Month: October 2013

Filtering Nonsense


When I first drafted this post, I tentatively called it how to get fired.

That might not be entirely true but if you follow the advice below, you might quickly find yourself with more time on your hands. Nothing gets you uninvited to meetings quicker than being labelled a troublemaker.

With that warning, try these ideas the next time you are in a meeting.

Ask Why.

Simply ask people to walk you through their thinking. Why do you think that? Walk me through your logic.

We’re simply too busy these days to have as many opinions as we do and asking why quickly sorts out the people who have done the work from the people who haven’t.

In the process you’ll expose some assumptions that should be explicit and visible.

Over the years, I’ve found that simply asking why and listening to the quality of the response is the best bullshit filter. If answers come back in cliches and generalizations, that’s an indication that more thinking is needed.

Define Success.

What does success look like? The second thing is to simply ask people to define success in clear and unambiguous terms before something gets underway.

If you’re taking on a new project or starting a new service, you clearly expect some outcome, right? So it should be somewhat logical that you’ll be able to say we expect X, Y, and Z to happen and if they don’t then this will be considered a failure.

Simply asking, what success looks like in specifics tells you a lot. I think you’d be surprised at the number of people who prefer to throw a dart at the wall and then draw a bullseye around it. Or, then again, maybe you wouldn’t.

Now watch. If X, Y, and Z are reported for a few weeks and then somehow disappear, something is probably amiss. Dig deeper.

Another simple idea is to simply ask people to explain the best case against their own argument.

Of course none of this is going to get you promoted. There are other ways to do that.

Over to you

What are you tips to improve the quality of discussion in meetings and/or filter nonsense?

The Great Books

The Great Books_opt

We all want to read more.

If reading older books is exponentially more beneficial for acquiring knowledge than reading newer things, then reading the great books is a good place to start.

These books build the foundation of knowledge.

One of the best places to find a list of the great books is St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.

The interdisciplinary curriculum focuses on the foundational works of philosophy, literature, history, political science, theology, economics, music, mathematics, and the laboratory sciences.

Sounds like the type of education I didn’t get in school and I’m making up for now. At St. John’s, all classes are conducted seminar-style.

By engaging in these small seminar classes, students learn skills of critical analysis and cooperative inquiry. Students also refine their ability to think, write, and speak across all disciplines by writing substantial annual essays and defending them in oral examinations.

Many consider the curriculum an outrage. I wish it were more common.

In the New Yorker, former alum Salvatore Scibona writes, “The college’s curriculum was an outrage. No electives. Not a single book in the seminar list by a living author.” “However,” he continued,

no tests. No grades, unless you asked to see them. No textbooks—I was confused. In place of an astronomy manual, you would read Copernicus. No books about Aristotle, just Aristotle. Like, you would read book-books. The Great Books, so called, though I had never heard of most of them. It was akin to taking holy orders, but the school—St. John’s College—had been secular for three hundred years. In place of praying, you read.

The Great Books

I’m going to post the list in the order students encounter them: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.

The first year is devoted to Greek authors and their pioneering understanding of the liberal arts; the second year contains books from the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods; the third year has books of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of which were written in modern languages; the fourth year brings the reading into the 19th and 20th centuries.


HOMER: Iliad, Odyssey

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, EumenidesPrometheus Bound

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Philoctetes, Ajax

THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War

EURIPIDES: Hippolytus, Bacchae

HERODOTUS: Histories


PLATO: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Timaeus, Phaedrus

ARISTOTLE: Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics, On Generation and Corruption, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals

EUCLID: Elements

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things

PLUTARCH: Lycurgus, Solon

NICOMACHUS: Arithmetic

LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry

HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood



THE BIBLE: New Testament

ARISTOTLE: De Anima, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Categories


VIRGIL: Aeneid

PLUTARCH: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Antony,” “Brutus

EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual


PTOLEMY: Almagest

PLOTINUS: The Enneads

AUGUSTINE: Confessions

MAIMONIDES: Guide for the Perplexed

ST. ANSELM: Proslogium

AQUINAS: Summa Theologica

DANTE: Divine Comedy

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince, Discourses

KEPLER: Epitome IV

RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel

PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli


VIETE: Introduction to the Analytical Art

BACON: Novum Organum

SHAKESPEARE: Richard II, Henry IV, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Sonnets

DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method

PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections

BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Inventions

HAYDN: Quartets

MOZART: Operas

BEETHOVEN: Third Symphony



STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms


CERVANTES: Don Quixote

GALILEO: Two New Sciences

HOBBES: Leviathan

DESCARTES: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind

MILTON: Paradise Lost



PASCAL: Pensees

HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact

ELIOT: Middlemarch

SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise

LOCKE: Second Treatise of Government

RACINE: Phaedre

NEWTON: Principia Mathematica

KEPLER: Epitome IV

LEIBNIZ: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay On Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace

SWIFT: Gulliver’s Travels

HUME: Treatise of Human Nature

ROUSSEAU: Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality

MOLIERE: Le Misanthrope

ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations

KANT: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

MOZART: Don Giovanni

JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice

DEDEKIND: “Essay on the Theory of Numbers
Articles of Confederation,” “Declaration of Independence,” “Constitution of the United States of America


TWAIN: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

WORDSWORTH: The Two Part Prelude of 1799



DARWIN: Origin of Species

HEGEL: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia)

LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America

KIERKEGAARD: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling

WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde

MARX: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology

DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov

TOLSTOY: War and Peace

MELVILLE: Benito Cereno

WILLIAM JAMES; Psychology, Briefer Course

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil

FREUD: Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

DUBOIS: The Souls of Black Folk

HUSSERL: Crisis of the European Sciences

HEIDEGGER: Basic Writings

EINSTEIN: Selected papers

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness

FAULKNER: Go Down Moses

FLAUBERT: Un Coeur Simple

WOOLF: Mrs. Dalloway

So here’s the deal. Pick a few books and start pecking away.

Iatrogenics: Why Intervention Often Leads to Worse Outcomes



Iatrogenics is when a treatment causes more harm than benefit. As iatros means healer in Greek, the word means “caused by the healer” or “brought by the healer.”  Healer, in this sense, need not mean doctor, but anyone intervening to solve a problem. For example, it could be a thought leader, a CEO, a government, or a coalition of the willing. Nassim Taleb calls these people inventionistas. Often these people come armed with solutions to solve the first order consequences of a decision but create worse second and subsequent order consequences. Luckily, for them at least, they’re never around to see the train wreck they created.

Today we use the phrase iatrogenics to refer to any effect resulting from an intervention in excess of gain. Some examples are easier recognized than others. For example, when the negative effects are immediate and visible and appear to be a direct cause-effect, we can reasonably conclude that the intervention caused the negative effect. However, if the negative effects are delayed or could be explained by multiple causes, we are less likely to conclude the intervention caused them.

A great example of iatrogenics in action is the death of George Washington. In 1799, as he lay dying from a bacterial infection, his well-intentioned doctors aided or hastened his death using the standard treatment at the time, which was bloodletting (at least five pints, according to Ron Chernow).

More controversial examples exist as well, such as military interventions in the Middle East. In these cases, linkages are clouded by narratives, moral arguments, and clear cause and impact. (A great book to read on this is Perilous Interventions.) And when the linkages between cause and effect are murky, the very people who caused the harm are often the people rewarded for improving the situation.

The key lesson here is that if we are to intervene, we need a solid idea of not only the benefits of our interventions but also the harm we may cause—the second and subsequent order consequences.  Otherwise, how will we know when, despite our best intentions, we cause more harm than we do good?

Intervening when we have no idea of the break-even point is “naive interventionism,” a phrase first brought to my attention by Nassim Taleb. In Antifragile, Taleb writes:

In the case of tonsillectomies, the harm to the children undergoing unnecessary treatment is coupled with the trumpeted gain for some others. The name for such net loss, the (usually bitten or delayed) damage from treatment in excess of the benefits, is iatrogenics.


Why would people do something even when the evidence points out that doing something is actually causing more harm?

I can think of a few reasons as to why otherwise well-intentioned people continue to intervene where consequences outweigh the benefits.

Some of the flaws include 1) an inability to think through problems, 2) separation from consequences, 3) a bias for action, and 4) no skin in the game. Let’s flesh these out a little.

The first flaw is the inability to think through second and subsequent order consequences. They fail to realize that the second and subsequent order consequences exist at all or could outweigh the benefits. Most things in life happen at the second, third, or nth steps.

The second flaw is a distance from consequences. When there is a time delay between an action and its consequences (feedback) it can be hard to know that you’re causing harm. This allows, even encourages, some self-delusion. Given that we are prone to confirming our beliefs—and presumably we took action because we believed it to be helpful—we’re unlikely to see evidence that contradicts our beliefs.

