to resist our baser instincts when we know it’s a bad idea, and negotiation is an arena where we’d be wise to learn how to do so.


There are three areas to manage: Perception, Emotion, and Communication. Our biggest problem with perception seems to be successfully putting ourselves in the shoes of our adversary, or even seeing them as an adversary to start with. It’s almost impossible to influence somebody who you don’t empathetically understand, except through brute force — something we’re clearly not after. To be clear, just because you understand someone’s position doesn’t mean you agree with it. You may well change your mind, but even without that it allows you to consider the problem on its merits.

The emotional side is fairly simple: How do you feel during a negotiation and how does the other side feel? Fisher makes a great point in the book that we don’t need to be afraid to make our own emotions or theirs explicitI feel like you have not been fair with me thus far, and in order for us to make progress, we will need to establish mutual fairness as a goal. Otherwise, I think we will run into a stalemate.

The communication problem isn’t hard for anyone in a relationship to understand. When we’re in a contentious negotiation, both sides feel like they’re not being heard. Solving that problem requires deep listening skills and as with the perception issue, requires us to understand the person on the other side of the table at their level, not at ours. This feels impossible and unnatural, but it works. Think of the last time you felt someone truly understood and empathized with you. Did you feel contentious towards them?

In the end, the environment we want to create is that of two people sitting next to each other, trying to solve a problem together. Even if you don’t have a great relationship with the other party, or any relationship at all, it helps to make the other person feel like you’re in it together. Which brings us to the next point.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

This is the simplest and probably the most important aspect on principled negotiation: What do I really want? And what does the other guy really want? It’s the difference between saying you want an open window when what you really want is fresh air.

It’s not always as clear as it seems. Let’s take the case of a couple arguing over who’s going to do the dishes. Both people, in the moment, start to feel like it’s really about the damn dishes. But when we step back, we realize it’s probably more about fairness — we want to feel like both parties are chipping in. A sense of fairness is a deeply held human need. And thus, if we focus on creating fairness and using the elementary idea of leading by going first, then we can end the negotiation fairly. (I’ll do the dishes tonight and then we’ll trade every night, sound good?)

It’s this basic method of figuring out what you want and what they want, and satisfying each, that leads us to win-win style outcomes. Viewing a negotiation as something to be “won” is the best way to lose.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position, as Israel did, for example, in announcing that they intended to keep part of the Sinai. When you do look behind opposed positions for the motivating interest, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only our interests but theirs as well.

At the end of the day, all humans have the same basic needs like food, shelter, well-being, belonging, respect, and autonomy. Never violate these in a negotiation.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The key here is that we avoid being rigid in our solutions, and if we've taken the prior step seriously by focusing on interests, we can start getting creative with our problem-solving.

Let’s imagine you’re renting an apartment. It’s easy to think that you and the landlord are at odds — you want to pay the least amount of money and they want you to pay the most amount of money over the period of the rental. But that’s the wrong way to consider the problem. What you really want is to pay a fair price for a clean and well-maintained living space that you won’t get kicked out of. What the landlord wants is steady rent from a respectful tenant who won’t trash the place and is easy to deal with. Actually, most of your interests probably overlap. If you start any negotiation with that in mind, you’ll find it easier to get along.

Let’s say you're at odds regarding who pays for repairs: Agreeing to share the cost of repairs as long as they're completed promptly is where overlapping interests and incentives might create an agreement that could have been contentious. Outline the split, define what promptly means, and you have a settled point. If you were rigid about the problem — I refuse to pay for repairs! — you’d have lost.

Fisher lays out four pretty good reasons we fail to do this:

In most negotiations there are four obstacles that inhibit the inventing of an abundance of options: (1) Premature judgment; (2) searching for the single answer; (3) the assumption of a fixed pie; and (4) thinking that “solving their problem is their problem”.

Any negotiation can get pretty complex when all relevant interests are brought to the table, but the principle to heed is pretty simple: Where do our interests overlap, and where do they not? In the cases where they don’t, what is a mutually satisfying solution? This takes some creative thinking, of course. Rigidity doesn’t work. But if you realize that the car salesman is trying to make a living and wants a quick sale, and you want a good car at a low price, it’s not impossible to mutually satisfy those goals or exit the negotiation if they can't both be met. The “combat of negotiation” is only in our minds.

