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.
“In the chronicles of American financial history,” writes David Clark in Tao of Charlie Munger: A Compilation of Quotes from Berkshire Hathaway's Vice Chairman on Life, Business, and the Pursuit of Wealth,” Charlie Munger will be seen as the proverbial enigma wrapped in a paradox— he is both a mystery and a contradiction at the same time.”
On one hand, Munger received an elite education and it shows: He went to Cal Tech to train as a meteorologist for the Second World War and then attended Harvard Law School and eventually opened his own law firm. That part of his success makes sense.
Yet here's a man who never took a single course in economics, business, marketing, finance, psychology or accounting, and managed to become one of the greatest, most admired, and most honorable businessmen of our age, noted by essentially all observers for the originality of his thoughts, especially about business and human behavior. You don't learn that in law school, at Harvard or anywhere else.
Bill Gates said of him: “He is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered.” His business partner Warren Buffett put it another way: “He comes equipped for rationality…I would say that to try and typecast Charlie in terms of any other human that I can think of, no one would fit. He's got his own mold.”
How does such an extreme result happen? How is such an original and unduly capable mind formed? In the case of Munger, it's clearly a combination of unusual genetics and an unusual approach to learning and life.
While we can't have his genetics, we can try to steal his approach to rationality. There's almost no limit to the amount one could learn from studying the Munger mind, so let's at least get started by running down some of his best ideas.
Wisdom and Circle of Competence
“Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”
“Acknowledging what you don’t know is the dawning of wisdom.”
Identify your circle of competence and use your knowledge, when possible, to stay away from things you don't understand. There are no points for difficulty at work or in life. Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.
Of course this relates to another of Munger's sayings, “People are trying to be smart—all I am trying to do is not to be idiotic, but it’s harder than most people think.”
And this reminds me of perhaps my favorite Mungerism of all time, the very quote that sits right beside my desk:
“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
“Mimicking the herd, invites regression to the mean.”
Here's a simple axiom to live by: If you do what everyone else does, you're going to get the same result that everyone else gets. This means, taking out luck (good or bad), if you act average, you're going to be average. If you want to move away from average, you must diverge. You must be different. And if you want to outperform, you must be different and correct. As Munger would say, “How could it be otherwise?”
Know When to Fold Em
“Life, in part, is like a poker game, wherein you have to learn to quit sometimes when holding a much-loved hand— you must learn to handle mistakes and new facts that change the odds.”
Echoing Einstein, who said that “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts,” Munger said about his and Buffett's shift to acquiring high quality businesses for Berkshire Hathaway:
“Once we’d gotten over the hurdle of recognizing that a thing could be a bargain based on quantitative measures that would have horrified Graham, we started thinking about better businesses.”
“Sit on your ass. You’re paying less to brokers, you’re listening to less nonsense, and if it works, the tax system gives you an extra one, two, or three percentage points per annum.”
Investing is a Pari-mutual System
“You’re looking for a mispriced gamble,” says Munger. “That’s what investing is. And you have to know enough to know whether the gamble is mispriced. That’s value investing.” At another time he added: “You should remember that good ideas are rare— when the odds are greatly in your favor, bet heavily.”
When asked about his success, Munger says, “I succeeded because I have a long attention span.”
Long attention spans allow for a deep understanding of subjects. When combined with deliberate practice focus allows you to increase your skills and get out of your rut. The Art of Focus is a divergent and correct strategy that can help you identify where the leverage points are and apply your effort toward them.
“Smart people aren’t exempt from professional disasters from overconfidence.”
We're so used to outsourcing our thinking to others that we've forgotten what it's like to really understand something from all perspectives. We've forgotten just how much work that takes. The path of least resistance, however, is just a click away. Fake knowledge, which comes from reading headlines and skimming the news seems harmless, but it's not because it makes us overconfident. It's better to remember a simple trick: anything you're getting easily through google or twitter is likely to be widely known and should not be given undue weight.
However, Munger adds, “If people weren’t wrong so often, we wouldn’t be so rich.”
