Tag: Books

Get Smart: Three Ways of Thinking to Make Better Decisions and Achieve Results

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
— Abraham Lincoln


Your ability to think clearly determines the decisions you make and the actions you take.

In Get Smart!: How to Think and Act Like the Most Successful and Highest-Paid People in Every Field, author Brian Tracy presents ten different ways of thinking that enable better decisions. Better decisions free up your time and improve results. At Farnam Street, we believe that a multidisciplinary approach based on mental models allows you to gauge situations from different perspectives and profoundly affect the quality of decisions you make.

Most of us slip into a comfort zone of what Tracy calls “easy thinking and decision-making.” We use less than our cognitive capacity because we become lazy and jump to simple conclusions.

This isn't about being faster. I disagree with the belief that decisions should be, first and foremost, fast and efficient. A better approach is to be effective. If it takes longer to come to a better decision, so be it. In the long run, this will pay for itself over and over with fewer messes, more free time, and less anxiety.

In Get Smart, Tracy does a good job of showing people a series of simple, practical, and powerful ways of examining a situation to improve the odds you're making the best decision.

Let's take a look at a few of them.

1. Long-Time Perspective Versus Short-Time Perspective

Dr. Edward Banfield of Harvard University studied upward economic mobility for almost 50 years. He wondered why some people and families moved from lower socioeconomic classes to higher ones and some didn't. A lot of these people moved from labor jobs to riches in one lifetime. He wanted to know why. His findings are summarized in the controversial book, The Unheavenly City. Banfield offered one simple conclusion that has endured. He concluded that “time perspective” was overwhelmingly the most important factor.

Tracy picks us up here:

At the lowest socioeconomic level, lower-lower class, the time perspective was often only a few hours, or minutes, such as in the case of the hopeless alcoholic or drug addict, who thinks only about the next drink or dose.

At the highest level, those who were second- or third-generation wealthy, their time perspective was many years, decades, even generations into the future. It turns out that successful people are intensely future oriented. They think about the future most of the time.


The very act of thinking long term sharpens your perspective and dramatically improves the quality of your short-term decision making.

So what should we do about this? Tracy advises:

Resolve today to develop long-time perspective. Become intensely future oriented. Think about the future most of the time. Consider the consequences of your decisions and actions. What is likely to happen? And then what could happen? And then what? Practice self-discipline, self-mastery, and self-control. Be willing to pay the price today in order to enjoy the rewards of a better future tomorrow.

Sounds a lot like Garrett Hardin's three lessons from ecology. But really what we're talking about here is second-level thinking.

2. Slow Thinking 

“If it is not necessary to decide, it is necessary not to decide.” 
— Lord Acton

I don't know many consistently successful people or organizations that are constantly reacting without thinking. And yet most of us are habitually in reactive mode. We react and respond to what's happening around us with little deliberate thought.

“From the first ring of the alarm clock,” Tracy writes, we are “largely reacting and responding to stimuli from [our] environment.” This feeds our impulses and appetites. “The normal thinking process is almost instantaneous: stimulus, then immediate response, with no time in between.”

The superior thinking process is also triggered by stimulus, but between the stimulus and the response there is a moment or more where you think before you respond. Just like your mother told you, “Count to ten before you respond, especially when you are upset or angry.”

The very act of stopping to think before you say or do anything almost always improves the quality of your ultimate response. It is an indispensable requirement for success.

One of the best things we can do to improve the quality of our thinking is to understand when we gain an advantage from slow thinking and when we don't.

Ask yourself “does this decision require fast or slow thinking?” 

Shopping for toothpaste is a situation where we derive little benefit from slow thinking. On the other hand if we're making an acquisition or investment we want to be deliberate. Where do we draw the line? A good shortcut is to consider the consequences. Telling your boss he's an idiot when he says something stupid is going to feel really good in the moment but carry lasting consequences. Don't React.

Pause. Think. Act. 

