Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.
With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.
One of the most impactful books we’ve ever come across is the wonderful Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, written by the Swedish investor Peter Bevelin. In the spirit of multidisciplinary learning, Seeking Wisdom is a compendium of ideas from biology, psychology, statistics, physics, economics, and human behavior.
Mr. Bevelin is out with a new book full of wisdom from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger: All I Want to Know is Where I’m Going to Die So I Never Go There. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to interview Peter recently, and the result is the wonderful discussion below.
The short answer: To improve my thinking. And when I started writing on what later became Seeking Wisdom I can express it even simpler: “I was dumb and wanted to be less dumb.” As Munger says: “It’s ignorance removal…It’s dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be.” And I had done some stupid things and I had seen a lot of stupidity being done by people in life and in business.
A seed was first planted when I read Charlie Munger’s worldly wisdom speech and another one where he referred to Darwin as a great thinker. So I said to myself: I am 42 now. Why not take some time off business and spend a year learning, reflecting and write about the subject Munger introduced to me – human behavior and judgments.
None of my writings started out as a book project. I wrote my first book – Seeking Wisdom – as a memorandum for myself with the expectation that I could transfer some of its essentials to my children. I learn and write because I want to be a little wiser day by day. I don’t want to be a great-problem-solver. I want to avoid problems – prevent them from happening and doing right from the beginning. And I focus on consequential decisions. To paraphrase Buffett and Munger – decision-making is not about making brilliant decisions, but avoiding terrible ones. Mistakes and dumb decisions are a fact of life and I’m going to make more, but as long as I can avoid the big or “fatal” ones I’m fine.
So I started to read and write to learn what works and not and why. And I liked Munger’s “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there” approach. And as he said, “You understand it better if you go at it the way we do, which is to identify the main stupidities that do bright people in and then organize your patterns for thinking and developments, so you don’t stumble into those stupidities.” Then I “only” had to a) understand the central “concept” and its derivatives and describe it in as simple way as possible for me and b) organize what I learnt in a way that was logical and useful for me.
And what better way was there to learn this from those who already knew this?
After I learnt some things about our brain, I understood that thinking doesn’t come naturally to us humans – most is just unconscious automatic reactions. Therefore I needed to set up the environment and design a system that helped me make it easier to know what to do and prevent and avoid harm. Things like simple rules of thumbs, tricks and filters. Of course, I could only do that if I first had the foundation. And as the years have passed, I’ve found that filters are a great way to save time and misery. As Buffett says, “I process information very quickly since I have filters in my mind.” And they have to be simple – as the proverb says, “Beware of the door that has too many keys.” The more complicated a process is, the less effective it is.
Why do I write? Because it helps me understand and learn better. And if I can’t write something down clearly, then I have not really understood it. As Buffett says, “I learn while I think when I write it out. Some of the things, I think I think, I find don’t make any sense when I start trying to write them down and explain them to people … And if it can’t stand applying pencil to paper, you’d better think it through some more.”
My own test is one that a physicist friend of mine told me many years ago, ‘You haven’t really understood an idea if you can’t in a simple way describe it to almost anyone.’ Luckily, I don’t have to understand zillion of things to function well.
And even if some of mine and others thoughts ended up as books, they are all living documents and new starting points for further, learning, un-learning and simplifying/clarifying. To quote Feynman, “A great deal of formulation work is done in writing the paper, organizational work, organization. I think of a better way, a better way, a better way of getting there, of proving it. I never do much — I mean, it’s just cleaner, cleaner and cleaner. It’s like polishing a rough-cut vase. The shape, you know what you want and you know what it is. It’s just polishing it. Get it shined, get it clean, and everything else.”
Seeking Wisdom because I had to do a lot of research – reading, talking to people etc. Especially in the field of biology and brain science since I wanted to first understand what influences our behavior. I also spent some time at a Neurosciences Institute to get a better understanding of how our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry constrained our behavior.
And I had to work it out my own way and write it down in my own words so I really could understand it. It took a lot of time but it was a lot of fun to figure it out and I learnt much more and it stuck better than if I just had tried to memorize what somebody else had already written. I may not have gotten everything letter perfect but good enough to be useful for me.
As I said, the expectation wasn’t to create a book. In fact, that would have removed a lot of my motivation. I did it because I had an interest in becoming better. It goes back to the importance of intrinsic motivation. As I wrote in Seeking Wisdom: “If we reward people for doing what they like to do anyway, we sometimes turn what they enjoy doing into work. The reward changes their perception. Instead of doing something because they enjoy doing it, they now do it because they are being paid. The key is what a reward implies. A reward for our achievements makes us feel that we are good at something thereby increasing our motivation. But a reward that feels controlling and makes us feel that we are only doing it because we’re paid to do it, decreases the appeal.”
It may sound like a cliché but the joy was in the journey – reading, learning and writing – not the destination – the finished book. Has the book made a difference for some people? Yes, I hope so but often people revert to their old behavior. Some of them are the same people who – to paraphrase something that is attributed to Churchill – occasionally should check their intentions and strategies against their results. But reality is what Munger once said, “Everyone’s experience is that you teach only what a reader almost knows, and that seldom.” But I am happy that my books had an impact and made a difference to a few people. That’s enough.
