Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Over 500,000 people visited Farnam Street last month to expand their knowledge and improve their thinking. Work smarter, not harder with our free weekly newsletter that's full of time-tested knowledge you can add to your mental toolbox.
Consider this situation: You email a colleague with a question expecting a prompt response, but hours or days later you’ve yet to hear from them. Perhaps you can’t move forward on your project without their input so you find yourself blocked. How do you imagine you feel in this situation?
For many of us, situations like this result in feelings of anger, frustration, or annoyance. Maybe we take it personally and conclude that our colleague is lazy or that they don’t value our time or our work. Perhaps we send off a terse reminder asking for an update.
If we’re feeling particularly revengeful, we alert the person’s manager or mention our grievance to another colleague looking for validation that the offending colleague is in fact lazy and disrespectful – a form of confirmation bias.
Perhaps this colleague has been slow to respond to communications in the past, thus we extrapolate that to all of their communications, a case of the fundamental attribution error.
Of course, it's natural to feel anger and frustration when faced with these situations. But is anger the appropriate response?
In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote about The Virtue Concerned with Anger. He begins Book IV with a description of good temper:
The man who is angry at the right things and with the right people, and, further, as he ought, when he ought, and as long as he ought, is praised. This will be the good-tempered man, then, since good temper is praised.
Aristotle tells us that anger has a time and place and that when applied to the right people and for the right reason, is justified and even praiseworthy. But we have to use anger judiciously:
For the good-tempered man tends to be unperturbed and not to be led by passion, but to be angry in the manner, at the things, and for the length of time, that reason dictates; but he is thought to err rather in the direction of deficiency; for the good-tempered man is not revengeful, but rather tends to make allowances.
In Aristotle’s description of good temper, he encourages us to err in the direction of “making allowances”. But how can we do this in practice?
Let’s return to our example.
We take our colleague's lack of response personally and assume they are lazy or disrespectful, but it is important for us to recognize that we are assuming. We often instinctively chose to assume the worst of people, because it slips easily into mind. But what if instead we chose to assume the best?
In her book Rising Strong, Brené Brown describes how she learned to assume that people are doing the best they can and shares a concept introduced to her by Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, a professor at University of Houston. Brown writes:
Whenever someone would bring up a conflict with a colleague, she would ask, ‘What is the hypothesis of generosity? What is the most generous assumption you can make about this person’s intentions or what this person said?’
By pausing to reflect on our anger we can recognize that we are making a negative assumption and challenge ourselves to invert the situation and consider the opposite: “What is the most generous assumption I can make?”
Perhaps our colleague has been given a higher priority project, or they don’t understand that we’re blocked without their input. Maybe they are dealing with some personal challenges outside of the office, or they need input from somebody else to reply to our message and thus they’re blocked as well. Perhaps they've decided to reduce their email frequency in order to focus on important work.
When we pause to look at the situation from another angle, not only do we entertain some explanations that frame our colleagues in a more positive light, but we put ourselves into their shoes; the very definition of empathy.
We’ve all had competing priorities, distractions from personal issues outside of work, miscommunications regarding the urgent need of our response, etc. Do we think others judged us fairly or unfairly in those moments?
The point is not to make excuses or avoid addressing problems with our colleagues, but that if we recognize we are making negative assumptions by default, we might need to challenge ourselves to consider more generous alternatives. This may alter the way we approach our colleague to address the situation. It takes effort and a commitment to think about people differently.
Someone who knew this best was the late, great author David Foster Wallace.
In his beautiful commencement speech to the Kenyon graduating class of 2005, Wallace reminds the students that the old cliché of liberal arts education teaching you to think is truer than they might want to believe. He warns that one of the biggest challenges the graduates will face in life is to challenge their self-centered view of the world – a view that we all have by default.
Using some of life’s more mundane and annoying activities like shopping and commuting, Wallace writes:
The point here is that I think this is one part of what teaching me how to think is really supposed to mean. To be just a little less arrogant. To have just a little critical awareness about myself and my certainties. Because a huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. I have learned this the hard way, as I predict you graduates will, too.
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute centre of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute centre of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
Please don’t worry that I’m getting ready to lecture you about compassion or other-directedness or all the so-called virtues. This is not a matter of virtue. It’s a matter of my choosing to do the work of somehow altering or getting free of my natural, hard-wired default setting which is to be deeply and literally self-centered and to see and interpret everything through this lens of self. People who can adjust their natural default setting this way are often described as being “well-adjusted”, which I suggest to you is not an accidental term.
The recognition that we are inherently self-centered and that this affects the way in which we interpret the world seems so obvious when pointed out, but how often do we stop to consider it? This is our hard-wired default setting, so it's quite a challenge to become willing to think differently.
As an example, Wallace describes a situation where he is disgusted by the gas guzzling Hummer in front of him in traffic. The idea of these cars offends him and he starts making assumptions about the drivers: they're wasteful, inconsiderate of the planet, and inconsiderate of future generations.