This sounds easy but it's not. One habit you can develop is to continually ask “How do we know this is true?” for the pieces of information you think are relevant to the decision.

3. Informed Thinking Versus Uninformed Thinking

“Beware of endeavouring to be a great man in a hurry.
One such attempt in ten thousand may succeed: these are fearful odds.”
—Benjamin Disraeli


I know a lot of entrepreneurs and most of them religiously say the same two words “due diligence.” In fact, a great friend of mine has a 20+ page due diligence checklist. This means taking the time to make the right decision. You may be wrong but it won't be because you rushed. Of course, most of the people who preach due diligence have skin in the game. It's easier to be cavalier (or stupid) when it's heads I win and tails I don't lose much (hello government).

Harold Geneen, who formed a conglomerate at ITT, said, “The most important elements in business are facts. Get the real facts, not the obvious facts or assumed facts or hoped-for facts. Get the real facts. Facts don’t lie.”

Heck, use the scientific method. Tracy writes:

Create a hypothesis— a yet-to-be-proven theory. Then seek ways to invalidate this hypothesis, to prove that your idea is wrong. This is what scientists do.

This is exactly the opposite of what most people do. They come up with an idea, and then they seek corroboration and proof that their idea is a good one. They practice “confirmation bias.” They only look for confirmation of the validity of the idea, and they simultaneously reject all input or information that is inconsistent with what they have already decided to believe.

Create a negative or reverse hypothesis. This is the opposite of your initial theory. For example, you are Isaac Newton, and the idea of gravity has just occurred to you. Your initial hypothesis would be that “things fall down.” You then attempt to prove the opposite—“things fall up.”

If you cannot prove the reverse or negative hypothesis of your idea, you can then conclude that your hypothesis is correct.



One of the reasons why Charles Darwin was such an effective thinker is that he relentlessly sought out disconfirming evidence.

As the psychologist Jerry Jampolsky once wrote, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy?”

It is amazing how many people come up with a new product or service idea and then fall in love with the idea long before they validate whether or not this is something that a sufficient number of customers are willing to buy and pay for.

Keep gathering information until the proper course of action becomes clear, as it eventually will. Check and double-check your facts. Assume nothing on faith. Ask, “How do we know that this is true?”

Finally, search for the hidden flaw, the one weak area in the decision that could prove fatal to the product or business if it occurred. J. Paul Getty, once the richest man in the world, was famous for his approach to making business decisions. He said, “We first determine that it is a good business opportunity. Then we ask, ‘What is the worst possible thing that could happen to us in this business opportunity?’ We then go to work to make sure that the worst possible outcome does not occur.”

Most importantly, never stop gathering information. One of the reasons that Warren Buffett is so successful is that he spends most of his day reading and thinking. I call this the Buffett Formula.



If you're a knowledge worker decisions are your product. Milton Friedman, the economist, wrote: “The best measure of quality thinking is your ability to accurately predict the consequences of your ideas and subsequent actions.”

If there were a single message to Get Smart, it's another plus in the Farnam Street mold of being conscious. Stop and think before deciding — especially if the consequences are serious. The more ways you have to look at a problem, the more likely you are to better understand. And when you understand a problem — when you really understand a problem — the solution becomes obvious. A friend of mine has a great expression: “To understand is to know what to do.”

Get Smart goes on to talk about goal and result orientated thinking, positive and negative thinking, entrepreneurial vs. corporate thinking and more.

Becoming Wise: An Inquiry Into the Art of Living

“I am a person who listens for a living. I listen for wisdom, and beauty, and for voices not shouting to be heard.”


Krista Tippett, the host of the compelling podcast On Being, is an incredible conversationalist. From poets and physicists to neuroscientists — her show offers conversations that traverse time and disciplines. At the heart of her inquiry lies space to explore what it means to live a meaningful life.

In Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living, Tippett, who listens for a living, offers an illuminating slice of these conversations. As a illuminating guide, her reflections walk us through the work of a lifetime exploring love, compassion, and forgiveness.

The book is organized around virtue and “gentle shifts of mind and habit.” She explores five raw materials for living a meaningful life:

Words — The language we use to tell stories to ourselves and others;
Body — “The body is where every virtue lives or dies”;
Love — More than something we fall into or out of, love is “the only aspiration big enough for the immensity of the human community.”;
Faith — “Literal reality is not all there is.”;
Hope — Hope has nothing to do with optimism or wishing, rather it reflects reality and reveres truth. Hope is a habit.

Tippet resurfaces questions many have explored before us. “What does it mean to be human? What matters in life? What matters in death? How to be of service to each other and the world?”

Each person explores these questions at one point or another in the context of our age and ourselves. The questions are not independent. Who we are to each other is a reflection of what it means to be human.

Wisdom leavens intelligence, and ennobles consciousness, and advances evolution itself.

Life is where we explore the mystery of ourselves and others. Here Tippett offers a voice to “those raw, essential, heartbreaking and life-giving places in us, so that we may know them more consciously, live what they teach us, and mine their wisdom for our life together.”

In the introduction Tippett refuses the false duality and headlines that drive so much of our divide.

[M]any features of national public life are also better suited to adolescence than to adulthood. We don’t do things adults learn to do, like calm ourselves, and become less narcissistic. Much of politics and media sends us in the opposite, infantilizing direction. We reduce great questions of meaning and morality to “issues” and simplify them to two sides, allowing pundits and partisans to frame them in irreconcilable extremes. But most of us don’t see the world this way, and it’s not the way the world actually works. I’m not sure there’s such a thing as the cultural “center,” or that it’s very interesting if it exists. But left of center and right of center, in the expansive middle and heart of our life together, most of us have some questions left alongside our answers, some curiosity alongside our convictions.

Imagination and nuance and the spaces between headlines is where we live. The book is an exploration of these spaces.

I have yet to meet a wise person who doesn’t know how to find some joy even in the midst of what is hard, and to smile and laugh easily, including at oneself. A sense of humor is high on my list of virtues, in interplay with humility and compassion and a capacity to change when that is the right thing to do. It’s one of those virtues that softens us for all the others.

She also offers a sobering reminder of our capacity to control.

We are never really running the show, never really in control, and nothing will go quite as we imagined it. Our highest ambitions will be off, but so will our worst prognostications.

No section of the book is more compelling than exploring words — “I take it as an elemental truth of life,” she writes, “that words matter.”

This is so plain that we can ignore it a thousand times a day. The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. From Genesis to the aboriginal songlines of Australia, human beings have forever perceived that naming brings the essence of things into being. The ancient rabbis understood books, texts, the very letters of certain words as living, breathing entities. Words make worlds.

On our affinity for tolerance she challenges us:

We chose too small a word in the decade of my birth— tolerance— to make the world we want to live in now. We opened to the racial difference that had been there all along, separate but equal, and to a new infusion of religions, ethnicities, and values. But tolerance doesn’t welcome. It allows, endures, indulges. In the medical lexicon, it is about the limits of thriving in an unfavorable environment. Tolerance was a baby step to make pluralism possible, and pluralism, like every ism, holds an illusion of control. It doesn’t ask us to care for the stranger. It doesn’t even invite us to know each other, to be curious, to be open to be moved or surprised by each other.

Words are containers.

The connection between words and meanings resembles the symbiosis between religion and spirituality. Words are crafted by human beings, wielded by human beings. They take on all of our flaws and frailties. They diminish or embolden the truths they arose to carry. We drop and break them sometimes. We renew them, again and again.

In one illuminating conversation, Tippett talks with one of her favorite thinkers about the failure of “official language and discourse” the poet Elizabeth Alexander, who read at the first Obama inauguration.