It was more fun to write about what works and not in a dialogue format. But also because vivid and hopefully entertaining “lessons” are easier to remember and recall. And you will find a lot of quotes in there that most people haven’t read before.
I wanted to write a book like this to reinforce a couple of concepts in my head. So even if some of the text sometimes comes out like advice to the reader, I always think about what the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota once said, “The advice we give others is the advice that we ourselves need.”
Some kind of representation that describes how reality is (as it is known today) – a principle, an idea, basic concepts, something that works or not – that I have in my head that helps me know what to do or not. Something that has stood the test of time.
For example some timeless truths are:
I favor underlying principles and notions that I can apply broadly to different and relevant situations. Since some models don’t resemble reality, the word “model” for me is more of an illustration/story of an underlying concept, trick, method, what works etc. that agrees with reality (as Munger once said, “Models which underlie reality”) and help me remember and more easily make associations.
But I don’t judge or care how others label it or do it – models, concepts, default positions … The important thing is that whatever we use, it reflects and agrees with reality and that it works for us to help us understand or explain a situation or know what to do or not do. Useful and good enough guide me. I am pretty pragmatic – whatever works is fine. I follow Deng Xiaoping, “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” As Feynman said, “What is the best method to obtain the solution to a problem? The answer is, any way that works.”
I’ll tell you about a thing Feynman said on education which I remind myself of from time to time in order not to complicate things (from Richard P. Feynman, Michael A. Gottlieb, Ralph Leighton, Feynman’s Tips on Physics: A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics):
“There’s a round table on three legs. Where should you lean on it, so the table will be the most unstable?”
The student’s solution was, “Probably on top of one of the legs, but let me see: I’ll calculate how much force will produce what lift, and so on, at different places.”
Then I said, “Never mind calculating. Can you imagine a real table?”
“But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!”
“Never mind how you’re supposed to do it; you’ve got a real table here with the various legs, you see? Now, where do you think you’d lean? What would happen if you pushed down directly over a leg?”
I say, “That’s right; and what happens if you push down near the edge, halfway between two of the legs?”
“It flips over!”
I say, “OK! That’s better!”
The point is that the student had not realized that these were not just mathematical problems; they described a real table with legs. Actually, it wasn’t a real table, because it was perfectly circular, the legs were straight up and down, and so on. But it nearly described, roughly speaking, a real table, and from knowing what a real table does, you can get a very good idea of what this table does without having to calculate anything – you know darn well where you have to lean to make the table flip over. So, how to explain that, I don’t know! But once you get the idea that the problems are not mathematical problems but physical problems, it helps a lot.
Anyway, that’s just two ways of solving this problem. There’s no unique way of doing any specific problem. By greater and greater ingenuity, you can find ways that require less and less work, but that takes experience.
Ideas from biology and psychology since many stupidities are caused by not understanding human nature (and you get illustrations of this nearly every day). And most of our tendencies were already known by the classic writers (Publilius Syrus, Seneca, Aesop, Cicero etc.)
Others that I find very useful both in business and private is the ideas of Quantification (without the fancy math), Margin of safety, Backups, Trust, Constraints/Weakest link, Good or Bad Economics slash Competitive advantage, Opportunity cost, Scale effects. I also think Keynes idea of changing your mind when you get new facts or information is very useful.
But since reality isn’t divided into different categories but involves a lot of factors interacting, I need to synthesize many ideas and concepts.
I don’t know about that but what I often see among many smart people agrees with Munger’s comment: “All this stuff is really quite obvious and yet most people don’t really know it in a way where they can use it.”
Anyway, I believe if you really understand an idea and what it means – not only memorizing it – you should be able to work out its different applications and functional equivalents. Take a simple big idea – think on it – and after a while you see its wider applications. To use Feynman’s advice, “It is therefore of first-rate importance that you know how to “triangulate” – that is, to know how to figure something out from what you already know.” As a good friend says, “Learn the basic ideas, and the rest will fill itself in. Either you get it or you don’t.”
Most of us learn and memorize a specific concept or method etc. and learn about its application in one situation. But when the circumstances change we don’t know what to do and we don’t see that the concept may have a wider application and can be used in many situations.
Take for example one big and useful idea – Scale effects. That the scale of size, time and outcomes changes things – characteristics, proportions, effects, behavior…and what is good or not must be tied to scale. This is a very fundamental idea from math. Munger described some of this idea’s usefulness in his worldly wisdom speech. One effect from this idea I often see people miss and I believe is important is group size and behavior. That trust, feeling of affection and altruistic actions breaks down as group size increases, which of course is important to know in business settings. I wrote about this in Seeking Wisdom (you can read more if you type in Dunbar Number on Google search). I know of some businesses that understand the importance of this and split up companies into smaller ones when they get too big (one example is Semco).
Another general idea is “Gresham’s Law” that can be generalized to any process or system where the bad drives out the good. Like natural selection or “We get what we select for” (and as Garrett Hardin writes, “The more general principle is: We get whatever we reward for).
While we are on the subject of mental models etc., let me bring up another thing that distinguishes the great thinkers from us ordinary mortals. Their ability to quickly assess and see the essence of a situation – the critical things that really matter and what can be ignored. They have a clear notion of what they want to achieve or avoid and then they have this ability to zoom in on the key factor(s) involved.
