Blog

Learning How to Learn: My Conversation With Barbara Oakley

In this interview, Barbara Oakley, 8-time author and creator of Learning to Learn, an online course with over a million enrolled students, shares the science and strategies to learn more quickly, overcome procrastination and get better at practically anything.

***

Just when I start to think I’m using my time well and getting a lot done in my life, I meet someone like Barbara Oakley.

Barbara is a true polymath. She was a captain in the U.S. Army, a Russian translator on Soviet trawlers, a radio operator in the South Pole, an engineer, university professor, researcher and the author of 8 books.

Oh, and she is also the creator and instructor of Learning to Learn, the most popular Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) ever(!), with over one million enrolled students.

In this fascinating interview, we cover many aspects of learning, including how to make it stick so we remember more and forget less, how to be more efficient so we learn more quickly, and how to remove that barriers that get in the way of effective learning.

Specifically, Barbara covers:

  • How she changed her brain from hating math and science to loving it so much she now teaches engineering to college students
  • What neuroscience can tell us about how to learn more effectively
  • The two modes of your brain and how that impacts what and how you learn
  • Why backing off can sometimes be the best thing you can do when learning something new
  • How to “chunk” your learning so new knowledge is woven into prior knowledge making it easily accessible
  • The best ways to develop new patterns of learning in our brains
  • How to practice a skill so you can blast through plateaus and improve more quickly
  • Her favorite tactic for dealing with procrastination so you can spend more time learning
  • The activities she recommends that rapidly increase neural connections like fertilizer on the brain
  • Whether memorization has a place in learning anymore, or simply a barrier to true understanding
  • The truth about “learning types” and how identifying as a visual or auditory learner might be setting yourself up for failure.

…and a whole lot more.

If you want to be the most efficient learner you can be, and have more fun doing it, you won’t want to miss this discussion.

Listen

Transcript
An edited copy of this transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($7).

If you liked this, check out all the episodes of the knowledge project.

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.

My Berkshire Hathaway Reflections

After a decade of attending the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting, these are the thoughts and experiences that stand out the most to me.

(My essay appears in the The Warren Buffett Shareholder.)

I’ve been going to the Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholders meeting almost yearly since 2008. My routine might be familiar to many – maybe uncomfortably so — and yet that routine is part of the experience.

After missing the meeting one year because of a cancelled Friday flight, I decided to start adding a bigger margin of safety and arriving on Thursday. If the flight is on time, it gives me two days to hang out before Saturday’s meeting, and I put that time to good use. Usually the meals leading up to the meeting are filled with friends, FS readers, and business partners.

When the big day finally arrives, I get up as early as my friends allow and drag everyone to the meeting, waiting in line at the CenturyLink Center’s south entrance to get a good seat. The crowd at the door is full of hedge fund managers, teachers, small investors, technology entrepreneurs, college students, people from all over — Buffett and Munger junkies all. It’s a motley crew, to say the least.

As a group, we’ve all got some peculiar wiring. More than once, we’ve sat out there in the rain, more or less oblivious to the bad weather, as we discussed such topics as first-conclusion bias, insurance float, the intricacies of goodwill accounting, the merits of the latest acquisition, and the future of discount furniture retailing.

As the meeting gets started, I listen as intently as I can, but like most people in the audience, I find myself drifting from time to time. The bland questions seem to repeat year after year and offer the same predictable answers as the year before. Fortunately, the questions have improved since Warren changed the meeting format by inviting analysts and reporters.

So sleepy or not, I listen, I write down notes, I laugh, I rummage around the Convention area and eat Dilly Bars and See’s Candy, I return to the meeting and learn some more. Write, eat, write, whisper, laugh, write, whisper, laugh, write. At some point, the day is up and it feels like we’ve barely scratched the surface. What about last year’s unusually high amortization charge?

After the meeting, it’s time for a drink at the hotel across the street. All I want to do is take a nap, but that’s not what I’m here to do. I try to meet with one particular person, but I see someone else, and of course he’s got a friend in tow. Then I see an employee from Berkshire whom I want to ask a question, so I ditch my friends for a minute. Then I see the professor I met that one year. Then I see… This goes on for a few hours, until dinnertime.

Left to right: Ted Seides, Shane Parrish, Brent Beshore, Eric Jorgenson, And Patrick O’shaughnessy

Dinner, of course, is simply more of this. More friends; more talking about business, investing, learning, and mental models; more catching up. On Sunday, I get up early again and go to another breakfast, or perhaps a brunch meeting. I meet up with more old friends, more new acquaintances.

The Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting is an excuse to gorge — not just on Dilly Bars, See’s Candy, and steak, which I wholeheartedly consume, but also on friends, conversation, and learning. The whole experience is intensely stimulating, in the mildly stressful “these people are a lot smarter than me; I really need to read more” kind of way.

More important, the annual meeting offers a reminder of what matters. The world we live in is full of 24/7 noise — full of people who are trying to tell us to learn about the new and novel, people telling us we can get something for nothing, people trying to tell us the unknowable, people who won’t do the work. When you’re living in the moment, it’s hard to see that you’re in this system. It’s only when you step back that you realize that your mind has become cluttered and you’ve lost a sense of what’s important and what’s meaningful.

Omaha is a reminder of what’s important in relationships. The local residents are enormously kind and tolerant of over 50,000 people swooping in for a weekend. They are so kind, in fact, that I call them honorary Canadians. The people who come to the meeting tend to be part of a unique subset of society. While they might be bankers, teachers, businesspeople, or even unemployed, they share the same values of delayed gratification, integrity, and generosity. They share the same desire for learning. Everyone is happy. What you won’t find in Omaha are complainers, people trying to scare you, or people seeking to get rich overnight. In essence, you find yourself surrounded by the people you want to become.