Alexander offers:

Here’s what we crave. We crave truth tellers. We crave real truth. There is so much baloney all the time. You know, the performance of political speech, of speeches you see on the news, doesn’t it often feel to you like there should be a thought bubble over it that says, “what I really would say if I could say it is . . .”

And how we are drawn to words that shimmer.

I learn so much every day from being a mother. My sons are 11 and 12, and you see the way children know when they’re being bamboozled. And they also are drawn towards language that shimmers, individual words with power. They will stop you and ask you to repeat a shimmering word if they’re hearing it for the first time. You can see it in their faces.

Words are the backbones to stories — the ones we tell others and the ones we tell ourselves.

The art of conversation I’m describing here is related, but it is something subtly and directionally different— sharing our stories in the service of probing together who we are and who we want to be. To me, every great story opens into an equally galvanizing exchange we can have together: So what? How does this change the way you see and live? How might it inform the way I see and live? I believe we can push ourselves further, and use words more powerfully and tell and make the story of our time anew.

“The world,” says physician Rachel Naomi Remen in an interview with Tippett, “is made up stories; it is not made of up facts.”

And yet we tell ourselves facts to piece together stories. Stories are how we make sense of life. Remen continues:

Well, the facts are the bones of the story, if you want to think of it that way. I mean, the facts are, for example, that I have had Crohn’s disease for 52 years. I’ve had eight major surgeries. But that doesn’t tell you about my journey and what’s happened to me because of that, and what it means to live with an illness like this and discover the power of being a human being. And whenever there’s a crisis, like 9/ 11, do you notice how the whole of the United States turned towards the stories? Where I was, what happened, what happened in those buildings, what happened to the people who were connected to the people in those buildings. Because that is the only way we can make sense out of life, through the stories. The facts are a certain number of people died there. The stories are about the greatness of being a human being and the vulnerability of being a human being.


There’s a powerful saying that sometimes we need a story more than food in order to live. They tell us about who we are, what is possible for us, what we might call upon. They also remind us we’re not alone with whatever faces us.

Becoming Wise is for those of us who want to explore the great questions of life with imagination and courage, realizing that much of life is lived in nuance that changes with who we are and, importantly, where we are standing.

The Farnam Street Members Summer 2016 Reading List

We recently asked our Members to recommend a single summer read, and why, and thought we might share some of their recommendations with you. Here are their choices and their reasoning:


Different: Escaping the Competitive Herd

“I would add Different to the list – unique insight into marketing and strategy tactics that have worked in highly competitive industries.”

The Course of Love: A Novel

“I’m currently madly in love with Alain De Botton’s newest book, The Course of Love. It’s a novel with interludes of philosophy that have really helped me to understand relationships (of all kinds) and nurse a little more empathy for others.”

When Breath Becomes Air

Some of my favorite books act like a mirror and force me to examine my own life. When Breath Becomes Air is one of those. While there are sections in the book that are not well written, and some that seem out of place, you forgive that as a reader because you know the author passed away while writing the book. While, and after, reading the book, I kept on asking myself the most important questions: what do I want out of life? What is worth doing with my time? What is the right balance between achieving and spending time with loved ones?”

Manias, Panics, and Crashes

There is a reason why it has been in print since 1978.”

All I Want to Know is Where I'm Going to Die So I'll Never Go There

Peter Bevelin's new book is an interesting set of dialogues between A Seeker, the Librarian, Munger and Buffett.  I'm not finished yet but it's an interesting construction of Buffett and Munger's wisdom. There are a few spots that are heavy on the adulation and a couple places that could have been better edited but on the whole I'm a fan.”

Paper Promises: Debt, Money, and the New World Order / The Last Vote: The Threats to Western Democracy

“I find two books from Philip Coggan who writes the Buttonwood column at The Economist very interesting and very topical in these days.”

Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

“My choice would be Peak. Because it is by far the best book covering deliberate practice. Could be life changing to anyone new to the field.”