Echoing Pascal, who said some version of ‘All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone,' Munger adds an investing twist: “It’s waiting that helps you as an investor, and a lot of people just can’t stand to wait.”
The ability to be alone with your thoughts, and turn ideas over and over, without the do something syndrome affects so many of us. A perfectly reasonable deviation is to hold your ground and await more information.
Deal With Reality
“I think that one should recognize reality even when one doesn’t like it; indeed, especially when one doesn’t like it.”
Munger clearly learned from Joseph Tussman's wisdom. This means facing harsh truths that you have forced yourself to ignore. It means meeting the world on the worlds terms, not how you wish it would be. If this causes temporary pain, so be it. “Your pain,” writes Kahil Gibran in The Prophet, “is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”
There is No Free Lunch
We like quick solutions that don't require a lot of effort. We're drawn to the modern equivalent of an old hustler selling an all curing tonic. Only the world does not work that way. Munger expands:
“There isn’t a single formula. You need to know a lot about business and human nature and the numbers…It is unreasonable to expect that there is a magic system that will do it for you.”
Acquiring knowledge is hard work. It's reading and adding to your knowledge so it compounds. It's going deep and developing fluency, something Darwin knew well.
“In business we often find that the winning system goes almost ridiculously far in maximizing and or minimizing one or a few variables— like the discount warehouses of Costco.”
When everything is a priority nothing is a priority. Attempting to maximize competing variables is a recipe for disaster. Picking one variable, and relentlessly focusing on it, which is an effective strategy, diverges from the norm. It's hard to compete with businesses who have correctly identified the right variables to maximize or minimize. When you focus on one variable, you'll increase the odds you're quick and nimble — and can respond to changes in the terrain.
Map and Terrain
“At Berkshire there has never been a master plan. Anyone who wanted to do it, we fired because it takes on a life of its own and doesn’t cover new reality. We want people taking into account new information.”
Plans are maps that we become attached to. Once we've told everyone there is a plan and what that plan is, especially multi-year plans, we're psychologically more likely to hold to it because coming out and changing it would be admitting we're wrong. This creates a scenario where we're staking the odds against us in changing when things change. Detailed 5-year plans (that will clearly be wrong) are as disastrous as overly-general five year plans (which can never be wrong). Scrap it, isolate the key variables that you need to maximize and minimize, and follow the agile path blazed by Henry Singleton and followed by Buffett and Munger.
The Keys to Good Government
There are three keys: honesty, effectiveness, and efficiency.
“In a democracy, everyone takes turns. But if you really want a lot of wisdom, it’s better to concentrate decisions and process in one person. It’s no accident that Singapore has a much better record, given where it started, than the United States. There, power was concentrated in an enormously talented person, Lee Kuan Yew, who was the Warren Buffett of Singapore.”
Lee Kuan Yew put it this way himself: “With few exceptions, democracy has not brought good government to new developing countries. . . . What Asians value may not necessarily be what Americans or Europeans value. Westerners value the freedoms and liberties of the individual. As an Asian of Chinese cultural background, my values are for a government which is honest, effective, and efficient.”
One Step At a Time
“Spend each day trying to be a little wiser than you were when you woke up. Discharge your duties faithfully and well. Slug it out one inch at a time, day by day. At the end of the day— if you live long enough— most people get what they deserve.”
An incremental approach to life that reminds one of the nature of compounding. There will always be some going faster than you but we can learn from the Darwinian guide to overachieving your natural IQ. In order for this approach to be effective you need a long axis of time as well as continuous incremental progress.
“The desire to get rich fast is pretty dangerous.”
Getting rich is a function of being happy with what you have, spending less than you make, and time.
“Know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely— all of them, not just a few.”
Mental Models are the big ideas from multiple disciplines. While most people agree these are worth knowing, they often think they can identify which models will add the most value, and in so doing they miss something important. There is a reason that the “know nothing” index fund almost always beats the investors who think they “know.” Understanding this idea in greater detail, will change a lot of things including how you read. Acquiring the big ideas — without selectivity — is the way to mimic a know nothing index fund.