One reason to why they can do that is because they have a large repertoire of stored personal and vicarious experiences and concepts in their heads. They are masters at pattern recognition and connection. Some call it intuition but as Herbert Simon once said, “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.”
It is about making associations. For example, roughly like this:
Situation X Association (what does this remind me of?) to experience, concept, metaphor, analogy, trick, filter… (Assuming of course we are able to see the essence of the situation) What counts and what doesn’t? What works/not? What to do or what to explain?
Let’s take employing someone as an example (or looking at a business proposal). This reminds me of one key factor – trustworthiness and Buffett’s story, “If you’re looking for a manager, find someone who is intelligent, energetic and has integrity. If he doesn’t have the last, make sure he lacks the first two.”
I believe Buffett and Munger excel at this – they have seen and experienced so much about what works and not in business and behavior.
Buffett referred to the issue of trust, chain letters and pattern recognition at the latest annual meeting:
You can get into a lot of trouble with management that lacks integrity… If you’ve got an intelligent, energetic guy or woman who is pursuing a course of action, which gets put on the front page it could make you very unhappy. You can get into a lot of trouble. ..We’ve seen patterns…Pattern recognition is very important in evaluating humans and businesses. Pattern recognition isn’t one hundred percent and none of the patterns exactly repeat themselves, but there are certain things in business and securities markets that we’ve seen over and over and frequently come to a bad end but frequently look extremely good in the short run. One which I talked about last year was the chain letter scheme. You’re going to see chain letters for the rest of your life. Nobody calls them chain letters because that’s a connotation that will scare you off but they’re disguised as chain letters and many of the schemes on Wall Street, which are designed to fool people, have that particular aspect to it…There were patterns at Valeant certainly…if you go and watch the Senate hearings, you will see there are patterns that should have been picked up on.
This is what he wrote on chain letters in the 2014 annual report:
In the late 1960s, I attended a meeting at which an acquisitive CEO bragged of his “bold, imaginative accounting.” Most of the analysts listening responded with approving nods, seeing themselves as having found a manager whose forecasts were certain to be met, whatever the business results might be. Eventually, however, the clock struck twelve, and everything turned to pumpkins and mice. Once again, it became evident that business models based on the serial issuances of overpriced shares – just like chain-letter models – most assuredly redistribute wealth, but in no way create it. Both phenomena, nevertheless, periodically blossom in our country – they are every promoter’s dream – though often they appear in a carefully-crafted disguise. The ending is always the same: Money flows from the gullible to the fraudster. And with stocks, unlike chain letters, the sums hijacked can be staggering.
And of course, the more prepared we are or the more relevant concepts and “experiences” we have in our heads, the better we all will be at this. How do we get there? Reading, learning and practice so we know it “fluently.” There are no shortcuts. We have to work at it and apply it to the real world.
As a reminder to myself so I understand my limitation and “circle”, I keep a paragraph from Munger’s USC Gould School of Law Commencement Address handy so when I deal with certain issues, I don’t fool myself into believing I am Max Planck when I’m really the Chauffeur:
In this world I think we have two kinds of knowledge: One is Planck knowledge, that of the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. Then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned to prattle the talk. They may have a big head of hair. They often have fine timbre in their voices. They make a big impression. But in the end what they’ve got is chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge.
One trick or notion I see many of us struggling with because it goes against our intuition is the concept of inversion – to learn to think “in negatives” which goes against our normal tendency to concentrate on for example, what we want to achieve or confirmations instead of what we want to avoid and disconfirmations. Another example of this is the importance of missing confirming evidence (I call it the “Sherlock trick”) – that negative evidence and events that don’t happen, matter when something implies they should be present or happen.
Another example that is counterintuitive is Newton’s 3d law that forces work in pairs. One object exerts a force on a second object, but the second object also exerts a force equal and opposite in direction to the force acting on it – the first object. As Newton wrote, “If you press a stone with your finger, the finger is also pressed by the stone.” Same as revenge (reciprocation).
One that immediately comes to mind is one I have mentioned in the introduction in two of my books is someone I am fortunate to have as a friend – Peter Kaufman. An outstanding thinker and a great businessman and human being. On a scale of 1 to 10, he is a 15.
Their ethics and their ethos of clarity, simplicity and common sense. These two gentlemen are outstanding in their instant ability to exclude bad ideas, what doesn’t work, bad people, scenarios that don’t matter, etc. so they can focus on what matters. Also my amazement that their ethics and ideas haven’t been more replicated. But I assume the answer lies in what Munger once said, “The reason our ideas haven’t spread faster is they’re too simple.”
This reminds me something my father-in-law once told me (a man I learnt a lot from) – the curse of knowledge and the curse of academic title. My now deceased father-in-law was an inventor and manager. He did not have any formal education but was largely self-taught. Once a big corporation asked for his services to solve a problem their 60 highly educated engineers could not solve. He solved the problem. The engineers said, “It can’t be that simple.” It was like they were saying that, “Here we have 6 years of school, an academic title, lots of follow up education. Therefore an engineering problem must be complicated”. Like Buffett once said of Ben Graham’s ideas, “I think that it comes down to those ideas – although they sound so simple and commonplace that it kind of seems like a waste to go to school and get a PhD in Economics and have it all come back to that. It’s a little like spending eight years in divinity school and having somebody tell you that the 10 commandments were all that counted. There is a certain natural tendency to overlook anything that simple and important.”