Doing Good Better: How Effective Altruism Can Help You Make a Difference

“It's not the ‘best' book out there (though it's very far from the worst). It's not the most enjoyable read. It's not the top of the ‘page for page most full of wisdom' list. But it *is* the one that, were everyone to read it, would have the best chance of making the world a better place (and quite possibly the collective lives of the individuals that read it too).”

Homo Faber

“A German classic not so well known in the english-speaking world about an engineer who is exposed to a number of freak events “fooled by randomness”-style which completely changes his intuition about probability.”

Peripheral Visions: Learning along the Way

“A really fantastic book based on Mary Catherine Bateson's work in foreign cultures. Tough to describe in a nutshell, but the title comes from her encouragement to seek more answers from the periphery, versus what we often find in front of us. She talks a lot about lifelong learning and many of the values we'd talk about here. But it's from a slightly different perspective, and we frankly don't get enough women authors recommended.

Seven Brief Lessons on Physics

“I would recommend Seven Brief Lessons on Physics. A bit on the side of science/physics but a nice small read that simplifies the broad concepts in physics.”

The Inevitable: Understanding the 12 Technological Forces That Will Shape Our Future

“Really enjoyed The Inevitable by Kevin Kelly, a more balanced, even optimistic vision of the future than many are currently presenting. For example, Kevin isn’t worried about AI destroying all Human Life, he believes that in the same way that in the past we electrified existing Mechanical items, we will take those items again, and this time add AI to them.

Looking back from 2050 to today, we will marvel that the internet was ‘just getting started’, and that the internet we use today wasn’t really ‘The Internet’, for example in the future we will have Time Sliders, so taking a webcam in Time Square, you could rewind from 2050 to see the New Years’ celebration in 2035.

Balancing this is the admission that negatives such as Mass Surveillance aren’t going away, and that because of the network effect, cloud AI will be limited to a few large companies.

A great book for speculating about the future.”


Want More? Try 5 books that just might change your life, or the list of books that have changed ours.

Ego is the Enemy: The Legend of Genghis Khan

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday tells the story of Genghis Khan and how his openness to learning was the foundation of his success.

By Ryan Holiday

The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed through history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last. Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched. In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation.

Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.”

He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.

Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers—anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.

It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.

As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.

This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.

With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.

The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”

No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song— which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us  we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.

The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

Most military cultures—and people in general—seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt?

A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.

The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self-imposed ignorance.

Source: Ego is the Enemy and used with permission from the author.

The Four Laws of Ecology: The Clearest Explanation of What Ecology Really Means

Ecology is the study of relationships and processes linking living things to the physical and chemical environment. Exciting, right?

In the 1971 book The Closing Circle, Barry Commoner gives us a clear and understandable example of what ecology really means, while being one of the first to sound the alarm on the impending environmental crisis. (Although Rachel Caron's Silent Spring certainly holds the mantle for implanting ecological thought into the popular consciousness.)

Commoner's life was devoted to helping people see the benefits of ecological thinking:

Ecology has not yet explicitly developed the kind of cohesive, simplifying generalizations exemplified by, say, the laws of physics. Nevertheless there are a number of generalizations that are already evident in what we now know about the ecosphere and that can be organized into a kind of informal set of laws of ecology.

He goes on to lay out four basic and inescapable laws of ecology (which nicely complement Garett Hardin's Three Filters). The principles describe a beautiful web of life on earth.

The Four Laws of Ecology

The First Law of Ecology: Everything Is Connected to Everything Else

It reflects the existence of the elaborate network of interconnections in the ecosphere: among different living organisms, and between populations, species, and individual organisms and their physicochemical surroundings.

The single fact that an ecosystem consists of multiple interconnected parts, which act on one another, has some surprising consequences. Our ability to picture the behavior of such systems has been helped considerably by the development, even more recent than ecology, of the science of cybernetics. We owe the basic concept, and the word itself, to the inventive mind of the late Norbert Wiener.

