Author: Farnam Street

How Not to Be Stupid

After a four-hour conversation on The Knowledge Project (Part 1, Part 2), Adam Robinson (@IAmAdamRobinson) and I shared another 10-minutes that shouldn’t be missed on how not to be stupid.

Shane Parrish: Adam, you did a presentation once on how not to be stupid. Can you tell me about that? What is stupidity?

Adam Robinson: Right. It’s so funny you should ask that, because people think stupidity is the opposite of intelligence. In fact, stupidity is the cost of intelligence operating in a complex environment. It’s almost inevitable. And so I was asked by an organizer of an investment conference in the Bahamas of some elite global investors to do a talk on anything I wanted to do, except not about investing. It’s just, pick an interesting topic. So I thought for a second and I blurt out, “Okay. How about how not to be stupid?” He laughed and he said, “Okay. Great.” It took me a month of hard thinking, mind you, just to define stupidity. By the way, if you’re in any field and you want to find ways to innovate, focus on words that are commonly used and try to define them simply.

It took me about a month, and I defined stupidity as overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information. Right? It’s crucial information, like you better pay attention to it. It’s conspicuous, like it’s right in front of your nose and yet you either overlook it or you dismiss it. How not to be stupid, what are the causes of human error—and it took me a couple of months of research just to come up with data points, because most stupidity is ignored or swept under the rug. I studied instances of scientific stupidity and literary stupidity and military stupidity and every other kind of stupidity, as well as two domains that engineer stupidity.

One is benign: magic. The magician misdirects your attention. The whole goal of the magician is to make you stupid, to not notice something you should have. The other is frauds and cons and hoaxes. That’s also—but that’s a malicious, malevolent kind of engineering of stupidity. The magician does so with our full consent, for entertainment purposes. The conman engineers stupidity for their own gain. I do historical research, everything, and I identify seven factors that lead to stupidity.

These seven factors are fascinating. In no particular order: one, being outside your normal environment or changing your routines. Two, being in the presence of a group. Three, being in the presence of an expert or if you, yourself, are an expert. Four, doing any task that requires intense focus. Five, information overload. Six, physical or emotional stress, fatigue. Seven—I’ll come back to seven. I forget it right now. It’s a few years. It’ll come back to me in a second.

All seven factors are present in U.S. hospitals. All seven factors. This will astonish you. This was recently written about, but I don’t think it’s really dawned on people. In the United States every year, there are roughly 30,000 fatalities from automobile accidents. That is a benchmark. How many deaths accidentally occur, accidentally, in hospitals every year? In other words, you go in with a broken arm and you don’t come out. Not, you died as a result of what you went in for. You died because of error, human error. I would tell you the current best estimate—this is deaths, mind you, not injuries—is 210 to 440 thousand people die every year in the United States from hospital error.

Stupidity is overlooking or dismissing conspicuously crucial information

(Editors note, that was not part of the conversation but will add context: When it comes to overloading our cognitive brains, the seven factors are: being outside of your circle of competence, stress, rushing or urgency, fixation on an outcome, information overload, being in a group where social cohesion comes into play, and being in the presence of an “authority.” Acting alone any of these are powerful enough, but together they dramatically increase the odds you are unaware that you’ve been cognitively compromised.)

We know what to do, we just don’t do it correctly. (Atul Gawande and I talk about this in our interview). 

It’s the third leading cause of death in the United States, right behind cancer and heart disease. If those seven factors—by the way, you don’t need all seven factors to be present. They’re additive. Oh, I remember what the final one was, and it’s so funny I should forget it because it’s the one that usually triggers stupidity. Rushing or a sense of urgency. So funny I would forget that one. It’s usually the first one I say. By the way, if you’re outside your normal environment and you are rushing, you are in big trouble, which is why often people are rushing on the way to the airport and they forget their passport or they do something. It has to do with information overload. All seven factors were present at the U.S. Challenger disaster. Remember back in 1986?

Didn’t have to happen. All seven factors were present. There was the musician Yo-Yo Ma, in 1998 I believe, was rushing to an appointment in New York City. He lives in Boston. He was outside his normal environment, rushing, and he was preoccupied because he was late for an appointment. Three of the seven factors. You don’t need all seven to create stupidity. In the back of the cab in which he’s being driven is his million-dollar cello in a big blue Plexiglas thing. It’s in the trunk. He gets out of the cab, he leaves it in the back of the trunk. All of a sudden, because Yo-Yo Ma is such a celebrity, the mayor is called, the police chief and all cars bulletin goes out, find this cello.


They do. In the press conference, get this, he says, “I just did something stupid.” I’m using air quotes. That’s an exact phrase. “I just did something stupid. I was in a rush.” Sure enough, in my research, I found three other situations where world class musicians were in a different city, rushing, and they left their instruments. Each one of them. One a $3 million violin. He was on a national tour, left a $3 million violin in an Amtrak train. Imagine $3 million violin in the luggage compartment of an Amtrak train. Fortunately, they called ahead and they found it at the next station. He was lucky. Each of the musicians, in exactly the same—


—circumstances led to stupidity. Now, Atul Gawande wrote a book called The Checklist Manifesto. Atul Gawande is brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. However, the problem with checklists is that the stupidity factors override them. The worst aviation disaster in history, Shane, occurred in 1977. Nearly 600 lives were lost when two planes collided during the day on the ground. Imagine, two planes collided in an airport on the ground. Six hundred lives were lost. You might say, how does that even happen? All seven factors were present. Something else. Do you know what the pilot that caused the crash was doing right before he took off and slammed into the plane? He was racing through a checklist.