(I must admit that in the past I had a tendency to be extra drawn to elegant concepts and distracting me from the simple truths.)
The best thing I have done is marrying my wife. As Buffett says and it is so so true, “Choosing a spouse is the most important decision in your life…You need everything to be stable, and if that decision isn’t good, it may affect every other decision in life, including your business decisions…If you are lucky on health and…on your spouse, you are a long way home.”
A good “investment” is taking the time to continuously improve. It just takes curiosity and a desire to know and understand – real interest. And for me this is fun.
Every day is a little different but I read every day.
There is not one single book or one single idea that has done it. I have picked up things from different books (still do). And there are different books and articles that made a difference during different periods of my life. Meeting and learning from certain people and my own practical experiences has been more important in my development. As an example – When I was in my 30s a good friend told me something that has been very useful in looking at products and businesses. He said I should always ask who the real customer is: “Who ultimately decides what to buy and what are their decision criteria and how are they measured and rewarded and who pays?”
But looking back, if I have had a book like Poor Charlie’s Almanack when I was younger I would have saved myself some misery. And of course, when it comes to business, managing and investing, nothing beats learning from Warren Buffett’s Letters to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders.
Another thing I have found is that it is way better to read and reread fewer books but good and timeless ones and then think. Unfortunately many people absorb too many new books and information without thinking.
Let me finish this with some quotes from my new book that I believe we all can learn from:
Finally, I wish you and your readers an excellent day – Everyday!
It’s a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We’re strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.
So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.
Now, with that out of the way.
The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there’s a simple reason why: They won’t actually do it.
Think about it. Isn’t that the most common result? That you don’t do it?
For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.
What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.
Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)
The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:
Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form, and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to do the thing. That’s the part where everyone falls away.You still have to *do* the hard thing. That's the part where everyone falls away. Click To Tweet
We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves”, or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it.
This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.
Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular examples would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.
But eventually, if you’re going to hang on to that habit, you’ll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can’t just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you’ll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?
The point is this: When you’re evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it’s just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it’s probably a sham.
Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don’t currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it.
Let’s take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.
Thus, most people won’t actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)
But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you’ll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.
And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.
And that’s when you know you’ve really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.
“Biological thinking and physics thinking are distinct, and often complementary, approaches to the world, and ones that are appropriate for different kinds of systems.”
How should we think about complexity? Should we use a biological or physics system? The answer, of course, is that it depends. It’s important to have both tools available at your disposal.
These are the questions that Samuel Arbesman explores in his fascinating book Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension.
[B]iological systems are generally more complicated than those in physics. In physics, the components are often identical—think of a system of nothing but gas particles, for example, or a single monolithic material, like a diamond. Beyond that, the types of interactions can often be uniform throughout an entire system, such as satellites orbiting a planet.
Biology is different and there is something meaningful to be learned from a biological approach to thinking.
In biology, there are a huge number of types of components, such as the diversity of proteins in a cell or the distinct types of tissues within a single creature; when studying, say, the mating behavior of blue whales, marine biologists may have to consider everything from their DNA to the temperature of the oceans. Not only is each component in a biological system distinctive, but it is also a lot harder to disentangle from the whole. For example, you can look at the nucleus of an amoeba and try to understand it on its own, but you generally need the rest of the organism to have a sense of how the nucleus fits into the operation of the amoeba, how it provides the core genetic information involved in the many functions of the entire cell.
Arbesman makes an interesting point here when it comes to how we should look at technology. As the interconnections and complexity of technology increases, it increasingly resembles a biological system rather than a physics one. There is another difference.
[B]iological systems are distinct from many physical systems in that they have a history. Living things evolve over time. While the objects of physics clearly do not emerge from thin air—astrophysicists even talk about the evolution of stars—biological systems are especially subject to evolutionary pressures; in fact, that is one of their defining features. The complicated structures of biology have the forms they do because of these complex historical paths, ones that have been affected by numerous factors over huge amounts of time. And often, because of the complex forms of living things, where any small change can create unexpected effects, the changes that have happened over time have been through tinkering: modifying a system in small ways to adapt to a new environment.
Biological systems are generally hacks that evolved to be good enough for a certain environment. They are far from pretty top-down designed systems. And to accommodate an ever-changing environment they are rarely the most optimal system on a mico-level, preferring to optimize for survival over any one particular attribute. And it’s not the survival of the individual that’s optimized, it’s the survival of the species.
Technologies can appear robust until they are confronted with some minor disturbance, causing a catastrophe. The same thing can happen to living things. For example, humans can adapt incredibly well to a large array of environments, but a tiny change in a person’s genome can cause dwarfism, and two copies of that mutation invariably cause death. We are of a different scale and material from a particle accelerator or a computer network, and yet these systems have profound similarities in their complexity and fragility.
Biological thinking, with a focus on details and diversity, is a necessary tool to deal with complexity.
The way biologists, particularly field biologists, study the massively complex diversity of organisms, taking into account their evolutionary trajectories, is therefore particularly appropriate for understanding our technologies. Field biologists often act as naturalists— collecting, recording, and cataloging what they find around them—but even more than that, when confronted with an enormously complex ecosystem, they don’t immediately try to understand it all in its totality. Instead, they recognize that they can study only a tiny part of such a system at a time, even if imperfectly. They’ll look at the interactions of a handful of species, for example, rather than examine the complete web of species within a single region. Field biologists are supremely aware of the assumptions they are making, and know they are looking at only a sliver of the complexity around them at any one moment.