The third flaw is a bias for action. This is also known as, to paraphrase Charlie Munger, do something syndrome. If you’re a policy advisor or politician, or heck, even a modern office worker, social norms make it hard for you to say “I don’t know.” You’re expected to have an opinion on everything.

The fourth flaw is one of incentives, they have no or little skin in the game. They win if things go right and suffer no consequences if things go wrong.


Hippocrates created the first principle of medicine era-primum non nocere (“first do no harm”), which is to avoid iatrogenic effects. This is a great example of inversion. Outside of medicine, however, this concept is little known.

Think about how a typical meeting starts. In response to a new product from a competitor, for example, the first question people usually ask is “What are we going to do about this?” The hidden assumption that goes unexplored is that you need to do something. Rarely do we even consider that the cost of doing something outweighs the benefits. 

And the optics of doing nothing are not without consequences. It will appear to your boss that you’re not doing anything. You have an incentive to be seen as doing something even if the costs of taking action are high.

What We Can Learn

Intervention—by people or governments—should only be used when the benefits visibly outweigh the negatives. A great example is saving a life. “Otherwise,” Nassim Taleb writes in Antifragile, “in situations in which the benefits of a particular medicine, procedure, or nutritional or lifestyle modification appear small—say, those aiming for comfort—we have a large potential sucker problem (hence putting us on the wrong side of convexity effects).”

A simple rule for the decision maker is that intervention needs to prove its benefits and those benefits need to be orders of magnitude higher than the natural (that is non-interventionist) path. We intuitively know this already. We won’t switch apps or brands for a marginal increase over the status quo. Only when the benefits become orders of magnitude higher do we switch.

We must also recognize that some systems self-correct; this is the essence of homeostasis. Naive interventionists, or the interventionista, often deny that natural homeostatic mechanisms are sufficient, that “something needs to be done” — yet often the best course of action is nothing at all.

Read Next

Intervention Bias: When to Step in and When To Leave Things Alone

Second-Order Thinking: What Smart People Use to Outperform

Inversion and The Power of Avoiding Stupidity

Inversion Mental Model

Charlie Munger, the business partner of Warren Buffett and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his quote “All I want to know is where I’m going to die, so I’ll never go there.” That thinking was inspired by the German mathematician Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi, famous for some work on elliptic functions that I’ll never understand. Jacobi often solved difficult problems by following a simple strategy: “man muss immer umkehren” (or loosely translated, “invert, always invert.”)

“[Jacobi] knew that it is in the nature of things that many hard problems are best solved when they are addressed backward,” Munger counsels.

While Jacobi applied inversion mostly to mathematics, the model is one of the most powerful mental models in our toolkit.

It is not enough to think about difficult problems one way. You need to think about them forwards and backward. Inversion often forces you to uncover hidden beliefs about the problem you are trying to solve. “Indeed,” says Munger, “many problems can’t be solved forward.”

Let’s take a look at some examples. Say you want to improve innovation in your organization. Thinking forward, you’d think about all of the things you could do to foster innovation. If you look at the problem by inversion, however, you’d think about all the things you could do that would discourage innovation. Ideally, you’d avoid those things. Sounds simple right? I bet your organization does some of those ‘stupid’ things today.

Another example, rather than think about what makes a good life, you can think about what prescriptions would ensure misery.

Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance. 

While both thinking forward and thinking backward result in some action, you can think of them as additive vs. subtractive.

Despite our best intentions, thinking forward increases the odds that you’ll cause harm (iatrogenics). Thinking backward, call it subtractive avoidance or inversion, is less likely to cause harm.

Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. You can think of it as the avoiding stupidity filter. It’s not sexy but it’s a very easy way to improve.

So what does this mean in practice?

Spending time thinking about the opposite of what you want doesn’t come naturally to most people. And yet may of the smartest people in history, have done this naturally.

Inversion helps improve understanding of the problem. By forcing you to do the work necessary to have an opinion you’re forced to consider different perspectives.

If you’re to take anything away from inversion let it be this: Spend less time trying to be brilliant and more time trying to avoid obvious stupidity. The kicker? Avoiding stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

Inversion is part of the Farnam Street Latticework of Mental Models.

10 Things I Learned Reading Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

the everything store

I really enjoyed Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon. Anyone who wants to better understand the dynamics of disruption or just gain a better understanding of the website we’ve come to love, must read this book.