Look, if I choose to think this way in a store and on the freeway, fine. Lots of us do. Except thinking this way tends to be so easy and automatic that it doesn’t have to be a choice. It is my natural default setting. It’s the automatic way that I experience the boring, frustrating, crowded parts of adult life when I’m operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that I am the centre of the world, and that my immediate needs and feelings are what should determine the world’s priorities.
But then he challenges himself to consider alternative interpretations, something often described as making the Most Respectful Interpretation (MRI). Wallace decides to consider more respectful interpretations of the other drivers – maybe they have a legitimate need to be driving a large SUV or to be rushing through traffic.
In this traffic, all these vehicles stopped and idling in my way, it’s not impossible that some of these people in SUV’s have been in horrible auto accidents in the past, and now find driving so terrifying that their therapist has all but ordered them to get a huge, heavy SUV so they can feel safe enough to drive. Or that the Hummer that just cut me off is maybe being driven by a father whose little child is hurt or sick in the seat next to him, and he’s trying to get this kid to the hospital, and he’s in a bigger, more legitimate hurry than I am: it is actually I who am in HIS way.
Again, please don't think that I'm giving you moral advice, or that I'm saying you're “supposed to” think this way, or that anyone expects you to just automatically do it, because it's hard, it takes will and mental effort, and if you're like me, some days you won't be able to do it, or you just flat out won't want to. But most days, if you’re aware enough to give yourself a choice, you can choose to look differently at this fat, dead-eyed, over-made-up lady who just screamed at her kid in the checkout line. Maybe she’s not usually like this. Maybe she’s been up three straight nights holding the hand of a husband who is dying of bone cancer. Or maybe this very lady is the low-wage clerk at the motor vehicle department, who just yesterday helped your spouse resolve a horrific, infuriating, red-tape problem through some small act of bureaucratic kindness. Of course, none of this is likely, but it’s also not impossible. It just depends what you want to consider. If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options.
A big part of learning to think is recognizing our default reactions and responses to situations — the so-called “System 1” thinking espoused by Daniel Kahneman. Learning to be “good-tempered” and “well-adjusted” requires us to try to be more self-aware, situationally aware, and to acknowledge our self-centered nature; to put the brakes on and use System 2 instead.
So the next time you find yourself annoyed with your colleagues, angry at other drivers on the road, or judgmental about people standing in line at the store, use it as an opportunity to challenge your negative assumptions and try to interpret the situation in a more respectful and generous way. You might eventually realize that the broccoli tastes good.
Andrew Ng has quite the modern resume.
He founded Coursera, a wonderful website that gives anyone with Internet access the ability to take high level university courses on almost any topic. He founded the Google Brain project at Google, their deep learning research project intended to help bring about better artificial intelligence. Now he's the Chief Scientist at Baidu Research.
Ng is, unsurprisingly, devoted to reading and learning. As he puts it,
In my own life, I found that whenever I wasn't sure what to do next, I would go and learn a lot, read a lot, talk to experts. I don't know how the human brain works but it's almost magical: when you read enough or talk to enough experts, when you have enough inputs, new ideas start appearing. This seems to happen for a lot of people that I know.
When you become sufficiently expert in the state of the art, you stop picking ideas at random. You are thoughtful in how to select ideas, and how to combine ideas. You are thoughtful about when you should be generating many ideas versus pruning down ideas.
I read a lot and I also spend time talking to people a fair amount. I think two of the most efficient ways to learn, to get information, are reading and talking to experts. So I spend quite a bit of time doing both of them. I think I have just shy of a thousand books on my Kindle. And I've probably read about two-thirds of them.
Ng thinks innovation and creativity can be learned — that they are pattern-recognition and combinatorial creativity exercises which can be performed by an intelligent and devoted practitioner with the right approach.
He also encourages the creation of new things; new businesses, new technologies. And on that topic, Ng has a few book recommendations. Given his list of accomplishments, the quality of his mind, and his admitted devotion to reading the printed word, it seems worth our time to check out the list.
The first is “Zero to One” by Peter Thiel, a very good book that gives an overview of entrepreneurship and innovation.
We often break down entrepreneurship into B2B (“business to business,” i.e., businesses whose customers are other businesses) and B2C (“business to consumer”).
For B2B, I recommend “Crossing the Chasm.” For B2C, one of my favorite books is “The Lean Startup,” which takes a narrower view but it gives one specific tactic for innovating quickly. It's a little narrow but it's very good in the area that it covers.
Then to break B2C down even further, two of my favorites are “Talking to Humans,” which is a very short book that teaches you how to develop empathy for users you want to serve by talking to them.
Also, “Rocket Surgery Made Easy.” If you want to build products that are important, that users care about, this teaches you different tactics for learning about users, either through user studies or by interviews.
Then finally there is “The Hard Thing about Hard Things.” It's a bit dark but it does cover a lot of useful territory on what building an organization is like.
For people who are trying to figure out career decisions, there's a very interesting one: “So Good They Can't Ignore You.” That gives a valuable perspective on how to select a path for one's career.
We’ve written quite a bit about the marvelous British naturalist Charles Darwin, who with his Origin of Species created perhaps the most intense intellectual debate in human history, one which continues up to this day.
