Tag: Joseph Tussman

The Chessboard Fallacy

“In the great chess-board of human society,
every single piece has a principle of motion of its own.”
— Adam Smith


One of our favorite dictums, much referenced here, is an idea by Joseph Tussman, about getting the world to do the work for you:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

By aligning with the world, as it really is and not as we wish it to be, we get it to do the work for us.

Tussman's idea has at least one predecessor: Adam Smith.

In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Smith excoriates the “Men of System” who have decided on an inflexible ideology of how the world should work, and try to fit the societies they lead into a Procrustean Bed of their choosing — the Mao Zedong-type leaders who would allow millions to die rather than sacrifice an inch of ideology (although Smith's book predates Maoism by almost 200 years).

In his great wisdom, Smith perfectly explains the futility of swimming “against the tide” of how the world really works and the benefit of going “with the tide” whenever possible. He recognizes that people are not chess pieces, to be moved around as desired.

Instead, he encourages us to remember that everyone we deal with has their own goals, feelings, aspirations, and motivations, many of them not always immediately obvious. We must construct human systems with human nature in full view, fully harnessed, fully acknowledged.

Any system of human relations that doesn't accept this truth will always be fighting the world, rather than getting it to work for them.

The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.

He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.

If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.

Think of how many policies, procedures and systems of organization which forget this basic truth; systems of political control, price control, social control and behavioral control — from bad workplaces to bad governments – which have failed so miserably because they refused to account for the underlying motivations of the people in the system, and failed to do a second-step analysis of the consequences of their policies.

It's just as true in personal relations: How often do we fail to treat others correctly because we haven't taken their point of view, motivations, aspirations, and desires properly into account? How often is our own “system of relations” built on faulty assumptions that don't actually work for us? (The old marriage advice “You can either be right, or be happy” is pure gold wisdom in this sense.)

Smith's counsel offers us a nice out, though. If our own system for dealing with people and their own “principles of motion” are the same, then we are likely to get a harmonious result! If not? We get misery.

The choice is ours.

Civilization and its Fundamental Passions

“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman


In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)

Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.

On Eros:

Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.

On Moral Fervor:

A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.

On Curiosity:

Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.

On Acquisitiveness:

If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.

On Pride:

At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.

Civilizing Passion

In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they're capable of.

Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.

But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.

Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.

The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.

We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:

In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.

It's even true with the passion for knowledge — something we'd all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It's given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.

The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.

Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don't exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.

In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.

Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.


Still Interested? Check out Tussman's brilliant quote on understanding the world.

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have


Echoing the comments of William Deresiewicz, Charlie Munger offers some sage advice on multi-tasking:

I will say this, I know no wise person who doesn’t read a lot. I suspect that you can read on the computer now and get a lot of benefit out of it, but I doubt it will work as well as reading print worked for me.

I think people that multitask pay a huge price. They think they’re being extra productive, and I think they’re (out of their mind). I use the metaphor of the one-legged man in the ass-kicking contest.

I think when you multi-task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.

Concentrating hard on something that is important is … I can’t succeed at all without doing it. I did not succeed in life by intelligence. I succeeded because I have a long attention span.

It sounds counter-intuitive but if you want to increase discretionary time and reduce stress you need to schedule time to think. The tiny fragments of time many of us find ourselves with have a negative effect on our ability to think deeply about a problem. Furthermore they impede our ability to learn — we stay at a surface level and never move into a deep understanding.

Deresiewicz warns: “You simply cannot (think) in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.”

The opposite approach is to focus on a problem or subject and try to achieve a deep fluency. How many of us, however, have time? We don't do the work required to have an opinion. Instead we operate with surface knowledge. We tackle problems with the first thought that comes to mind. Because we make a poor initial decision, we spend countless hours attempting to correct it. No wonder we have no time to think. We're not heeding the advice of Joseph Tussman and letting the world do the work for us.

We sound good and yet and we fail to learn — in part because everyone else is doing the same thing. Well, when you do what everyone else does, don't be surprised when you get the same results everyone else gets.

If you want to get off the same track that everyone else is on, start scheduling time to think. That's what Munger did when he sold himself the best hour of his day. Structure your environment in a way that promotes thinking and reduces interruption. And match your energy to your task.

Joseph Tussman: Getting the World to Do the Work for You

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all,
is that the world will do most of the work for you,
provided you cooperate with it by identifying
how it really works and aligning with those realities.
If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”
— Joseph Tussman


Nothing better sums up the ethos of Farnam Street than the quote above by Joseph Tussman.

How's that for a guiding principle?

Tussman was a philosophy professor at Cal Berkley and an educational reformer. We got this beautiful quote from a friend of ours in California. Isn't it brilliant?

The world will do a lot of the work for us if we only align with it, and stop fighting it because we want the world to work another way. What Tussman really does is identify a leverage point.

Leverage amplifies an input to provide a greater output. There are leverage points in all systems. To know the leverage point is to know where to apply your effort. Focusing on the leverage point will yield non-linear results. Doesn't that sound like something we want to look for?

Working hard and being busy is not enough. Most people are taking two steps forward and one step back. They're busy, but they haven't moved anywhere.

We need to work smarter not harder.

What Tussman has done is identify a leverage point in life. One that will increase what you can accomplish (through tailwinds) and reduced friction. When we work smart rather than hard, we apply energy in the same direction.

The person who needs a new mental tool and doesn't have it is already paying for it. This is how we should be thinking about the acquisition of worldly wisdom. We're like plumbers who show up with a lot of wrenches but no blowtorches, and our results largely reflect that. We get the job half done in twice the time.

A better approach is the one Tussman suggests. Learn from the world. The best way to identify how the world works is to find the general principles that line up with historically significant sample sizes — those that apply, in the words of Peter Kaufman, “across the geological time scale of human, organic, and inorganic history.”


Still Curious? Pair with Andy Benoit's wisdom and make some time to think about them.