The word “cybernetics” derives from the Greek word for helmsman; it is concerned with cycles of events that steer, or govern, the behavior of a system. The helmsman is part of a system that also includes the compass, the rudder, and the ship, If the ship veers off the chosen compass course, the change shows up in the movement of the compass needle. Observed and interpreted by the helmsman this event determines a subsequent one: the helmsman turns the rudder, which swings the ship back to its original course. When this happens, the compass needle returns to its original, on-course position and the cycle is complete. If the helmsman turns the rudder too far in response to a small deflection of the compass needle, the excess swing of the ship shows up in the compass—which signals the helmsman to correct his overreaction by an opposite movement. Thus the operation of this cycle stabilizes the course of the ship.

In quite a similar way, stabilizing cybernetic relations are built into an ecological cycle. Consider, for example, the fresh water ecological cycle: fish-organic waste-bacteria of decay inorganic products—algae—fish. Suppose that due to unusually warm summer weather there is a rapid growth of algae. This depletes the supply of inorganic nutrients so that two sectors of the cycle, algae and nutrients, are out of balance, but in opposite directions. The operation of the ecological cycle, like that of the ship, soon brings the situation back into balance. For the excess in algae increases the ease with which fish can feed on them; this reduces the algae population, increases fish waste production, and eventually leads to an increased level of nutrients when the waste decays. Thus, the levels of algae and nutrients tend to return to their original balanced position.

In such cybernetic systems the course is not maintained by rigid control, but flexibility. Thus the ship does not move unwaveringly on its path, but actually follows it in a wavelike motion that swings equally to both sides of the true course. The frequency of these swings depends on the relative speeds of the various steps in the cycle, such as the rate at which ships responds to the rudder.

Ecological systems exhibit similar cycles, although these are often obscured by the effects of daily or seasonal variations in weather and environmental agents.


The dynamic behavior of a cybernetic system—for example, the frequency of its natural oscillations, the speed with which it responds to external changes, and its overall rate of operation, depends on the relative rates of its constituent steps. In the ship system, the compass needle swings in fractions of a second; the helmsman's reaction takes some seconds; the ship responds over a time of minutes. These different reaction times interact to produce, for example, the ship's characteristic oscillation frequency around its true course.


Ecosystems differ considerably in their rate characteristics and therefore vary a great deal in the speed with which they react to changed situations or approach the point of collapse.


The amount of stress which an ecosystem can absorb before it is driven to collapse is also a result of its various interconnections and their relative speeds of response. The more complex the ecosystem, the more successfully it can resist a stress. … Most ecosystems are so complex that the cycles are not simple circular paths, but are crisscrossed with branches to form a network or a fabric of interconnections. Like a net, in which each knot is connected to others by several strands, such a fabric can resist collapse better than a simple, unbranched circle of threads—which if cut anywhere breaks down as a whole. Environmental pollution is often a sign that ecological links have been cut and that the ecosystem has been artificially simplified and made more vulnerable to stress and to final collapse.

The feedback characteristics of ecosystems result in amplification and intensification processes of considerable magnitude. For example, the fact that in food chains small organisms are eaten by bigger ones and the latter by still bigger ones inevitably results in the concentration of certain environmental constituents in the bodies of the largest organisms at the top of the food chain. Smaller organisms always exhibit much higher metabolic rates than larger ones, so that the amount of their food which is oxidized relative to the amount incorporated into the body of the organism is thereby greater. Consequently, an animal at the top of the food chain depends on the consumption of an enormously greater mass of the bodies of organisms lower down in the food chain. Therefore, any non-metabolized material present in the lower organisms of this chain will become concentrated in the body of the top one. …

All this results from a simple fact about ecosystems—everything is connected to everything else: the system is stabilized by its dynamic self-compensating properties; those same properties, if overstressed, can lead to a dramatic collapse; the complexity of the ecological network and its intrinsic rate of turnover determine how much it can be stressed, and for how long, without collapsing; the ecological network is an amplifier, so that a small perturbation in one network may have large, distant, long-delayed effects.