Guy Spier and Shane Parrish

When you’re listening to Warren and Charlie talk, the noise of the unimportant vanishes. In its place, you find the same topics year after year. The same phrases. The same patterns. The same predictable answers. Even the same basic eating habits. So why go if the answers are always the same? After all, I’ve been attending for nearly 10 years; by now, haven’t I heard most of what Warren and Charlie have to say?

The point is that the answers stay the same. Warren and Charlie talk about the same invariant general principles every single year without fail. What I’ve learned most from Warren and Charlie over the years is the beauty of what doesn’t change. When you learn something that doesn’t change, you can step off the treadmill of keeping up and start to compound your knowledge. While this compounding may slow you down at first, it offers exponential returns. After all, what better investment can you make than learning, with deep fluency, timeless principles like second-order thinking, something that applies to a wide variety of situations and is likely to remain constant?

You can see in real time how Warren and Charlie adapt their timeless principles to the reality of the day. There is no wishful thinking, just a lens into the world. By applying timeless concepts to whatever is topical, they show a deep, multi-layered understanding of what’s happening in the world. Implicit in all of this is how they work with the world rather than against it.

And Warren and Charlie are not the only ones I learn from. I also learn from the hedge fund managers, teachers, small investors, technology entrepreneurs, and college students who are waiting outside the arena in the rain. I learn from the friends and acquaintances at the breakfasts, brunches, lunches, dinners, and cocktail hours. I learn from the Berkshire employees and the professors-I-met-that-one-year, and the guy who knows more about insurance than I’ll ever hope to know.

The world becomes clear after I leave Omaha. My sense of what’s important is renewed — what might have been the most urgent thing in the world on Thursday now seems to fade into the distance as unimportant. I make better decisions, I become a better person, and material concerns fall by the wayside. There is nothing missing. And because what’s important has been amplified, I’m better able to make the decisions I’ve been postponing. When I’ve been surrounded by so many people, my sense of the person I want to become improves.

I don’t go to Omaha looking for answers; I go for the pursuit. I go there to deepen my understanding of the key ideas that matter in work and life. It’s almost like changing your oil. As the year goes on, little bits get in your oil. At first, if you don’t change your oil often enough, your engine runs suboptimally. Eventually, however, if you still don’t change your oil, your engine seizes. Going to the meeting is my oil change.

Charlie has always called Berkshire a “didactic” enterprise. For a while, I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. (I had to look up “didactic,” too.) But I get what he means now. The annual letter, the meeting — partially, these serve to inform the shareholders. But let’s be honest, it’s about more than that. Warren and Charlie don’t need to make such a production of the annual meeting. It’s a platform for the two Wise Men of Omaha to tell us the way it is and show us how it could be. (The maddening thing is that they’re usually right.)

The Street in Omaha where we got our name.

And that’s the way many shareholders see it, too. Berkshire isn’t just a company that’s made us a great deal of money. And it hasn’t just provided a way to learn how to make more money. Berkshire is a philosophy of life — a philosophy of trust, a philosophy of lifelong learning. Mainly, a philosophy of rationality and independent thinking in a crowd.

Charlie likes to say that if he and Warren had stopped learning when they were young, Berkshire would be a shadow of its current self. And I realize that is the lesson I relearn every year in Omaha, among the chained-together meetings and the lack of sleep. We’re all trying to create positive outcomes and to do that in the right way, with humility, gratitude, and rational thought. We’re trying to grow.

Because what else would motivate a bunch of nutcases to fly 400 or 500 or 2,000 miles (or 2,004 kilometers) to eat candy and listen to a couple of old men talk about business?

After nine years, I still don’t quite know the answer. All I know is that I’m one of those nutcases. And I’ll keep coming back as long as Berkshire Hathaway will have me.

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.

First Principles: The Building Blocks of True Knowledge

First-principles thinking is one of the best ways to reverse-engineer complicated problems and unleash creative possibility. Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” the idea is to break down complicated problems into basic elements and then reassemble them from the ground up. It’s one of the best ways to learn to think for yourself, unlock your creative potential, and move from linear to non-linear results.

This approach was used by the philosopher Aristotle and is used now by Elon Musk and Charlie Munger. It allows them to cut through the fog of shoddy reasoning and inadequate analogies to see opportunities that others miss.

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!”

— Richard Feynman

The Basics

A first principle is a foundational proposition or assumption that stands alone. We cannot deduce first principles from any other proposition or assumption.

Aristotle, writing[1] on first principles, said:

In every systematic inquiry (methodos) where there are first principles, or causes, or elements, knowledge and science result from acquiring knowledge of these; for we think we know something just in case we acquire knowledge of the primary causes, the primary first principles, all the way to the elements.

Later he connected the idea to knowledge, defining first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”[2]

The search for first principles is not unique to philosophy. All great thinkers do it.

Reasoning by first principles removes the impurity of assumptions and conventions. What remains is the essentials. It’s one of the best mental models you can use to improve your thinking because the essentials allow you to see where reasoning by analogy might lead you astray.

The Coach and the Play Stealer

My friend Mike Lombardi (a former NFL executive) and I were having dinner in L.A. one night, and he said, “Not everyone that’s a coach is really a coach. Some of them are just play stealers.”

Every play we see in the NFL was at some point created by someone who thought, “What would happen if the players did this?” and went out and tested the idea. Since then, thousands, if not millions, of plays have been created. That’s part of what coaches do. They assess what’s physically possible, along with the weaknesses of the other teams and the capabilities of their own players, and create plays that are designed to give their teams an advantage.

The coach reasons from first principles. The rules of football are the first principles: they govern what you can and can’t do. Everything is possible as long as it’s not against the rules.

