Tag: Wisdom

Let Go of the Learning Baggage

We all want to learn better. That means retaining information, processing it, being able to use it when needed. More knowledge means better instincts; better insights into opportunities for both you and your organization. You will ultimately produce better work if you give yourself the space to learn. Yet often organizations get in the way of learning.

How do we learn how to learn? Usually in school, combined with instructions from our parents, we cobble together an understanding that allows us to move forward through the school years until we matriculate into a job. Then because most initial learning comes from doing, less from books, we switch to an on-the-fly approach.

Which is usually an absolute failure. Why? In part, because we layer our social values on top and end up with a hot mess of guilt and fear that stymies the learning process.

Learning is necessary for our success and personal growth. But we can’t maximize the time we spend learning because our feelings about what we ‘should’ be doing get in the way.

We are trained by our modern world to organize our day into mutually exclusive chunks called ‘work’, ‘play’, and ‘sleep’. One is done at the office, the other two are not. We are not allowed to move fluidly between these chunks, or combine them in our 24 hour day. Lyndon Johnson got to nap at the office in the afternoon, likely because he was President and didn’t have to worry about what his boss was going to think. Most of us don’t have this option. And now in the open office debacle we can’t even have a quiet 10 minutes of rest in our cubicles.

We have become trained to equate working with doing. Thus the ‘doing’ has value. We deserve to get paid for this. And, it seems, only this.

What does this have to do with learning?

It’s this same attitude that we apply to the learning process when we are older, with similarly unsatisfying results.

If we are learning for work, then in our brains learning = work. So we have to do it during the day. At the office. And if we are not learning, then we are not working. We think that walking is not learning. It’s ‘taking a break’. We instinctively believe that reading is learning. Having discussions about what you’ve read, however, is often not considered work, again it’s ‘taking a break’.

To many, working means sitting at your desk for eight hours a day. Being physically present, mental engagement is optional. It means pushing out emails and rushing to meetings and generally getting nothing done. We’ve looked at the focus aspect of this before. But what about the learning aspect?

Can we change how we approach learning, letting go of the guilt associated with not being visibly active, and embrace what seems counter-intuitive?

Thinking and talking are useful elements of learning. And what we learn in our ‘play’ time can be valuable to our ‘work’ time, and there’s nothing wrong with moving between the two (or combining them) during our day.

When mastering a subject, our brains actually use different types of processing. Barbara Oakley explains in A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (even if you flunked algebra) that our brain has two general modes of thinking – ‘focused’ and ‘diffuse’ – and both of these are valuable and required in the learning process.

The focused mode is what we traditionally associate with learning. Read, dive deep, absorb. Eliminate distractions and get into the material. Oakley says “the focused mode involves a direct approach to solving problems using rational, sequential, analytical approaches. … Turn your attention to something and bam – the focused mode is on, like the tight, penetrating beam of a flashlight.”

But the focused mode is not the only one required for learning because we need time to process what we pick up, to get this new information integrated into our existing knowledge. We need time to make new connections. This is where the diffuse mode comes in.

Diffuse-mode thinking is what happens when you relax your attention and just let your mind wander. This relaxation can allow different areas of the brain to hook up and return valuable insights. … Diffuse-mode insights often flow from preliminary thinking that’s been done in the focused mode.

Relying solely on the focused mode to learn is a path to burnout. We need the diffuse mode to cement our ideas, put knowledge into memory and free up space for the next round of focused thinking. We need the diffuse mode to build wisdom. So why does diffuse mode thinking at work generally involve feelings of guilt?

Oakley’s recommendations for ‘diffuse-mode activators’ are: go to the gym, walk, play a sport, go for a drive, draw, take a bath, listen to music (especially without words), meditate, sleep. Um, aren’t these all things to do in my ‘play’ time? And sleep? It’s a whole time chunk on its own.

Most organizations do not promote a culture that allow these activities to be integrated into the work day. Go to the gym on your lunch. Sleep at home. Meditate on a break. Essentially do these things while we are not paying you.

We ingest this way of thinking, associating the value of getting paid with the value of executing our task list. If something doesn’t directly contribute, it’s not valuable. If it’s not valuable I need to do it in my non-work time or not at all. This is learned behavior from our organizational culture, and it essentially communicates that our leaders would rather see us do less than trust in the potential payoff of pursuits that aren’t as visible or ones that don’t pay off as quickly. The ability to see something is often a large component of trust. So if we are doing any of these ‘play’ activities at work, which are invisible in terms of their contribution to the learning process, we feel guilty because we don’t believe we are doing what we get paid to do.

If you aren’t the CEO or the VP of HR, you can’t magic a policy that says ‘all employees shall do something meaningful away from their desks each day and won’t be judged for it’, so what can you do to learn better at work? Find a way to let go of the guilt baggage when you invest in proven, effective learning techniques that are out of sync with your corporate culture.

How do you let go of the guilt? How do you not feel it every time you stand up to go for a walk, close your email and put on some headphones, or have a coffee with a colleague to discuss an idea you have? Because sometimes knowing you are doing the right thing doesn’t translate into feeling it, and that’s where guilt comes in.