The Second Law of Ecology: Everything Must go Somewhere

This is, of course, simply a somewhat informal restatement of a basic law of physics—that matter is indestructible. Applied to ecology, the law emphasizes that in nature there is no such thing as “waste.” In every natural system, what is excreted by one organism as waste is taken up by another as food. Animals release carbon dioxide as a respiratory waste; this is an essential nutrient for green plants. Plants excrete oxygen, which is used by animals. Animal organic wastes nourish the bacteria of decay. Their wastes, inorganic materials such as nitrate, phosphate, and carbon dioxide, become algal nutrients.

A persistent effort to answer the question “Where does it go?” can yield a surprising amount of valuable information about an ecosystem. Consider, for example, the fate of a household item which contains mercury—a substance with serious environmental effects that have just recently surfaced. A dry-cell battery containing mercury is purchased, used to the point of exhaustion, and then “thrown out.” But where does it really go? First it is placed in a container of rubbish; this is collected and taken to an incinerator. Here the mercury is heated; this produces mercury vapor which is emitted by the incinerator stack, and mercury vapor is toxic. Mercury vapor is carried by the wind, eventually brought to earth in rain or snow. Entering a mountain lake, let us say, the mercury condenses and sinks to the bottom. Here it is acted on by bacteria which convert it to methyl mercury. This is soluble and taken up by fish; since it is not metabolized, the mercury accumulates in the organs and flesh of the fish. The fish is caught and eaten by a man and the mercury becomes deposited in his organs, where it might be harmful. And so on.

This is an effective way to trace out an ecological path. It is also an excellent way to counteract the prevalent notion that something which is regarded as useless simply “goes away” when it is discarded. Nothing “goes away”; it is simply transferred from place to place, converted from one molecular form to another, acting on the life processes of any organism in which it becomes, for a time, lodged. One of the chief reasons for the present environmental crisis is that great amounts of materials have been extracted from the earth, converted into new forms, and discharged into the environment without taking into account that “everything has to go somewhere.” The result, too often, is the accumulation of harmful amounts of material in places where, in nature, they do not belong.

The Third Law of Ecology: Nature Knows Best

In my experience this principle is likely to encounter considerable resistance, for it appears to contradict a deeply held idea about the unique competence of human beings. One of the most pervasive features of modern technology is the notion that it is intended to “improve on nature”—to provide food, clothing, shelter, and means of communication and expression which are superior to those available to man in nature. Stated baldly, the third law of ecology holds that any major man-made change in a natural system is likely to be detrimental to that system. This is a rather extreme claim; nevertheless I believe it has a good deal of merit if understood in a properly defined context.

I have found it useful to explain this principle by means of an analogy. Suppose you were to open the back of your watch, close your eyes, and poke a pencil into the exposed works. The almost certain result would be damage to the watch. Nevertheless, this result is not absolutely certain. There is some finite possibility that the watch was out of adjustment and that the random thrust of the pencil happened to make the precise change needed to improve it. However, this outcome is exceedingly improbable. The question at issue is: why? The answer is self-evident: there is a very considerable amount of what technologists now call “research and development” (or, more familiarly, “R & D”) behind the watch. This means that over the years numerous watchmakers, each taught by a predecessor, have tried out a huge variety of detailed arrangements of watch works, have discarded those that are not compatible with the over-all operation of the system and retained the better features. In effect, the watch mechanism, as it now exists, represents a very restricted selection, from among an enormous variety of possible arrangements of component parts, of a singular organization of the watch works. Any random change made in the watch is likely to fall into the very large class of inconsistent, or harmful, arrangements which have been tried out in past watch-making experience and discarded. One might say, as a law of watches, that “the watchmaker knows best,”

There is a close, and very meaningful, analogy in biological systems. It is possible to induce a certain range of random, inherited changes in a living thing by treating it with an agent, such as x-irradiation, that increases the frequency of mutations. Generally, exposure to x-rays increases the frequency of all mutations which have been observed, albeit very infrequently, in nature and can therefore be regarded as possible changes. What is significant, for our purpose, is the universal observation that when mutation frequency is enhanced by x-rays or other means, nearly all the mutations are harmful to the organisms and the great majority so damaging as to kill the organism before it is fully formed.