Darwin’s Origin was a courageous and detailed thought piece on the nature and development of biological species. It's the starting point for nearly all of modern biology.
Charlie Munger thinks Darwin would have placed somewhere in the middle of a good private high school class. He was also in notoriously bad health for most of his adult life and, by his son’s estimation, a terrible sleeper. He really only worked a few hours a day in the many years leading up to the Origin of Species.
Yet his “thinking work” outclassed almost everyone. An incredible story.
In his autobiography, Darwin reflected on this peculiar state of affairs. What was he good at that led to the result? What was he so weak at? Why did he achieve better thinking outcomes? As he put it, his goal was to:
“Try to analyse the mental qualities and the conditions on which my success has depended; though I am aware that no man can do this correctly.”
In studying Darwin ourselves, we hope to better appreciate our own strengths and weaknesses and, not to mention understand the working methods of a “mental overachiever.”
Let's explore what Darwin saw in himself.
1. He did not have a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning. He may have been a bit hard on himself, but Darwin realized that he wasn't a “5 second insight” type of guy (and let's face it, most of us aren't). His life also proves how little that trait matters if you're aware of it and counter-weight it with other methods.
I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men, for instance, Huxley. I am therefore a poor critic: a paper or book, when first read, generally excites my admiration, and it is only after considerable reflection that I perceive the weak points. My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics. My memory is extensive, yet hazy: it suffices to make me cautious by vaguely telling me that I have observed or read something opposed to the conclusion which I am drawing, or on the other hand in favour of it; and after a time I can generally recollect where to search for my authority. So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry.
2. He did not feel easily able to write clearly and concisely. He compensated by getting things down quickly and then coming back to them later, thinking them through again and again. Slow, methodical….and ridiculously effective: For those who haven't read it, the Origin of Species is extremely readable and clear, even now, 150 years later.
I have as much difficulty as ever in expressing myself clearly and concisely; and this difficulty has caused me a very great loss of time; but it has had the compensating advantage of forcing me to think long and intently about every sentence, and thus I have been led to see errors in reasoning and in my own observations or those of others.
There seems to be a sort of fatality in my mind leading me to put at first my statement or proposition in a wrong or awkward form. Formerly I used to think about my sentences before writing them down; but for several years I have found that it saves time to scribble in a vile hand whole pages as quickly as I possibly can, contracting half the words; and then correct deliberately. Sentences thus scribbled down are often better ones than I could have written deliberately.
3. He forced himself to be an incredibly effective and organized collector of information. Darwin's system of reading and indexing facts in large portfolios is worth emulating, as is the habit of taking down conflicting ideas immediately.
As in several of my books facts observed by others have been very extensively used, and as I have always had several quite distinct subjects in hand at the same time, I may mention that I keep from thirty to forty large portfolios, in cabinets with labelled shelves, into which I can at once put a detached reference or memorandum. I have bought many books, and at their ends I make an index of all the facts that concern my work; or, if the book is not my own, write out a separate abstract, and of such abstracts I have a large drawer full. Before beginning on any subject I look to all the short indexes and make a general and classified index, and by taking the one or more proper portfolios I have all the information collected during my life ready for use.
4. He had possibly the most valuable trait in any sort of thinker: A passionate interest in understanding reality and putting it in useful order in his head. This “Reality Orientation” is hard to measure and certainly does not show up on IQ tests, but probably determines, to some extent, success in life.
On the favourable side of the balance, I think that I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention, and in observing them carefully. My industry has been nearly as great as it could have been in the observation and collection of facts. What is far more important, my love of natural science has been steady and ardent.
This pure love has, however, been much aided by the ambition to be esteemed by my fellow naturalists. From my early youth I have had the strongest desire to understand or explain whatever I observed,–that is, to group all facts under some general laws. These causes combined have given me the patience to reflect or ponder for any number of years over any unexplained problem. As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.
Indeed, I have had no choice but to act in this manner, for with the exception of the Coral Reefs, I cannot remember a single first-formed hypothesis which had not after a time to be given up or greatly modified. This has naturally led me to distrust greatly deductive reasoning in the mixed sciences. On the other hand, I am not very sceptical—a frame of mind which I believe to be injurious to the progress of science. A good deal of scepticism in a scientific man is advisable to avoid much loss of time, but I have met with not a few men, who, I feel sure, have often thus been deterred from experiment or observations, which would have proved directly or indirectly serviceable.
Therefore my success as a man of science, whatever this may have amounted to, has been determined, as far as I can judge, by complex and diversified mental qualities and conditions. Of these, the most important have been—the love of science—unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject—industry in observing and collecting facts—and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense.
5. Most inspirational to us of average intellect, he outperformed his own mental aptitude with these good habits, surprising even himself with the results.
With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points.
Still Interested? Read his autobiography, his The Origin of Species, or check out David Quammen's wonderful short biography of the most important period of Darwin's life. Also, if you missed it, check out our prior post on Darwin's Golden Rule.
Welcome to the first incarnation of Ask Farnam Street, where we'll be taking and answering questions on anything you're curious about that we feel we can answer competently and honestly. This first batch of questions comes straight from our Members.
