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Getting Ahead By Being Inefficient

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You get things done – just not in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best.

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Trying to be perfect is a waste of time.

Many of us feel constant pressure to adapt perfectly to our environments, especially our workplaces. Don’t waste time, we’re told. Maximize the output of your moments. Minimize your energy expenditure. If you aren’t getting great, someone else is, so before you collapse into a heap of perceived failure, take stock and improve your efficiency. We assume this is the ticket to success—to continually strive to be the best at whatever we are doing.

There is, however, something to be said for inefficiency: not doing everything perfectly, expending extra energy, making mistakes, trying new things—and possibly sucking at them. Sticking with something, even if you will never be as good as the person next to you. You develop flexibility and adaptability. You’re better prepared for new opportunities when there are changes in your environment.

Inefficient does not mean ineffective, and it is certainly not the same as lazy. You do things. You just don’t always do them in the most effective way possible. You’re a bit sloppy, and use more energy. But don’t feel bad about it. There is real value in not being the best at everything.

Efficiency Makes us Fragile

To understand how inefficiency can help you get ahead, let’s start with a story.

Imagine a tree that grows these tasty, nutritious turquoise berries. A species of bird has adapted to eating them efficiently. It has a beak that gets under the protective berry shell just so, allowing it to consume loads of the ripest berries whenever it wants. Its claws have adapted to the tree’s slippery branches, so it is the only creature in the forest that can perch on them with ease. The tree produces these berries all year round, thanks to a stable climate, so there are tons of them. The bird has evolved for the task of eating these berries, and they provide all the bird’s nutritional needs, so the bird has no incentive to try anything else.

In the forest there also lives a little mammal. Occasionally, the bird drops a berry and this mammal gets a taste of them. It really likes the berries, and tries to get more of them. It can never compete with the bird directly, as the bird is so specialized. But over time, it adapts to the situation. It starts to go after the berries at night, when the bird is asleep and not feeding. Its claws evolve to grip the tree better. Its vision in the dark improves. Being more active at night, it finds tasty grubs to spear with those sharper claws, so it eats them as well. The bird still gets the majority of the berries, but the mammal gets enough to keep the effort worthwhile, supplementing along the way.

Then, one day, a huge environmental change impacts the forest where this is all playing out. It is significant and lasts for a while. The vegetation patterns are disrupted. Food sources change. Who is in the better position to thrive in the new conditions? The environmental changes are a disaster for the bird. They are an opportunity for the mammal.

Why? In part, because the mammal benefits from its own previous inefficiency. Both the bird and the mammal can get the juicy turquoise berries. The bird is significantly more efficient at doing so, which is an advantage in a stable environment. Nothing can compete.

But in times of change, the inefficiency that forced the mammal to supplement the leftovers it could scrounge when the bird was sleeping is an advantage. That inefficiency allowed for the development of other traits that gave it flexibility to adapt to changing environmental circumstances. It became a generalist, with some specialized features like night vision that are broadly useful.

There is a bright side to disruption. Short-term disturbances enable fast-growing species with high metabolic rates and with inert life stages capable of withstanding adverse conditions to capitalize on briefly favorable circumstances, and it is these opportunists that are in the best position to spawn highly competitive dominants in postcrisis ecosystems from which well-adapted incumbents have been eliminated. — Geerat Vermeij, Nature: An Economic History

Total efficiency constrains us. We become super invested in maintaining the status quo because that is where we excel. Innovation is a threat. Change is terrifying. Being perfect at something is dangerous if it’s the only thing you can do.

Perhaps we need to change our idea of what it means to be the best.

Have you ever been to a rock-climbing gym? You can usually pick out the beginners, because climbing quickly exhausts them and they end up using their hands like meat hooks to grasp the holds and pull themselves up the wall. After a bit of time, this changes. They figure out they’ll tire less easily if they use their legs more. So they develop their technique, pushing up with the legs more than pulling up with the arms.