Checklists don’t help you if you’re stupid about the checklist. You’re just not going to use it. A really important takeaway from that, and I’m so glad we got that final question in, is beware of rushing—and if these factors are present, don’t make any important decisions. It doesn’t take much. By the way, I mentioned fatigue and illness. If you’re tired or emotionally overwrought, if you have pulled an all-nighter, you have the motor control and the reflex speed of someone who is legally drunk. An all-nighter you think, I mean we’ve all pulled all-nighters, right? We all sometimes pull multiple all-nighters.

You gotta be aware. You may think that cognitively you’re okay, but your motor control skills and your reflexes are those of someone who’s legally drunk. You’ve really got to be careful. By the way, multitasking is information overload. That comes under the information overload thing, and if you’re talking on Bluetooth while you’re driving a car, you have exponentially increased the odds that you’re going to get into an accident.

This is why when you’re lost, the first thing you do is turn down the radio.

Oh, fascinating. You’re right.

When you’re in a car, when you get lost, you always…one of the first things you do is eliminate an input, which is the radio.

That’s so funny. You’re right.

Or if you’re talking with somebody you say, “Hold on a second,” because you intuitively know that that’s just—subconsciously, you know that’s distracting you.

By the way, that’s so funny you should mention that, because that’s why when I tell people that statistic about…talking on Bluetooth on the phone when you’re driving is incredibly dangerous. People say, “Yeah, but what about if someone’s in the front of the seat talking to you?” That in fact doubles your odds. If someone’s in the front seat with you, talking while you’re driving, you’ve doubled the chances of your getting into an accident. Just doubled. Just that, but the difference is that that person, when you are dealing with unusual traffic conditions, he or she will shut up.

Right, they can see it.

They can see it. The person on the phone who’s talking on Bluetooth doesn’t shut up. You’re still getting the input. That’s why it’s so dangerous.

That’s really interesting. I never thought of that.

Yeah. Well, I didn’t think about it until I researched it.

Still curious? Check out our full conversation on The Knowledge Project (Part 1, Part 2) and Hemingway, a Lost Suitcase, and the Recipe for Stupidity.

Members of the FS Learning Community can discuss this article on the learning community forum.

The Best of Farnam Street 2018

We read for the same reasons we have conversations — to enrich our lives.

Reading helps us to think, feel, and reflect — not only upon ourselves and others but upon our ideas, and our relationship with the world. Reading deepens our understanding and helps us live consciously.

Of the 46 articles we published on FS this year, here are the top ten as measured by a combination of page views, responses, and feeling.

  1. Smarter, Not Harder: How to Succeed at Work — We each have 96 energy blocks each day to spend however we’d like. Using this energy blocking system will ensure you’re spending each block wisely.
  2. Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking — Most people have no time to think. They schedule themselves like lawyers. They work in five- to eight-minute increments, scheduled back to back. They think only in first thoughts never in second thoughts.
  3. The Pygmalion Effect: Proving Them Right — The Pygmalion Effect is a powerful secret weapon. Without even realizing it, we can nudge others towards success. In this article, discover how expectations can influence performance for better or worse.
  4. First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge — First Principles thinking breaks down true understanding into building blocks we can reassemble. It turns out most of us don’t know as much as we think we do.
  5. Understanding Speed and Velocity: Saying “NO” to the Non-Essential — It’s tempting to think that in order to be a valuable team player, you should say “yes” to every request and task that is asked of you. People who say yes to everything have a lot of speed. They’re always doing stuff but never getting anything done. Why? Because they don’t think in terms of velocity. Understanding the difference between speed and velocity will change how you work.
  6. The Surprising Power of The Long Game — In everything we do, we play the long or the short game. The short game is easy, pleasurable, and offers visible and immediate benefits. But it almost never leads to success. Here’s how to play the long game.
  7. Double Loop Learning: Download New Skills and Information into Your Brain — We’re taught single loop learning from the time we are in grade school, but there’s a better way. Double loop learning is the quickest and most efficient way to learn anything that you want to “stick.”
  8. Complexity Bias: Why We Prefer Complicated to Simple — Complexity bias is a logical fallacy that leads us to give undue credence to complex concepts. Faced with two competing hypotheses, we are likely to choose the most complex one.
  9. Deductive vs Inductive Reasoning: Make Smarter Arguments, Better Decisions, and Stronger Conclusions — You can’t prove the truth, but using deductive and inductive reasoning, you can get close. Learn the difference between the two types of reasoning and how to use them when evaluating facts and arguments.
  10. The Decision Matrix: How to Prioritize What Matters — The decision matrix is a powerful tool to help you prioritize which decisions deserve your attention as a leader, and which should be delegated. Here’s how you can start using it today.

More interesting things, you might have missed

Thank you

As we touched on in the annual letter, it’s been a wonderful year at FS. While the frequency of our articles decreased in 2018, the words published actually increased. As longtime readers know, we are not bound to frequency or length constraints, our only mission is quality. Next year will see a more eclectic mix of content as we get back to our roots.

Thank you for an amazing 2018 and I’m looking forward to learning new things with you in 2019.

Still curious? You can find the top five podcast episodes in 2018 here.

The Top 5 Episodes of The Knowledge Project #ListenAndLearn

Through conversations, we are able to learn from others, reflect on ourselves, and better navigate a conscious life.

The goal of our podcast, The Knowledge Project, is to help you think, reflect, and better understand the complexities and interconnections in the world in which we live.

If done right, listeners should walk away from episodes with a deeper understanding and a renewed sense of curiosity. Of course, not all of the conversations or guests will appeal to everyone.  And that is the point. We consciously want to explore the thinking, ideas, and methods of thoughtful people to deepen our understanding, challenge our ideas, and gain a broader perspective.