Guilt is insidious. Not only do we usually feel guilt, but then we feel guilty about feeling guilty. Like, I go to visit my grandmother in her old age home mostly because I feel guilty about not going, and then I feel guilty because I’m primarily motivated by guilt! Like if I were a better person I would be doing it out of love, but I’m not, so that makes me terrible.

Breaking this cycle is hard. Like anything new, it’s going to feel unnatural for a while but it can be done.

How? Be kind to yourself.

This may sound a bit touchy-feely, but it is really a just a cognitive-behavioral approach with a bit of mindfulness thrown in. Dennis Tirch has done a lot of research into the positive benefits of compassion for yourself on worry, panic and fear. And what is guilt but worry that you aren’t doing the right thing, fear that you’re not a good person, and panic about what to do about it?

In his book, The Compassionate-Mind Guide to Overcoming Anxiety, Tirch writes:

the compassion focused model is based on research showing that some of the ways in which we instinctively regulate our response to threats have evolved from the attachment system that operates between infant and mother and from other basic relationships between mutually supportive people. We have specific systems in our brains that are sensitive to the kindness of others, and the experience of this kindness has a major impact on the way we process these threats and the way we process anxiety in particular.

The Dalai Lama defines compassion as “a sensitivity to the suffering of others, with a commitment to do something about it,” and Tirch also explains that we are greatly impacted by our compassion to ourselves.

In order to manage and overcome emotions like guilt that can prevent us from learning and achieving, we need to treat ourselves the same way we would the person we love most in the world. “We can direct our attention to inner images that evoke feelings of kindness, understanding, and support,” writes Tirch.

So the next time you look up from that proposal on the new infrastructure schematics and see that the sun is shining, go for a walk, notice where you are, and give your mind a chance to go into diffuse-mode and process what you’ve been focusing on all morning. And give yourself a hug for doing it.

J.K. Rowling On People’s Intolerance of Alternative Viewpoints

At the PEN America Literary Gala & Free Expression Awards, J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, received the 2016 PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award. Embedded in her acceptance speech is some timeless wisdom on tolerance and acceptance:

Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me, a moderate and a liberal, most uncomfortable. Only last year, we saw an online petition to ban Donald Trump from entry to the U.K. It garnered half a million signatures.

Just a moment.

I find almost everything that Mr. Trump says objectionable. I consider him offensive and bigoted. But he has my full support to come to my country and be offensive and bigoted there. His freedom to speak protects my freedom to call him a bigot. His freedom guarantees mine. Unless we take that absolute position without caveats or apologies, we have set foot upon a road with only one destination. If my offended feelings can justify a travel ban on Donald Trump, I have no moral ground on which to argue that those offended by feminism or the fight for transgender rights or universal suffrage should not oppress campaigners for those causes. If you seek the removal of freedoms from an opponent simply on the grounds that they have offended you, you have crossed the line to stand alongside tyrants who imprison, torture and kill on exactly the same justification.

Too often we look at the world through our own eyes and fail to acknowledge the eyes of others. In so doing we often lose touch with reality.

The quick reaction our brains have to people who disagree with us is often that they are idiots. They shouldn't be allowed to talk or have a platform. They should lose.

This reminds me of Kathryn Schulz's insightful view on what we do when someone disagrees with us.

As a result we dismiss the views of others, failing to even consider that our view of the world might be wrong.

It's easy to be dismissive and intolerant of others. It's easy to say they're idiots and wish they didn't have the same rights you have. It's harder to map that to the very freedoms we enjoy and relate it to the world we want to live in.

Seneca on Letting the Eminent Dead Guide You

“One who can so revere another, will soon himself be worthy of reverence.”
— Seneca


There's a core part of Charlie Munger's operating system for life that we adhere to: Learn deeply from the eminent dead. Bathe in the wisdom of great people who lived before you. He calls it a form of love:

A second idea that I got very early was that there is no love that’s so right as admiration-based love, and that love should include the instructive dead. Somehow, I got that idea and I lived with it all my life; and it’s been very, very useful to me.

Munger has commented that he'll frequently be in a room with live people while mentally conversing with the dead. While you might not want to pick up on that particular habit unless you're a 90 year old billionaire (and perhaps not even then), the point still stands.

This advice is, of course, not new. Munger echoes the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who echoes Epicurus in recommending his pupil Lucilius learn from the best as well, except Seneca takes it a step further. In his classic Letters Seneca instructs Lucilius not only to study the greats, but to keep them in front of him at all times, as a way to strengthen his nature. To let the eminent dead watch over his actions.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.” Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Munger himself seems to have done this very thing with Ben Franklin, using him as a model of honesty, thriftiness, self-improvement, business savvy, and wit. Heck, the book of his speeches was titled Poor Charlie's Almanack, in homage to Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack.

One might ask what use there is living in the shadow of others: Why not forge your own path? We can use a bit of simple algebra to solve this one. If (A) is [Direct life experience] and (B) is [Learning through the experience of others], and both have a positive value, then is A+B not greater than A alone? How could it be otherwise?