The Fourth Law of Ecology: There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

In my experience, this idea has proven so illuminating for environmental problems that I have borrowed it from its original source, economics. The “law” derives from a story that economists like to tell about an oil-rich potentate who decided that his new wealth needed the guidance of economic science. Accordingly he ordered his advisers, on pain of death, to produce a set of volumes containing all the wisdom of economics. When the tomes arrived, the potentate was impatient and again issued an order—to reduce all the knowledge of economics to a single volume. The story goes on in this vein, as such stories will, until the advisers are required, if they are to survive, to reduce the totality of economic science to a single sentence. This is the origin of the “free lunch” law.

In ecology, as in economics, the law is intended to warn that every gain is won at some cost. In a way, this ecological law embodies the previous three laws. Because the global ecosystem is a connected whole, in which nothing can be gained or lost and which is not subject to over-all improvement, anything extracted from it by human effort must be replaced. Payment of this price cannot be avoided; it can only be delayed. The present environmental crisis is a warning that we have delayed nearly too long.

Lest you feel these are all scientific, Commoner ends by referring you to classic literature:

A great deal about the interplay of the physical features of the environment and the creatures that inhabit it can be learned from Moby Dick.”


Still Interested? Check these related posts out:

Garrett Hardin on the Three Filters Needed to Think About Problems — “The goal of these mental filters, then, is to understand reality by improving our ability to judge the statements of experts, promoters, and persuaders of all kinds.”

The Effect of Scale in Social Science, or Why Utopia Doesn’t Work — Why can't a mouse be the size of an elephant? Weclome to the effect of scale on values.

Mortimer Adler on Understanding What You Read

One of our goals when reading is to find and elucidate the key sentences in a book.

Independent of whether we agree with these key sentences, we first need to digest them — to capture the author's meaning. This is easier in non-fiction than fiction (in part, because typically non-fiction authors stick to the same definition throughout the book whereas fiction authors can change the meaning.)

Consider this beauty from Machiavelli's The Prince:

You must know there are two ways of contesting, the one by the law, the other by force; the first method is proper to men, the second to beasts; but because the first is frequently not sufficient, it is necessary to have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to understand how to avail himself of the beast and the man.

Think for a second. What does it mean in your words?

In a long ago discussion between Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren, authors of The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading, they dissect this quote.

Van Doren: That's a terrible statement isn't it? It means that in the way of life, in which we all live, we cannot afford to be wholly human, we also have to be beastual.


Most of the time, especially with expository books, it's easier to find the key sentences than to understand them.

We all read these sentences and feel as though we understand them. After all we understand the words the author is using. Adler however encourages us to go further. To demonstrate understanding he recommends putting the sentence in your own words. After you've done this, he suggests you offer a concrete example of the meaning.


Here is another example of this process playing out from Adler and Van Doren's conversation.

Adler: In the middle ages the great philosophers were very fond of saying, again and again, ‘nothing acts, except it is actual.' What does that mean to you? Say that in your own words now …

Van Doren: It means I can't be hurt by something that is only potential. Unless something actually is, it can't hurt me.

Adler: Unless something exists it can't hurt you. Show me you understand that by giving me a concrete example of something that can't hurt you because it isn't actual.

Van Doren: Well … a possible thunder storm can't wet me.


We've just added some insightful excerpts from Adler and Van Doren's fascinating conversation as bonus content to How to Read a Book. You don't want to miss this.