If you'd like to submit a question for our next Q&A, please send it to us at [email protected] with the title “Ask Farnam Street.” We will choose a group of the most thoughtful questions and answer them right here on the site.
How do we cultivate a good balance between thinking for ourselves and building our own systems to suit our unique personalities, and learning from what other people have already discovered about the world and the systems they’ve built and shared?
This is a pretty common question in a lot of fields. Almost anyone who goes deep on trying to study the success and advice of others eventually wonders if they’ll just become a clone of someone else. But the truth of the matter is that most do eventually “find their way” – where everything you’ve learned coalesces into a system of your own. Purely aping someone else doesn't work very well and is harder than it sounds anyway.
Here’s an exercise for anyone who likes music: Pick a musical artist you like and find out who influenced them. Then listen to those influences. Does your favorite really sound like those influences? Like, really? Almost never.
You might hear an “echo” of Robert Johnson in the Rolling Stones, but the differences between the two are night and day – the difference between country blues and rock ‘n roll!
Yet if you were to ask Keith Richards, he’d tell you the Stones started out basically doing a poor imitation of old American blues artists. But what they really did was take the soul of that music (and, I might add, early rock and rollers like Elvis and Chuck Berry), added their own spice and reality, and created something entirely new. That’s how creativity works. You don’t just create new things out of the clear blue sky – you have to start with something. Making new connections and associations is creativity.
Even Sam Walton used to say that he basically stole all of the ideas that became Wal-Mart. But what other company was really anything like Wal-Mart? It was completely unique. And why should anyone else have been like Wal-Mart – they were missing the key ingredient…Walton himself!
In these stories lies your answer. Cultivating that balance will happen naturally if you simply break down what you learn to its essence and take what is useful from it. You don’t need to outright copy anyone else, and contrary to popular belief, success isn’t simple imitation. It’s learning the principles behind what made others successful, the underlying reality being demonstrated by that success, and incorporating that reality into your worldview.
Farnam Street is about pursuing an understanding of “the way the world works.” As long as you use those systems you learn from others as a way of getting at the underlying reality – going beyond pure imitation — you will have the opportunity to “make them your own.”
Two quotes sum this up:
Take what is useful, discard what is not, add what is specifically your own.
Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.
When Charlie [Munger] talks about knowledge across a wide range of disciplines, what are those disciplines, and which does he appear to favor?
Charlie address this a little bit in a speech called “A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business”.
He's talking about the basic disciplines that would make up a really good broad undergraduate curriculum: Math/Statistics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Complex Systems, Psychology, Business/Economics, Law, with the more fundamental ones being generally most reliable. (1+1 always seems to come out to 2.)
Charlie seems to have made use of models across all disciplines. He probably uses psychology and biology more than most, which is a great lesson. And clearly he and Buffett have made wise use of probabilistic thinking.
But remember, in his own words, “80 or 90 models carry most of the freight” – in other words, you’re looking for the Big Ideas. Something like compound interest from mathematics or incentives from psychology explain a large fraction of what you see around you. And you always have the ability to generate new models that you think are explanatory, accurate, and memorable — that's part of the fun.
An accurate and fluent understanding of the big models of the world should be your “first principles” — the large trunk and branches on which all of the “leaves” of your knowledge will hang. Without a big solid trunk with big solid branches, what kind of tree do you expect to have?
From there, it’s about synthesizing across the disciplines — understanding where they overlap, conflict, and combine. What do the models in biology and business have in common? What does the concept of entropy have to do with practical life? Well, a great deal. But you have to reach a bit to figure it all out. And as we talk a lot about here, you eventually find that everything seems to be connected to everything else.
Remember, all models are abstractions of reality. George Box put it that “All models are false. Some are useful.”
Reality itself is simply one continuous, flowing entity, but we as humans have to work with our natural apparatus to understand it. Dividing things into little sub-disciplines is one of the ways we go about doing that. Just remember that your end-goal is to understand reality as best as possible; unfiltered and unadulterated. Any way you decide to organize your search for reality must take into account the way humans learn, but always remember that you're abstracting reality.
How do you choose what next to read? Do you randomly pick a book off the shelf or do you let what you just read pull you towards something that it referenced so you can go deeper into a topic? Do you just wake up in the morning and say I feel like learning about.. this! and go for it?
It’s a combination of a lot of things, but basically the underlying principle is always to follow what interests you, right now. We discuss this a few times in our course on reading.
The thing about curiosity, in the words of Nassim Taleb, is that it’s “Antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it.” When you go down the curious path on a particular topic, you have to keep letting it pull you down. Don't just stop because you feel like you should — if you want to keep going, keep going! Learn! Go deep! Trust us on this one: Ride the wave when it's taking you. It may be a while before you get back up there.
When you decide to get off the path is really going to be an individual judgment, based on how curious you are, how competent you feel you are, and what you plan to do with that information. If you’re going to be a doctor, you have to go “all the way down the path” on the current and most up-to-date understanding of how the human body works, in great detail. Lives depend on it.