Of the 21 interviews that we published this year, these are the top five (as measured by downloads in the first 30 days):

  • #27 The Art of Letting Other People Have Your Way — Negotiation expert Chris Voss, former lead international kidnapping negotiator for the FBI and author of the excellent book, Never Split the Difference, offers some hands-on negotiation training.
  • #37 Getting Better by Being Wrong — On this episode, best-selling author and professional poker player Annie Duke and I discuss how to disagree without being disagreeable, spotting biases that sabotage our success, how to find signal in noise, and reliable decision-making models for high stakes, high-pressure situations.
  • #32 Earning Your Stripes — On this episode of The Knowledge Project, Patrick Collison, CEO, and co-founder of Stripe shares wise insights on success, failure, management, decision making, learning and so much more. Grab a pen…
  • #39 Thinking About Thinking — On this episode, I chat with Tyler Cowen, economics professor, author, and creator of the wildly popular blog, Marginal Revolution. We tackle lots of interesting topics, including tech advances, the changing labor market, and upgrading your thinking process to accommodate the information age.
  • #43 The Mental Habits of Effective Leaders — In a world that changes at a dizzying rate, effective leaders need to develop the skills to keep up. Developmental coach and author Jennifer Garvey Berger shares 3 habits to ensure continual growth, accelerated learning and deepened relationships of trust.

One episode that just missed the cut but warrants your attention is #42 The Path to Perpetual Progress with Atul Gawande.

Thanks for listening, Because of people like you sharing our show with friends, family, and colleagues, we crossed 4 million downloads this year.

Subscribe on iTunes | Stitcher | Spotify | Android | Google Play

The Spacing Effect: How to Improve Learning and Maximize Retention

We are not taught how to learn in school, we are taught how to pass tests. The spacing effect is a far more effective way to learn and retain information that works with our brain instead of against it. Find out how to use it here.

“Every perception is to some degree an act of creation, and every act of memory is to some degree an act of imagination.”

— Gerald Edelman, Second Nature: Brain Science and Human Knowledge

The most important metaskill you can learn is how to learn. Learning allows you to adapt. As Darwin hinted, it’s not the strongest who survives. It’s the one who easily adapts to a changing environment. Learning how to learn is a part of a “work smarter, not harder” approach to life—one that probabilistically helps you avoid becoming irrelevant. Your time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it on something which will just be forgotten.

During the school years, most of us got used to spending hours at a time memorizing facts, equations, the names of the elements, French verbs, dates of key historical events. We found ourselves frantically cramming the night before a test. We probably read through our notes over and over, a gallon of coffee in hand, in the hope that the information would somehow lodge in our brains. Once the test was over, we doubtless forgot everything straight away.1

Even outside of formal education, we have to learn large amounts of new information on a regular basis: foreign languages, technical terms, sale scripts, speeches, the names of coworkers. Learning through rote memorization is tedious and—more important—ineffective. If we want to remember something, we need to work with our brains, not against them. To do that, we need to understand cognitive constraints and find intelligent ways to get around them or use them to our advantage.

This is where the spacing effect comes in. It’s a wildly useful phenomenon: we are better able to recall information and concepts if we learn them in multiple, spread-out sessions. We can leverage this effect by using spaced repetition to slowly learn almost anything.

It works for words, numbers, images, and skills. It works for anyone of any age, from babies to elderly people. It works for animals, even species as simple as sea slugs. The effect cuts across disciplines and can be used to learn anything from artistic styles to mathematical equations.

Spaced repetition might not have the immediacy of cramming or the adrenaline rush of a manic all-nighter. But the information we learn from it can last a lifetime and tends to be effectively retained. In some ways, the spacing effect is a cognitive limitation, yet a useful one—if we are aware of it.

In Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It, Gabriel Wyner writes:

Spaced repetition…[is] extraordinarily efficient. In a four-month period, practising for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3600 flashcards with 90 to 95 percent accuracy. These flashcards can teach you an alphabet, vocabulary, grammar, and even pronunciation. And they can do it without becoming tedious because they’re always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun.

In Mindhacker, Ron and Marty Hale-Evans explore further:

Our memory is simultaneously magnificent and pathetic. It is capable of incredible feats, yet it never works quite like we wish it would. Ideally, we would be able to remember everything instantly, but we are not computers. We hack our memory with tools like memory palaces, but such techniques required effort and dedication. Most of us give up, and outsource our memory to smartphones, cloud enabled computers, or plain old pen and paper. There is a compromise…a learning technique called spaced repetition which efficiently organizes information or memorization and retention can be used to achieve near perfect recall.

“If you wish to forget anything on the spot, make a note that this thing is to be remembered.”

— Edgar Allan Poe, Marginalia

The Discovery of The Spacing Effect

Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850-1909), a German psychologist and pioneer of quantitative memory research, first identified the spacing effect. After earning his PhD in Germany, he traveled to London. Like so many people, he found his life forever changed by a book.

The work in question was Elements of Psychophysics by the pioneering experimental psychologist Gustav Fechner. Inspired by this book, Ebbinghaus began the research into memory that would consume his career and impact all of us.

Ebbinghaus took up his new field of study with the unbridled zest of a newcomer. He didn’t believe strongly in the prevailing understanding of memory at the time. In his wish to avoid getting bogged down in theory, he made everything about experimentation. As researcher and the sole subject of his experiments, he faced an uphill battle.

His most important findings were in the areas of forgetting and learning curves. These are graphical representations of the process of learning and forgetting. The forgetting curve shows how a memory of new information decays in the brain,2 with the fastest drop occurring after 20 minutes and the curve leveling off after a day.