This doesn't mean you'd want to fold to end the negotiation without argument, or to give in. That's the “softie” style of negotiation. You should have your needs fairly satisfied. But you don’t need to do so at the expense of the other party if it can at all be avoided. Win-lose will eventually haunt you, whether you realize it or not.

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

What is fair? Sometimes in the process of trying to satisfy mutual interests we hit a roadblock in determining just what fair actually means. If two parties can’t agree here, it’s hard to create a win-win solution that maintains and builds the relationship. The usual way is to have a contest of wills. It’s worth $50. No, it’s worth $75! No, $50! And so on.

To solve this, Fisher insists on finding objective criteria by which to measure the fairness of proposed solutions. He’s gives a good example of how this can work in practice.

Suppose you have entered into a fixed-price construction contract for your house that calls for reinforced concrete foundations but fails to specify how deep they should be. The contractor suggests two feet. You think five feet is closer to the usual depth for your type of house.

Now suppose the contractor says: “I went along with you on steel girders for the roof. It’s your turn to go along with me on shallower foundations.” No owner in his right mind would yield. Rather than horse-trade, you would insist on deciding the issue in terms of objective safety standards. “Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe two feet is enough. What I want are foundations strong enough and deep enough to hold up the building safely. Does the government have standard specifications for these soil conditions? How deep are the foundations of other buildings in this area? What is the earthquake risk here? where do you suggest we look for standards to resolve this question?”

It is no easier to build a good contract than it is to build strong foundation. If relying on objective standards applies so clearly to a negotiation between the house owner and a contractor, why not to business deals, collective bargaining, legal settlements, and international negotiations?

The idea is to stick to principles over back-and-forth wagering. Refuse to trade tit for tat without setting some standards upon which the decision can be made. Are there a set of precedent transactions? Is there a market for the item? Is there an agreed upon method somewhere? Fisher refers to the sound parenting idea of having one child cut the piece of cake and the other choose the piece. No one can cry foul.

And so there are three main principles to abide by:

Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria.

Reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.

Never yield to pressure, only to principle.


Pressure can take many forms: a bribe, a threat, a manipulative appeal to trust, or a simple refusal to budge. In all these cases, the principled response is the same: invite them to state their reasoning, suggest objective criteria you think apply, and refuse to budge except on this basis. Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The last is worth cogitating on. When the heat comes, as it can in many negotiations, can you stick to your guns? If you’re in a traditional battle of wills, you may not be able to. But if you’ve taken some of the steps outlined here and stuck to objective criteria, sticking to the issue and not the person, you may find it’s a lot easier to hold your ground. In this way, fairness is helpful to you as much as to the other party.

Still Interested? Check out the book for a lot more depth on these topics. In Part 2, we address some negotiating questions like What if they are more powerful?, What if they won’t play?, and What if they use dirty tricks? Stay tuned.


Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp On How to Provide Feedback. When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance? The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot.

Dan Ariely takes us to Grand Bazaar to demonstrate the psychology of Negotiation.

Steven Pinker on What a Broad Education Should Entail

Harvard's great biologist/psychologist Steven Pinker is one of my favorites, even though I'm just starting to get into his work.

What makes him great is not just his rational mind, but his multidisciplinary approach. He pulls from many fields to make his (generally very good) arguments. And he's a rigorous scientist in his own field, even before we get to his ability to synthesize.

I first encountered Pinker in reading Poor Charlie's Almanack: Charlie Munger gives him the edge over Noam Chomsky and others in the debate over whether the capacity for language has been “built into” our DNA through natural selection. Pinker wrote the bestseller The Language Instinct, in which he argued that the capacity for complex language is innate. We develop it, of course, throughout our lives, but it's in our genes from the beginning (an idea that has since been criticized).

Pinker went on to write books with modest titles like How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and The Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The latter is a controversial one: Bill Gates loves it, Nassim Taleb hates it. You'll have to make up your own mind.