After more time and effort and practice, new climbers can become really good at rock climbing. But no one gets good by using the same holds to climb the same bit of wall. Being really good at rock climbing means trying different techniques in different locations, dealing with weather and pain and the unexpected. It means being adaptable. Being a great rock climber is about adjusting for the environment, and continually seeking out the challenge of foreign rocks and new climbs. A climber who scales El Capitan 20 times will be incredibly efficient at climbing that one rock face—might even become a climbing guide—but will not be able to get up a new mountain with equal speed.

Efficiency is great in an unchanging environment, but to expect an environment to remain static is unrealistic. Environments change all the time. When workplaces value efficiency in a changing environment, they become fragile. Inefficiency, like a genetic mutation, can allow for serendipitous discovery. Sure, it may produce the same mistakes as before, but if the environment is different, they might actually work now.

Don’t be afraid of a challenge. Don’t be afraid of not being the best. When you routinely put yourself in situations where you aren’t the most skilled, you learn, you grow, and eventually, you adapt. You build your repertoire of traits and talents, so when change hits you have a wide array of skills. This flexibility can also give you the confidence to seek change. The mammal could explore and find new opportunities, but that bird was never going to leave the trees.

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Yuval Noah Harari: Why We Dominate the Earth

Why did Homo sapiens diverge from the rest of the animal kingdom and go on to dominate the earth? Communication? Cooperation? According to best-selling author Yuval Noah Harari, that barely scratches the surface.

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Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along but rarely. It’s broad, but scientific. It’s written for a popular audience, but never feels dumbed down. It’s new and fresh, but not based on any new primary research. Sapiens is pure synthesis.

Readers will easily recognize the influence of Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other similarly broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. It’s not surprising, then, that Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted Diamond’s contributions to his thinking. Harari says:

It [Guns, Germs, and Steel] made me realize that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.

Harari sought to understand the history of humankind’s domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. He applies ideas from evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics, and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: humankind’s success was due to our ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.

To make the narrative more palatable and sensible, we must take a different perspective. Calling us humans keeps us too close to the story to have an accurate view. We’re not as unique as we would like to believe. In fact, we’re just another animal. We are Homo sapiens. Because of this, our history can be described just like that of any other species. Harari labels us like any other species, calling us “Sapiens” so we can depersonalize things and allow the author the room he needs to make some bold statements about the history of humanity.  Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens.[1]

Sapiens existed long before there was recorded history. Biological history is a much longer stretch, beginning millions of years before the evolution of any forbears we can identify. When our earliest known ancestors formed, they were not at the top of the food chain. Rather, they were engaged in an epic battle of trench warfare with the other organisms that shared their habitat.[2]

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

— Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens

These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves, had any inkling their descendants would one day walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

For the same reason that our kids can’t imagine a world without Google, Amazon and iPhones, we can’t imagine a world in which have not been a privileged species right from the start. Yet we were just one species of smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis, and others, both our progenitors and our contemporaries, all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.

Eventually, things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we don’t know quite why) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make. We began to cooperate flexibly, in large groups, with an extremely complex and versatile language. If there is a secret to our success—and remember, success in nature is survival—It was that our brains developed to communicate.

Welcome to the Cognitive Revolution

Our newfound capacity for language allowed us to develop abilities that couldn’t be found among our cousins, or in any other species from ants to whales.

First, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. We weren’t talking mental models or even gravity. At first, we were probably talking about things for survival. Food. Water. Shelter. It’s possible to imagine making a statement something like this: “I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don’t we ask for help from a neighboring tribe, so we don’t all end up as lion meat?”[3]

Second, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. Before religion, gossip created a social, even environmental pressure to conform to certain norms. Gossip allowed control of the individual for the aid of the group. It wouldn’t take much effort to imagine someone saying, “I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don’t think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter.”[4]

Harari’s insight is that while the abilities to communicate about necessities and to pressure people to conform to social norms were certainly pluses, they were not the great leap. Surprisingly, it’s not our shared language or even our ability to dominate other species that defines us but rather, our shared fictions. The exponential leap happened because we could talk about things that were not real. Harari writes:

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, “Careful! A lion!” Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, “The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.” This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

Predictably, Harari mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But just as important are fictions like the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human rights, inalienable from birth; and even money itself.

