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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.
The metagame is playing a different game than your competitors. A game they can't play.
The metagame is a strategy that involves understanding the structural or unconscious reasons that things are the way they are. This is the strategy that Warren Buffett and Bill Belichick use to create an advantage. It's what smart managers like Ken Iverson do to get the best out of people.
There is an interesting section in an obscure poker book called The Raiser's Edge that explains the concept of a metagame:
The metagame is this psychological game that exists among players, involving adjustments – adjustments based on how an opponent is likely to interpret a given set of actions. Better players adjust their strategies and styles to those of particular opponents, always analyzing how the opponents are playing in terms of how the opponents believe they're playing.
Maintaining a well-balanced strategy, while deciphering your opponents' strategies, is the key to the metagame. If you comprehend the concept of the metagame, accurately perceive the flow of your table and then tournament, and stay alerted to and aware of current strategy trends, you'll be able to successfully mix up your play when considering your image and that of your opponents. In return, your game will be high unpredictable and difficult to read, which should be your ultimate goal.
Warren Buffett and Bill Belichick both use the metagame to create an advantage that others have a hard time matching.
Let's look at Buffett first.
Buffett is widely considered to be the best investor in the world. The company he controls, Berkshire Hathaway, often purchases companies that are public and makes them (effectively) private. For better or worse, public companies have certain environmental constraints. There are numbers to meet (or manage, depending on how you look at it). Expectations to meet. Shareholders who want different things.
The environmental impact of being public often nudges companies toward a path away from their best long-term interest. The timelines of CEOs and shareholders are often not the same.
For example, even if the investment made long-term sense, established companies would have a hard time increasing investment in research and development without an immediate impact (as this reduces earnings.) They'd also have a hard time building inventory (as this increases the amount of the capital required to operate the business).
This divide creates an interesting scenario where public companies can be at a long-term disadvantage to private companies. Private companies can do things that public companies can't do because of the perceived (or real) environmental norms.
This is where Buffett comes in. He can encourage the CEO of the companies he acquires to take another path. They can take a longer-term view. They can make investments without penalty that won't pay off for years. They can increase inventory. They can run the company without the worry of meeting quarterly expectations. Because they can take advantage of the environmental factors that public companies are under, private companies can't easily be copied in this sense.
This isn't limited to finance and investments. It relates to everything. Bill Belichick, perhaps the best coach in NFL history, uses the same strategy. He plays a different game.
Here's an example. Last year Belichick traded away one of the team's most gifted athletes (Jamie Collins) in the first part of the season. While Belichick never came out publicly to say the reasons Collins was traded, he effectively traded one of the teams best players for nothing. Very few coaches would have traded away a star for nothing. Belichick, was playing a version of metagame. He was able to do something that was for the good of the team that would be controversial in the media. A strategy that almost no other coach could get away with.
Now you can argue that Buffett and Belichick can do things no other person can. You can argue these are Hall-Of-Famers they get more leeway. But interestingly, that's the point. Part of their greatness comes from identifying the constraints of others and capitalizing on those structural disadvantages.
In any system where there are norms, there are strengths and weaknesses to those norms. If you follow the norms of the system, the results you get are likely to be the norm. When you play a different game, a metagame, you have the opportunity to outperform.
German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) influenced some of the more prominent minds in the world. His writings and lessons traverse time and discipline. Schopenhauer confronted similar problems with media to the ones we face.
We live under a constant onslaught of content that is not meant to live beyond the moment in which it appears.
Weaving together two of his essays, “On Authorship” (from The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature) and “On Reading.” we can see that he foresaw the problem of clickbait in terms of its distraction from what’s important and how we can fend it off.
Let’s first turn our attention to Schopenhauer’s beliefs on the two kinds of authors and their motivations:
[T]hose who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.
The author has a moral duty to not cheat the reader. You could write about how our media demands this cheating. For example, the 24-hour news cycle broadcasts only for the sake of filling up time and generating pageviews. It has changed our definition of ‘news.'
The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing.