The reason for writing about Pinker is that, while re-reading William Deresiewicz's brilliant speech Solitude and Leadership, I noticed that he had an extremely popular piece about not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It's an interesting argument, though I'm not sure I agree with all of it.

A little Googling told me that Pinker, himself a professor at an Ivy League school, responded with an even better piece on why Deresiewicz was imprecise in his criticisms and anecdotes.

I was fascinated most by Pinker's discussion of what an elite education should entail. This tells you a lot about his mind:

This leads to Deresiewicz’s second goal, “building a self,” which he explicates as follows: “it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.” Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time.

I think we can be more specific. It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge. If on top of all this, students want to build a self, they can do it on their own time.

If this seems familiar to some of you, that's because it very closely parallels thoughts by Charlie Munger, who has argued many times for something similar in his demand for multidisciplinary worldly wisdom. We must learn the big ideas from the big disciplines. Notice the buckets Pinker talks about: 13 billion years of organic and inorganic history, 10,000 years of human culture, hundreds of years of modern civilization. These are the most reliable forms of wisdom.

So if the education system won't do it for you, the job must be done anyway. Pinker and Munger have laid out the kinds of things you want to go about learning. Don't let the education system keep you from having a real education. Learn how to think. Figure out how to spend more time reading. When you do, focus on the most basic and essential wisdom — including the lessons from history.

Of course, if you're reading Farnam Street, you're already on the right track.


Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler

Operating a screw is pretty simple as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity:

Just mate the grooves atop the screw's head to the appropriate tip-slotted or Phillips-of a screwdriver. What happens next is not as simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction.

My children remember this rule through a mnemonic taught by my spouse, “righty tighty, lefty loosy.” Personally I use the analogy of a clock, and map the clockwise motion of the hands to the positive penetration curve of the screw. Both methods are subject to a second layer of knowledge: knowing right versus left, or knowing what direction the hands of a clock turn. Thus operating a screw is not as simple as it appears. And it's such an apparently simple object!

So while the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it. Knowledge makes everything simpler. This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach-“I don't need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Maeda goes on to present a few of his design-informed approaches to “good learning.”

Use Your Brain

The doctrine of “the carrot or the stick” points to a choice between positive and negative motivation-a reward versus a punishment. I disagree when teachers give their students candy and other perks for correct answers, but I also disagree with a colleague at MIT who throws erasers at students that fall asleep during class.

Instead, my ten years of data as a professor show that giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn. It is said that a massive amount of homework is a kind of reward for the average over-achieving MIT student. But after recently experiencing student life myself, I've lost my masochistic attitude in favor of a holistic approach:

BASICS are the beginning.
REPEAT yourself often.
AVOID creating desperation.
INSPIRE with examples.
NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly. … the easiest way to learn the basics is to teach the basics yourself.

Maeda relates a lecture he attended to illustrate the point of simplicity.

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart's ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn't he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

We think that REPEATing ourselves is simple or even embarrassing. One of the biggest things I've had to overcome with public speaking was my fear of repeating myself. I used to catch myself saying the same thing and I'd just assume that everyone heard it the first time.

AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.

We all want to “wow” people from the beginning with the newest bells and whistles in an amazing new product, but sometimes “wow” can become “woah” and you need an aspirin to cope with the anxiety of the overwhelming aspects of the new. I dread upgrading software on my computer because I know how eager the new program will be to tell me its latest and most wondrous features. The strategy of “shock and awe” can discourage the shocked-and-awed as I learned by experiencing the vast chasm of knowledge between teacher and learner as an MBA student. I also became aware of how professors can unknowingly become insensitive in a university setting. A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

“INSPIRATION,” Maeda writes, “is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward.” The belief in something greater than ourselves (be it a person or mission) fuels our self-belief and adds direction.

And finally. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.


We've spoken before about the power of metaphors and how they shape our thoughts. While metaphors are great, if you surprise with a metaphor you create a positive emergent effect. Or, put another way, if you can surprise along an unexpected positive dimension, you create the possibility for a non-linear response.

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they SURPRISE along some unexpected, positive dimension.

