Tag Archives: Books

Recognizing Our Flaws is The Beginning of Wisdom

A short post today that packs a punch.

The liberating power of humility is one we’ve covered before. In fact, it’s a concept that is core to understanding your Circle of Competence. Now Russ Roberts adds to our collection of wisdom with this excerpt from How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness:

As I have gotten older, I have become less confident and maybe more honest. The economy is too complex; we can’t measure the interactions of all its various pieces with any precision. We don’t have enough data, and we don’t understand how things fit together. We are drunks looking for our lost keys under a lamppost not because that’s where we lost our keys but because that’s where the light is. We should be humbler and more honest. Our empirical studies are very imperfect. We often hold the views we do because of ideology and principle. Then we find some evidence that supports those views. We ignore the rest … An awareness of reason’s limits is a caution sign to remind us that we’re not as smart as we think; we’re not perfect truth seekers. We’re flawed. Recognizing our flaws is the beginning of wisdom. Many things look like nails that do not benefit from being pounded. That should induce caution and humility for those with hammers … Humility is an acquired taste. Once you come to like it, it’s a dish best served hot. It’s amazing how liberating it can be to say “I don’t know.”

Why Micromanaging Kills Corporate Culture

“The more he kept sweating the details,
the less his people took ownership of their work.”

***

The most important part of a company’s culture is trust. People don’t feel trusted when you micromanage and this has disastrous implications.

In It’s Your Ship: Management Techniques from the Best Damn Ship in the Navy, Michael Abrashoff  writes:

The difference between thinking as a top performer and thinking like your boss is the difference between individual contribution and real leadership. Some people never make this jump; they keep doing what made them successful, which in a leadership role usually means micromanaging. My predecessor on Benfold (the ship Abrashoff commanded), for instance, was extremely smart—a nuclear engineer and one of the brightest guys in the Navy. He spent his entire career in engineering, and when he took command of Benfold, he became, in effect, the super chief engineer of the ship. According to those who worked for him, he never learned to delegate. The more he kept sweating the details, the less his people took ownership of their work and the ship.

This so often happens in organizations: Micromanagement (or picomanagement, if micro doesn’t quite describe it) kills ownership. And when employees don’t have ownership—skin in the game—everything starts to go to hell. This is one reason government organizations are considered to be dysfunctional — everything is someone else’s responsibility. The incentives are awful.

Consider this anecdote Abrashoff uses to illustrate his point.

A pharmaceutical company I was working with promoted its best salesman to be head of sales. Instead of leading the sales force, he became the super salesman of the company. He had to be in on every deal, large or small. The other salespeople lost interest and stopped feeling as if they were in charge of their own jobs because they knew they couldn’t make a deal without him there to close it. The super salesman would swoop in at the last minute, close the deal, claim all the glory, and the others were left feeling that they were just holding his bat.

This reminds me of something Marshall Goldsmith, author of the impressive What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, once relayed in a conference. He told the story of a typical person in a typical organization presenting an idea to the senior approval body. This person did all this work, it’s their idea, and they know it inside and out. Anyway, they present and the senior management team, keen to exercise their egos, start chiming in with things like “did you think of this …” or “but … ” or “however …”. The project gets better with these comments, after all most people don’t get to that level without being somewhat intelligent. However the commitment of the person who presented the idea goes down dramatically because it’s no longer their idea. They’ve lost some ownership (the degree to which is very dependent on the conversation). The end result is a better idea with less commitment. And you know what? The outcome is worse than if the management team just approved the project. Goldsmith was pointing out the obvious and the world has never looked the same to me since.

Abrashoff aptly concludes:

When people feel they own an organization, they perform with greater care and devotion. They want to do things right the first time, and they don’t have accidents by taking shortcuts for the sake of expedience.

[…]

I am absolutely convinced that with good leadership, freedom does not weaken discipline— it strengthens it. Free people have a powerful incentive not to screw up.

Remember the wisdom of Joseph Trussman. Trust is one of the keys to getting the world to do most of the work for you. Call this an unrecognized simplicity — and one that Ken Iverson exploited to help show why culture eats strategy.

To Sacrifice the Joy of Life is to Miss the Point

Your ability to get things done and be productive is not always a function of hours.