There is a way to slow down the process of forgetting. We need only to recall or revisit the information after we originally come across it. Going over the information later, at intervals, helps us remember a greater percentage of the material. Persistence will allow us to recall with 100% accuracy all that we want to remember.

The learning curve is the inverse. It illustrates the rate at which we learn new information. When we use spaced repetition, the forgetting curve changes:

Frequency matters. Under normal conditions, frequent repetitions aid memory. We know this intuitively. Just try to memorize this article on a single repetition. However much attention, focus, or individual ability you have, it won’t work.

Memory mastery comes from repeated exposure to the material. Ebbinghaus observes, “Left to itself every mental content gradually loses its capacity for being revived, or at least suffers loss in this regard under the influence of time.” Cramming is not an effective memorization strategy. Lacking the robustness developed in later sessions, crammed facts soon vanish. Even something as important and frequently used as language can decay if not put into use.

There are other ways to improve memory. Intensity of emotion matters, as does the intensity of attention. Ebbinghaus notes in his definitive work on the subject, Memory and Forgetting:

Very great is the dependence of retention and reproduction upon the intensity of the attention and interest which were attached to the mental states the first time they were present. The burnt child shuns the fire, and the dog which has been beaten runs from the whip, after a single vivid experience. People in whom we are interested we may see daily and yet not be able to recall the colour of their hair or of their eyes…Our information comes almost exclusively from the observation of extreme and especially striking cases.

Ebbinghaus also uncovered something extraordinary: even when we appear to have forgotten information, a certain quantity is stored in our subconscious minds. He referred to these memories as savings. While they cannot be consciously retrieved, they speed up the process of relearning the same information later on.

A poem is learned by heart and then not again repeated. We will suppose that after a half year it has been forgotten: no effort of recollection is able to call it back again into consciousness. At best only isolated fragments return. Suppose that the poem is again learned by heart. It then becomes evident that, although to all appearances totally forgotten, it still in a certain sense exists and in a way to be effective. The second learning requires noticeably less time or a noticeably smaller number of repetitions than the first. It also requires less time or repetitions than would now be necessary to learn a similar poem of the same length.

As the first researcher to undertake serious experimentation on memory and why we forget, Ebbinghaus transformed psychology as a new branch of science. His impact has been compared to that of Aristotle. Ongoing research into the spacing effect continues to support Ebbinghaus’s findings.

“There is no such thing as memorizing. We can think, we can repeat, we can recall and we can imagine, but we aren’t built to memorize. Rather our brains are designed to think and automatically hold onto what’s important. While running away from our friendly neighborhood tiger, we don’t think “You need to remember this! Tigers are bad! Don’t forget! They’re bad!” We simply run away, and our brain remembers for us.”

— Gabriel Wyner, Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It

How the Spacing Effect Works

Let’s take a quick refresher on what we know about how memory in works, because it’s not what we think.

Memories are not located in any one part of the brain. Memories are formed in a process which involves the entire brain. If you think about your favorite book, different parts of your brain will have encoded the look of it, the storyline, the emotions it made you feel, the smell of the pages, and so on. Memories are constructed from disparate components which create a logical whole. As you think about that book, a web of neural patterns pieces together a previously encoded image. Our brains are not like computers – we can’t just ‘tell’ ourselves to remember something.

In Mastery, Robert Greene explains:

In the end, an entire network of neurons is developed to remember this single task, which accounts for the fact we can still ride a bicycle years after we first learned how to do so. If we were to take a look at the frontal cortex of those who have mastered something through repetition, it would be remarkable still and inactive as they performed the skill. All their brain activity is occurring in areas that are lower down and required much less conscious control…People who do not practice and learn new skills can never gain a proper sense of proportion or self-criticism. They think they can achieve anything without effort and have little contact with reality. Trying something over and over again grounds you in reality, making you deeply aware of your inadequacies and of what you can accomplish with more work and effort.

No definitive answer has been found to explain how the spacing effect works. However, a number of factors are believed to help:

Forgetting and learning are, in a counterintuitive twist, linked. When we review close to the point of nearly forgetting, our brains reinforce the memory as well as add new details. This is one reason practice papers and teaching other people are the most effective ways for students to revise—they highlight what has been forgotten.

Retrieving memories changes the way they are later encoded. In essence, the harder something is to remember now, the better we will recall it in the future. The more we strain, which is painful mental labor, the easier it will be in the future. There is no learning without pain. Recall is more important than recognition. This explains why practice tests are a better way to learn than opening your text and re-reading your highlights.

Our brains assign greater importance to repeated information. This makes sense; information we encounter on a regular basis does tend to be more important than that which we only come across once. Disregarding any forms of mental impairment, we don’t have trouble recalling the information we need on a daily basis. Our PIN, our own telephone number, the directions to work, and names of coworkers, for example. We might once have struggled to remember them, but after accessing those sorts of information hundreds or thousands of time, recall becomes effortless.

Some researchers also believe that semantic priming is a factor. This refers to the associations we form between words which make them easier to recall. So, the sentence ‘the doctor and the nurse walked through the hospital’ is easier to remember than ‘the doctor and the artist walked through the supermarket’ because the words ‘doctor’ ‘nurse’ and ‘hospital’ are linked. If you are asked to remember a logical sentence such as ‘mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell’, it’s not too difficult. If those same words are scrambled and become ‘cell the house mitochondria power is of’ it’s a lot harder to remember. And if those words are broken up into nonsensical syllables – ‘th ell ce he ous hon mit odria fi of’ – retaining them would become arduous. But some researchers have theorised that repetition over time primes us to connect information. So, if you revised ‘th ell ce he ous hon mit odria fi of’ enough times, you would start to connect ‘th’ and ‘ell.’ We can demonstrate semantic priming by telling a friend to say ‘silk’ ten times, then asking them what a cow drinks. They will almost certainly say ‘milk.’ The answer is, of course, water.