The play stealer works off what’s already been done. Sure, maybe he adds a tweak here or there, but by and large he’s just copying something that someone else created.

While both the coach and the play stealer start from something that already exists, they generally have different results. These two people look the same to most of us on the sidelines or watching the game on the TV. Indeed, they look the same most of the time, but when something goes wrong, the difference shows. Both the coach and the play stealer call successful plays and unsuccessful plays. Only the coach, however, can determine why a play was successful or unsuccessful and figure out how to adjust it. The coach, unlike the play stealer, understands what the play was designed to accomplish and where it went wrong, so he can easily course-correct. The play stealer has no idea what’s going on. He doesn’t understand the difference between something that didn’t work and something that played into the other team’s strengths.

Musk would identify the play stealer as the person who reasons by analogy, and the coach as someone who reasons by first principles. When you run a team, you want a coach in charge and not a play stealer. (If you’re a sports fan, you need only look at the difference between the Cleveland Browns and the New England Patriots.)

We’re all somewhere on the spectrum between coach and play stealer. We reason by first principles, by analogy, or a blend of the two.

Another way to think about this distinction comes from another friend, Tim Urban. He says[3] it’s like the difference between the cook and the chef. While these terms are often used interchangeably, there is an important nuance. The chef is a trailblazer, the person who invents recipes. He knows the raw ingredients and how to combine them. The cook, who reasons by analogy, uses a recipe. He creates something, perhaps with slight variations, that’s already been created.

The difference between reasoning by first principles and reasoning by analogy is like the difference between being a chef and being a cook. If the cook lost the recipe, he’d be screwed. The chef, on the other hand, understands the flavor profiles and combinations at such a fundamental level that he doesn’t even use a recipe. He has real knowledge as opposed to know-how.

Authority

So much of what we believe is based on some authority figure telling us that something is true. As children, we learn to stop questioning when we’re told “Because I said so.” (More on this later.) As adults, we learn to stop questioning when people say “Because that’s how it works.” The implicit message is “understanding be damned — shut up and stop bothering me.” It’s not intentional or personal. OK, sometimes it’s personal, but most of the time, it’s not.

If you outright reject dogma, you often become a problem: a student who is always pestering the teacher. A kid who is always asking questions and never allowing you to cook dinner in peace. An employee who is always slowing things down by asking why.

When you can’t change your mind, though, you die. Sears was once thought indestructible before Wal-Mart took over. Sears failed to see the world change. Adapting to change is an incredibly hard thing to do when it comes into conflict with the very thing that caused so much success. As Upton Sinclair aptly pointed out, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Wal-Mart failed to see the world change and is now under assault from Amazon.

If we never learn to take something apart, test the assumptions, and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in what other people tell us — trapped in the way things have always been done. When the environment changes, we just continue as if things were the same.

First-principles reasoning cuts through dogma and removes the blinders. We can see the world as it is and see what is possible.

When it comes down to it, everything that is not a law of nature is just a shared belief. Money is a shared belief. So is a border. So are bitcoins. The list goes on.

Some of us are naturally skeptical of what we’re told. Maybe it doesn’t match up to our experiences. Maybe it’s something that used to be true but isn’t true anymore. And maybe we just think very differently about something.

“To understand is to know what to do.”

— Wittgenstein

Techniques for Establishing First Principles

There are many ways to establish first principles. Let’s take a look at a few of them.

Socratic Questioning

Socratic questioning can be used to establish first principles through stringent analysis. This a disciplined questioning process, used to establish truths, reveal underlying assumptions, and separate knowledge from ignorance. The key distinction between Socratic questioning and normal discussions is that the former seeks to draw out first principles in a systematic manner. Socratic questioning generally follows this process:

  1. Clarifying your thinking and explaining the origins of your ideas (Why do I think this? What exactly do I think?)
  2. Challenging assumptions (How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?)
  3. Looking for evidence (How can I back this up? What are the sources?)
  4. Considering alternative perspectives (What might others think? How do I know I am correct?)
  5. Examining consequences and implications (What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?)
  6. Questioning the original questions (Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from the reasoning process?)

This process stops you from relying on your gut and limits strong emotional responses. This process helps you build something that lasts.

“Because I Said So” or “The Five Whys”

Children instinctively think in first principles. Just like us, they want to understand what’s happening in the world. To do so, they intuitively break through the fog with a game some parents have come to hate.

“Why?”

“Why?”

“Why?”

Here’s an example that has played out numerous times at my house:

“It’s time to brush our teeth and get ready for bed.”

“Why?”

“Because we need to take care of our bodies, and that means we need sleep.”

“Why do we need sleep?”

“Because we’d die if we never slept.”

“Why would that make us die?”

“I don’t know; let’s go look it up.”

Kids are just trying to understand why adults are saying something or why they want them to do something.

The first time your kid plays this game, it’s cute, but for most teachers and parents, it eventually becomes annoying. Then the answer becomes what my mom used to tell me: “Because I said so!” (Love you, Mom.)

Of course, I’m not always that patient with the kids. For example, I get testy when we’re late for school, or we’ve been travelling for 12 hours, or I’m trying to fit too much into the time we have. Still, I try never to say “Because I said so.”

People hate the “because I said so” response for two reasons, both of which play out in the corporate world as well. The first reason we hate the game is that we feel like it slows us down. We know what we want to accomplish, and that response creates unnecessary drag. The second reason we hate this game is that after one or two questions, we are often lost. We actually don’t know why. Confronted with our own ignorance, we resort to self-defense.

I remember being in meetings and asking people why we were doing something this way or why they thought something was true. At first, there was a mild tolerance for this approach. After three “whys,” though, you often find yourself on the other end of some version of “we can take this offline.”