But if you’re a lawyer, you might be (rightfully) content to simply try to understand at a high-level how all the main bodily systems work and interact, without being able to do a detailed dissection of the heart. The doctor and the lawyer need not pursue their understanding of human anatomy in anywhere near the same level of detail, but they should both know the Big Ideas. Make sense?
So, long story short, what we're reading at any given time is simply what currently grabs our curiosity; and there are innumerable ways to get it grabbed. Sometimes we will see a book on the shelf and pull it down, but more frequently it’s connected to something else we’ve read recently and decided to pursue further. Recently we recommended a biography of Will Rogers in Brain Food. Why that one, and why now? Because someone I respect recommended studying his life, and when the book came in, the time “felt right” almost right then and there. (Which is actually unusual — most of our books sit for a while before we read them.)
Did we know much about memory before starting the four-part series? No. But we had studied human personality and social psychology quite a bit, and memory is a logical extension of that. In this case, the book we discussed came straight from the bibliography of another one.
Once your anti-library is sufficiently stocked, finding the next book to read will always be the last of your worries. We always have many “on deck” and recommend you do too.
For the mailbag, this isn't really a question maybe more of a post request, but I'd love to see a follow up or update on how your media consumption habits have evolved/changed. The post from Shane a few years back is a personal favorite, and something I've found myself revisiting often:
I'm going to go in a slightly different direction than the question you asked, but hang with me.
We've been thinking a lot on this recently, with increasing concern that we're filling our heads with junk. This, we believe, is not only a poor use of our time and causes more mistakes than are necessary but it also reduces our capacity to find the relevant variables in any given situation.
If you think of your mind as a library, three things should concern you.
There is no point having a repository of knowledge in your mind if you can't find and apply its contents (see multiplicative systems).
Let's talk about the first part today, which is the information you put into your mind.
We feel this is massively misunderstood, resulting in people failing to filter things from entering the “library of the mind.”
If your library is full of crap and falsehoods, you're going to struggle and spend a lot of time correcting mistakes. You won't be very productive and you'll generally muddle through things.
Our minds are like any tool, and needs to be optimized in building this library. Clickbait media is not the stuff we want to put into our mind library. However, this crap is like cocaine — it causes our brains to light up and feel good. The more of it we consume, the more of it we want. It's a vicious flywheel, like eating sugar.
Our brain isn't stupid. It doesn't want this crap, so while it's giving you a mild dopamine rush, it's also working very hard to make sure this junk doesn't make it into your library. This is one reason that people re-read an article and don't remember having read it. Their brains determined it was trash and subsequently got rid of it rather than storing it. Sounds good right?
Well, sort of. As hard as our brains work to ensure this crap doesn't make it into our library, if we keep feeding it junk, we will overwhelm that natural filter. Over days and weeks this isn't a big problem, but over years and decades it becomes a huge one.
Junk in the library messes with accuracy, relevance, and gets in the way of effective and efficient use our of brains – it causes issues with retrieving and applying. (Which is most often done by our subconscious. Ever had a great idea in the shower, as you were falling asleep, or while driving? Exactly.)
And while we probably agree that the quality of what enters our head matters, it's easier said than done.
Consider the CEO with 6 layers of management below him. Something that happens “on the ground floor” of the business, say an interaction between a salesperson and a customer, usually goes through six filters. There is almost no way that information is as accurate as it should be for a good decision after all that filtering.
Now, the CEO might recognize this, but then they have to do something psychologically hard, which is basically say to their direct reports, “I'm not sure I got the right information from you.” They have to go out of their way to seek out more detailed, relevant, independent information from the people close to the problem. (A good assistant will do this for you, but in a political organization they will also be hung out to dry by all parties, CEO included.)
So not only do we need to filter, but we need to be aware of what filters our information has already been through.
Let's hit on one more related thought.
In our search for wisdom and high quality information to put into our library, we often turn to knowledge nuggets called sound-bytes. These deceptive fellows, also called surface knowledge, make us sound clever and feel good about ourselves. They are also easy to add to our “mind library.”
The problem is surface knowledge is blown away easily, like topsoil. However, we reason, most other people are operating on the same level of surface knowledge! So, in a twisted bout of game theory, we are rarely if ever called out on our bullshit.
The result is that this surface, illusory, knowledge is later retrieved and applied when we're making decisions (again, often driven by the subconscious) in a variety of contexts, with terrible results. As the saying goes, “Garbage-in equals garbage-out.”
If you're looking for a quick heuristic you can use for information you're putting into your library, try the two-pronged approach of:
Time meaning – how relevant is this historically? How long will it be accurate — what will it look like in ten minutes, ten months, ten years? If it's going to change that soon, you can probably filter it out right here.
One way to determine if the information will stand the test of time is by gauging its accuracy by examining the details. Details are so important that Elon Musk uses them to tell if people are lying during interviews. You want to learn from people with a deep, accurate fluency in their area of expertise: One of the ways you can assess that is through the details they provide. Surface skimming articles are sometimes meant to be readable by the lay public, but more frequently it indicates simply that the author only has surface knowledge!
So be careful. We'd guess that 99.9% of click-bait articles fail both these filters. They're neither detailed nor lasting in importance.