Here are ten things I found interesting.

1. Why Start With Books

Bezos choose books as the first category for Amazon because:

They were pure commodities; a copy of a book in one store was identical to the same book carried in another, so buyers always knew what they were getting. There were two primary distributors of books at that time, Ingram and Baker and Taylor, so a new retailer wouldn’t have to approach each of the thousands of book publishers individually. And, most important, there were three million books in print worldwide, far more than a Barnes & Nobel or a Borders superstore could ever stock.

2. Bezos’s Regret Minimization Framework

When deciding to make the leap from a stable job to a start up, Bezos came up with what he calls “the regret-minimization framework.”

When you are in the thick of things you can get confused by small stuff,” Bezos said a few years later. “I knew when I was eighty that I would never, for example, think about why I walked away from my 1994 Wall Street bonus right in the middle of the year at the worst possible time. That kind of think just ins’t something you worry about when you’re eighty years old. At the same time, I knew that I might sincerely regret not having participated in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a revolutionizing event. When I thought about it that way … it was incredibly easy to make the decision.”

3. Things Can Be Better

A lot of Bezos’s, and by extension Amazon’s, success comes from a low regard for the way things are currently done.

4. Starbucks tried to get an Ownership Stake in Amazon

Starbucks had “proposed putting a rack of merchandise from Amazon next to its cash registers in exchange for an ownership stake in the startup.”

… Bezos visited Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in his SoDo headquarters and Schultz told the pair that Amazon had a big problem and that Starbucks could solve it. “You have no physical presence,” the lanky Starbucks founder said as he brewed coffee for his guests. “That is going to hold you back.”

Bezos disagreed. He looked right at Schultz and told him, “We are going to take this thing to the moon.” They decided to work on a deal, but it fell apart a few weeks later when Schultz’s executives asked for a 10 percent ownership stake in Amazon and a seat on its board.

5. Focus on Customers Not Competitors

Speaking at an all-hands meeting called to address the assault of Barnes & Noble:

“Look, you should wake up worried, terrified every morning,” (Bezos) told his employees. “But don’t be worried about our competitors because they’re never going to send us any money anyway. Let’s be worried about our customers and stay heads-down focused.”

6. Why Incumbents Fail

They are reluctant to lose money.

The Reggios (the people in charge of Barnes & Noble) were reluctant to lose money on a relatively small part of their business and didn’t want to put their most resourceful employees behind an effort that would siphon sales away from the more profitable stores. On top of that, their company’s distribution operation was well entrenched and geared toward servicing physical stores by sending out large shipments of books to a set number of locations. The first from that to mailing small orders to individual customers was long, painful, and full of customer-service errors. For Amazon, that was just daily business.

When Bezos entered the ebook market he made a crucial decision. Bezos appointed someone to lead up the ebook effort and asked him to kill Amazon’s physical book business. There would be no ‘best of both’ worlds in this Darwinian contest.

7. How Amazon Thinks About Leadership

Whether you are an individual contributor or the manager of a large team, you are an Amazon leader. Here are a few of Amazon’s leadership principles. Every Amazonian is guided by these principles.

Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit
Leaders are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion. Once a decision is determined, they commit wholly.

Vocally Self Critical
Leaders do not believe their or their team’s body odor smells of perfume. Leaders come forward with problems or information, even when doing so is awkward or embarrassing. Leaders benchmark themselves and their teams against the best.

Think Big
Thinking small is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaders create and communicate a bold direction that inspires results. They think differently and look around corners for ways to serve customers.

Bias for Action
Speed matters in business. Many decisions and actions are reversible and do not need extensive study. We value calculated risk taking.

8. It’s Harder to be Kind than Clever

Bezos’s grandparents taught him a lesson in compassion … On a road trip, when Bezos was ten and passing time in the back seat of the car, he took some mortality statistics he had heard on an antismoking public service announcement and calculated that his grandmother’s smoking habit would take nine years off her life. When he poked his head into the front seat to matter-of-factly inform her of this, she burst into tears, and Pop Gise pulled over and stopped the car.

Bezos described what happened next in his commencement speech at Princeton:

He got out of the car and came around and opened my door and waited for me to follow. Was I in trouble? My grandfather was a highly intelligent, quiet man. He had never said a harsh world to me, and maybe this was to be the first time? Or maybe he would ask that I get back in the car and apologize to my grandmother. I had no experience in this realm with my grandparents and no way to gauge what the consequences might be. We stopped beside the trailer. My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.”

