Tag: Wisdom

Maya Angelou on Living

Letters to My Daughter is both a simple and a complex read, which makes it at once engaging and thoughtful. Simple because we can see ourselves in the various stories it shares. Complex because it demonstrates how hard it can be just to live.

While the time to read the book is short, the writing is so evocative that when you put the book down, you feel like you have lived an entire life, with all the accompanying laughter and tragedy and accumulated wisdom.

At the beginning of the book, Maya Angelou offers this advice: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.”

In slices of her life that somehow capture the essence of the whole, she proceeds to explain how she arrived at those words. She gives us this message because we are all her daughters, her children. The accessibility of the prose can make you forget that you are learning about humanity and race, about grief and love.

The chapters cover the long arc of her life, and the lesson there is that learning never stops. Our experiences can often teach us something, right up to the end. Here are some of her lessons.

On charity: “The ensuing years have taught me that a kind word, a vote of support is a charitable gift. I can move over and make another place for someone.”

On parenting: “The birth of my son caused me to develop enough courage to invent my life. I learned how to love my son without wanting to possess him and I learned how to teach him to teach himself.”

On honesty: “I wish we could stop the little lies. I don’t mean that one has to be brutally frank. I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything, however, it is wonderfully liberating to be honest. One does not have to tell all that one knows, but we should be careful what we do say is the truth.”

On self-esteem: “I am never proud to participate in violence, yet, I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves, that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.”

On loss:
“When I find myself filling with rage over the loss of a beloved, I try as soon as possible to remember that my concerns and questions should be focused on what I learned or what I have yet to learn from my departed love. What legacy was left which can help me in the art of living a good life?”

On living: “The ship of my life may or may not be sailing on calm and amiable seas. The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising. Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”

Maya Angelou’s words remind us that there is power in reflection. It is how we learn from our experiences, widening our perspectives to appreciate that life has all manner of ebbs and flows. Indeed, I would argue that we cannot learn without reflection.

Angelou did enough living for two lifetimes. Her book doesn’t shy away from the pain that led to wisdom. There are very honest chapters about violence, rape, and racism, but one of her gifts is to show us that fighting for a better world while finding peace is a process of lifelong learning from our experiences.

She shares what she learned through hate and fear, as well as through humility and love, perhaps so that we can see, through the tumult of our own experiences, the value of the lessons we are learning and pass them forward within our own spheres of influence.

The Difference Between Open-Minded and Closed-Minded People

Why is it that some people seem to make constant progress in their professional and personal lives, while others appear to be doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over?

While the answer isn’t cut and dry, I’ve noticed an interesting mindset difference between these two groups: they approach obstacles and challenges very differently.

The first group approaches life with an open mind — an eagerness to learn and a willingness to be wrong. The second group digs their heels in at the first sign of disagreement and would rather die than be wrong. The way each group approaches obstacles, it turns out, defines much of what separates them.

So which group are you in?

Before you smugly slap an open-minded sticker on your chest, consider this: closed-minded people would never consider that they could actually be closed-minded. In fact, their perceived open-mindedness is what’s so dangerous.

It’s a version of the Batesian Mimic Problem — are you the real thing or a copycat? Are you the real deal, or have you simply learned to talk the talk, to look the part?

These are tough questions to answer. Nobody wants to admit to themselves that they’re closed-minded. But the advantages of having that courage are massive. The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The ability to change your mind is a superpower.

The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them. Perhaps especially if you don’t like them.

What’s more, placing your trust and effort in the right mentor can propel you forward, just as placing it in the wrong person can send you back to the starting point.

So how can you tell what camp you're in? How do you make sure you're being influenced by the right group of people?

In his book Principles, Ray Dalio, self-made billionaire and founder of the largest hedge fund in the world, lays out seven powerful ways you can tell the difference.

1. Challenging Ideas

Closed-minded people don’t want their ideas challenged. They are typically frustrated that they can’t get the other person to agree with them instead of curious as to why the other person disagrees.

Closed-minded people are more interested in proving themselves right than in getting the best outcome. They don’t ask questions. They want to show you where you're wrong without understanding where you’re coming from. They get angry when you ask them to explain something. They think people who ask questions are slowing them down. And they think you’re an idiot if you don’t agree.

In short, they’re on the wrong side of right.

Open-minded people are more curious about why there is disagreement. … They understand that there is always the possibility that they might be wrong and that it’s worth the little bit of time it takes to consider the other person’s views….

Open-minded people see disagreement as a thoughtful means to expand their knowledge. They don’t get angry or upset at questions; rather, they want to identify where the disagreement lies so they can correct their misperceptions. They realize that being right means changing their minds when someone else knows something they don’t.

2. Statements vs. Questions

Closed-minded people are more likely to make statements than ask questions.

These are the people who sit in meetings and are more than willing to offer their opinions, but never ask other people to expand on or explain their ideas. Closed-minded people are thinking of how they would refute the other person’s thoughts, rather than trying to understand what they might be missing.

Open-minded people genuinely believe they could be wrong; the questions that they ask are genuine.

Open-minded people know that while they may have an opinion on a subject, it could count for less than someone else’s. Maybe they’re outside their circle of competence or maybe they’re experts. Regardless, they’re always curious as to how people see things differently and they weigh their opinions accordingly.

(At Syrus Partners, for example, Jeff’s financial analysis trumps mine when we disagree. Why? He’s simply better at it than I am. He finds things that business owners don’t even know about. Do I care that his analyses take precedence? No. Why? Because I want the best outcome.)