The good thing is that you can raise your standards over time. One major reason to read documents by people like Richard Feynman or Charlie Munger is that it gets you used to what really clear thought looks like. If you're reading shallow, quickly irrelevant media all the time, when will you read Feynman?
For now let's leave it at that – we'll have more to say on this in the future. It's important.
So many people always ask what's the best book for word-for-word wisdom, or spend hours working out the most efficient means of doing something, which is all great, but in the spirit of a Munger-like avoiding of mistakes, I'd like to hear you and Shane answer what you've done in the sphere of learning about the world that's been the biggest waste of time: the least bang for your mental-investment buck?
Interesting question. It’s hard to answer because everything seems to have some value or another – often it’s in the “what not to do” or “what doesn’t work” sphere, but that is still a useful sphere, so it’s not really a waste.
One thing that does come to mind is speed reading. That is a waste of time and totally counter-productive when you get down to it. If anything, we’ve tried to slow down our reading so we can savor and recall more of what we read. Speed reading is a snare and a delusion, and not worth the time.
Woody Allen had it right: “I took a course on speed reading…and was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”
If you'd like to submit a question for our next Q&A, please send it to us at [email protected] with the title “Ask Farnam Street.” We will choose a group of the most thoughtful questions and answer them right here on the site. Enjoy!
What did an 18th-century hymn writer have to contribute to the modern understanding of the world? As it turns out, a lot. Sometimes we forget how useful the old wisdom can be.
One of the most popular and prolific Christian hymn writers of all time — including Joy to the World — was a man named Isaac Watts, who lived in England in the late 17th and early 18th century. Watts was a well educated Nonconformist (in the religious sense, not the modern one) who, along with his hymn writing, published a number of books on logic, science, and the learning process, at a time when these concepts were only just starting to grab hold as a dominant ideology, replacing the central role of religious teaching.
Watts's book The Improvement of the Mind was an important contribution to the growing body of work emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and rational, balanced inquiry, rather than adhering to centuries of dogma. If, as Alfred North Whitehead once pronounced, modernity's progress was due to the “invention of the method of invention,” Watts and his books (which became textbooks in English schools, including Oxford) can easily be credited with helping push the world along.
One non-conformist who would later come to be deeply influenced by Watts was the great scientist Michael Faraday. Faraday grew up in a poor area of 18th-century England and received a fairly crude education, and yet would go on to become the Father of Electromagnetism. How?
In part, Faraday credits his own “inventing the method of invention” to reading Watts's books, particularly The Improvement of the Mind — a self improvement guide a few centuries before the internet. Watts recommended keeping a commonplace book to record facts, and Faraday did. Watts recommended he be guided by observed facts, and Faraday was. Watts recommended finding a great teacher, and Faraday starting attending lectures.
In Watts's book, Faraday had found a guiding ethos for how to sort out truth and fiction, what we now call the scientific method. And, given his tremendous achievements from a limited starting point, it's worth asking…what did Faraday find?
We needn't search far to figure it out. Smack dab in Chapter One of the book, Watts lays out his General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.
Watts first lays out the goal of the whole enterprise. The idea is a pretty awesome one, the same ethos we promote constantly here: We all need to make decisions constantly, so why not figure out how to make better ones? You don't have to be an intellectual to pursue this goal. Everybody has a mind worth cultivating in order to improve the practical outcome of their lives:
No man is obliged to learn and know every thing; this can neither be sought nor required, for it is utterly impossible : yet all persons are under some obligation to improve their own understanding; otherwise it will be a barren desert, or a forest overgrown with weeds and brambles. Universal ignorance or infinite errors will overspread the mind, which is utterly neglected, and lies without any cultivation.
Skill in the sciences is indeed the business and profession but of a small part of mankind; but there are many others placed in such an exalted rank in the world, as allows them much leisure and large opportunities to cultivate their reason, and to beautify and enrich their minds with various knowledge. Even the lower orders of men have particular railings in life, wherein they ought to acquire a just degree of skill; and this is not to be done well, without thinking and reasoning about them.
The common duties and benefits of society, which belong to every man living, as we are social creatures, and even our native and necessary relations to a family, a neighbourhood, or government, oblige all persons whatsoever to use their reasoning powers upon a thousand occasions; every hour of life calls for some regular exercise of our judgment, as to time and things, persons and actions; without a prudent and discreet determination in matters before as, we, shall be plunged into perpetual errors in our conduct. Now that which should always be practised, must at some time be learnt.
We then get into the Rules themselves, an 18th-century guide to becoming smarter, better, and more useful which is just as useful three hundred years later. In the Rules, Watts promotes the idea of becoming wiser, more humble, more hungry, and more broad-thinking. These are as good a guide to improving your mind as you'll find.
Below as an abridged version of the Rules. Check them all out here or get it in book form here. Watts had a bit of a bent towards solemnity and godliness that need not be emulated (unless you'd like to, of course), but most of the Rules are as useful today as the day they were written.
Rule I. DEEPLY possess your mind with the vast importance of a good judgment, and the rich and inestimable advantage of right reasoning.