Can you imagine how that would play out with Elon Musk? Richard Feynman? Charlie Munger? Musk would build a billion-dollar business to prove you wrong, Feynman would think you’re an idiot, and Munger would profit based on your inability to think through a problem.

“Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.”

— Carl Sagan

Examples of First Principles in Action

So we can better understand how first-principles reasoning works, let’s look at four examples.

Elon Musk and SpaceX

Perhaps no one embodies first-principles thinking more than Elon Musk. He is one of the most audacious entrepreneurs the world has ever seen. My kids (grades 3 and 2) refer to him as a real-life Tony Stark, thereby conveniently providing a good time for me to remind them that by fourth grade, Musk was reading the Encyclopedia Britannica and not Pokemon.

What’s most interesting about Musk is not what he thinks but how he thinks:

I think people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good. But that’s just a ridiculous way to think. You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.[4]

His approach to understanding reality is to start with what is true — not with his intuition. The problem is that we don’t know as much as we think we do, so our intuition isn’t very good. We trick ourselves into thinking we know what’s possible and what’s not. The way Musk thinks is much different.

Musk starts out with something he wants to achieve, like building a rocket. Then he starts with the first principles of the problem. Running through how Musk would think, Larry Page said in an

interview, “What are the physics of it? How much time will it take? How much will it cost? How much cheaper can I make it? There’s this level of engineering and physics that you need to make judgments about what’s possible and interesting. Elon is unusual in that he knows that, and he also knows business and organization and leadership and governmental issues.”[5]

Rockets are absurdly expensive, which is a problem because Musk wants to send people to Mars. And to send people to Mars, you need cheaper rockets. So he asked himself, “What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. And … what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.”[6]

Why, then, is it so expensive to get a rocket into space? Musk, a notorious self-learner with degrees in both economics and physics, literally taught himself rocket science. He figured that the only reason getting a rocket into space is so expensive is that people are stuck in a mindset that doesn’t hold up to first principles. With that, Musk decided to create SpaceX and see if he could build rockets himself from the ground up.

In an interview with Kevin Rose, Musk summarized his approach:

I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So the normal way we conduct our lives is, we reason by analogy. We are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing… with slight iterations on a theme. And it’s … mentally easier to reason by analogy rather than from first principles. First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world, and what that really means is, you … boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “okay, what are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there. That takes a lot more mental energy.[7]

Musk then gave an example of how Space X uses first principles to innovate at low prices:

Somebody could say — and in fact people do — that battery packs are really expensive and that’s just the way they will always be because that’s the way they have been in the past. … Well, no, that’s pretty dumb… Because if you applied that reasoning to anything new, then you wouldn’t be able to ever get to that new thing…. you can’t say, … “oh, nobody wants a car because horses are great, and we’re used to them and they can eat grass and there’s lots of grass all over the place and … there’s no gasoline that people can buy….”

He then gives a fascinating example about battery packs:

… they would say, “historically, it costs $600 per kilowatt-hour. And so it’s not going to be much better than that in the future. … So the first principles would be, … what are the material constituents of the batteries? What is the spot market value of the material constituents? … It’s got cobalt, nickel, aluminum, carbon, and some polymers for separation, and a steel can. So break that down on a material basis; if we bought that on a London Metal Exchange, what would each of these things cost? Oh, jeez, it’s … $80 per kilowatt-hour. So, clearly, you just need to think of clever ways to take those materials and combine them into the shape of a battery cell, and you can have batteries that are much, much cheaper than anyone realizes.

BuzzFeed

After studying the psychology of virality, Jonah Peretti founded BuzzFeed in 2006. The site quickly grew to be one of the most popular on the internet, with hundreds of employees and substantial revenue.

Peretti figured out early on the first principle of a successful website: wide distribution. Rather than publishing articles people should read, BuzzFeed focuses on publishing those that people want to read. This means aiming to garner maximum social shares to put distribution in the hands of readers.

Peretti recognized the first principles of online popularity and used them to take a new approach to journalism. He also ignored SEO, saying, “Instead of making content robots like, it was more satisfying to make content humans want to share.”[8] Unfortunately for us, we share a lot of cat videos.

A common aphorism in the field of viral marketing is, “content might be king, but distribution is queen, and she wears the pants” (or “and she has the dragons”; pick your metaphor). BuzzFeed’s distribution-based approach is based on obsessive measurement, using A/B testing and analytics.

Jon Steinberg, president of BuzzFeed, explains the first principles of virality:

Keep it short. Ensure [that] the story has a human aspect. Give people the chance to engage. And let them react. People mustn’t feel awkward sharing it. It must feel authentic. Images and lists work. The headline must be persuasive and direct.

Derek Sivers and CD Baby

When Sivers founded his company CD Baby, he reduced the concept down to first principles. Sivers asked, What does a successful business need? His answer was happy customers.

Instead of focusing on garnering investors or having large offices, fancy systems, or huge numbers of staff, Sivers focused on making each of his customers happy. An example of this is his famous order confirmation email, part of which reads:

Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box money can buy.

By ignoring unnecessary details that cause many businesses to expend large amounts of money and time, Sivers was able to rapidly grow the company to $4 million in monthly revenue. In Anything You Want, Sivers wrote:

Having no funding was a huge advantage for me.
A year after I started CD Baby, the dot-com boom happened. Anyone with a little hot air and a vague plan was given millions of dollars by investors. It was ridiculous. …
Even years later, the desks were just planks of wood on cinder blocks from the hardware store. I made the office computers myself from parts. My well-funded friends would spend $100,000 to buy something I made myself for $1,000. They did it saying, “We need the very best,” but it didn’t improve anything for their customers. …
It’s counterintuitive, but the way to grow your business is to focus entirely on your existing customers. Just thrill them, and they’ll tell everyone.