The Real Reward

The real reward is learning. We learned to walk largely though trial and error. Not because daddy offered us $5. The reward was our own growth, something we've forgotten as we get older. We could just as easily learn today but we want immediate and usually financial reward.

Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know.” A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver's education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy. In the beginning of life we strive for independence, and at the end of life it is the same. At the core of the best rewards is this fundamental desire for freedom in thinking, living, and being. I've learned that the most successful product designs, whether simple, complex, rational, illogical, domestic, international, technophilic, or technophobic, are the ones that connect deeply to the greater context of learning and life.

The Laws of Simplicity is a great book that you should read.

Albert Bandura on Acquiring Self-Efficacy and Personal Agency

Albert Bandura

Psychologist Albert Bandura is famous for his social learning theory which is really more of a model than a theory.

He stresses the importance of observational learning. Who you spend time with matters. “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do,” Bandura explains.

There is an excerpt in Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed that explains how we can acquire and maintain the factors of personal resilience.

1. Seek to successfully demonstrate and repeatedly practice each of our five factors of personal resilience. Success is a powerful learning tool—Just do it! If the challenge is too large or complex at first, start by taking small steps in the desired direction. Don't try to achieve too much at first. And keep trying until you succeed. The first success is the hardest.

2. Observe resilient people. Use them as role models. Human beings learn largely by observation. Frequent venues where you can watch people exhibiting the skills you wish to acquire. Read books about people who have overcome obstacles similar to those you face. Call or write them. Ask them to share their lessons learned. Their successes will be contagious.

3. Vigorously pursue the encouragement and support of others. Affiliate with supportive and compassionate people who are willing to give of themselves to be supportive of you.

4. Practice self-control. In highly stressful times, myriad physiological and behavioral reactions occur. Physiologically, people experience the fight-or-flight response we mentioned in Chapter One. This cascade of hormones such as adrenalin better prepares you to fight or to flee a threat. They increase your heart rate, muscle strength, and tension. They dramatically improve your memory for certain things while decreasing your ability to remember others, and they cause your blood vessels to shift their priorities. This often results in headaches, cold hands and feet, and even an upset gastrointestinal system. The most significant problem, however, is that this very basic survival mechanism also tends to interfere with rational judgment and problem solving.

According to Bandura we need to control the stress around us so that it doesn't become excessive, in part because we often act without thinking in stressful situations.

People often act impulsively in reaction to stressful events, sometimes running away from them. Remember the 1999 movie Runaway Bride, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts? It was the fictional story of a woman who had a penchant for falling in love and getting engaged, then developing cold feet and leaving her fiances at the altars. On a more somber note, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, many veterans chose to retreat to lives of isolation and solitude. The stress of war and the lack of social support motivated many to simply withdraw from society.

Similarly, over many years of clinical practice, we have seen individuals who have great difficulty establishing meaningful relationships after surviving a traumatic or vitriolic divorce. It's hard for them to trust another person after having been “betrayed.” They exhibit approach-avoidance behaviors—engaging in a relationship initially but backing away when it intensifies.

Contrary to these patterns of escape and avoidance, sometimes people will impulsively act aggressively in response to stressful situations. Chronic irritability is often an early warning sign of subsequent escalating aggressive behavior. Rarely, although sometimes catastrophically, people will choose to lie, cheat, or steal in highly stressful situations. For years, psychologists have tried to predict dishonesty using psychological testing. The results have been uninspiring. The reason is that the best predictor of dishonesty is finding oneself in a highly stressful situation. So in highly stressful times, resist the impulsive urges to take the easy way out.

Also, remember to take care of yourself, physically as well as psychologically. Maladaptive self-medication is a common pattern of behavior for people who find themselves in the abyss. Alcohol has long been observed as a chemical crutch. Others that have only recently emerged are the myriad energy drinks on the market. Both of these crutches have been linked to numerous physical ailments and even deaths. If you are looking for the best single physical mechanism to aid you in your ascent from the abyss, it's establishing healthy patterns of rest and sleep.

But note the distinction between controlling and suppressing. Often controlling is impossible so we suppress and fool ourselves into thinking we're controlling. And suppressing volatility is often a horrible idea, especially in the long-run.