Review the instances of your own misconduct in life ; think seriously with yourselves how many follies and sorrows you had escaped, and how much guilt and misery you had prevented, if from your early years you had but taken due paius to judge aright concerning persons, times, and things. This will awaken you with lively vigour to address yourselves to the work of improving your reasoning powers, and seizing every opportunity and advantage for that end.
Rule II. Consider the weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature in general, which arise from the very constitution of a soul united to an animal body, and subjected to many inconveniences thereby.
Consider the many additional weaknesses, mistakes, and frailties, which are derived from our original apostasy and fall from a state of innocence; how much our powers of understanding are yet more darkened, enfeebled, and imposed upon by our senses, our fancies, and our unruly passions, &c.
Consider the depth and difficulty of many truths, and the flattering appearances of falsehood, whence arises an infinite variety of dangers to which we are exposed in our judgment of things.
Read with greediness those authors that treat of the doctrine of prejudices, prepossessions, and springs of error, on purpose to make your soul watchful on all sides, that it suffer itself, as far as possible, to be imposed upon by none of them.
Rule III. A slight view of things so momentous is not sufficient.
You should therefore contrive and practise some proper methods to acquaint yourself with your own ignorance, and to impress your mind with a deep and painful sense of the low and imperfect degrees of your present knowledge, that you may be incited with labour and activity to pursue after greater measures. Among others, you may find some such methods as these successful.
1. Take a wide survey now and then of the vast and unlimited regions of learning. […] The worlds of science are immense and endless.
2. Think what a numberless variety of questions and difficulties there are belonging even to that particular science in which you have made the greatest progress, and how few of them there are in which you have arrived at a final and undoubted certainty; excepting only those questions in the pure and simple mathematics, whose theorems are demonstrable, and leave scarce any doubt; and yet, even in the pursuit of some few of these, mankind have been strangely bewildered.
3. Spend a few thoughts sometimes on the puzzling enquiries concerning vacuums and atoms, the doctrine of infinites, indivisibles, and incommensurables in geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable difficulties: do this on purpose to give you a more sensible impression of the poverty of your understanding, and the imperfection of your knowledge. This will teach you what a vain thing it is to fancy that you know all things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present attainments […]
4. Read the accounts of those vast treasures of knowledge which some of the dead have possessed, and some of the living do possess. Read and be astonished at the almost incredible advances which have been made in science. Acquaint yourself with some persons of great learning, that by converse among them, and comparing yourself with them, you may acquire a mean opinion of your own attainments, and may thereby be animated with new zeal, to equal them as far as possible, or to exceed: thus let your diligence be quickened by a generous and laudable emulation.
Rule IV. Presume not too much upon a bright genius, a ready wit, and good parts; for this, without labour and study, will never make a man of knowledge and wisdom.
This has been an unhappy temptation to persons of a vigorous and gay fancy, to despise learning and study. They have been acknowledged to shine in an assembly, and sparkle in a discourse on common topics, and thence they took it into their heads to abandon reading and labour, and grow old in ignorance; but when they had lost their vivacity of animal nature and youth, they became stupid and sottish even to contempt aud ridicule. Lucidas and Scintillo are young men of this stamp; they shine in conversation; they spread their native riches before the ignorant; they pride themselves in their own lively images of fancy, and imagine themselves wise and learned; but they had best avoid the presence of the skilful, and the test of reasoning; and I would advise them once a day to think forward a little, what a contemptible figure they will make in age.
The witty men sometimes have sense enough to know their own foible; and therefore they craftily shun the attacks of argument, or boldly pretend to despise and renounce them, because they are conscious of their own ignorance, aud inwardly confess their want of acquaintance with the skill of reasoning.
Rule V. As you are not to fancy yourself a learned man because you are blessed with a ready wit; so neither must you imagine that large and laborious reading, and a strong memory, can denominate you truly wise.
What that excellent critic has determined when he decided the question, whether wit or study makes the best poet, may well be applied to every sort of learning:
“Concerning poets there has been contest,
Whether they're made by art, or nature best;
But if I may presume in this affair,
Among the rest my judgment to declare,
No art without a genius will avail,
And parts without the help of art will fail:
But both ingredients jointly must unite,
Or verse will never shine with a transcendent light.”
It is meditation and studious thought, it is the exercise of your own reason and judgment upon all you read, that gives good sense even to the best genius, and affords your understanding the truest improvement. A boy of a strong memory may repeat a whole book of Euclid, yet be no geometrician; for he may not be able perhaps to demonstrate one single theorem. Memorino has learnt half the Bible by heart, and is become a living concordance, and a speaking index to theological folios, and yet he understands little of divinity. […]
Rule VII. Let the hope of new discoveries, as well as the satisfaction and pleasure of known trains, animate your daily industry.
Do not think learning in general is arrived at its perfection, or that the knowledge of any particular subject in any science cannot be improved, merely because it has lain five hundred or a thousand years without improvement. The present age, by the blessing of God on the ingenuity and diligence of men, has brought to light such truths in natural philosophy, and such discoveries in the heavens and the earth, as seemed to be beyond the reach of man. But may there not be Sir Isaac Newtons in every science? You should never despair therefore of finding out that which has never yet been found, unless you see something in the nature of it which renders it unsearchable, and above the reach of our faculties. […]
Rule VIII. Do not hover always on the surface of things, nor take up suddenly with mere appearances; but penetrate into the depth of matters, as far as your time and circumstances allow, especially in those things which relate to your own profession.