To survive as a business, you need to treat your customers well. And yet so few of us master this principle.

Employing First Principles in Your Daily Life

Most of us have no problem thinking about what we want to achieve in life, at least when we’re young. We’re full of big dreams, big ideas, and boundless energy. The problem is that we let others tell us what’s possible, not only when it comes to our dreams but also when it comes to how we go after them. And when we let other people tell us what’s possible or what the best way to do something is, we outsource our thinking to someone else.

The real power of first-principles thinking is moving away from incremental improvement and into possibility. Letting others think for us means that we’re using their analogies, their conventions, and their possibilities. It means we’ve inherited a world that conforms to what they think. This is incremental thinking.

When we take what already exists and improve on it, we are in the shadow of others. It’s only when we step back, ask ourselves what’s possible, and cut through the flawed analogies that we see what is possible. Analogies are beneficial; they make complex problems easier to communicate and increase understanding. Using them, however, is not without a cost. They limit our beliefs about what’s possible and allow people to argue without ever exposing our (faulty) thinking. Analogies move us to see the problem in the same way that someone else sees the problem.

The gulf between what people currently see because their thinking is framed by someone else and what is physically possible is filled by the people who use first principles to think through problems.

First-principles thinking clears the clutter of what we’ve told ourselves and allows us to rebuild from the ground up. Sure, it’s a lot of work, but that’s why so few people are willing to do it. It’s also why the rewards for filling the chasm between possible and incremental improvement tend to be non-linear.

Let’s take a look at a few of the limiting beliefs that we tell ourselves.

“I don’t have a good memory.” [10]
People have far better memories than they think they do. Saying you don’t have a good memory is just a convenient excuse to let you forget. Taking a first-principles approach means asking how much information we can physically store in our minds. The answer is “a lot more than you think.” Now that we know it’s possible to put more into our brains, we can reframe the problem into finding the most optimal way to store information in our brains.

“There is too much information out there.”
A lot of professional investors read Farnam Street. When I meet these people and ask how they consume information, they usually fall into one of two categories. The differences between the two apply to all of us. The first type of investor says there is too much information to consume. They spend their days reading every press release, article, and blogger commenting on a position they hold. They wonder what they are missing. The second type of investor realizes that reading everything is unsustainable and stressful and makes them prone to overvaluing information they’ve spent a great amount of time consuming. These investors, instead, seek to understand the variables that will affect their investments. While there might be hundreds, there are usually three to five variables that will really move the needle. The investors don’t have to read everything; they just pay attention to these variables.

“All the good ideas are taken.”
A common way that people limit what’s possible is to tell themselves that all the good ideas are taken. Yet, people have been saying this for hundreds of years — literally — and companies keep starting and competing with different ideas, variations, and strategies.

“We need to move first.”
I’ve heard this in boardrooms for years. The answer isn’t as black and white as this statement. The iPhone wasn’t first, it was better. Microsoft wasn’t the first to sell operating systems; it just had a better business model. There is a lot of evidence showing that first movers in business are more likely to fail than latecomers. Yet this myth about the need to move first continues to exist.

Sometimes the early bird gets the worm and sometimes the first mouse gets killed. You have to break each situation down into its component parts and see what’s possible. That is the work of first-principles thinking.

“I can’t do that; it’s never been done before.”
People like Elon Musk are constantly doing things that have never been done before. This type of thinking is analogous to looking back at history and building, say, floodwalls, based on the worst flood that has happened before. A better bet is to look at what could happen and plan for that.

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

— Harrington Emerson

Conclusion

The thoughts of others imprison us if we’re not thinking for ourselves.

Reasoning from first principles allows us to step outside of history and conventional wisdom and see what is possible. When you really understand the principles at work, you can decide if the existing methods make sense. Often they don’t.

Reasoning by first principles is useful when you are (1) doing something for the first time, (2) dealing with complexity, and (3) trying to understand a situation that you’re having problems with. In all of these areas, your thinking gets better when you stop making assumptions and you stop letting others frame the problem for you.

Analogies can’t replace understanding. While it’s easier on your brain to reason by analogy, you’re more likely to come up with better answers when you reason by first principles. This is what makes it one of the best sources of creative thinking. Thinking in first principles allows you to adapt to a changing environment, deal with reality, and seize opportunities that others can’t see.

Many people mistakenly believe that creativity is something that only some of us are born with, and either we have it or we don’t. Fortunately, there seems to be ample evidence that this isn’t true.[11] We’re all born rather creative, but during our formative years, it can be beaten out of us by busy parents and teachers. As adults, we rely on convention and what we’re told because that’s easier than breaking things down into first principles and thinking for ourselves. Thinking through first principles is a way of taking off the blinders. Most things suddenly seem more possible.

“I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can,” says Musk. “They sell themselves short without trying. One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e., the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.

End Notes

[1] Aristotle, Physics 184a10–21

[2] Aristotle, Metaphysics 1013a14-15

[3] https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

[4] Elon Musk, quoted by Tim Urban in “The Cook and the Chef: Musk’s Secret Sauce,” Wait But Why https://waitbutwhy.com/2015/11/the-cook-and-the-chef-musks-secret-sauce.html

[5] Vance, Ashlee. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (p. 354)

[6] https://www.wired.com/2012/10/ff-elon-musk-qa/all/

[7] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-s_3b5fRd8

[8] David Rowan, “How BuzzFeed mastered social sharing to become a media giant for a new era,” Wired.com. 2 January 2014. https://www.wired.co.uk/article/buzzfeed

[9] https://www.quora.com/What-does-Elon-Musk-mean-when-he-said-I-think-it%E2%80%99s-important-to-reason-from-first-principles-rather-than-by-analogy/answer/Bruce-Achterberg

[10] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/new-estimate-boosts-the-human-brain-s-memory-capacity-10-fold/

[11] Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today, George Land

[12] https://www.reddit.com/r/IAmA/comments/2rgsan/i_am_elon_musk_ceocto_of_a_rocket_company_ama/cnfre0a/

Break the Chain: Stop Being a Slave

A vendor once tried to buy me a laptop. Not just any laptop but a very expensive laptop. The vendor claimed that there were no strings attached. And, as they pointed out, I was the only person in the meeting with them, so “no one would know” they had given it to me.