Instead of what's intended, we create a coiled spring that most often leads to negative leaping emergent effects. In the end this moves us toward fragility and away from robustness and resiliency.


If you're still curious, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind discusses a bit of this topic as well.

A Visual History of Human Knowledge

Infographics expert Manuel Lima, who brought us the amazing The Book of Trees: Visualizing Branches of Knowledge, has a TED talk on how knowledge grows, which ends up being a fascinating history of visualizations as well as an insightful look into our cultural urge to map what we know.

For a long period of time, we believed in a natural ranking order in the world around us, also known as the great chain of being, or “Scala naturae” in Latin, a top-down structure that normally starts with God at the very top, followed by angels, noblemen, common people, animals, and so on. This idea was actually based on Aristotle's ontology, which classified all things known to man in a set of opposing categories, like the ones you see behind me. But over time, interestingly enough, this concept adopted the branching schema of a tree in what became known as the Porphyrian tree, also considered to be the oldest tree of knowledge.

The branching scheme of the tree was, in fact, such a powerful metaphor for conveying information that it became, over time, an important communication tool to map a variety of systems of knowledge. We can see trees being used to map morality, with the popular tree of virtues and tree of vices, … with these beautiful illustrations from medieval Europe. We can see trees being used to map consanguinity, the various blood ties between people. We can also see trees being used to map genealogy, perhaps the most famous archetype of the tree diagram. … We can see trees even mapping systems of law, the various decrees and rulings of kings and rulers. And finally, of course, also a very popular scientific metaphor, we can see trees being used to map all species known to man. And trees ultimately became such a powerful visual metaphor because in many ways, they really embody this human desire for order, for balance, for unity, for symmetry.

However, nowadays we are really facing new complex, intricate challenges that cannot be understood by simply employing a simple tree diagram. And a new metaphor is currently emerging, and it's currently replacing the tree in visualizing various systems of knowledge. It's really providing us with a new lens to understand the world around us. And this new metaphor is the metaphor of the network. And we can see this shift from trees into networks in many domains of knowledge.

We can see this shift in the way we try to understand the brain. While before, we used to think of the brain as a modular, centralized organ, where a given area was responsible for a set of actions and behaviors, the more we know about the brain, the more we think of it as a large music symphony, played by hundreds and thousands of instruments. This is a beautiful snapshot created by the Blue Brain Project, where you can see 10,000 neurons and 30 million connections. And this is only mapping 10 percent of a mammalian neocortex. We can also see this shift in the way we try to conceive of human knowledge.

These are some remarkable trees of knowledge, or trees of science, by Spanish scholar Ramon Llull. And Llull was actually the precursor, the very first one who created the metaphor of science as a tree, a metaphor we use every single day, when we say, “Biology is a branch of science,” when we say, “Genetics is a branch of science.” But perhaps the most beautiful of all trees of knowledge, at least for me, was created for the French encyclopedia by Diderot and d'Alembert in 1751. This was really the bastion of the French Enlightenment, and this gorgeous illustration was featured as a table of contents for the encyclopedia. And it actually maps out all domains of knowledge as separate branches of a tree.

But knowledge is much more intricate than this. These are two maps of Wikipedia showing the inter-linkage of articles — related to history on the left, and mathematics on the right. And I think by looking at these maps and other ones that have been created of Wikipedia — arguably one of the largest rhizomatic structures ever created by man — we can really understand how human knowledge is much more intricate and interdependent, just like a network.

Why Early Decisions Have the Greatest Impact and Why Growing too Much is a Bad Thing

I never went to Engineering school. My undergrad is Computer Science. Despite that I've always wanted to learn more about Engineering.

John Kuprenas and Matthew Frederick have put together a book, 101 Things I Learned in Engineering School, which contains some of the big ideas.

In the author's note, Kuprenas writes:

(This book) introduces engineering largely through its context, by emphasizing the common sense behind some of its fundamental concepts, the themes intertwined among its many specialities, and the simple abstract principles that can be derived from real-world circumstances. It presents, I believe, some clear glimpses of the forest as well as the trees within it.