When we’re dealing with different interacting levels of a system, seemingly minor details can rise to the top and become important to the system as a whole. We need “Field biologists” to catalog and study details and portions of our complex systems, including their failures and bugs. This kind of biological thinking not only leads to new insights, but might also be the primary way forward in a world of increasingly interconnected and incomprehensible technologies.
Waiting and observing isn’t enough.
Biologists will often be proactive, and inject the unexpected into a system to see how it reacts. For example, when biologists are trying to grow a specific type of bacteria, such as a variant that might produce a particular chemical, they will resort to a process known as mutagenesis. Mutagenesis is what it sounds like: actively trying to generate mutations, for example by irradiating the organisms or exposing them to toxic chemicals.
When systems are too complex for human understanding, often we need to insert randomness to discover the tolerances and limits of the system. One plus one doesn’t always equal two when you’re dealing with non-linear systems. For biologists, tinkering is the way to go.One plus one doesn't always equal two when you're dealing with non-linear systems. Click To Tweet
As Stewart Brand noted about legacy systems, “Teasing a new function out of a legacy system is not done by command but by conducting a series of cautious experiments that with luck might converge toward the desired outcome.”
This doesn’t mean we should abandon the physics approach, searching for underlying regularities in complexity. The two systems complement one another rather than compete.
Arbesman recommends asking the following questions:
When attempting to understand a complex system, we must determine the proper resolution, or level of detail, at which to look at it. How fine-grained a level of detail are we focusing on? Do we focus on the individual enzyme molecules in a cell of a large organism, or do we focus on the organs and blood vessels? Do we focus on the binary signals winding their way through circuitry, or do we examine the overall shape and function of a computer program? At a larger scale, do we look at the general properties of a computer network, and ignore the individual machines and decisions that make up this structure?
When we need to abstract away a lot of the details we lean on physics thinking more. Think about it from an organizational perspective. The new employee at the lowest level is focused on the specific details of their job whereas the executive is focused on systems, strategy, culture, and flow — how things interact and reinforce one another. The details of the new employee’s job are lost on them.
We can’t use one system, whether biological or physics, exclusively. That’s a sure way to fragile thinking. Rather, we need to combine them.
In Cryptonomicon, a novel by Neal Stephenson, he makes exactly this point talking about the structure of the pantheon of Greek gods:
And yet there is something about the motley asymmetry of this pantheon that makes it more credible. Like the Periodic Table of the Elements or the family tree of the elementary particles, or just about any anatomical structure that you might pull up out of a cadaver, it has enough of a pattern to give our minds something to work on and yet an irregularity that indicates some kind of organic provenance—you have a sun god and a moon goddess, for example, which is all clean and symmetrical, and yet over here is Hera, who has no role whatsoever except to be a literal bitch goddess, and then there is Dionysus who isn’t even fully a god—he’s half human—but gets to be in the Pantheon anyway and sit on Olympus with the Gods, as if you went to the Supreme Court and found Bozo the Clown planted among the justices.
There is a balance and we need to find it.
You can use a big idea without a physics-like need for exact precision. The key to remember is moving closer to reality by updating.
Consider this excerpt from Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner in Superforecasting
The superforecasters are a numerate bunch: many know about Bayes’ theorem and could deploy it if they felt it was worth the trouble. But they rarely crunch the numbers so explicitly. What matters far more to the superforecasters than Bayes’ theorem is Bayes’ core insight of gradually getting closer to the truth by constantly updating in proportion to the weight of the evidence.
So they know the numbers. This numerate filter is the second of Garrett Hardin‘s three filters we need to think about problems.
The numerate temperament is one that habitually looks for approximate dimensions, ratios, proportions, and rates of change in trying to grasp what is going on in the world.
Just as “literacy” is used here to mean more than merely reading and writing, so also will “numeracy” be used to mean more than measuring and counting. Examination of the origins of the sciences shows that many major discoveries were made with very little measuring and counting. The attitude science requires of its practitioners is respect, bordering on reverence, for ration, proportions, and rates of change.
Rough and ready back-of-the-envelope calculations are often sufficient to reveal the outline of a new and important scientific discovery … In truth, the essence of many of the major insights of science can be grasped with no more than child’s ability to measure, count, and calculate.
We can find another example in investing. Charlie Munger, commenting at the 1996 Berkshire Hathaway Annual Meeting, said: “Warren often talks about these discounted cash flows, but I’ve never seen him do one. If it isn’t perfectly obvious that it’s going to work out well if you do the calculation, then he tends to go on to the next idea.” Buffett retorted: “It’s true. If (the value of a company) doesn’t just scream out at you, it’s too close.”
Precision is easy to teach but it’s missing the point.
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In the first two parts of our series on memory, we covered four major “sins” committed by our memories: Absent-Mindedness, Transience, Misattribution, and Blocking, using Daniel Schacter’s The Seven Sins of Memory as our guide.
We’re going to finish it off today with three other sins: Suggestibility, Bias, and Persistence, hopefully leaving us with a full understanding of our memory and where it fails us from time to time.