“I try to get rid of people who always confidently answer questions about which they don’t have any real knowledge.”
Few things have made as much of a difference in my life as systemically eliminating (and when not possible, reducing the importance of) people who think they know the answer to everything.
“There’s no way that you can live an adequate life without many mistakes. In fact, one trick in life is to get so you can handle mistakes. Failure to handle psychological denial is a common way for people to go broke.”
While we all make mistakes, it's how we respond to failure that defines us.
“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.”
“It’s bad to have an opinion you’re proud of if you can’t state the arguments for the other side better than your opponents. This is a great mental discipline.”
Thinking is a lot of work. “My first thought,” William Deresiewicz said in one of my favorite speeches, “is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.”
Choose Your Associates Wisely
“Oh, it’s just so useful dealing with people you can trust and getting all the others the hell out of your life. It ought to be taught as a catechism. . . . But wise people want to avoid other people who are just total rat poison, and there are a lot of them.”
No comment needed there.
In 1923 the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, which endures as a timeless classic meditation on living.
The essence of his brilliance is captured on the section on love.
So much of meaning in life comes from the willingness to lean into things that make us vulnerable.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned about being the friend that my friends deserve, is that I have to put myself out there. It's the exposure of the self, not the protection, that creates meaning.
When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams as the north wind lays waste the garden.
For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you. Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning.
A few sentences later, he hits on the need for vulnerability.
[I]f in your fear you would seek only love's peace and love's pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness and pass out of love's threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter and weep, but not all of your tears.
As for finding love, we cannot direct the course.
And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.
As for your desires, turning into vulnerability, Gibran, who echoes Alfred Lord Tennyson's sentiment when he said ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,' writes:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged hear and give thanks for another day of loving.
Love is process, not an outcome.
In The Prophet, Gibran goes on to explore the tension in love between intimacy and independence. Complement with Richard Feynman's beautiful Letter to his wife Arlene.
One of the great challenges we all face in life is distinguishing between two classes of people: people who know and people who sound like they know. It's called the Batesian Mimicry problem and once you see it, you'll start to notice it everywhere from colleagues and boardrooms, to talking pundits on TV.
From Elon Musk's advice on how to tell if people are lying to how to win an argument, the problem is so pervasive and so fundamental to succeeding in life that I keep a running file whenever people have a clever way to help quickly determine who knows. An unlikely book offered another technique called Racking the Shotgun and it comes from a professional gambler.
80/20 Sales and Marketing by Perry Marshall tells the story of John Paul Mendocha, a friend of Marshall's. At age 17, Mendocha dropped out of high school, hitchhiked to Vegas, and became a professional gambler.
A teenager, however, needs some street smarts so he found himself someone who would take him under his wing for a split of the profits. Mendocha found Rob, a seasoned gambler.
“Son, the first lesson about gambling is, you have to play games you can win. You need to play people who are not as good at poker as you are. Those people are called marks.”
One time, Rob wanted to show John something so they got into the car and headed to the Cabaret. They walked in and sat down amongst the blaring music, dancing women, and copious amounts of alcohol. Rob had a sawed off shotgun in his coat.
He pulled the shotgun out, slipped it under the table. He pressed the lever, popping the chamber open as if to load it. But instead of inserting a shell, he loudly snapped it back shut, with that sharp, signature ratcheting sound shotguns are famous for— what enthusiasts call “racking the shotgun.”
A few heads in the crowd twisted around, trying to see where the racking sound had come from. Everyone else was oblivious, absorbed in their haze of nightclub revelry. Then Rob slipped the gun back into his jacket.
The owner of the club came over to their table and asked if everything was ok.
“Everything’s fine, Bill. Just teaching the lad a lesson,” Rob replied. Then he leaned over and said to John, “John, the people who turned around— those guys are NOT marks. Do not play poker with them. “John, your job is to play cards with everybody else.”
One of Charles Darwin’s less famous works, his The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, released in 1872, kicked off the idea that emotions carry distinct facial expressions. We read these emotions naturally, from birth, all the time — it’s part of our innate wiring, and how to relate to and understand others. But we can learn to read them better with some practice.