(There is an argument to be made that media fragmentation and low barriers drive down the monetary value of success. If this were true, it is possible that people will once again begin to create for the value of the activity and not the dollars.) We should only read good books. More than read them we should re-read them.
What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. … The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.
The problem is these bad writers, offering little timeless value, monopolize the time and attention of people that could be otherwise spent on more profitable pursuits.
They are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.
The fact these views consume us underpins why our views are so shallow. Remember, Schopenhauer was writing at a time when people valued deep work and attention in a way we no longer do. As an audience it is easier to skim the surface of the volume that is available.
Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty. And a stupid public reads the worthless trash written by these fellows for no other reason than that is has been printed today, while it leaves the works of the great thinkers undisturbed on the bookshelves.
We often forget the existence of words is no statement on their truth.
Incredible are the folly and perversity of a public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.
This is where the art of not reading comes in. We have a choice, even if we refuse to exercise it. Schopenhauer offers us guidance on what to read.
Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the words of great minds, those who surpass other men of all time and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.
Furthering this notion, he adds:
One can never read too little of bad or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.
Which can equally apply to the websites and articles that consume us. Before we know it, we develop a Pot-Belly of Ignorance.
Inverting the problem Schopenhauer suggests “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”
It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.
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!
The mental models approach is very intellectually appealing, almost seductive to a certain type of person. (It certainly is for us.)
The whole idea is to take the world's greatest, most useful ideas and make them work for you!
How hard can it be?
Nearly all of the models themselves are perfectly well understandable by the average well-educated knowledge worker, including all of you reading this piece. Ideas like Bayes' rule, multiplicative thinking, hindsight bias, or the bias from envy and jealousy, are all obviously true and part of the reality we live in.
There's a bit of a problem we're seeing though: People are reading the stuff, enjoying it, agreeing with it…but not taking action. It's not becoming part of their standard repertoire.
Let's say you followed up on Bayesian thinking after reading our post on it — you spent some time soaking in Thomas Bayes‘ great wisdom on updating your understanding of the world incrementally and probabilistically rather than changing your mind in black-and-white. Great!
But a week later, what have you done with that knowledge? How has it actually impacted your life? If the honest answer is “It hasn't,” then haven't you really wasted your time?
Ironically, it's this habit of “going halfway” instead of “going all the way,” like Sisyphus constantly getting halfway up the mountain, which is the biggest waste of time!
See, the common reason why people don't truly “follow through” with all of this stuff is that they haven't raised their knowledge to a “deep fluency” — they're skimming the surface. They pick up bits and pieces — some heuristics or biases here, a little physics or biology there, and then call it a day and pull up Netflix. They get a little understanding, but not that much, and certainly no doing.
The better approach, if you actually care about making changes, is to imitate Charlie Munger, Charles Darwin, and Richard Feynman, and start raising your knowledge of the Big Ideas to a deep fluency, and then figuring out systems, processes, and mental tricks to implement them in your own life.
Let's work through an example.
Say you're just starting to explore all the wonderful literature on heuristics and biases and come across the idea of Confirmation Bias: The idea that once we've landed on an idea we really like, we tend to keep looking for further data to confirm our already-held notions rather than trying to disprove our idea.
This is common, widespread, and perfectly natural. We all do it. John Kenneth Galbraith put it best:
“In the choice between changing one's mind and proving there's no need to do so, most people get busy on the proof.”
Now, what most people do, the ones you're trying to outperform, is say “Great idea! Thanks Galbraith.” and then stop thinking about it.
Don't do that!
The next step would be to push a bit further, to get beyond the sound bite: What's the process that leads to confirmation bias? Why do I seek confirmatory information and in which contexts am I particularly susceptible? What other models are related to the confirmation bias? How do I solve the problem?
The big question: How far do you go? A good question without a perfect answer. But the best test I can think of is to perform something like the Feynman technique, and to think about the chauffeur problem.
Can you explain it simply to an intelligent layperson, using vivid examples? Can you answer all the follow-ups? That's fluency. And you must be careful not to fool yourself, because in the wise words of Feynman, “…you are the easiest person to fool.“
While that's great work, you're not done yet. You have to make the rubber hit the road now. Something has to happen in your life and mind.