9. Communication can be a Sign of Dysfunction

At a management offsite in the late 1990s, a team of well-intentioned junior executives stood up before the company’s top brass and gave a presentation on a problem indigenous to all large organizations: the difficulty of coordinating far-flung divisions. The junior executives recommended a variety of different techniques to foster cross-group dialogue and afterward seemed proud of their own ingenuity. Then Jeff Bezos, his face red and the blood vessel in his forehead pulsing, spoke up.

“I understand what you’re saying, but you are completely wrong,” he said. “Communication is a sign of dysfunction. It means people aren’t working together in a close, organic way. We should be trying to figure out a way for teams to communicate less with each other, not more.”

10. The Narrative Fallacy

When Brad Stone met with Jeff Bezos to solicit his cooperation for the book, Stone wasn’t prepared for one of Bezos’s questions: “How do you plan to handle the narrative fallacy?”

The narrative fallacy, Bezos explained, was a term coined by Nassim Taleb in his 2007 book The Black Swan to describe how humans are biologically inclined to turn complex realities into soothing but oversimplified stories. Taleb argues that the limitations of the human brain resulted in our species’ tendency to squeeze unrelated facts and events into cause-and-effect equations and then convert them into easily understandable narratives. These stories, Taleb wrote, shield humanity from the true randomness of the world, the chaos, of human experience, and, to some extent, the unnerving element of luck that plays into all successes and failures.


In Taleb’s book — which, incidentally, all Amazon senior executives had to read — the author stated that the way to avoid the narrative fallacy was to favor experimentation and clinical knowledge over storytelling and memory.

Compliment The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.

Much of What You’re Going to Do or Say Today is Not Essential

Think about it.

If you’re a modern knowledge worker, odds are you’re going to go to work, read some emails, reply to some emails, attend some meetings, grab a coffee, have lunch, attend another meeting or two, catch up on emails, and finally head home.

You’ll be busy from the moment you get to work until the moment you go home. When you do find a nook of time, you’ll likely be bombarded with beeping, dings, calls, and other people who only need a sliver of our time. After all, they too have something urgent to do. They too have a deadline.

After a long day, you’ll come home mentally and physically drained. Eventually, you’ll reach a tipping point and say enough is enough. The very next day you’ll head into the office vowing to change things. You’ll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

The very next day you’ll head into the office vowing to change things. You’ll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done the work to have an informed opinion on the matter, it matters that you go and make some token contribution to the meeting.

The plan to work better flies out the window; any hope of sanity along with it.

If we can’t work smarter, we can work harder. So we end up redoubling our efforts, cutting out lunch and shortening meetings so we can fit more of them in.

Our response to finding ourselves stuck in the muck is to put our foot on the accelerator.

Part of the problem is that attending meetings has become some sort of corporate-machoism badge.

“Hey, you want to grab a coffee to talk about that really cool project I’m working on? I’d love to pick your brain?”

“Sounds great. How’s three Wednesdays from now sound? … Yea, I know, I’m so busy.“

Sure we do more busy work, but we’re doing less real work. To get any real work done we come in early, stay late, or both. That’s the only way we can get some peace and quiet.

The paradox is that in an effort to do more, we end up doing less.

I’m not sure who first said it, but when you find yourself in a hole the best thing to do is stop digging. By failing to think about how we’re working, we only end up burning ourselves out.

There is another way to improve performance but it’s a bit unconventional: Eliminate the bullshit.

Stop doing the busy work and start spending your time adding value to yourself, your clients, your co-workers, and your friends. Focus on what’s important and eliminate the rest.

Before doing anything, ask yourself, “is this necessary.” And if it’s not necessary, ask yourself why you’re doing it.

Of course, like anything on Farnam Street, I haven’t come up with this idea myself. I shamelessly stole it from one of my friends, the eminent Marcus Aurelius.

In Meditations, he writes:

[M]ost of what we say and do is not essential. Eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself, is this necessary.

Ok, that makes sense. So why don’t more people do this?

That’s a good question.

While there are many reasons, this one probably carries a lot of weight.

“Worldly wisdom,” writes John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, “teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

No one wants to be unconventional. No one wants to be different.

More people should follow the advice of Aurelius — It’s not that difficult, it’s common sense. It just looks difficult because it’s unconventional.