One of the complicating factors in learning to read the emotions of other people is that we’ve been taught from a young age to conceal all emotions. We shouldn’t talk about them, display them, or feel them. Reading humans is a lot trickier than any other species, because we can conceal, confuse, hide.
As a result of this, offers Richard Restak in Mozart's Brain and the Fighter Pilot: Unleashing Your Brain's Potential, “[T]he reading of other people’s emotions from their facial expressions is a subtle and arcane art that not everyone learns successfully.”
And this is odd considering that a lot of success in life comes from the ability to accurately read the emotions of other people and (simultaneously) control your own.
Restak provides a simple exercise to improve our ability to read the emotions of others based on the fact that “when a person pretends an emotion, he or she activates the same brain areas that would be activated in circumstances when the emotions are naturally and spontaneously expressed.”
Start by grabbing a trusted and interested friend. Sit on the floor about 3 feet apart, and have your friend close her eyes.
Then, while gazing into her face, ask her to think about the saddest moment in her life. She shouldn’t speak or otherwise respond by sighing, touching, or frowning. Study her face for the subtle changes that accompany her recall of the sad experience.
After a minute, ask her to clear her mind and think of nothing in particular. … Observe any facial changes that may occur as her thoughts shift from sad to neutral. At this point, ask your friend to open her eyes and look directly into your eyes. Ask her once again to think about her saddest experience, then of an emotionally neutral experience, and finally her happiest experience. Keep focused on her face, particularly her eyes as she shifts from one internal experience to the other. What changes do you observe?
Now shift roles.
Let your partner observe you first with your eyes closed as you think sad, indifferent, and happy thoughts. Then open your eyes and repeat the sequence. At this point in the exercise, both of you should spend one minute mentally organizing your impressions. Then share your observations and impressions.
Here is where things get interesting. What did you observe and how does it compare to what she tells you?
Does hearing the details of what she was thinking enrich your observations in any way? While she’s speaking of the sad experience, try to see once again those earlier changes in her eyes and face. Can you now detect something in her eyes or facial expression that escaped you when you were observing her a moment ago? Listen closely while she describes how you appeared to her when you were recalling the saddest and happiest moments in your life.
The most common reason the exercise fails is that, as if by force of nature, we try to conceal our facial expressions.
Both of you must remain psychologically undefended, vulnerable. It’s also important that during the eyes-open part of the exercise you continue to maintain firm but gentle eye contact; not the eye contact of a salesperson or an interviewer, but that of a curious child who remains relaxed and open to a new experience. You’re not trying to “stare down” your partner, but intuitively enter into and participate in his or her inner experience.
This exercise is really intense. Pick your partner carefully. You’ll be dealing with subtle displays of emotion that we all have, however, unlike in social situations, you will get to test the accuracy of your emotional perceptiveness with the other person.
Still Curious? Check out Konstantin Stanislavsky’s An Actor Prepares to help the development of your emotional memory.
Rewarding reads on love, life, knowledge, history, the future, and tools for thinking. Out of all the books I read this year, here is a list of what I found most worth reading in 2016.
1. The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution
These lectures, which were originally called Six Psychological Lectures, were first privately printed in the 1940s. Of the first run of 150 copies, none were sold. The essays were published once again after Ouspensky’s death, and unlike last time became a hit. While the book is about psychology, it’s different than what we think of as psychology — “for thousands of years psychology existed under the name philosophy.” Consider this a study in what man may become — by working simultaneously on knowledge and inner unity.
2. The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning
Imagine the sum of our knowledge as an Island in a vast and endless ocean. This is the Island of Knowledge. The coastline represents the boundary between the known and unknown. As we grow our understanding of the world, the Island grows and with it so does the shores of our ignorance. “We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge,” Gleiser writes, “but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery.” The book is a fascinating and wide-ranging tour through scientific history. (Dig Deeper into this amazing read here.)
3. When Breath Becomes Air
It’s been a while since I’ve cried reading a book. This beautifully written memoir, by a young neurosurgeon diagnosed with terminal cancer, attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living? If you read this and you’re not feeling something you’re probably a robot.