Seneca address this well in the same letter to Lucilius:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another's property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

His final words echo our mantra: Don't be ashamed to pay heed to the best of what other people have already figured out. We don't need to think up all the wisdom of the world ourselves. Master the best of what the world has figured out.

Still Interested? Check out the mental models approach, or check out some of our posts on Seneca.

An Important Life Lesson we can Learn from Sailors

A quick yet incredibly important quote today that adds to the wisdom of Andy Benoit and Joseph Tussman.

Bion of Borysthenes

… [W]e should not try to alter circumstances but to adapt ourselves to them as they really are, just as sailors do. They don't try to change the winds or the sea but ensure that they are always ready to adapt themselves to conditions. In a flat calm they use the oars; with a following breeze they hoist full sail; in a head wind they shorten sail or heave to. Adapt yourself to circumstances in the same way.

— Bion of Borysthenes (From Peter Bevelin's All I Want to Know Is Where I’m Going to Die So I’ll Never Go There: Buffett and Munger — A Study in Simplicity and Uncommon, Common Sense)


Still Curious? you'll love the the wisdom of Publilius Syrus

Ten Words That Forever Change How You View Leadership

Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm. — Publilius Syrus

“Anyone can steer the ship when the sea is calm.”
— Publilius Syrus

It's easy to lead when things are going well.

It's easy to take credit for success.

It's easy to look good when the metrics are going in the right direction.

And yet … I'm reminded of Warren Buffett's words of caution: “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who's been swimming naked.”

If you want to gain an edge you need to think deeper. And when you do that … nothing looks the same again.

The Road Less Travelled: The Source of Many of the Ills of Mankind

This is a must read.

Our view of reality is like a map with which to negotiate the terrain of life. If the map is true and accurate, we will generally know where we are, and if we have decided where we want to go, we will generally know how to get there. If the map is false and inaccurate, we generally will be lost.

While this is obvious, it is something that most people to a greater or lesser degree choose to ignore. They ignore it because our route to reality is not easy. First of all, we are not born with maps; we have to make them, and the making requires effort. The more effort we make to appreciate and perceive reality, the larger and more accurate our maps will be. But many do not want to make this effort. Some stop making it by the end of adolescence. Their maps are small and sketchy, their views of the world narrow and misleading. By the end of middle age most people have given up the effort. They feel certain that their maps are complete and their Weltanschauung is correct (indeed, even sacrosanct), and they are no longer interested in new information. It is as if they are tired. Only a relative and fortunate few continue until the moment of death exploring the mystery of reality, ever enlarging and refining and redefining their understanding of the world and what is true.

But the biggest problem of map-making is not that we have to start from scratch, but that if our maps are to be accurate we have to continually revise them. The world itself is constantly changing. Glaciers come, glaciers go. Cultures come, cultures go. There is too little technology, there is too much technology. Even more dramatically, the vantage point from which we view the world is constantly and quite rapidly changing. When we are children we are dependent, powerless. As adults we may be powerful. Yet in illness or an infirm old age we may become powerless and dependent again. When we have children to care for, the world looks different from when we have none; when we are raising infants, the world seems different from when we are raising adolescents. When we are poor, the world looks different from when we are rich. We are daily bombarded with new information as to the nature of reality. If we are to incorporate this information, we must continually revise our maps, and sometimes when enough new information has accumulated, we must make very major revisions. The process of making revisions, particularly major revisions, is painful, sometimes excruciatingly painful. And herein lies the major source of many of the ills of mankind.

What happens when one has striven long and hard to develop a working view of the world, a seemingly useful, workable map, and then is confronted with new information suggesting that that view is wrong and the map needs to be largely redrawn? The painful effort required seems frightening, almost overwhelming. What we do more often than not, and usually unconsciously, is to ignore the new information. Often this act of ignoring is much more than passive. We may denounce the new information as false, dangerous, heretical, the work of the devil. We may actually crusade against it, and even attempt to manipulate the world so as to make it conform to our view of reality. Rather than try to change the map, an individual may try to destroy the new reality. Sadly, such a person may expend much more energy ultimately in defending an outmoded view of the world than would have been required to revise and correct it in the first place.

— Via The Road Less Traveled, Timeless Edition: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth

This beautiful excerpt encapsulates so much of Farnam Street.

Still Interested? Check these out:

The Map is Not the Territory — Maps are necessary, but flawed. The problem, however, goes deeper than abstraction.

What made Charles Darwin an Effective Thinker? — Most people take evidence that disconfirms their prior beliefs and ignore it. Darwin was different and that's part of the reason he was so incredibly successful.

Joseph Tussman: Getting the World to do the Work for You — The world will do the work for you if you know this one secret.

The Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models — Acquiring knowledge may seem like a daunting task. There is so much to know and time is precious. Luckily, we don’t have to master everything.

Exploiting Unrecognized Simplicity — How geniuses really prosper. Once you know this, the world looks different.