It wasn’t a hard decision. I said no.

It wasn’t because I didn’t need a laptop. In fact, I did need one. The laptop I was using was old and out of date. I had purchased it myself years ago in a fit of frustration at the ridiculous process the government wanted me to follow to obtain one from them.

“No price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”

— Nietzsche

Governments have clear conflict-of-interest rules for people in situations like this one. The rules, however, are impractical. They’re also expensive. I remember one dinner with a vendor that ended up costing me hundreds of dollars personally. I made a mistake: I went to wash my hands around the time the vendor picked out some wine. I came back to see a glass of wine poured for me. When the bill came, the vendor insisted on paying it. Damaging our relationship and embarrassing him, I refused and said, “That’s very generous of you, but the government is clear; I’ve got to pay my share.”

My share? Over $200. I hadn’t picked the restaurant or the wine. When I returned to work a few days later and submitted a claim for the difference between my per diem and the meal, I was literally laughed at.

But the real reason I said no to the laptop was that I don’t want to be owned by other people. Even if my freedom personally costs me money. However well-meaning the laptop offer might have been, I would have felt a debt to the vendor who’d given it to me. A debt that would need to be paid at some point. That debt would have created a bond between us that I didn’t want.

We need to make our own way, and there is a slippery slope between accepting the generosity of people who help you along and getting dependent on them. The entitlement born from expecting others to help you is a recipe for misery. So is excessive dependence on others.

The lesson is never to anticipate or rely on the kindness of strangers. This dependence means they own you. If you have a mortgage, you don’t own your house; the bank does.

Working for the government taught me a lot about ownership — specifically, about dependence on other people. People refused to say what they really thought, subconsciously abiding by the maxim “whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”

When people would approach me and tell me how miserable they were and how they hated their jobs, I would ask them why they didn’t leave. The answer was almost always the same: “I can’t.”

Once we’re bought, it’s hard to get out. While we all start out wanting more independence, we increasingly live lifestyles that make us dependent.

When I first started working in the government, I made just under $40k a year in salary. For me, just out of university, that was a killing. I felt like I could do whatever I wanted. After a while, I was making more money but still living off the same starting salary. The additional money went to savings and debt repayment. I said no to living above my means and watched as most of my friends couldn’t say no.

A lot of them spent more than they made no matter how many promotions they received. Appetites for desires are rarely quenched. As people spent more, they got more into debt. As they got more into debt, they wanted more and more. As their wants exceeded even the debt-funded shopping sprees (cars, trucks, houses, swimming pools, campers, play structures for the kids, etc.), they got unhappier. They saw other people with things they wanted. Things they felt like they deserved. Their relationships suffered. They became miserable. They hated their jobs but they were stuck. The bank owned them. Work owned them.

And they realized it too late.

Part of the reason for the laptop offer was likely that vendor expected to have preferred access to me and to the government. Prefered access to information that could potentially benefit his company, to the tune of millions or tens of millions of dollars. Had I accepted the offer, it would have been hard to deny him. I saw the strings and didn’t want any part of them.

Amelia Boone, the Michael Jordan of adventure racing, said, “I believe the key to self-sufficiency is breaking free of the mindset that someone, somewhere, owes you something and will come to your rescue.”

The bank doesn’t owe you a mortgage, just as work doesn’t owe you a job.

“Self-sufficiency,” wrote Epicurus, “is the greatest of all wealth.” Epictetus added that “wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.”

It can be hard to say no. It means refusing someone, and often it means denying yourself instant gratification. The rewards of doing this are uncertain and less tangible. I call decisions like this “first-order negative, second-order positive.” Most people don’t take the time to think through the second-order effects of their choices. If they did, they’d realize that freedom comes from the ability to say no.

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.

So Two Stoics Walk Into a Bar…

The first thing he ordered was OJ with a splash of vodka. When people come to the FS bar the first thing they did was order a drink so this didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But looking closely … this was no ordinary man.

Why was Seneca ordering a drink at the FS Bar? And who was that next to him? Is that Epictetus? It’s clear this was going to be no ordinary night at the FS bar.

It’s time to get to work.

***

(What follows is our imagined dialogue between Epictetus and Seneca, two essential contributors to Stoic thought, at the FS bar, presided over by an intellectually curious bartender, Kit.

Imagine: There is a slight breeze as the door opens. In walk Seneca and Epictetus. They are both dressed decently, but plainly. After taking a moment to adjust to the light, they each take a seat at the FS bar.)

***

Kit: Evening Gentlemen. What can I get you?

Epictetus: I’ll have an orange juice with a little vodka. Get my friend here a hemlock tea.

Seneca: Very humorous. I’ll have the same, please.

Kit: No problem. (She begins to mix the drinks)

Seneca turns to Epictetus, obviously continuing a conversation they had started earlier.

Seneca: I’m not sure I agree with you. Relationships don’t automatically interfere with our ability to be content. If you find someone who has the same approach to life as you, then it’s possible to share your life with them.

Epictetus: Ah, that makes me nervous. Other people, their decisions, their actions, are outside of our control. If we can’t walk away from relationships then we’re relying on things that we have no control over. And it’s impossible to be content like that.