4. The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age
The book, which argues “the information revolution will destroy the monopoly power of the nation-state as surely as the Gunpowder Revolution destroyed the Church’s monopoly,” is making the rounds in Silicon Valley and being passed around like candy. Even if its forecasts are controversial, the book is a good read and it’s full of interesting and detailed arguments. I have underlines on nearly every page. “Information societies,” the authors write, “promise to dramatically reduce the returns to violence … When the payoff for organizing violence at a large scale tumbles, the payoff from violence at a smaller scale is likely to jump. Violence will become more random and localized.” The Sovereign Individual, who, for the first time “can educate and motivate himself,” will be “almost entirely free to invest their own work and realize the full benefits of their own productivity.” An unleashing of human potential which will, the authors argue, shift the greatest source of wealth to ideas rather than physical capital — “anyone who thinks clearly will potentially be rich.” Interestingly, in this potential transition, the effects are “likely to be centered among those of the middle talent in currently rich countries. They particularly may come to feel that information technology poses a threat to their way of life.” The book predicts the death of politics, “weakened by the challenge from technology, the state will treat increasingly autonomous individuals, its former citizens, with the same range of ruthlessness and diplomacy it has heretofore displayed in its dealings with other governments.” As technology reshapes the world, it also “antiquates laws, reshapes morals, and alters preconceptions. This book explains how.”
5. To Kill a Mockingbird
I know, I know. Hear me out. Someone I respect mentioned that he thought Atticus Finch was the perfect blend of human characteristics. Tough and skilled, yet humble and understanding. He’s frequently rated as a “most admired” hero in fiction, yet he’s a lawyer competing with Jedis, Detectives, Spies, and Superheroes. Isn’t that kind of interesting? Since it had been at least 15 years since I’d read TKM, I wanted to go back and remember what made Atticus so admired. His courage, his humility, his understanding of people. I forgot just how perceptive Finch was when it came to what we’d call “group social dynamics” — he forgives the individual members of the mob that show up to hurt Tom Robinson simply because he understands that mob psychology is capable of overwhelming otherwise good people. How many of us would be able to do that? Atticus Finch is certainly a fictional, and perhaps “unattainably” moral hero. But I will point out that not only do real life “Finch’s” exist, but that even if we don’t “arrive” at a Finchian level of heroic integrity and calm temperament, it’s certainly a goal worth pursuing. Wise words from the book Rules for a Knight sums it up best: “To head north, a knight may use the North Star to guide him, but he will not arrive at the North Star. A knight’s duty is to proceed in that direction.” (Here are some of the lessons I took away from the book.)
6. Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World
If you’re not familiar with Lee Kuan Yew, he’s the “Father of Modern Singapore,” the man who took a small, poor island just north of the equator in Southeast Asia with GDP per capita of ~$500 in 1965 and turned it into a modern powerhouse with GDP per capita of over $70,000 as of 2014, with some of the lowest rates of corruption and highest rates of economic freedom in the world. Finding out how he did it is worth anyone’s time. This book is a short introduction to his style of thinking: A series of excerpts of his thoughts on modern China, the modern U.S., Islamic Terrorism, economics, and a few other things. It’s a wonderful little collection. (We’ve actually posted about it before.) Consider this an appetizer (a delicious one) for the main course: From Third World to First, Yew’s full account of the rise of Singapore. (Dig deeper here.)
7. An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments
Perfect summer reading for adults and kids alike. One friend of mine has created a family game where they all try to spot the reasoning flaws of others. The person with the most points at the end of the week gets to pick where they go for dinner. I have a suspicion his kids will turn out to be politicians or lawyers.
8. Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking
Dan Dennett is one of the most well known cognitive scientists on the planet . This book is a collection of 77 short essays on different “thinking tools,” basically thought experiments Dennett uses to slice through tough problems, including some tools for thinking about computing, thinking about meaning, and thinking about consciousness. Like Richard Feynman’s great books, this one acts as a window into a brilliant mind and how it handles interesting and difficult problems. If you only walk away with a few new mental tools, it’s well worth the time spent. (You can learn a lot more about Dennett here, here, and here.)