As its name suggests, the sin of suggestibility refers to our brain’s tendency to misremember the source of memories:
Suggestibility in memory refers to an individual’s tendency to incorporate misleading information from external sources — other people, written materials or pictures, even the media — into personal recollections. Suggestibility is closely related to misattribution in the sense that the conversion of suggestions into inaccurate memories must involve misattribution. However, misattribution often occurs in the absence of overt suggestion, making suggestibility a distinct sin of memory.
Suggestibility is such a difficult phenomenon because the memories we’ve pulled from outside sources seem as truly real as our own. Take the case of a “false veteran” which Schacter describes in the book:
On May 31, 2000, a front-page story in the New York Times described the baffling case of Edward Daly, a Korean War veteran who made up elaborate — but imaginary — stories about his battle exploits, including his involvement in a terrible massacre in which he had not actually participated. While weaving his delusional tale, Daly talked to veterans who had participated in the massacre and “reminded” them of his heroic deeds. His suggestions infiltrated their memories. “I know that Daly was there,” pleaded one veteran. “I know that. I know that.”
The key word here is infiltrated. This brings to mind the wonderful Christopher Nolan movie Inception, about a group of experts who seek to infiltrate the minds of sleeping targets in order to change their memories. The movie is fictional but there is a subtle reality to the idea: With enough work, an idea that is merely suggested to us in one context can seem like our own idea or our own memory.
Take suggestive questioning, a problem with criminal investigations. The investigator talks to an eyewitness and, hoping to jog their memory, asks a series of leading questions, arriving at the answer he was hoping for. But is it genuine? Not always.
Schacter describes a psychology experiment wherein participants see a video of a robbery and then are fed misleading suggestions about the robbery soon after, such as the idea that the victim of the robbery was wearing a white apron. Amazingly, even when people could recognize that the apron idea was merely suggested to them, many people still regurgitated the suggested idea!
Previous experiments had shown that suggestive questions produce memory distortion by creating source memory problems like those in the previous chapter: participants misattribute information presented only in suggestive questions about the original videotape. [The psychologist Philip] Higham’s results provide an additional twist. He found that when people took a memory test just minutes after receiving the misleading question, and thus still correctly recalled that the “white apron” was suggested by the experimenter, they sometimes insisted nevertheless that the attendant wore a white apron in the video itself. In fact, they made this mistake just as often as people who took the memory test two days after receiving misleading suggestions, and who had more time to forget that the white apron was merely suggested. The findings testify to the power of misleading suggestions: they can create false memories of an event even when people recall that the misinformation was suggested.
The problem of overconfidence also plays a role in suggestion and memory errors. Take an experiment where subjects are shown a man entering a department store and then told he murdered a security guard. After being shown a photo lineup (which did not contain the gunman), some were told they chose correctly and some were told they chose incorrectly. Guess which group was more confident and trustful of their memories afterwards?
It was, of course, the group that received reinforcement. Not only were they more confident, but they felt they had better command of the details of the gunman’s appearance, even though they were as wrong as the group that received no positive feedback. This has vast practical applications. (Consider a jury taking into account the testimony of a very confident eyewitness, reinforced by police with an agenda.)
One more interesting idea in reference to suggestibility: Like the DiCaprio-led clan in the movie Inception, psychologists have been able to successfully “implant” false memories of childhood in many subjects based merely on suggestion alone. This should make you think carefully about what you think you remember about the distant past:
[The psychologist Ira] Hyman asked college students about various childhood experiences that, according to their parents, had actually happened, and also asked about a false event that, their parents confirmed, had never happened. For instance, students were asked: “When you were five you were at the wedding reception of some friends of the family and you were running around with some other kids, when you bumped into the table and spilled the punch bowl on the parents of the bride.” Participants accurately remembered almost all of the true events, but initially reported no memory of the false events.
However, approximately 20 to 40 percent of participants in different experimental conditions eventually came to describe some memory of the false event in later interviews. In one experiment, more than half of the participants who produced false memories describe them as “clear” recollections that included specific details of the central even, such as remembering exactly where or how one spilled the punch. Just under half reported “partial” false memories, which included some details but no specific memory of the central event.
Thus is the “power of the suggestion.”
The Sin of Bias
The problem of bias will be familiar to regular readers. In some form or another, we’re subject to mental biases every single day, most of which are benign, some of which are harmful, and most of which are not hard to understand. Biases specific to memory are so good to study because they’re so easy and natural to fall into. Because we trust our memory so deeply, they often go unquestioned. But we might want to be careful:
The sin of bias refers to distorting influences of our present knowledge, beliefs, feelings on new experiences, or our later memories of them. In the stifling psychological climate of 1984, the Ministry of Truth used memory as a pawn in the service of party rule. Much in the same manner, biases in remembering past experiences reveal how memory can serve as a pawn for the ruling masters of our cognitive systems.
There are four biases we’re subject to in this realm: Consistency and change bias, hindsight bias, egocentric bias, and stereotyping bias.