Seneca: But surely a life without emotional attachment is not the kind of life that will provide contentment?

Epictetus: Why not?

(Seneca pauses to think about this.)

Seneca: It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life. Every individual can make himself happy. That implies that feeling something positive is the goal.

Epictetus: Yes, but happiness comes when you can generate it yourself. Like you said, everyone is born with the tools to make himself happy. You don’t need anything else in this world to achieve it. Money, stuff, or relationships.

Seneca: I guess the question then, is can you have something without needing it? Can you enjoy something without relying on it?

(pause while they both consider this)

Kit: And how are the screwdrivers Gentlemen?

Seneca: Exactly as they should be. Thank you.

Epictetus: You probably think our conversation isn’t very appropriate for a bar.

Kit: (smiles) Everything is appropriate for a bar. It’s a good place to work out your thoughts.

Seneca: What do you think? About my friend’s point that we should form no real attachments to anyone. Spouses. Children. Because we can never be truly content relying on anything outside of our control.

Kit: It sounds pretty impossible. If you didn’t care about anyone, why would you even bother getting married or having kids? What would be the point?

Seneca: Exactly! I think that relationships can play a crucial role in being content with your life. The goal is not to avoid feeling because it can cause pain, but accept that pain will inevitably come, and learn to deal with it with equanimity. And if you have a close relationship with someone who’s similar, you can find contentment with each other. It’s about enjoying relationships without becoming attached to them.

Epictetus: No, no. Denial is better than moderation. Wanting nothing means no one has power over you. As soon as you want a spouse, you compromise your ability to control your life.

Seneca: As soon as you desire anything, you compromise. But what if it’s not about wanting a spouse. Or children. What if it’s just about doing it if the opportunity presents itself, and then it becomes about loving the ones you have.

Kit: (who has continued to listen to their conversation due to a lack of other patrons) I think it would be really hard to not want your children to grow up and have great lives.

Epictetus: It’s not ‘wanting’ or ‘not wanting’. It’s not feeling anything at all beyond what you can control.

Kit: Is that even possible?

Epictetus: (shrugs) It’s something to work towards. (Sees Kit’s skeptical expression) Look, if you go buy a chocolate bar, it costs you a dollar. If you don’t buy it, you don’t have the chocolate bar, but you still have the dollar. You can’t both get something and not pay for it. It’s the same with relationships. You can’t derive benefit from them without it costing you to some degree. And if you don’t invest yourself in them, you’ll still have that effort available for yourself.

Seneca: I disagree. I think it is possible to love. You just can’t let yourself be controlled by it. It is desires that blind us to the truth. The wanting, not the being. You can and should love your children. But you must also be mindful of the precariousness of life, and not be amazed or devastated by the things that happen to them. A lot of bad shit happens in life, to us and the ones we love. The problem is that we are always surprised by it.

Epictetus: Ah, so when a little wine is stolen, don’t get upset. It’s the price you pay for tranquility.

Seneca: Right.

Kit: So, you just have to accept that your husband will leave you, and your children will die, that way when it happens you will just be like ‘oh, okay’?

Seneca: (shakes his head) Not quite. It’s more knowing that they could. See, it might not ever happen, but then again, it might. And if you start off accepting that fortune, or fate, or however you understand the world, brings both good and bad, then you will be able to still find contentment no matter what life throws at you.

Kit: Hmm. And does it work for you?

Seneca: (laughs) Sometimes.

Epictetus: I think it’s about trying to be one step removed from what’s happening. If you can recognize, for instance, that it’s not people who are irritating, but your judgment about their behavior that is irritating, then you create a space where you can change how you feel without needing anyone else to change.

Seneca: Yes. The more understanding and acceptance you have of the reality of living, the less you are impacted when circumstances knock you down.

Kit: Well, that I can get behind. Another drink?

The Terror of Totalitarianism Explained

We all hope totalitarianism — a form of government in which the state has no limits in authority and does whatever it wants — is a thing of the past.

Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia showed what the end of humanity would look like, and it terrified us. But it’s important to understand that totalitarianism didn’t just spring up out of a mystical vacuum. As Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, it is, rather, just one possibility along a path that most countries are on at one time or another. And that is why it is so important to understand what it is.

The People

One of the most disturbing things about Nazism in Germany is how quickly the country changed. They went from democracy to concentration camps in fewer than ten years.

Most of us assume that the Germans of the time were different from us — we’d never fall for the kind of propaganda that Hitler spewed. And our democracy is too strong to be so easily dismantled. Right?

Wrong.

Arendt writes that “the success of totalitarian movements … meant the end of two illusions of democratically ruled countries….” One illusion was that most citizens were politically active and were part of a political party. However,

… the [totalitarian] movements showed that the politically neutral and indifferent masses could easily be the majority in a democratically ruled country, [and] that therefore a democracy could function according to rules which are actively recognized by only a minority. The second democratic illusion exploded by the totalitarian movements was that these politically indifferent masses did not matter, that they were truly neutral and constituted no more than the inarticulate backward setting for the political life of the nation.

In many modern democracies, we can see evidence of indifference and pervasive feelings of helplessness. There is low voter turnout and an assumption that things will be the way they are no matter what an individual does.

There is pent-up energy in apathy. Arendt suggests that the desire to be more than indifferent is what totalitarian movements initially manipulate until the individual is totally subsumed.

The disturbing factor in the success of totalitarianism is … the true selflessness of its adherents: it may be understandable that a Nazi or Bolshevik will not be shaken in his conviction by crimes against people who do not belong to the movement…; but the amazing fact is that neither is he likely to waver when the monster begins to devour its own children and not even if he becomes a victim of persecution himself….