9. The Seven Sins of Memory (How the Mind Forgets and Remembers)
I found this in the bibliography of Judith Rich Harris’ No Two Alike. Schacter is a psychology professor at Harvard who runs the Schacter Memory Lab. The book explores the seven “issues” we tend to find with regard to our memory: Absent-mindedness, transience, blocking, misattribution, suggestibility, bias, and persistence. The fallibility of memory is so fascinating: We rely on it so heavily and trust it so deeply, yet as Schacter shows, it’s extremely faulty. It’s not just about forgetting where you left your keys. Modern criminologists know that eyewitness testimony is deeply flawed. Some of our deepest and most hard-won memories — the things we know are true — are frequently wrong or distorted. Learning to calibrate our confidence in our own memory is not at all easy. Very interesting topic to explore. (We did a three part series on this book. Introduction and parts One, Two, and Three).
10. Talk Lean: Shorter Meetings. Quicker Results. Better Relations
This book is full of useful tips on listening better, being candid and courteous, and learning what derails meetings, conversations, and relationships with people at work. Don’t worry. It’s not about leaving things unsaid that might be displeasing for other people. In fact, leaving things unsaid is often more detrimental to the relationship than airing them out. Rather, it’s about finding a way to say them so people will hear them and not feel defensive. If you want to get right to the point and not alienate people, this book will help you. I know because this is something, personally, I struggle with at times.
11. The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
I recently had a fascinating multi-hour dinner with the author, Pedro Domingos, on where knowledge comes from. Historically, at least, the answer has been evolution, experience, and culture. Now, however, there is a new source of knowledge: Machine learning. The book offers an accessible overview of the different ways of machine learning and the search for a master, unifying, theory. The book also covers how machine learning works and gives Pedro’s thoughts on where we’re headed. (Dig deeper in this podcast.)
12. Why Don’t We Learn from History?
This is a short (~120pp) book by the military historian and strategist B.H. Liddell Hart, a man who not only wrote military history but surely influenced it, especially in Germany in the World War period. He wrote this short synthesis at the end of his life and didn’t have a chance to finish it, but the result is still fascinating. Hart takes a “negative” view of history; in other words, What went wrong? How can we avoid it? The result of that study, as he writes in the introduction, is that “History teaches us personal philosophy.” Those who learn vicariously as well as directly have a big leg up. Something to take to heart. I plan to read more of his works.
13. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington
What a great book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow's getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this.
14. Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
One of the best books I’ve come across in a long time. Sapiens is a work of “Big History” — in the style of Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel — that seeks to understand humanity in a deep way. Many of Professor Harari’s solutions will be uncomfortable for some to read, there is no attempt at political correctness, but his diagnosis of human history is undeniably interesting and at least partially correct. He draws on many fields to arrive at his conclusions; a grand method of synthesis that will be familiar to long-time Farnam Street readers. The book is almost impossible to summarize given the multitude of ideas presented. But then again, most great books are. (Dig deeper into this amazing read here, here, and here.)
15. Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living — A refreshing signal in world of noise that should be read and immediately re-read. There is so much goodness in here that scarcely will you find more than a page or two in my copy without a mark, bent page, or highlight. The entire book offers texture to thoughts you knew you had but didn't know how to express.
16. The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living
The way most of us search for and attempt to hold onto fleeting moments of happiness ends up ensuring that we’re miserable. A great practical book on developing mindfulness, which is so important in many aspects of your life, including satisfaction. Might be the best self-help book I’ve read.
Rhetoric, or the art of persuasion, is an ancient topic that's no less relevant today. We are in a golden age of information sharing, which means you are swimming in a pool of rhetoric every day, whether you realize it or not.
The book Words Like Loaded Pistols: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama by Sam Leith is one tool to help navigate our choppy waters. Leith does an impressive job of unpacking rhetorical concepts while also providing all the knowledge and nuance required to be a powerful speaker.