Shared beliefs allow us to do the thing that other species cannot. Because we believe, we can cooperate effectively in large groups toward larger aims. Sure, other animals cooperate. Ants and bees work in large groups with close relatives but in a very rigid manner. Changes in the environment, as we are seeing today, put the rigidity under strain. Apes and wolves cooperate as well, and with more flexibility than ants. But they can’t scale.

If wild animals could have organized in large numbers, you might not be reading this. Our success is intimately linked to scale. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way.[5] As Harari puts it in the quotation at the beginning of this post, “Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That’s why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.”

Sapiens diverged when they—or I should say we—hit on the ability of a collective myth to advance us beyond what we could do individually. As long as we shared some beliefs we could work toward something larger than ourselves—itself a shared fiction. With this in mind, there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group.

With that, it becomes easier to understand why we see different results from communication in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobo culture: a shared trust in something outside of ourselves, something larger. And the result can be extreme, lollapalooza even, when a lot of key things converge in one direction, from a combination of critical elements.

Any large-scale human cooperation—whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe—is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.

Not only do we believe them individually, but we believe them collectively.

Shared fictions aren’t necessarily lies. Shared fictions can create literal truths. For example, if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. Yet just as you can’t get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can’t get him to accept three apples today with the idea that if he invests them wisely in a chimp business, he’ll get six bananas from it in five years—no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much an imagined reality as religion.

Once you start to see the world as a collection of shared fictions, it never looks the same again.

This leads to the extremely interesting conclusion that comprises the bulk of Harari’s great work: If we collectively decide to alter the myths, we can relatively quickly and dramatically alter behavior.

For instance, we can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide women should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. We can also decide all Sapiens must follow the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.

There is no parallel in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment, or to broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will likely never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and suddenly abolish the idea of an alpha male lion. Their hierarchies are rigid, primal even.

But humans can collectively change the narrative over a short span of time, and begin acting very differently with the same DNA and the same set of physical circumstances. If we all believe in Bitcoin, it becomes real for the same reason that gold becomes real.

Thus, we can conclude that Harari’s Cognitive Revolution is what happens when we decide that, while biology dictates what’s physically possible, we as a species decide norms. This is where biology enables and culture forbids.  “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology,” Harari writes. These ever-shifting alliances, beliefs, myths—ultimately, cultures—define what we call human history.

A thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to who we are today.

 

 

 

Sources:

[1] This biological approach to history is one we’ve looked at before with the work of Will and Ariel Durant. See The Lessons of History.

[2] It was only when Sapiens acquired weapons, fire, and most importantly a way to communicate so as to share and build knowledge, that we had the asymmetric weaponry necessary to step out of the trenches and dominate, at least for now, the organisms we co-exist with.

[3] My kids are learning to talk Caveman thanks to the guide at the back of Ook and Glook and it doesn’t sound like this at all.

[4] It’s unknown what role ego played, but we can assume people were not asking, “Oh, does this headdress make me look fat?”

[5] Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Charlie Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants’ rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants starts walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.

Samuel Andrews: The Man With the Billion Dollar Ego

We can learn valuable lessons from the life of Samuel Andrews. Haven’t ever heard of him? There’s a reason. He was John D. Rockefeller’s right-hand man, and stood to become one of the world’s richest men. But then something got in the way. 

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There is an important lesson to be learned from the story of Samuel Andrews, as told by biographer Ron Chernow in Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller.

John D. Rockefeller learned to clean oil from Sam Andrews. Andrews was the ideal partner for Rockefeller. While he lacked business sense, he had mechanical knowledge that Rockefeller didn’t. The quality of kerosene that Andrews was able to produce, and the efficiency of his process, rendered him indispensable—until something got into the way. But before we get to that, a bit of history.

It was Rockefeller himself who propositioned Andrews to go into business in the first place.

“Sam,” he said, “we are prospering. We have a future before us, a big future. But I don’t like Jim Clark and his habits. He is an immoral man in more ways than one. He gambles in oil. I don’t want this business to be associated with a gambler. Suppose I take them up the next time they threaten a dissolution. Suppose I succeed in buying them out. Will you come in with me?”