How does totalitarianism incite this kind of fanaticism? How does a political organization “succeed in extinguishing individual identity permanently and not just for the moment of collective heroic action”?

As Arendt demonstrates, both Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia capitalized on tensions already present in society. There was essentially a massive rejection of the existing political system as ineffectual and self-serving.

The fall of protecting class walls transformed the slumbering majorities behind all parties into one great unorganized, structureless mass of furious individuals who had nothing in common except their vague apprehension that the hopes of party members were doomed, that, consequently, the most respected, articulate and representative members of the community were fools and that all the powers that be were not so much evil as they were equally stupid and fraudulent.

How does a totalitarian government harness this attitude of the masses? By completely isolating individuals through random “liquidating” (mass murder) so that “the most elementary caution demands that one avoid all intimate contacts, if possible – not in order to prevent discovery of one’s secret thoughts, but rather to eliminate, in the almost certain case of future trouble, all persons who might have not only an ordinary cheap interest in your denunciation but an irresistible need to bring about your ruin simply because they are in danger [in] their own lives.”

It’s important to understand that it is simple to isolate people who already feel isolated. When you feel disconnected from the system around you and the leaders it has, when you believe that neither your vote nor your opinion matters, it’s not a huge leap to feel that your very self has no importance. This feeling is what totalitarianism figured out how to manipulate by random terror that severed any form of connection with other human beings.

Totalitarianism “demand[s] total, unrestricted, unconditional, and unalterable loyalty of the individual member. … Such loyalty can be expected only from the completely isolated human being who, without any other social ties to family, friends, comrades, or even mere acquaintances, derives his sense of having a place in the world only from his belonging to a movement.”

The Politics and Propaganda

Totalitarianism does not have an end goal in the usual political sense. Its only real goal is to perpetuate its own existence. There is no one party line that, if you stick to it, will save you from persecution. Remember the random mass murders. Stalin repeatedly purged whole sections of his government — just because. The fear is a requirement. The fear is what keeps the movement going.

And how do they get there? How do they get this power?

Arendt argues that there is a “possibility that gigantic lies and monstrous falsehoods can eventually be established as unquestioned facts, that man may be free to change his own past at will, and that the difference between truth and falsehood may cease to be objective and become a mere matter of power and cleverness, of pressure and infinite repetition.”

This battle with truth is something we see today. Opinions are being given the same weight as facts, leading to endless debates and the assumption that nothing can be known anyway.

It is this turning away from knowledge that opens the doors to totalitarianism. “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”

These fabrications form the basis of the propaganda, with different messages crafted for different audiences. Arendt makes the point that “the necessities for propaganda are always dictated by the outside world and that the movements themselves do not actually propagate but indoctrinate.” Thus, propaganda can be understood as directed to those who are out of the control of the totalitarian movement, and it is used to convince them of its legitimacy. Then, once you are on the inside, it’s about breaking down the individuality of the citizens until there is nothing but a “subdued population.”

The success of the propaganda directed internally demonstrated that “the audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”

The Power

What does totalitarian rule look like? These states are not run by cliques or gangs. There is no protected group getting rich from this control of the masses. And no one is outside the message. For example, “Stalin … shot almost everybody who could claim to belong to the ruling clique and … moved the members of the Politburo back and forth whenever a clique was on the point of consolidating itself.”

Why no clique? One reason is that the goal of totalitarianism is not the welfare of the state. It is not economic prosperity or social advancement.

The reason why the ingenious devices of totalitarian rule, with their absolute and unsurpassed concentration of power in the hands of a single man, were never tried before is that no ordinary tyrant was ever mad enough to discard all limited and local interests — economic, national, human, military — in favor of a purely fictitious reality in some indefinite distant future.

Since independent thinkers are a threat, they are among the first to be purged. Bureaucratic functions are duplicated and layered, with people being shifted all the time.

This regular violent turnover of the whole gigantic administrative machine, while it prevents the development of competence, has many advantages: it assures the relative youth of officials and prevents a stabilization of conditions which, at least in time of peace, are fraught with danger for totalitarian rule….

Any chances of discontent and questioning of the status quo are eliminated by this perpetual rising of the newly indoctrinated.

The humiliation implicit in owing a job to the unjust elimination of one’s predecessor has the same demoralizing effect that the elimination of the Jews had upon the German professions: it makes every jobholder a conscious accomplice in the crimes of the government….

Totalitarianism in power is about keeping itself in power. By preemptively removing large groups of people, the system neutralizes all those who might question it.

Possibly the one ray of hope in these systems is that because they pay no attention to actually governing, they are not likely to be sustainable in the long run.

The incredibility of the horrors is closely bound up with their economic uselessness. The Nazis carried this uselessness to the point of open anti-utility when in the midst of the war, despite the shortage of building material and rolling stock, they set up enormous, costly extermination factories and transported millions of people back and forth. In the eyes of a strictly utilitarian world the obvious contradiction between these acts and military expediency gave the whole enterprise an air of mad unreality.

But in the meantime, what these regimes create is so devastating to humanity that it would be naive to assume that humanity will always bounce back. “They have corrupted all human solidarity. Here the night has fallen on the future. When no witnesses are left, there can be no testimony.”

Even though totalitarianism doesn’t produce countries with a variety of strengths and a robustness to fight off significant challenges, they should not be easily dismissed. The carnage they create tears apart all social fabric. And we must not assume that they exist only in the past. Thus, from Hannah Arendt, a final word of caution: “Totalitarian solutions may well survive the fall of totalitarian regimes in the form of strong temptations which will come up whenever it seems impossible to alleviate political, social, or economic misery in a manner worthy of man.”

***

Members can discuss this on the Learning Community Forum.