The way to do that is to come up with rules, systems, parables, and processes of your own, or to copy someone else's that are obviously sound.
In the case of Confirmation Bias, we have two wonderful models to copy, one from each of the Charlies — Darwin, and Munger.
Darwin had rule, one we have written about before but will restate here: Make a note, immediately, if you come across a thought or idea that is contrary to something you currently believe.
As for Munger, he implemented a rule in his own life: “I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”
Now we're getting somewhere! With the implementation of those two habits and some well-earned deep fluency, you can immediately, tomorrow, start improving the quality of your decision-making.
Sometimes when we get outside the heuristic/biases stuff, it's less obvious how to make the “rubber hit the road” — and that will be a constant challenge for you as you take this path.
But that's also the fun part! With every new idea and model you pick up, you also pick up the opportunity to synthesize for yourself a useful little parable to make it stick or a new habit that will help you use it. Over time, you'll come up with hundreds of them, and people might even look to you when they're having problems doing it themselves!
Look at Buffett and Munger — both guys are absolute machines, chock full of pithy little rules and stories they use in order to implement and recall what they've learned.
For example, Buffett discovered early on the manipulative psychology behind open-outcry auctions. What did he do? He made a rule to never go to one! That's how it's done.
Even if you can't come up with a great rule like that, you can figure out a way to use any new model or idea you learn. It just takes some creative thinking.
Sometimes it's just a little mental rule or story that sticks particularly well. (Recall one of the prime lessons from our series on memory: Salient, often used, well-associated, and important information sticks best.)
We did this very thing recently with Lee Kuan Yew's Rule. What a trite way to refer to the simple idea of asking if something actually works…attributing it to a Singaporean political leader!
But that's exactly the point. Give the thing a name and a life and, like clockwork, you'll start recalling it. The phrase “Lee Kuan Yew's Rule” actually appears in my head when I'm approaching some new system or ideology, and as soon as it does, I find myself backing away from ideology and towards pragmatism. Exactly as I'd hoped.
Your goal should be to create about a thousand of those little tools in your head, attached to a deep fluency in the material from which it came.
I can hear the objection coming. Who has time for this stuff?
You do. It's about making time for the things that really matter. And what could possibly matter more than upgrading your whole mental operating system? I solemnly promise that you're spending way more time right now making sub-optimal decisions and trying to deal with the fallout.
If you need help learning to manage your time right this second, check out our Productivity Seminar, one that's changed some people's lives entirely. The central idea is to become more thoughtful and deliberate with how you spend your hours. When you start doing that, you'll notice you do have an hour a day to spend on this Big Ideas stuff. It's worth the 59 bucks.
If you don't have 59 bucks, at least imitate Cal Newport and start scheduling your days and put an hour in there for “Getting better at making all of my decisions.”
Once you find that solid hour (or more), start using it in the way outlined above, and let the world's great knowledge actually start making an impact. Just do a little every day.
What you'll notice, over the weeks and months and years of doing this, is that your mind will really change! It has to! And with that, your life will change too. The only way to fail at improving your brain is by imitating Sisyphus, pushing the boulder halfway up, over and over.
Unless and until you really understand this, you'll continue spinning your wheels. So here's your call to action. Go get to it!
The trend I see today in organizations concerns me. People are working harder and harder to clean up otherwise avoidable messes they created by making poor initial decisions. In my opinion, two main factors contribute to our inability to make good initial decisions. First, we don’t have the time to think. And second, we don’t have a firm understanding of how the world really works.
Luckily there is another path.
If you understand the world as it really is, not as you'd wish it to be, you will begin to make better decisions. These better decisions will also free up your time, reduce your stress, allow you to spend more time with your family, and leave your competition in the dust.
That leads us to the question: How can we best understand the world as it is?