Yet another theory is that of deficient processing. Some literature points to the possibility that spaced repetition is not in itself especially efficient, but that massed learning is just very inefficient. By comparison, spaced repetition seems special when it is, in fact, a reflection of our true capabilities. Researchers posit that massed learning is redundant because we lose interest as we study information and retain less and less over time. Closely spaced repetition sessions leverage our initial interest before our focus wanes.

With properly spaced repetition, you increase the intervals of time between learning attempts. Each learning attempt reinforces the neural connections. For example, we learn a list better if we repeatedly study it over a period of time than if we tackle it in one single burst. We’re actually more efficient this way. Spaced sessions allow us to invest less total time to memorize than one single session, whereas we might get bored while going over the same material again and again in a single session. Of course, when we’re bored we pay less and less attention.3

In Focused Determination, the authors explain why variety also contributes to deficient processing.

There is also minimal variation in the way the material is presented to the brain when it is repeatedly visited over a short time. This tends to decrease our learning. In contrast, when repetition learning takes place over a longer period, it is more likely that the materials are presented differently. We have to retrieve the previously learned information from memory and hence reinforce it. All of this leads us to become more interested in the content and therefore more receptive to learning it.

“How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.”

— John Medina, Brain Rules

Taking Advantage of the Spacing Effect

We don’t learn about spaced repetition in school—something which baffles many researchers. Most classes teach a single topic per session, then don’t repeat it until the test.

Going over a topic once teaches very little—sometimes nothing at all, if the teacher is unengaging or the class is too long. Most teachers expect their students to take care of the memorizing part themselves. As a result, many of us develop bad learning habits like cramming to cope with the demands of our classes.

We need to break up with cramming and focus on what actually works: spaced repetition.

The difficulty of spaced repetition is not effort but that it requires forward planning and a small investment of time to set up a system. But in the long run, it saves us time as we retain information and spend less total time learning.

A typical spaced repetition system includes these key components:

  • A schedule for review of information. Typical systems involve going over information after an hour, then a day, then every other day, then weekly, then fortnightly, then monthly, then every six months, then yearly. Guess correctly and the information moves to the next level and is reviewed less often. Guess incorrectly and it moves down a level and is reviewed more often.
  • A means of storing and organizing information. Flashcards or spaced repetition software (such as Anki and SuperMemo) are the most common options. Software has the obvious advantage of requiring little effort to maintain, and of having an inbuilt repetition schedule. Anecdotal evidence suggests that writing information out on flashcards contributes to the learning process.
  • A metric for tracking progress. Spaced repetition systems work best if they include built-in positive reinforcement. This is why learning programs like Duolingo and Memrise incorporate a points system, daily goals, leaderboards and so on. Tracking progress gives us a sense of progression and improvement.
  • A set duration for review sessions. If we practice for too long, our attention wanes and we retain decreasing amounts of information. Likewise, a session needs to be long enough to ensure focused immersion. A typical recommendation is no more than 30 minutes, with a break before any other review sessions.

The spacing effect is a perfect example of how much more effective we can be if we understand how our minds work, and use them in an optimal way. All you need to learn something for life are flashcards and a schedule. Then, of course, you’re free to move on to actually applying and using what you’ve learned.


Members of the Farnam Street Learning Community can discuss this article here.
If you’re not a member, see what you’re missing.  

  • 1

    When is the last time you used a2+ b2= c2 in real life?

  • 2

    This is different than the half-life of knowledge, the process by which information in memory becomes less valuable because your understanding of the world has changed.

  • 3

    You can test this by asking yourself what your last meeting yesterday was about.

Farnam Street’s 2018 Annual Letter to Readers

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company to communicate with the people who own the company, the shareholders. In 2015, I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street. (2016 and 2017 letters are also available.)

Stewards of companies have a legal duty to do what’s in the best interest of shareholders. I feel a similar obligation to you. You trust me with something far more valuable than money: time.

For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street or listening to The Knowledge Project means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above-average return.


The Psychology of Email Lists

Our newsletter mailing list has grown to roughly 185,000 subscribers, compared to 155,000 at this time last year.

The map and the territory tell very different stories. To understand the difference, we need to understand email lists a bit better.

Email lists are the best way to reach people directly. With email, there are few barriers between the content creator and the reader. Getting into someone’s inbox is like getting into their bed: it requires an invite.

The world is full of companies that want you to sign up to their email list. These actors use pop-ups, free downloads, and other tricks to bribe you for your email. While they do this for numerous reasons, few actually concern you, the reader. They just want to sell you something.

For individuals, big email lists typically mean big egos or bigger paychecks.

Bigger egos—in the sense that the size of the mailing list is a metric by which people keep score. Sometimes this is unspoken; other times it’s fairly overt. Some comparison is natural, but there is a lot of appearance over substance going on. No one wants to be the little piggy in the straw house.

Bigger paychecks—in the sense that people use lists as a proxy for value. I’ve encountered this firsthand in 2018, while negotiating our book deals (more below). Everyone wanted to know our list size, but few wanted to know the open rate. If the list size is the map, the open rate is the territory.

The industry considers a 20% open rate to be good, for an email list of over 100,000 addresses. I think that’s terrible. It means about 20–25% of people actually open your emails, when you account for the plethora of adblockers and image loaders it means actual open rates are slightly higher than reported rates.

Our open rate used to be 35%—and now it’s about 45%. The difference is telling. A list of 150,000 with a 25% open rate reaches an effective audience of about 37.5k people per email. An open rate of 45% changes that to 67.5k per email. Clearly, not all lists are the same.