Consistency and Change Bias
The first is a consistency bias: We re-write our memories of the past based on how we feel in the present. In one experiment after another, this has undoubtedly been proven true. It’s probably something of a coping mechanism: If we saw the past with complete accuracy, we might not be such happy individuals.We re-write our memories of the past based on how we feel in the present. Click To Tweet
We often re-write the past so that it seems we’ve always felt like we feel now, that we always believed what we believe now:
This consistency bias has turned up in several different contexts. Recalling past experiences of pain, for instance, is powerfully influenced by current pain level. When patients afflicted by chronic pain are experiencing high levels of pain in the present, they are biased to recall similarly high levels of pain in the past; when present pain isn’t so bad, past pain experiences seem more benign, too. Attitudes towards political and social issues also reflect consistency bias. People whose views on political issues have changed over time often recall incorrectly past attitudes as highly similar to present ones. In fact, memories of past political views are sometimes more closely related to present views than what they actually believed in the past.
Think about your stance five or ten years ago on some major issue like sentencing for drug-related crime. Can your recall specifically what you believed? For most people, they believe they have stayed consistent on the issue. But easily performed experiments show that a large percentage of people who think “all is the same” have actually changed their tune significantly over time. Such is the bias towards consistency.
This affects relationships fairly significantly: Schacter shows that our current feelings about our partner color our memories of our past feelings.
Consider a study that followed nearly four hundred Michigan couples through the first years of their marriage. In those couples who expressed growing unhappiness over the four years of the study, men mistakenly recalled the beginnings of their marriages as negative even though they said they were happy at the time. “Such biases can lead to a dangerous “downward spiral,” noted the researchers who conducted the study. “The worse your current view of your partner is, the worse your memories are, which only further confirms your negative attitudes.”
In other contexts, we sometimes lean in the other direction: We think things have changed more than they really have. We think the past was much better than it is today, or much worse than it is today.
Schacter discusses a twenty-year study done with a group of women between 1969 and 1989, assessing how they felt about their marriages throughout. Turns out, their recollections of the past were constantly on the move, but the false recollection did seem to serve a purpose: Keeping the marriage alive.
When reflecting back on the first ten years of their marriages, wives showed a change bias: They remembered their initial assessments as worse than they actually were. The bias made their present feelings seem an improvement by comparison, even though the wives actually felt more negatively ten years into the marriage than they had at the beginning. When they had been married for twenty years and reflected back on their second ten years of marriage, the women now showed a consistency bias: they mistakenly recalled that feelings from ten years earlier were similar to their present ones. In reality, however, they felt more negatively after twenty years of marriage than after ten. Both types of bias helped women cope with their marriages.
The purpose of all this is to reduce our cognitive dissonance: That mental discomfort we get when we have conflicting ideas. (“I need to stay married” / “My marriage isn’t working” for example.)
We won’t go into hindsight bias too extensively, because we have covered it before and the idea is familiar to most. Simply put, once we know the outcome of an event, our memory of the past is forever altered. As with consistency bias, we use the lens of the present to see the past. It’s the idea that we “knew it all along” — when we really didn’t.
A large part of hindsight bias has to do with the narrative fallacy and our own natural wiring in favor of causality. We really like to know why things happen, and when given a clear causal link in the present (Say, we hear our neighbor shot his wife because she cheated on him), the lens of hindsight does the rest (I always knew he was a bad guy!). In the process, we forget that we must not have thought he was such a bad guy, since we let him babysit our kids every weekend. That is hindsight bias. We’re all subject to it unless we start examining our past with more detail or keeping a written record.
The egocentric bias is our tendency to see the past in such a way that we, the rememberer, look better than we really are or really should. We are not neutral observers of our own past, we are instead highly biased and motivated to see ourselves in a certain light.
The self’s preeminent role in encoding and retrieval, combined with a powerful tendency for people to view themselves positively, creates fertile ground of memory biases that allow people to remember past experiences in a self-enhancing light. Consider, for example, college students who were led to believe that introversion is a desirable personality trait that predicts academic success, and then searched their memories for incidents in which they behaved in an introverted or extroverted manner. Compared with students who were led to believe that extroversion is a desirable trait, the introvert-success students more quickly generated memories in which they behaved like introverts than like extroverts. The memory search was biased by a desire to see the self positively, which led students to select past incidents containing the desired trait.
The egocentric bias occurs constantly and in almost any situation where it possibly can: It’s similar to what’s been called overconfidence in other arenas. We want to see ourselves in a positive light, and so we do. We mine our brain for evidence of our excellent qualities. We have positive maintaining illusions that keep our spirits up.
This is generally a good thing for our self-esteem, but as any divorced couple knows, it can also cause us to have a very skewed version of the past.
Bias from Stereotyping
In our series on the development of human personality, we discussed the idea of stereotyping as something human beings do constantly and automatically; the much-maligned concept is central to how we comprehend the world.
Stereotyping exists because it saves energy and space — it allows us to consolidate much of what we learn into categories with broadly accurate descriptions. As we learn new things, we either slot them into existing categories, create new categories, or slightly modify old categories (the one we like the least, because it requires the most work). This is no great insight.
But what is interesting is the degree to which stereotyping colors our memories themselves:
If I tell you that Julian, an artist, is creative, temperamental, generous, and fearless, you are more likely to recall the first two attributes, which fit the stereotype of an artist, than the latter two attributes, which do not. If I tell you that he is a skinhead, and list some of his characteristics, you’re more likely to remember that he is rebellious and aggressive than that he is lucky and modest. This congruity bias is especially likely to occur when people hold strong stereotypes about a particular group. A person with strong racial prejudices, for example, would be more likely to remember stereotypical features of an African American’s behavior than a less prejudiced person, and less likely to remember behaviors that don’t fit the stereotype.