Do not indulge yourselves to judge of things by the first glimpse, or a short and superficial view of them; for this will fill the mind with errors and prejudices, and give it a wrong turn and ill habit of thinking, and make much work for retractation. Subito is carried away with title pages, so that he ventures to pronounce upon a large octavo at once, and to recommend it wonderfully when he had read half the preface. Another volume of controversies, of equal size, was discarded by him at once, because it pretended to treat of the Trinity, and yet he could neither find the word essence nor subsistences in the twelve first pages; but Subito changes his opinions of men and books and things so often, that nobody regards him.
As for those sciences, or those parts of knowledge, which either your profession, your leisure, your inclination, or your incapacity, forbid you to pursue with much application, or to search far into them, you must be contented with an historical and superficial knowledge of them, and not pretend to form any judgments of your own on those subjects which you understand very imperfectly.
Rule IX. Once a day, especially in the early years of life and study, call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what further confirmation of known truths, and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge;
And let no day, if possible, pass away without some intellectual gain: such a course, well pursued, must certainly advance us in useful knowledge. It is a wise proverb among the learned, borrowed from the lips and practice of a celebrated painter,
“Let no day pass without one line at least.”
…and it was a sacred rule among the Pythagoreans, That they should every evening thrice run over the actions and affairs of the day, and examine what their conduct had been, what they had done, or what they had neglected: and they assured their pupils, that by this method they would make a noble progress on the path of virtue.
Rule X. Maintain a constant watch at all times against a dogmatical spirit;
Fix not your assent to any proposition in a firm and unalterable manner, till you have some firm and unalterable ground for it, and till you have arrived at some clear and sure evidence; till you have turned the proposition on all sides, and searched the matter through and through, so that you cannot be mistaken.
And even where you may think you have full grounds of assurance, be not too early, nor too frequent, in expressing this assurance in too peremptory and positive a manner, remembering that human nature is always liable to mistake in this corrupt and feeble state. A dogmatical spirit has man; inconveniences attending it: as
1. It stops the ear against all further reasoning upon that subject, and shuts up the mind from all farther improvements of knowledge. If you have resolutely fixed your opinion, though it be upon too slight and insufficient grounds, yet you will stand determined to renounce the strongest reason brought for the contrary opinion, and grow obstinate against the force of the clearest argument. Positive is a man of this character; and has often pronounced his assurance of the Cartesian vortexes: last year some further light broke in upon his understanding, with uncontrollable force, by reading something of mathematical philosophy; yet having asserted his former opinions in a most confident manner, be is tempted now to wink a little against the truth, or to prevaricate in his discourse upon that subject, lest by admitting conviction, he should expose himself to the necessity of confessing his former folly and mistake: and he has not humility enough for that.
2. A dogmatical spirit naturally leads us to arrogance of mind, and gives a man some airs in conversation which are too haughty and assuming. Audens is a man of learning, and very good company ; but his infallible assurance renders his carriage sometimes insupportable.
Rule XI. Though caution and slow assent will guard you against frequent mistakes and retractions; yet you should get humility and courage enough to retract any mistake, and confess an error.
Frequent changes are tokens of levity in our first determinations; yet you should never be too proud to change your opinion, nor frighted at the name of a changeling. Learn to scorn those vulgar bugbears, which confirm foolish man in his old mistakes, for fear of being charged with inconstancy. I confess it is better not to judge, than judge falsely; it is wiser to withhold our assent till we see complete evidence; but if we have too suddenly given up our assent, as the wisest man does sometimes, if we have professed what we find afterwards to be false, we should never be ashamed nor afraid to renounce a mistake. That is a noble essay which is found among the occasional papers ‘ to encourage the world to repractise retractations;' and I would recommend it to the perusal of every scholar and every Christian.
Rule XV. Watch against the pride of your own reason, and a vain conceit of your own intellectual powers, with the neglect of divine aid and blessing.
Presume not upon great attainments in knowledge by your own self-sufficiency: those who trust to their own understandings entirely, are pronounced fools in the word of God; and it is the wisest of men gives them this character,
‘ He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool/ Prov. xxviii. 26. And the same divine writer advises us to ‘ trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not to lean to our understandings, nor to be wise in our own eyes,' chap. iii. 5, 7*
Those who, with a neglect of religion and dependence on God, apply themselves to search out every article in the things of God by the mere dint of their own reason, have been suffered to run into wild excesses of foolery, and strange extravagance of opinions. Every one who pursues this vain course, and will not ask for the conduct of God in the study of religion, has just reason to fear he shall be left of God, and given up a prey to a thousand prejudices ; that he shall be consigned over to the follies of his own heart, and pursue his own temporal and eternal ruin. And even in common studies we should, by humility and dependence, engage the God of truth on our side. (Transcribers Note: This talk of God, pure nonsense that it is, does not diminish the value of his other rules.)
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.