Acquiring knowledge can be a very daunting task. If you think of the mind as a toolbox, we’re only as good as the tools at our disposal. A carpenter doesn’t show up to work with an empty toolbox. Not only do they want as many tools in their toolbox as possible, but they want to know how to use them. Having more tools and the knowledge of how to use them means they can tackle more problems. Try as we might, we cannot build a house with only a hammer.
If you're a knowledge worker, you're a carpenter. But your tools aren’t bought at a store and they don’t come in a red box that you carry around. Mental tools are the big ideas from multiple disciplines, and we store them in our mind. And if we have a lot of tools and the knowledge required to wield them properly, we can start to synthesize how the world works and make better decisions when confronted with problems.
This is how we understand and deal with reality. I call these tools Mental Models.
Mental models are a framework for understanding how the world really works. They help you grasp new ideas quickly, identify patterns before anyone else and shift your perspective with ease.
Mental Models allow us to make better decisions, scramble out of bad situations, and think critically. If you want to understand reality you must look at a problem in multiple dimensions — how could it be otherwise?
Getting to this level of understanding requires having a lot of tools and knowing how to use them. You knew there was a hitch right?
We need to change our fast-food diet of information consumption and adopt the healthier diet of knowledge that changes slowly over time. While changing diets isn’t easy, it can be incredibly rewarding: more time, less stress, and being better at your job. The costs, however, are short term pain for long term gain. You must change how you think.
One example of a model we can immediately conceptualize and use to improve our ability to make better decisions is something we can borrow from ecology called second-order thinking. The simple way to conceptualize this is to ask yourself “If I do X, what will happen after that?”. I sum this up using the ecologist Garrett Hardin’s simple question: “And then what?”
A lot of people forget about higher order effects — second and third-order effects or higher. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where decisions are made and very few people think to the second level, let alone the third (see second-level thinking). This includes board meetings. Rather, what typically happens is what we call first conclusion bias. The brain shuts down and stops thinking at the first idea that comes to mind that seems to address the problem as you understand it.
We don’t often realize that our first thoughts are usually not even our thoughts. They usually belong to someone else. We understand the sound-byte but we haven’t done the hard work of real thinking. After we reach a first conclusion, our minds often shut down. We don’t seek evidence that would contradict our conclusion. We don’t ask ourselves what the likely result of this solution would be — we don’t ask ourselves “And then what?” We don't ask what other solutions might be even more optimal.
For example, consider a hypothetical organization that decides to change their incentive systems. They come up with a costly new system that requires substantial changes to the current system. Only they don’t consider (or even understand) the problems that the new system is likely to create. It's possible they’ve created more problems than they've solved – only now there are different problems they must put their head down to solve. Optically, they “reorganize their incentive programs,” but practically, they've simply expended energy to stay in place.
Another, perhaps more complicated, example is when a salesman comes into a company and offers you a software program he claims will lower your operating costs and increase your profits. He’s got all these beautiful charts on how much more competitive you’ll be and how it will improve everything. This is exactly what you need because your compensation is based on increasing profits. You’re sold.
Then second-order thinking kicks in and you dare to ask how much of those cost savings are going to go to you and how much will eventually end up benefits enjoyed by customers? To a large extent, that depends on the business you’re in. However, you can be damn sure the salesman is now knocking on your competitor's door and telling them you just bought their product and if they want to remain competitive they better purchase it too. Eventually, you all have the new software and no one is truly better off. Thus, in the manner of a crowd of people standing on their tip-toes at a parade, all competitors spend the money but none of them win: The salesman wins and the customer wins.
We know, thanks to people like Garrett Hardin, Howard Marks, Charlie Munger, Peter Kaufman, and disciplines like ecology, that there are second and third-order effects. This is how the world really works. It just isn't always a comfortable reality.
Understanding how the world works isn’t easy and it shouldn’t be. It's hard work. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And it’s not for everyone. Sometimes, if your goal is to maximize utility, you should focus on getting very, very good in a narrow area and becoming an expert, accepting that you will make many mistakes outside of that domain. But for most, it's extremely helpful to understand the forces at play outside of their narrow area of expertise.
Because when you think about it, how could reality be anything other than a synthesis of multiple factors? How could it possibly be otherwise?