Working more doesn’t always mean you’re working better or harder. It doesn’t mean you’re doing your best. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re going to live a more meaningful life. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you’re going to finish your project faster.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells the story of a man who wanted to transcend his suffering. So he goes to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help. He asks the master “Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years.”

Thinking he could do better, the man then said, “Oh Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years.”

“But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?” the man asked.

The Master replied, “You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won’t enjoy your life.”

Working harder often misses the point.

When interviewed, those nearing the end of their lives did not say they wished they’d worked harder. Rather, they encouraged being willing to make sacrifices to spend time doing things that bring enjoyment.

Just to be clear, I’m not in the The 4-Hour Workweek camp. Farnam Street Media is 60+ a week.

However, it’s not a simple ask coming up with work life balance. As David Whyte argues, that is a flawed lens.

Questions about work and its interaction with the joy of living are personal and significant. We often only think about them toward the end of our life, when it’s too late to make changes.

Start asking yourself these questions today. And if you need a break, join me for a thinking/reading week in Hawaii this March.

The Best Way to Get Smarter? Learn to Read the Right Way.

There is a Buffett & Munger interview from 2013 that we reflect on frequently. They discuss how they’ve leaped ahead of their peers and competitors time and time again:

Munger: We’ve learned how to outsmart people who are clearly smarter [than we are].

Buffett: Temperament is more important than IQ. You need reasonable intelligence, but you absolutely have to have the right temperament. Otherwise, something will snap you.

Munger: The other big secret is that we’re good at lifelong learning. Warren is better in his 70s and 80s, in many ways, than he was when he was younger. If you keep learning all the time, you have a wonderful advantage.

When you couple this with the fact that Buffett & Munger estimate that they spend 80% of their day reading or thinking about what they’ve read, a philosophy is born:

The way to get better results in life is to learn constantly.
And the best way to learn is to read effectively, and read a lot.

The truth is, most styles of reading won’t deliver big results. In fact, most reading delivers few practical advantages; shallow reading is really another form of entertainment. That’s totally fine, but much more is available to the dedicated few.

In a literal sense, we all know how to read. We learned in elementary school. But few of us take the time to improve our skills from the elementary, passive, cover-to-cover reading into a skill set that affords us real and lasting advantages.

Those advantages don’t come from the type of reading that most of us employ most of the time. Real learning stems from a deliberate reading process and a set of principles that are simple, yet challenging.

Simple principles like: Some books demand to be read in their entirety. Most don’t. It’s your job to decide.

Deep, thorough reading doesn’t come naturally or easily to most people. It isn’t achieved by passively absorbing content while reading at max speed. But wisdom and deep understanding can be teased out when you know how to do it.

We can teach you the best of what we’ve learned about reading and how to mold that into an uncommon, sustaining advantage. And with that, we introduce our new course:

Farnam Street’s Guide to How to Read a Book

How to Read a Book is a comprehensive online course that offers observations and strategies on everything from how to build strong reading habits to how to achieve novel insight on topics that already seem mastered by others. We believe this course has the ability to seriously impact any wisdom seeker’s life by enhancing your ability to learn.

Find out more information here:

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For those of you not interested, no problem. Thank you for listening. We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming later this week.

Life Changing Books (New Guy Edition)

Back in 2013, I posted the Books that Changed my Life. In doing so, I was responding to a reader request to post up the books that “literally changed my life.”

Now that we have Jeff on board, I’ve asked him to do the same. Here are his choices, presented in a somewhat chronological order. As always, these lists leave off a lot of important books in the name of brevity.

Rich Dad, Poor Dad – Robert Kiyosaki

Before I get hanged for apostasy, let me explain. The list is about books that changed my life and this one absolutely did. I pulled this off my father’s shelf and read it in high school, and it kicked off a lifelong interest in investments, business, and the magic of compound interest. That eventually led me to find Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, affecting the path of my life considerably. With that said, I would probably not recommend you start here. I haven’t re-read the book since high school and what I’ve learned about Kiyosaki doesn’t make me want to recommend anything to you from him. But for better or worse, this book had an impact. Another one that probably holds up better is The Millionaire Next Door, which my father recommended when I was in high school and stuck with me for a long time too.