Andrews agreed and they shook hands on the deal.

Only a few weeks later Rockefeller quarreled with Clark. “If that’s the way you want to do business we’d better dissolve, and let you run your own affairs to suit yourself,” Clark warned.  Rockefeller moved swiftly.

Rockefeller met with his partners and stated publicly that he wished to dissolve the partnership. The two sides walked away after the meeting with contrasting feelings. The Clarks imagined they had cowed the young whippersnapper, while Rockefeller raced to the office of the Cleveland Leader to place a notice dissolving the partnership.

The next morning the Clarks were stunned to see the notice. The Clarks failed to realize that Rockefeller had Andrews on his side. As per the partnership agreement, the business went up for auction.

Ron Chernow describes the situation thus:

Even as a young man, Rockefeller was extremely composed in a crisis. In this respect, he was a natural leader: the more agitated others became, the calmer he grew. It was an index of his matchless confidence that when the auction occurred, the Clarks brought a lawyer while Rockefeller represented himself. “I thought that I could take care of so simple a transaction,” he boasted. With the Clarks’ lawyer acting as auctioneer, the bidding began at $500 and quickly rose to a few thousand dollars, then inched up slowly to about $50,000—already more than Rockefeller thought the refining business worth.

Since this was such a critical and defining moment in Rockefeller’s career, we can read his own words:

Finally it advanced to $60,000, and by slow stages to $70,000, and I almost feared for my ability to buy the business and have the money to pay for it. At last the other side bid $72,000. Without hesitation I said $72,500. Mr. Clark then said: “I’ll go no higher, John; the business is yours.” “Shall I give you a check for it now?” I suggested. “No,” Mr. Clark said, “I’m glad to trust you for it; settle at your convenience.”

At age 25 he and Sam Andrews controlled Cleveland’s largest refinery. No sooner had the ink dried than they took up a metagame strategy, one of rapid expansion, that he knew was diametrically opposed to how the Clarks would likely respond.

Refinery after refinery came under their control. From the start, Rockefeller used his business sense and relied on Sam Andrews for technical advice. Rockefeller held Andrews in esteem until Ambrose McGregor was named superintendent of the Standard Oil refineries in Cleveland. McGregor demonstrated superior ability. Andrews was shown to be less capable. His ego took a beating.

One day in 1878, Andrews snapped at Rockefeller, “I wish I was out of this business.”

Rockefeller remained calm and called his bluff, replying, “Sam, you don’t seem to have faith in the way this company is operating. What will you take for your holdings?”

“I will take one million dollars,” Andrews shot back.

“Let me have an option on it for twenty-four hours,” said Rockefeller, “and we will discuss it tomorrow.”

“Samuel Andrews was taken into the business as a poor workingman with little or nothing in the early stages when it was difficult to find men to cleanse the oil. … He had too much conceit, too much bull-headed English obstinacy and so little self-control. Was his own worst enemy.”

The next morning when Andrews arrived, Rockefeller had a check made out for one million dollars.

While he appeared confident, Rockefeller was petrified at the thought of Andrew’s holdings hitting the open market and depressing the stock. Andrews thought he had bested Rockefeller. However, when Rockefeller sold the shares to William H. Vanderbilt for a quick $300,000 profit, Andrews changed his mind, voicing his displeasure to Rockefeller.

Rockefeller, feeling some sense of loyalty to the man who had helped him build and empire and quickly fallen out of favor, offered back the stock for the same price at which he had sold it.

Feeling slighted, his ego bruised, Andrews spurned the offer. This decision kept him from becoming one of America’s richest men. The very same stock would have been worth $900 million by the early 1930s.

Later Rockefeller would say of Andrews, “He was ignorant, conceited, lost his head…governed by the same wicked sort of prejudice accompanying the egotism so characteristic of that type of ignorant Englishman.”

There is a little Sam Andrews in all of us. The lesson to walk away with is that temperament matters. A lot.