At FS, we’re not after the biggest list, just the best. We offer a one-click unsubscribe. And if it looks like you haven’t opened an email from us in a while, we will send you a few emails to see if you want to stay on the list. If you don’t engage, we’ll proactively remove you. If you miss us, you can always sign up later—and if you don’t notice, well, you’re breaking my heart.


We’re on our third or fourth iteration of domain names now.

We started with 68131 (the zip code for Berkshire Hathaway), then moved to and now While we started out as a blog or scratchpad, today we’re so much more than a blog. We’re moving our branding toward FS. Why did we move away from Farnam Street blog to In short, it was easier to type, available to us, and our friends at Automattic made it simple for us to switch.

We changed hosting companies this year. Our new hosts, Pressable, sped up the site. Most importantly, they freed me up to write, instead of spending hours a month on webhosting. If you’re looking for a webhost, they are the most competent and proactive we’ve come across.

Our relative ranking among websites continues to improve. Last year we were ranked among the 40,000 most popular sites in the world—out of hundreds of millions. As I write this we have moved into the top 33,000. And in the US, out of an estimated 200 million active websites, we rank in the top 11,000. That’s the top .006%, for those of us who are counting.

I hope to further refine the reading experience on the website in 2019, become a bit more brand-consistent, and better position FS to create something that outlives me.


I received a curious call from a reporter from the New York Times earlier this year, asking, “Why does everyone on Wall Street keep talking about you?” He found my “I don’t know” rather unsatisfying, and kept probing. The result was this profile on me. While we stayed on the most-emailed list for two full days—an eternity in the news world—the best thing about the story was that my mom doesn’t think I’m unemployed anymore.

My hometown paper also featured me in this article. Lest I get a big head, my mom pointed out that I couldn’t get ahead of “cat stops traffic” and “man walks slowly across street” to make the most-viewed stories of the day.


In 2018, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops, on Innovation and Decisionmaking. We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone. We sold out the 2019 version of Re:Think Decisionmaking in one day. Join the waiting list so you don’t miss out on future dates!

While the feedback we get is positive beyond belief, we’ll be doing a major revamp of the content in 2019 to be released in 2020.

Our two smaller events are exceptional, but they’re not for everyone. We also require that you apply to attend these events because we need to ensure we have the right mix of people.

The first, Think Weekend, is a dinner series. We meet for a Thursday–Sunday period in a warm location during winter. The days are free time, and we have an interesting series of dinner conversations.

The second is Re:Think Europe. Here we have 10 people show up for what’s been called “the most unique experience I’ve ever had.” It’s an intense period in close quarters with ten people that start out as strangers but wind up best friends. People walk away mentally stimulated and exhausted, while making tangible progress on problems they have.

The Knowledge Project #ListenAndLearn

The Knowledge Project moved away from being “the most irregular podcast in the world” to presenting a new episode about every other week—about 25 episodes this year. Our 2018 guest list included FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, learning expert Barbara Oakley, Stripe CEO Patrick Collison, obstacle course super champ Amelia Boone, poker pro Annie Duke, Shopify CEO Tobi Lütke, and the CEO of the JP Morgan, Amazon, and Berkshire Hathaway healthcare initiative, Atul Gawande, to name a few. (You can find the full list here.) The lineup for 2019 looks just as good.

As I write this we stand at 47 published episodes with over 4.8 million downloads. You should know that we’re not bound to bi-weekly episodes. Our only commitment is quality, so we don’t pre-commit to frequency or duration. Some of the shows will be 15 minutes and others will be four hours. We rarely edit conversations, unless it’s requested or we feel it’s important to protect the guest. To put things in perspective, only two or three instances come to mind. My assumption is that if I’m still interested in the conversation, you are too.

I know what you’re thinking: can you sit and talk for four hours with one person, with no interruptions? Yes! Our guests are exceptional people, and I’m a fanatic when it comes to listening and learning.

The Knowledge Project isn’t bound to have me as a host. In the future, we will explore having other hosts.

We guided TKP’s branding on a sharp turn for the better this year, and will continue in 2019. We invested a lot of money in these improvements—they don’t increase revenue for us but do make for a much better product and experience for you.

We’re likely to move away from sponsors to a listener-supported model in the near future. While we’ve had some great sponsors, like Metalab, I increasingly find that sponsors want things from me—really from you—that just don’t align with my principles.

Speaking of which, let’s talk about some of that stuff. I take your trust in FS and in me very seriously.

  • I am not paid by any company for any opinion or article posted on FS or in any public forum, including podcasts and Twitter. I receive free products all the time in the mail (over 200 in 2018!). If I use them and like them, I try to tell people about them—no affiliate links. If you’re wondering what this looks like in practice, I think I mentioned two things this year: Atoms and Bellroy. I wear the Atoms every day in the office, and Bellroy has been my wallet forever. It’s the same one I buy for my friends.
  • Farnam Street participates in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising commissions by linking to Amazon. Simply put, if you click on my links and buy anything, I earn a small commission, yet you don’t pay any extra.
  • Sponsors of our newsletter and website are not allowed to run any code that might track your internet presence. We tell them nothing about you except in broad strokes. Website sponsors operate on a percentage-of-traffic basis and do not compensate us based on page views. This reduces our incentive to increase page views and write crappy content.
  • We do not have a Facebook tracking pixel, so we’re not enabling companies to “target our audience.”
  • We don’t give out your email address to any third parties.
  • If you’re interested in sponsoring the newsletter, podcast, or website, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected] or directly to me at [email protected]


A few years ago, we started offering courses to help people with skills that make them more adaptable. We were more concerned with outcomes than income. To that end, I purchased most of the most popular online courses and took a look at how they worked, what they were selling, and how they went about improving outcomes.