The book is laid out beautifully, with sections entitled ‘Champions of Rhetoric,’ in which he dissects the work of some of the most famous orators. The chapter comparing Adolf Hitler to Winston Churchill is particularly interesting.
Churchill was a prolific speaker: Between 1900 and 1955 he averaged one speech a week. (That’s 2,860 speeches for those who like math). And they were not just speeches; They carried some of the most famous sayings produced in the twentieth century:
Among the phrases he minted were ‘blood, toil, tears, and sweat,’ ‘their finest hour,’ ‘the few,’ ‘the end of the beginning,’ ‘business as usual,’ ‘iron curtain,’ ‘summit meeting,’ and ‘peaceful coexistence.’
While this impressive resume and history solidified his place on the throne of oratory excellence, it’s important to note that he wasn’t a “born speaker” — in fact he made many mistakes. And he learned.
Like many of us, Churchill would even get nervous to the point of nausea before addressing the public. To counter this he engaged in deliberate practice. He would rehearse his speeches in the mirror, modify them as needed, and scribble meticulous notes including pauses and stage direction. In other words, one of history's great orators painfully engaged himself in a process of trial, error, and practice.
To shape himself as an orator he learned by heart the speeches of Disraeli, Gladstone, Cromwell, Burke, and Pitt. Churchill combined their example with his father Randolph’s gift for invective. But he added something of his own – and it was this that helped tether his high style to something more conversational. He was a master of the sudden change of register – a joke, or a phrase of unexpected intimacy.
Stylistically, Churchill was known for building up to a great crescendo and then suddenly becoming gentle and quiet. Students of rhetoric recognize this as a device to keep your audience engaged, to surprise it. The joking and intimacy showed his prowess with another important rhetorical device, ethos.
Ethos is about establishing a connection with your audience. A joke can help with this because humor is often based on joint assumptions and beliefs; sharing a laugh with someone tends to make us feel closer to them. It’s human nature to gravitate towards those people who are like us (see the principles of influence).
Yet, for all the aspects of the ethos appeal which Churchill got right, on more than one occasion he didn’t judge his audience well and was unable to persuade them.
When he was an MP in 1935, his colleague Herbert Samuel reported, ‘The House always crowds in to hear him. It listens and admires. It laughs when he would have it laugh, and it trembles when he would have it tremble… but it remains unconvinced, and in the end it votes against him.’
Much like today, in Churchill’s time parliament was designed for a type of call and response dialogue, not a grand soapbox type speech that he was so fond of.
Leith argues that if it wasn’t for the war, Churchill might have never found his audience and surely would have been remembered much differently, if at all.
The thing about Churchill was that, like the stopped clock that’s right twice a day, he occupied one position and waited for the world to come to him. He spend much of his political career predicting the imminent end of Western civilization — and it was only by the damnedest good luck that it happened to be on his watch that it suddenly appeared to be coming about. If not, he might have been remembered as a self-aggrandizing windbag with an old-fashioned speaking style and a love of the sound of his own voice.
But when the country really was under threat, Churchill’s fierce certainties were what an anxious audience wanted, while his style — steeped in the language of the previous centuries — seemed to encapsulate the very traditions that he was exhorting them to fight for. What at another time might have been faults became rhetorical strengths. That, you could say, is kairos writ large.
What does that last phrase “kairos” mean? It's all about timing and fit:
As a rhetorical concept, decorum encompasses not only the more obvious features of style, but kairos, or the timeliness of a speech, the tone and physical comportment of the speaker, the commonplaces and topics of argument chosen, and so on. It is a giant umbrella concept meaning no more nor less than the fitting of a speech to the temper and expectations of its audience.
You could argue that the war needed Churchill and that Churchill needed the war. And unlike conflicts of the past, he also had access to the public like no other leader had before. You didn’t need to crowd into a square to hear Churchill speak, you needed to only turn on the radio.
One of the virtues of Churchill’s wartime rhetoric, however, was that whatever his peers in the House of Commons thought, he was able to speak — as politicians a generation before had not been able to — directly to the public through the wireless.