Buffett: Making of an American Capitalist/Buffett’s Letters to Shareholders – Roger Lowenstein, Warren Buffett

These two and the next book are duplicates off Shane’s list, but they are also probably the reason we know each other. Learning about Warren Buffett took the kid who liked “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” and watched The Apprentice, and might have been on a path to highly leveraged real estate speculation and who knows what else, and put him on a more sound path. I read this biography many times in college, and decided I wanted to emulate some of Buffett’s qualities. (I actually now prefer The Snowball, by Alice Schroeder, but Lowenstein’s came first and changed my life more.) Although I have a business degree, I learned a lot more from reading and applying the collected Letters to Shareholders.

Poor Charlie’s Almanack – Peter Kaufman, Charlie Munger et al.

The Almanack is the greatest book I have ever read, and I knew it from the first time I read it. As Charlie says in the book, there is no going back from the multi-disciplinary approach. It would feel like cutting off your hands. I re-read this book every year in whole or in part, and so far, 8 years on, I haven’t failed to pick up a meaningful new insight. Like any great book, it grows as you grow. I like to think I understand about 40% of it on a deep level now, and I hope to add a few percent every year. I literally cannot conceive of a world in which I didn’t read this.

The Nurture Assumption – Judith Rich Harris

This book affected my thinking considerably. I noticed in the Almanack that Munger recommended this book and another, No Two Alike, towards the end. Once I read it, I could see why. It is a monument to clear and careful thinking. Munger calls the author Judith Rich Harris a combination of Darwin and Sherlock Holmes, and he’s right. If this book doesn’t change how you think about parenting, social development, peer pressure, education, and a number of other topics, then re-read it.

Filters Against Folly/Living within Limits – Garrett Hardin

Like The Nurture Assumption, these two books are brilliantly well thought-through. Pillars of careful thought. It wasn’t until years after I read them that I realized Garrett Hardin was friends with, and in fact funded by, Charlie Munger. The ideas about overpopulation in Living within Limits made a deep impression on me, but the quality of thought in general hit me the hardest. Like the Almanack, it made me want to become a better and more careful thinker.

The Black Swan – Nassim Taleb

Who has read this and not been affected by it? Like many, Nassim’s books changed how I think about the world. The ideas from The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness about the narrative fallacy and the ludic fallacy cannot be forgotten, as well as the central idea of the book itself that rare events are not predictable and yet dominate our landscape. Also, Nassim’s writing style made me realize deep, practical writing didn’t have to be dry and sanitized. Like him or not, he wears his soul on his sleeve.

Good Calories, Bad Calories / Why We Get Fat: And What to do About it – Gary Taubes

I’ve been interested in nutrition since I was young, and these books made me realize most of what I knew was not very accurate. Gary Taubes is a scientific journalist of the highest order. Like Hardin, Munger, and Harris, he thinks much more carefully than most of his peers. Nutrition is a field that is still sort of growing up, and the quality of the research and thought shows it. Taubes made me recognize that nutrition can be a real science if it’s done more carefully, more Feynman-like. Hopefully his NuSi initiative will help shove the field in the right direction.

The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty – Dan Ariely

This book by Ariely was a game-changer in that it helped me realize the extent to which we rationalize our behavior in a million little ways. I had a lot of nights thinking about my own propensity for dishonesty and cheating after I read this one, and I like to think I’m a pretty moral person to start with. I had never considered how situational dishonesty was, but now that I do, I see it constantly in myself and others. There are also good sections on incentive-caused bias and social pressure that made an impact.

Sapiens – Yuval Noah Harrari

This is fairly new so I’m still digesting this book, and I have a feeling it will take many years. But Sapiens has a lot of (for me) deep insights about humanity and how we got here. I think Yuval is a very good thinker and an excellent writer. A lot of the ideas in this book will set some people off, and not in a good way. But that doesn’t mean they’re not correct. Highly recommended if you’re open-minded and want to learn.

***

At the end of the day, what gets me excited is my Antilibrary, all the books I have on my shelf or on my Amazon wish list that I haven’t read yet. The prospect of reading another great book that changes my life like these books did is an exciting quest.

Nick Hornby Reminds us Why We Love Books (Sometimes)

“All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal…With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”  –  Nick Hornby

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I’m not sure how I missed Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books when it was released a few years ago. If you don’t know him, Hornby is the English author of novels like About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. (All three became movies — Fever Pitch twice.) The book is a collection of ten years of Hornby’s columns for the magazine The Believer. Once a month, Hornby would list all the books he bought and all of the books he managed to read that month, then he’d write about the ones he’d read. By my count, he read about 60 in the first year alone, so he was active.