Unfortunately, we didn’t learn a ton from these courses. Most university courses are theory-based, which is great but not practical. Most of the online courses offered by entrepreneurs are edu-tainment around selling stuff—like online courses. This didn’t deter us. We took a different approach, working through iterations until we hit on something that finally worked: one-on-one interaction.

If you did the homework in The Art of Focus last year, which was a daily email to me, we responded and problem-solved with you every step of the way. Most of the time it was me responding. While this wasn’t efficient or scalable, it was certainly effective. These weren’t group calls but one-on-one interaction. That was just one of the lessons that we learned about how to increase the odds people actually made changes that stuck.

Now that we know what works and what doesn’t, we can tackle a few more ambitious ideas around courses.

In our history, we’ve offered three online courses, a productivity webinar, The Art of Focus, and The Art of Reading. We’ve stopped selling two out of three of these, and will stop selling The Art of Reading in January 2019. (The Art of Focus will be available as part of the Learning Community in January, and the productivity webinar is already available to members.)

Here’s a sneak peek: we’ve  been working on a mega-course on learning for over a year. It has taken a long time to cover not only the theory behind how we learn and how your brain processes information, but how to put it into practice. The wait will be worth it! We’ll use what we learned in the previous courses to increase the odds of success for participants.

I’ve tested the concepts with a few people I’m close to, and the response I’ve gotten is nothing short of amazing. Here’s a representative sample from my testing: “Shane, no one has ever taught me how to learn. In under an hour, you changed everything from the types of questions I ask other people to dramatically increasing my ability to quickly learn…nothing will be the same again.” That’s unsolicited feedback, three months after our conversation, from a person who wanted to test the course for me and paid for it on spec. No videos, just one hour with me in a restaurant over dinner.

The Learning Community

Rest assured, we have no aspirations of running the biggest membership community on the planet, just the best. The Learning Community isn’t for everyone. Our growing Learning Community continues to collect remarkable people and includes entrepreneurs, Fortune 50 CEOs, professional coaches, athletes, GMs from all the major leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB), students, teachers, Nobel Laureates, and bestselling authors.

The learning community isn’t about more content but better content. Not only is it a way to support what you love (FS), join our virtual reading group, get transcripts to all of our podcasts, and so much more—it’s a way to join and interact with a group of people like you, who want to get better and smarter without the shortcuts, a group that offers everything from reading recommendations to smart parenting advice. Some of my favorite moments this year, has been when someone posted questions about a book to the community forum and the author, an LC member, responded.

Importantly, if you read the website for free, it’s funded by the Learning Community. While there are some exclusives and some bonus FS content for LC members, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the Learning Community, or gift it to the ones you love.


Last year I wrote this:

“As many of you know, we’re huge fans of mental models. The problem is that when I set out to read about mental models years ago, there wasn’t a good source of information in one place. Where could I find timeless ideas to help me learn, think, and decide?

Farnam Street has filled that void for many, but we’ve been inundated with requests to write a book about mental models. The first volume, internally dubbed Thinking Tools, will be released soon. Rather than being a version of the website, it’s a fresh start at intelligently preparing ourselves for the world. Whether readers are high school students or newly retired seniors, this well-designed book will hopefully have a place on their shelves for generations.”

I have to eat those words. And I have some other confessions to make.

Writing a book and publishing a book are two very different things. The writing was done and fully edited in May. However, then we had to learn how to actually publish a book. That’s where the time and effort really come into play. There are a lot of publishing decisions around books—everything from typeface and layout to paper and design. You have to decide on the style, not just for one book but for the planned series of 5. Then you have to decide where to print, how to sell them (it’s not as easy as sending them to Amazon), how many to print, whether you want electronic copies, audio, and a host of other things.

Let’s talk a little about the series of books that we’re publishing under Farnam Street: The Great Mental Models.

The first physical book was designed from the beginning to be a beautiful reference book. In a world of disposable books, I didn’t want this to be a book you bought and threw away. I wanted to be the last book on your bookshelf.

Just because we’re self-publishing doesn’t mean we can’t have a world-class team. Our creative director for the project, Morgwn Rimel, came by way of setting up the School of Life. We love working with Flok Design, an international design firm based in Germany. Illustrator Marcia Mihotich is insightful—we love her style. We also had a great editor, Néna Rawdah, and proofreader Karina Palmitesta.

While we self-published to maintain control over the content, thanks to the team above it will look and feel better than most traditionally published books in every way. If you’re curious as to what it looks like on the inside, you can see here and here.

There is some bad news, if you’re eager to get your hands on a physical copy. We’re only printing 3000 physical copies.

The reaction from my agent was telling.

“Shane, so let me understand this right, if you had demand for another 1k books you wouldn’t print more?”

“Not unless something changes.”

“So you don’t want to make more money.”

“Not off the physical book.”

[Two minutes of silence.]

“I’ve never heard that before.”

I don’t have an easily explainable answer to why only 3k hardcovers, so I won’t even try to explain it. Learning Community members will know about the physical copies first and get first dibs.

Why will I be able to get an audio copy before eBook copies?

Long story short: Audible came to us and said they wanted to partner with us, and offered us a lot of distribution and promotion. Helping more people with critical thinking outweighs having the physical and print books out sooner. We’re excited to work with Stacy Creamer and the team at audible.

I am hesitant to sell the print and electronic rights, because I think holding them gives us flexibility in the future. I want all the content to eventually be free, because that helps our mission of equalizing opportunity: the people who can’t afford books arguably need access to thinking tools more than the people that can. And we want to experiment with things that would have been really hard to do with a traditional publisher.