Not only that, but when things happen which contradict our expectations, we are capable of distorting the past in such a way to make it come in line. When we try to remember a tale after we know how it ends, we’re more likely to distort the details of the story in such a way that the whole thing makes sense and fits our understanding of the world. This is related to the narrative fallacy and hindsight bias discussed above.
The final sin which Schacter discusses in his book is Persistence, the often difficult reality that some memories, especially negative ones, persist a lot longer than we wish. We’re not going to cover it here, but suggest you check out the book in its entirety to get the scoop.
And with that, we’re going to wrap up our series on the human memory. Take what you’ve learned, digest it, and then keep pushing deeper in your quest to understand human nature and the world around you.
“Often we imagine that we will work hard until we arrive at some distant goal, and then we will be happy. This is a delusion. Happiness is the result of a life lived with purpose. Happiness is not an objective. It is the movement of life itself, a process, and an activity. It arises from curiosity and discovery. Seek pleasure and you will quickly discover the shortest path to suffering.”
The quest to become a knight has occupied many over the years.
In 1483, Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke of Cornwall was among 323 killed at the Battle of Slaughter Bridge. Foreseeing this outcome, Sir Thomas wrote a letter to his children in Cornish outlining the Rules for a Knight — the life lessons Sir Thomas wished to pass along to his four children.
The severely damaged letter was adapted and reconstructed by Ethan Hawke, after the family discovered it in the early 1970s in the basement of the family farm near Waynesville, Ohio after his great grandmother passed away.
Or, so the story goes.
“I’ve just always loved the idea of knighthood,” he said. “It makes being a good person cool. Or, aspiring to be a good person cool.”
And so Hawke started applying the chivalry to his own household:
My wife was reading a book about step-parenting, and this book was talking about the value of rules, so we started saying, well, what are the rules of our house? And you start with the really mundane, like eight-o’clock bedtime, all that kind of stuff. And then, invariably, you start asking yourself, well, what do we really believe in? So I started riffing on this idea of ‘rules for a knight.’ Like, what does the king decree, you know? I wrote it out—the idea was we were going to put it on the wall, in calligraphy. Like, these are the rules.
The work stands alone as a blueprint of civilized growth and self-improvement, the path to becoming a humble, strong, and reliable gentleman (or lady). The ideas mostly come from “other knights,” including Muhammad Ali, Emily Dickinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Mother Teresa, as Hawke credits them on the acknowledgment page.“Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one.” Click To Tweet
“Tonight,” Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawkes of Cornwall begins, “I will share with you some of the more valuable stories, events, and moments of my life so that somewhere deep in the recesses of your imagination these lessons might continue on and my experiences will live to serve a purpose for you.”
Create time alone with yourself. When seeking the wisdom and clarity of your own mind, silence is a helpful tool. The voice of our spirit is gentle and cannot be heard when it has to compete with others. Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul. In silence, we can sense eternity sleeping inside us.
Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one. You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.
The only intelligent response to the ongoing gift of life is gratitude. For all that has been, a knight says, “Thank you.” For all that is to come, a knight says, “Yes!”
Never pretend you are not a knight or attempt to diminish yourself because you deem it will make others more comfortable. We show others the most respect by offering the best of ourselves.
Each one of us is walking our own road. We are born at specific times, in specific places, and our challenges are unique. As knights, understanding and respecting our distinctiveness is vital to our ability to harness our collective strength. The use of force may be necessary to protect in an emergency, but only justice, fairness, and cooperation can truly succeed in leading men. We must live and work together as brothers or perish together as fools.
The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.
Those who cannot easily forgive will not collect many friends. Look for the best in others.
A dishonest tongue and a dishonest mind waste time, and therefore waste our lives. We are here to grow and the truth is the water, the light, and the soil from which we rise. The armor of falsehood is subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.
Anything that gives light must endure burning.
Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.
There is no such thing as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A hurried mind is an addled mind; it cannot see clearly or hear precisely; it sees what it wants to see, or hears what it is afraid to hear, and misses much. A knight makes time his ally. There is a moment for action, and with a clear mind that moment is obvious.
There is only one thing for which a knight has no patience: injustice. Every true knight fights for human dignity at all times.
You were born owning nothing and with nothing you will pass out of this life. Be frugal and you can be generous.
In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home.The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.
Ordinary effort, ordinary result. Take steps each day to better follow these rules. Luck is the residue of design. Be steadfast. The anvil outlasts the hammer.
Do not speak ill of others. A knight does not spread news that he does not know to be certain, or condemn things that he does not understand.
Sometimes to understand more, you need to know less.
Every knight holds human equality as an unwavering truth. A knight is never present when men or women are being degraded or compromised in any way, because if a knight were present, those committing the hurtful acts or words would be made to stop.
Love is the end goal. It is the music of our lives. There is no obstacle that enough love cannot move.
Life is a long series of farewells; only the circumstances should surprise us. A knight concerns himself with gratitude for the life he has been given. He does not fear death, for the work one knight begins, others may finish.
The rest of Rules For a Knight goes on to explore these ideas in greater detail. Despite its fiction status, the book is a timeless meditation on self-improvement and what it means to be a parent.20 Rules for a Knight: a Timeless Guide from 1483 Click To Tweet