After delivering many of his key speeches in the Commons, Churchill read them out on the radio. Here, that presidential style — all that gruffness and avunicularity all those rumbling climaxes — was able to take full effect without being interrupted by rustling order papers and barracking Opposition MPs. He was pure voice.
Churchill indeed was pure of voice, but there was another loud voice in this conflict: Adolf Hitler. When it came to speaking, the two shared many things in common, but their differences were just as noticeable.
Hitler understood the power of words: He saw them as a tool which he needed to master if he wanted to achieve his goals. He had a strong vision which he believed in passionately and he knew that he needed his people to share that passion if he was to succeed.
From Mein Kampf:
The power which has always started the greatest religious and political avalanches in history has been, from time immemorial, none but the magic power of the word, and that alone. Particularly the broad masses of the people can be moved only by the power of speech… Only a storm of hot passion can turn the destinies of peoples, and he alone can arouse passion who hears it within himself.
It would seem that Hitler associated passion with anger, his speeches were known to peak with shouting resembling rage. Even when writing his speeches he would work himself up into a frenzy.
Traudl Junge, the young secretary whose memoir of the last days in the Fuhrerbunker formed the basis for the film Downfall, recalled him composing the speech he gave to mark the tenth anniversary of his dictatorship. He started out mumbling almost inaudibly, and pacing up and down, but by the time his speech reached its crescendo he had his back to her and was yelling at the wall.
Like Churchill, Hitler would often practice in front of a mirror and choreograph the whole performance, but he would take it much further. With an eye for theatrics, he would pay close attention to the acoustics of the venue to accent both his booming voice and the martial music that would accompany him. He was particular about the visuals, with his dramatic lights and placement of flags.
Hitler also used pauses to his advantage. While Churchill would use them mid speech to maintain an audience's attention or ‘reel them in’, Hitler would use them at the beginning.
It could go on for anything up to half a minute, which is (you’ll know if you’ve tried it) a very, very long time to stand on a stage without saying or doing anything. When he started – which he’d typically do while the applause was still fading out, causing the audience to prick up its ears the more — he would do so at a slow pace and in a deep voice. The ranting was something he built up to, taking the audience with him.
Hitler liked to control every aspect of his performance and paid close attention to those details that others dismissed, specifically the time of day that he gave his speeches (a lesson infomercials learned).
He preferred to speak in the evening, believing that ‘in the morning and during the day it seems that the power of the human will rebel with its strongest energy against any attempt to impose upon it the will or opinion of another. On the other hand, in the evening it easily succumbs to the domination of a stronger will.’
Hitler had a keen interest and insight into human nature. He knew what he needed from the German people and knew the psychological devices to use to sway the masses. He was even cognizant of how his attire would resonate with the population.
While other senior Nazis went about festooned with ribbons and medals, Hitler always dressed in a plain uniform, the only adornment being the Iron Cross First Class that he had won in 1914. That medal, let it be noted, is a token of bravery, not of rank.
This was a calculated move, an appeal to ethos: I am one of you. It was a tricky balance, because he needed to seem like one of the people but also to portray an air of exceptionality. Why else would people follow him if he wasn't the only one who could do tend to Germany in its time of need?
As a wartime leader, you need to make yourself both of and above your audience. You need to stress the identify of their interests with yours, to create unity in a common purpose. You need, therefore, to cast yourself as the ideal exemplar of all that is best and most determined and most courageous in your people.
As expected, the same type of thing happens in modern politics, which is especially amplified during election time. Everyone is scrambling to seem like a leader of the people and to establish trust while still setting themselves apart from the crowd, convincing us that they are the only person fit for the job.
If you look closely, many of the rhetorical devices examined in Words Like Loaded Pistols are in high use today. Leith discusses a speechwriter for Reagan and one of his Champions of Rhetoric is Obama; these sections of the book are just as interesting as the piece on Churchill and Hitler.
Still Interested? If you have a fascination with politics and/or Rhetoric (or just want someone to skillfully distill the considerable amounts of information from Ad Herennium and Aristotle’s Rhetoric, then we highly recommend you pick the book up.