3. Understanding

Closed-minded people focus much more on being understood than on understanding others.

People’s default behaviors offer a quick tell. When you disagree with someone, what’s their reaction? If they’re quick to rephrase what they just said or, even worse, repeat it, then they are assuming that you don’t understand them, rather than that you are disagreeing with them.

Open-minded people feel compelled to see things through others’ eyes.

When you disagree with an open-minded person, they are quick to assume that they might not understand something and to ask you to tell them where their understanding is incomplete.

4. I Might Be Wrong, But…

Dalio nails this one. I have nothing to add.

Closed-minded people say things like “I could be wrong … but here’s my opinion.” This is a classic cue I hear all the time. It’s often a perfunctory gesture that allows people to hold their own opinion while convincing themselves that they are being open-minded. If your statement starts with “I could be wrong”…, you should probably follow it with a question and not an assertion.

Open-minded people know when to make statements and when to ask questions.

5. Just Shut Up

“Closed-minded people block others from speaking.”

They don’t have time to rehash something already talked about. They don’t want to hear anyone’s voices but their own. (Dalio offers a “two-minute rule” to get around this: Everyone has the right to speak for two minutes without being interrupted.)

Open-minded people are always more interested in listening than in speaking.

More than that, they say things like, “Sam, I notice you’ve been quiet. Would you like to offer your thoughts to the group?”

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

— F. Scott Fitzgerald

6. Only One Sperm Gets In

Closed-minded people have trouble holding two thoughts simultaneously in their minds.

This reminds me of the memorable quote by Charlie Munger: “The human mind is a lot like the human egg, and the human egg has a shut-off device. When one sperm gets in, it shuts down so the next one can’t get in.” It’s our nature to close our minds around our favorite ideas, but this is not the ideal way to think and learn.

Open-minded people can take in the thoughts of others without losing their ability to think well—they can hold two or more conflicting concepts in their mind and go back and forth between them to assess their relative merits.

7. Humble Pie

Closed-minded people lack a deep sense of humility.

Where does one get humility? Usually from failure—a crash so terrible they don’t want to repeat it. I remember when a hedge fund I was on the board of made a terrible investment decision. We spent a lot of time rubbing our noses in it afterward in an attempt to make sure we wouldn’t repeat the same mistake. In the process, we learned a lot about what we didn’t know.

Open-minded people approach everything with a deep-seated fear that they may be wrong.


If you recognize closed-minded behavior patterns in yourself, you’re not alone.

We’re all somewhere on the continuum between open- and closed-minded by default. Further complicating things, it varies by day and subject.

Staying open-minded won’t happen by accident.

When you find yourself exhibiting these behaviors in the moment, acknowledge what’s happening and correct it. Don’t blame yourself. As soon as you can, find a quiet place and reflect on what’s going on at a deeper level. Try to do better next time. Remember that this stuff takes work.

Maybe you have your self-worth wrapped up in being right, or maybe you’re not the right person to make a given decision. Or maybe it’s something else. Either way, this is something worth exploring.

I have one more thing to add: Being open-minded does not mean that you spend an inordinate amount of time considering patently bad ideas just for the sake of open-mindedness.

You must have what Garrett Hardin calls a “default status” on various issues in your head. If someone offers you the proverbial free lunch, it’s OK to default to skepticism. If someone offers to build you a perpetual motion machine, I suggest you ignore them, as they’re violating the laws of thermodynamics. If someone offers to help you defraud the government and suggests that “no one will know,” I suggest you walk away immediately. There is wisdom in closed-mindedness on certain issues.

But consider this: Do you know anyone who doesn’t have any blind spots? I strongly doubt it. Then why would you be any different? As Dalio makes clear, you must be active in the process of open-mindedness: It won’t happen by accident.

The Wrong Side of Right

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

— Harry Truman

One big mistake I see people make over and over is focusing on proving themselves right, instead of focusing on achieving the best outcome.

People who are working to prove themselves right will work hard finding evidence for why they’re right. They’ll go to the ends of the earth to disagree with someone who has another idea. Everything becomes about their being right.

These otherwise well-intentioned people are making the same costly mistake that I did.

One of the biggest differences between running a company and working for a company is how I think about outcomes.

As a knowledge worker employed by someone else, I wanted to be right. I saw being right as how I proved my worth. The best outcome was my being right. Because …

If I wasn’t right, then what was I? Wrong?

But … I couldn’t be wrong. My ego wouldn’t let me.

Other people? They could be wrong. But not me.

If I was wrong, then what was I?

I worked toward achieving the best outcome I came up with myself and not the best outcome that was possible.

For the longest time, I thought that if the winning idea wasn’t my idea, then I’d be nothing. I thought no one would see me as valuable. No one would see me as insightful. People would think I wasn’t adding value. And worse, I’d see myself as not contributing.

I’ve never been so wrong.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”

— Colin Powell

I had so much of my identity wrapped up in being right that I was blind to how the world really works. I was acting like an amateur — I worked toward achieving the best outcome I came up with myself and not the best outcome that was possible.

At Farnam Street, one of our principles is that we work with the world as it really is, not as we want it to be. My desire to be right reflected how I wanted the world to work, not how it actually worked.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from running a company is that the more I give up trying to be right, the better the outcomes get for everyone. I don’t care who gets the credit. I care about creating the best win-win outcomes I can.

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. Only 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.