The FS brand carried the day at every meeting we had with people interested in the audio rights. There wasn’t a person we talked to who wasn’t familiar with FS, and in every room where it was pitched, people said, “I love that website.” That helps.

In short, the mental models books are coming. The first draft of the second book is almost done. The books will come out as soon as I can get them to you without sacrificing quality or distribution. As soon as we know more I’ll let you know.

A Trade Book

I signed a book deal with Penguin Portfolio for a trade book and am beyond excited to be working with the team there, especially Niki Papadopoulos. I’ve wanted to work with Niki ever since she came to one of our events four years ago. While this contract was for one book, I have four high-quality and unrelated book ideas in the queue.

Stay tuned.

Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than just me. While I might be the face of FS for now, the site you are reading is increasingly about a team of people.

The team includes Rhiannon, who is a full-time staff writer and my right hand, working with me on the mental models books. Devon is our jack of all trades, doing most of our copy for courses, marketing emails, and podcast production. Bri is my part-time assistant.

Next year, two more will join the fray: one person in January to help us research, and another person in October to lead the team to the next level. I wasn’t looking for people, but the opportunity arose to hire two amazing humans, so I pounced.


I want to thank our website sponsors Royce Funds, Tulco., and Greenhaven Road Capital. I’d also like to thank our podcast sponsors Metalab, HeathIQ, and Inktel. If you’re interested in sponsoring us, send me an email at [email protected]

A Better Way to Sell Your Business

If you’ve built a profitable business with a reputation for fanatical customer service, I’m interested in becoming your partner.

Through Syrus Partners, a company we started to mirror Berkshire Hathaway on a micro scale, we made several investments last year. They included Mealime and Paragon Intelligence—where my background comes in handy.

We’re looking to partner with companies that have a reputation for honest and fair dealings, consistent earnings, good returns on capital, and straightforward business models. As an investment partner, we’re not interested in flipping the business, taking control, or leveraging it up. We bring permanent capital, simple and fair deals that can close in 4–8 weeks, and a reputation for letting you do your thing. We’re always available to help with anything—our team consists of people with world-class experience in marketing, branding, sales, and technology, not to mention an extensive Rolodex. Simply put, we offer as much or as little help as you want. We want you to keep doing what you’re doing.

We’re not VC, so please no pitches for business ideas. If you’ like to explore selling all or part of your business to a trustworthy and long-term partner, send an email to [email protected] with all relevant details.

Thank you.

We continue to put one foot in front of another and reinvest the proceeds from the Learning Community to create the best content we can.

Next year we’ll get back to more variety of content. There will be a mix of deep dives on topics as well as explorations. In short, back to our roots. We lost a bit of focus on that in 2018, which is entirely on me.

There is much good to come from FS in the new year. I look forward to continuing to learn with you. Thank you for reading and supporting us.






Why Small Habits Make a Big Difference

James Clear’s book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones explores an interesting subject, on the compounding nature of the long game. While everyone is looking for big gains—the proverbial get rich quick scheme—there is a space that’s not getting much attention.

Those who understand compound interest can make it work for them and those that don’t understand it spend much of life trying to get out from its shackles. When we think of compounding we typically think of finance and positive returns, as in “good compounding.” But compounding just reinforces what’s already happening — good or bad.  There is no judgment. And compounding works outside of finance. So while we can compound money positively and negatively, we can compound ourselves as well.

The neutrality of compounding is what makes it interesting — as we can get it work for us. If we can replace a negatively compounding habit or mental discipline with one that’s neutral or positive, we instantly get better. And if we can accelerate positive compounding, we can really see the results.

Tiny, nearly imperceptible changes can make a huge difference when you factor in time.  As the graph above demonstrates, the difference in tiny changes is astonishing.

Clear writes:

Here’s how the math works out: if you can get 1 percent better each day for one year, you’ll end up thirty-seven times better by the time you’re done. Conversely, if you get 1 percent worse each day for one year, you’ll decline nearly down to zero. What starts as a small win or a minor setback accumulates into something much more.

Habits are the compound interest of self-improvement. The same way that money multiplies through compound interest, the effects of your habits multiply as you repeat them. They seem to make little difference on any given day and yet the impact they deliver over the months and years can be enormous. It is only when looking back two, five, or perhaps ten years later that the value of good habits and the cost of bad ones becomes strikingly apparent.

When we watch people make small choices, like order a salad at lunch instead of a burger, the difference of a few hundred calories doesn’t seem to matter much. In the moment that’s true. These small decisions don’t matter all that much. However, as days turn to weeks and weeks to months and months to years those tiny repeatable choices compound. Consider another example, saving a little money right not won’t make you a millionaire tomorrow. But starting to save today makes it more likely you will become a millionaire in the future.

Our brains have a hard time intuitively understanding time, compounding, and uncertainty. All of those things conspire to work against us when it comes to habits and mental disciplines. Why choose to save $20 today when I could buy a bottle of wine and have instant pleasure? Our minds do not easily realize that $20 saved today could be $100 in the future. And if we do save the money, there is no certainty that it will compound positively, it could, after all, compound negatively and I end up with $15. Now you can begin to see why it’s easier to just live in the moment and do whatever you want.

Clear writes:

But when we repeat 1 percent errors, day after day, by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes, and rationalizing little excuses, our small choices compound into toxic results.

As an entrepreneur, I’m always looking for opportunities. The opportunities that interest me the most offer superior returns, low risk, and a long duration. Just as investing in companies can give you the opportunity to find all three, so does properly investing in yourself. Habits and mental disciplines are controllable, offer enormous opportunity for returns, have extremely low risk, and you can use them for the rest of your life. More importantly, they allow you to diverge from the herd and advantageous divergence is the name of the game.