Hornby is everything you want in someone writing about books: cheeky, wry humor; self-aware, non-nerdy. Ten Years in the Tub is a fun read precisely because it’s a window into a book lover’s soul. A funny book lover. And if you’re reading Farnam Street, you’re probably a book lover, or at least a liker.

Most heavy readers can, for instance, pretty well relate to Hornby’s ranging between despair and cheeriness over the fact that he can’t seem to remember what he reads:

I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. But when I tried to recall anything about [the book Stop-Time] other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy’s Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of say, fifteen and forty, I haven’t even read the books I think I’ve read. I can’t tell you how depressing this is. What’s the fucking point?

Then, just a few months later:

A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time. I remember the punch line of The Sirens of Titan, but everything else was as fresh as a daisy…I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. 

Hornby’s pugilistic description of a struggle to read the Victorian novel No Name by Wilkie Collins is a classic; he heartily recommends it when he’s about 200 pages through, and then quickly reverses course in the following month’s column as he realizes the book is an absolute slog for the final 400 or so. This reminded me of my attempts to read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky years ago. (Hornby seems to have competed the task, I gave up.)

We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly, and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and airplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes–usually late at night in bed–he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I’d socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. And still he kept coming back for more. Only in the past fifty-odd pages, after I’d landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs of buckling under the assault. He was pretty tough for a man of nearly one hundred and eighty. Hats off to him.

He then goes on to offer a refund to any readers who bought the book on his recommendation. (Like I said, cheeky.)

Hornby struggles, as we all do, with the long-versus-short book conundrum. It’s hard to commit to the long ones, especially if you know reading it will take work, but at least they tend to stick because of the commitment needed. Not always so with the lighter reads. (The best solution to the long books, of course, is to commit with discipline to a digestible volume amount every day.)

The truth is, I’ve been reading more short books recently because I need to bump up the numbers in the Books Read column–six of this month’s were really pretty scrawny…But the problem with short novels is that you can take liberties with them: you know you’re going to get through them no matter what, so you never set aside the time or commitment that a bigger book requires. I fucked Old School up; I should have read it in a sitting, but I didn’t, and I never gave it a chance to leave its mark. We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read too. 

For any parents out there, Hornby hits a familiar note in a passage about trying to get some reading done over a Christmas holiday…a seemingly modest goal…

So this last month was, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had high hopes for it, too; it was Christmas-time in England, and I was intending to do a little holiday comfort reading–David Copperfield and a couple of John Buchan novels, say, while sipping an eggnog and heroically ploughing my way through some enormous animal carcass or other. I’ve been a father for ten years now, and not once have I been able to sit down and read several hundred pages of Dickens during the Christmas holidays. Why I thought it might be possible this year, now that I have twice as many children, is probably a question best discussed with an analyst: somewhere along the line, I have failed to take something on board. (Hey, great idea: if you have kids, give your partner reading vouchers next Christmas. Each voucher entitles the bearer to two hours’ reading-time while kids are awake. It might look like a cheapskate present, but parents will appreciate that it costs more in real terms than a Lamborghini.)

And finally, Hornby reminds us, the challenge and frustration of being a book-lover trying to cover a lot of ground is that the best laid plans often go awry(For those of us who don’t get books sent to us for free, substitute an Amazon addiction, or, say, a Farnam Street membership as the culprits of having too many books coming down the funnel.)

Francis Wheen’s book and Paul Collins’ Not Even Wrong were advance reading copies that arrived through the post. I’m never going to complain about receiving free early copies of books, because quite clearly there’s nothing to complain about, but it does introduce a rogue element into one’s otherwise carefully plotted reading schedule. I had no idea I wanted to read Wheen’s book until it arrived, and it was because of Wheen that I read Lewis, and then Not Even Wrong turned up and I wanted to read that too, and Buchan’s Greenmantle got put to one side, I suspect forever. Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have the agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path. 

So, here’s our recommendation: First, learn How to Read a Book. Then pick up Hornby’s charming book for some inspiration. As you watch Hornby flit from David Copperfield, to Moneyball, to literary biographies of obscure early 20th century novelists, you realize it’s a book that reminds you why you love books. And it’s a reminder that people who love books are in a certain kooky fraternity for life.

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