The ability to keep your head when others are losing theirs is a superpower. The world doesn’t always work the way you want to it. People will slight you. You’ll get fired. You’ll make mistakes. People who are smarter than you will compete for your job. And how you respond to all of this will make all the difference.

Rockefeller gained an advantage by keeping his head while others lost theirs. In fact, the higher the stakes, the cooler he was said to become. Andrews, on the other hand, couldn’t keep his head. As a result, a blow to his ego prevented him from being one of the richest men in the world.

Footnotes
  • 1

    Source: Chernow, Ron. Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2007

How to Do Great Things

Insight is rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn.

The book explores how we do great things. And wouldn’t we all like to do great things? But what are the methods we should employ in order to do great things? What are the mental disciplines that we should learn? Where do we start?

Hamming starts by arguing the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligent prepare—makes a huge difference.

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

In any great outcome, there is a component of luck. Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Einstein did many great things. So did Newton. Elon Musk has been successful in multiple fields. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly does great things it is because they prepared in advance to advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation.

Intelligence comes in many forms and flavors. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Brains are nice to have but they are even better if you know how to use them.

How to Do Great Things

You need to believe that you are capable of doing important things. Your mindset determines how you experience things, what you work on, and the tactics and strategies you employ to accomplish those goals.

Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems how can you expect to do important work? Yet, direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your goals—and a lot of what you do and say isn’t—then why are you doing it? The question you need to ask yourself if “why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area?” How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

You need to be willing to look like an idiot. Think of this as confidence meets courage.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

You need to strive for excellence. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of doing great work.

Without such a goal you will tend to wander like a drunken sailor. The sailor takes one step in one direction and the next in some independent direction. As a result the steps tend to cancel each other, and the expected distance from the starting point is proportional to the square root of the number of steps taken. With a vision of excellence, and with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

The conditions you think you want are rarely the ones that help you produce your best work. You need the feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age is a factor physicists and mathematicians worry about. It is easily observed the greatest work of a theoretical physicist, mathematician, or astrophysicist, is generally done very early. They may continue to do good work all their lives, but what society ends up valuing most is almost always their earliest great work. The exceptions are very, very few indeed. But in literature, music composition, and politics, age seems to be an asset. The best compositions of a composer are usually the late ones, as judged by popular opinion.

One reason for this is fame in Science is a curse to quality productivity, though it tends to supply all the tools and freedom you want to do great things. Another reason is most famous people, sooner or later, tend to think they can only work on important problems—hence they fail to plant the little acorns which grow into the mighty oak trees. I have seen it many times, from Brattain of transistor fame and a Nobel Prize to Shannon and his Information Theory. Not that you should merely work on random things—but on small things which seem to you to have the possibility of future growth. In my opinion the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J has ruined more great scientists than any other place has created—considering what they did before ore and what they did after going there. A few, like von Neumann, escaped the closed atmosphere of the place with all its physical comforts and prestige, and continued to contribute to the advancement of Science, but most remained there and continued to work on the same problems which got them there but which were generally no longer of great importance to society.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Work with your door open.

Working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open get less work done but tend to work on the right problems! I cannot prove the cause and effect relationship, I only observed the correlation. I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did. I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 212)

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The investment of one hour a day by Charlie Munger to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common charasteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

People who do great things tolerate ambiguity — they can both believe and not believe at the same time.

You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also there is much room for improvement! You can sort of see why this is a necessary trait If you believe too much you will not likely see the chances for significant improvements, you will see believe enough you will be filled with doubts and get very little chances for only the 2%, 5%, and 10% improvements; if you do not done. I have not the faintest idea of how to teach the tolerance of ambiguity, both belief and disbelief at the same time, but great people do it all the time. Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten. I must warn you however, the importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem. The three problems in Physics, antigravity, teleportation, and time travel are seldom worked on because we have so few clues as to how to start—a problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it, and not because of its inherent importance.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 213)

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, listen to great people talk in detail about their experiences, and more importantly take ownership. Moving foward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving foward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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.

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—

Circumstance.

—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.