Here are three (of the many) things I noted in the book.


#8 An object receives a force, experiences stress, and exhibits strain.


Force, stress, and strain are used somewhat interchangeably in the lay world and may even be used with less than ideal rigor by engineers. However, they have different meanings.

A force, sometimes called “load,” exists external to and acts upon a body, causing it to change speed, direction, or shape. Examples of forces include water pressure on a submarine hull, snow loads on a bridge, and wind loads on the sides of a skyscraper.

Stress is the “Experience” of a body—its internal resistance to an external force acting on it. Stress is force divided by unit area, and is expressed in units such as pounds per square inch.

Strain is a product of stress. It is the measurable percentage of deformation or change in an object such as a change in length.

#48 Early decisions have the greatest impact.

Early Decisions Have Greater Impact

Decisions made just days or weeks into a project—assumptions of end-user needs, commitments to a schedule, the size and shape of a building footprint, and so on—have the most significant impact on design, feasibility, and cost. As decisions are made later and later in the design process, their influence decreases. Minor cost savings sometimes can be realized through value engineering in the later stages of design, but the biggest cost factors are embedded at the outset in a project's DNA.

Everyone seems to understand this point on the surface and yet few people consider the implications. I know a lot of people who make their career on cleaning up their own mess. That is, they make a poor initial decision and then work extra hours while running around with stress and panic as they clean up their own mess. In the worst organizations these people are promoted for doing an exceptional job.

Proper management of early decisions produces more free time and lower stress.

#75 A successful system won't necessarily work at a different scale.

Systems Scale

An imaginary team of engineers sought to build a “super-horse” that would be twice as tall as a normal horse. When they created it, they discovered it to be a troubled, inefficient beast. Not only was it two times the height of a normal horse, it was twice as wide and twice as long, resulting in an overall mass eight times greater than normal. But the cross sectional area of its veins and arteries was only four times that of a normal horse calling for its heart to work twice as hard. The surface area of its feed was four times that of a normal horse, but each foot had to support twice the weight per unit of surface area compared to a normal horse. Ultimately, the sickly animal had to be put down.

This becomes interesting when you think of the ideal size for things and how we, as well intentioned humans, often make things worse. This has a name. It's called iatrogenics.

Let us briefly put an organizational lens on this. Inside organizations resources are scarce. Generally the more people you have under you the more influence and authority you have inside the organization. Unless there is a proper culture and incentive system in place, your incentive is to grow and not shrink. In fact, in all the meetings I've ever been in with senior management, I can't recall anyone who ran a division saying I have too many resources. It's a derivative of Parkinson's Law — only work isn't expanding to fill the time available. Instead, work is expanding to fill the number of people.

Contrast that with Berkshire Hathaway, run by Warren Buffett. In a 2010 letter to shareholders he wrote:

Our flexibility in respect to capital allocation has accounted for much of our progress to date. We have been able to take money we earn from, say, See’s Candies or Business Wire (two of our best-run businesses, but also two offering limited reinvestment opportunities) and use it as part of the stake we needed to buy BNSF.

In the 2014 letter he wrote:

To date, See’s has earned $1.9 billion pre-tax, with its growth having required added investment of only $40 million. See’s has thus been able to distribute huge sums that have helped Berkshire buy other businesses that, in turn, have themselves produced large distributable profits. (Envision rabbits breeding.) Additionally, through watching See’s in action, I gained a business education about the value of powerful brands that opened my eyes to many other profitable investments.

There is an optimal size to See's. Had they retained that $1.9 billion in earnings they distributed to Berkshire, the CEO and management team might have a claim to bigger pay checks, they'd be managing ~$2 billion in assets instead of $40 million, but the result would have been very sub-optimal.

Our pursuit of growth beyond a certain point often ensures that one of the biggest forces in the world, time, is working against us. “What is missing,” writes Jeff Stibel in BreakPoint, “is that the unit of measure for progress isn’t size, it’s time.”


Other books in the series:
101 Things I Learned in Culinary School
101 Things I Learned in Business School
101 Things I Learned in Law School
101 Things I Learned in Film School