Category: Learning

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 2

In Part 1 of our series on the best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes, we covered Roger Fisher’s four-part framework on Principled Negotiation — his “way out” of highly contentious negotiation. To review, the four parts were as follows:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Objective Criteria

Habitual use of these four criteria is a way to build, or at least not destroy, win-win relationships in the process of negotiation. The truth is we all must negotiate from time to time. Refusing to negotiate is a strategy in and of itself — and usually a pretty bad one relative to the alternatives.

Fisher’s framework brings up some obvious follow-on questions: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they refuse to play by your rules? What if they play dirty?

Let’s check out a few.

(Don’t want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Negotiate Fairly

What if they are more Powerful?

We’re all afraid of being taken advantage of in a negotiation. Our tendency to demand fairness is a big part of it, as is our tendency to try to minimize future regret. In a negotiation with a more “powerful” part, it would seem at times like our only play is to make a stand — demand that they meet us or we will not negotiate. That turns out to be a bad play sometimes, and completely unnecessary at other times.

To combat this, Roger Fisher introduced a concept that a lot of people know the name of but not how to use: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. He addresses the basic problem of powerlessness first:

In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives: first, to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second, to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interest as well as possible.

The common tactics are to either cave very easily, thus ending the negotiation and any possible bitterness, or to set a “bottom line” and walk away if it’s not met. They’re both weak responses: The “softie” tactic almost assures you’ll take a deal that’s not in your best interest, while the “bottom line” mentality makes you rigid, unable to learn and adapt during the negotiation process and probably too focused on one single variable at the expense of other ones. (Lack of creativity.)

The better approach to understand your BATNABest Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s simple to understand in the context of a job offer negotiation: If you lose this negotiation, what alternatives do you have? If you set your “bottom line” too high and you lose, are you on the street? Or, do you have a great second or third option to go to?

While the BATNA acronym is useful and explanatory, it’s really just a dressed-up version of the elementary concept we call opportunity cost, which is constantly at play in life. Realizing that opportunity cost is a “superpower” in negotiation, we can derive the following:

  1. He with the best opportunity cost holds the power. Let’s say you’re negotiating with a large car dealership over the price of a new sedan. Who holds the power? On the surface it might look like the dealer does, given their stature in power. But if you have three dealerships in a 30-mile radius which can sell you the same car, the power is yours, not the dealer’s. When you enter into negotiation, you can almost always afford to lose and go down the street to another dealership, find a different type of car to buy, change your mind and go used, or even keep your current car longer. (That’s one reason why the car business is such a tough one.) Point being, size does not = power. Opportunity cost = power.
  2. Developing alternative opportunities is the way to gain power. If you’re afraid you’re entering into a job negotiation with no power, your best bet probably isn’t to play hardball, it’s to develop other job offers, or even figure out if you can afford to start your own business. Once you can afford to walk away, the power shifts at least slightly. Raise your opportunity cost bar to shift the odds and make the negotiation a little more fair.
  3. Think about their opportunity cost as much as your own. Can they afford to lose? If not, you probably have more power than you think.
  4. If they win the opportunity cost battle, argue on merit. Roger Fisher makes this final point well: To the extent that they have muscle and you have principle, the larger a role you can establish for principle, the better off you are. If your opportunity costs are weak, you must resort to making it clear that the house is objectively worth X, that you deserve to be paid Y, or that a drawn-out fight will only ruin your relationship. This goes back to insisting on objective criteria.

What if they Won’t Play?

A problem arises if you aren’t successful in shifting the negotiation to objective criteria or creating win-wins. Sometimes the other side simply takes a position and stubbornly (often irrationally) holds their ground. What then? There are two approaches.

The first tactic Fisher argues for is Negotiation Jujitsu. In other words, using their own forcefulness against them. Not playing their game. It’s nuanced and we won’t try to cover it all here — the book does it well. But the salient point is that you can’t react emotionally to forceful negotiation. Let them criticize, let them attack if they must. But your job is to keep asking objective questions. “You say you won’t accept less than $2,000 — where do you get that figure from? What makes you say that this is a fair number?” Keep things in the realm of objectivity and don’t get them further entrenched by “attacking back.”

Another part of the jujitsu is to explain to them the consequences of adopting an extreme position. Ask them, hypothetically, what would happen if things went the way they preferred. Fisher gives the example of an Arab-Israeli negotiation where an American was able to get the Arab contingent to understand that if the Israelis gave in entirely, their people would castigate them back home. It was enough to end that line of negotiation.

The last jujitsu tactic is to take criticism unusually well — not allowing the discussion to get personal, even if the other side wants to make it so. I understand you don’t want to be taken advantage of, neither do I — can you explain how your proposal is fair to me as well as you? Can you explain how my position could be altered to be more fair? What would you do if you were in my position? Soliciting an adversary for advice can be disarming if used wisely. All it takes is tamping down your ego. Good lines of inquiry don’t criticize, they probe and try to be helpful. And when you do so, simply pausing and letting the other side talk themselves into or out of a corner can work as well. Use silence to your advantage if you’re making sense and they’re reacting emotionally.

***

The second approach is to use a third-party to mediate. Have them draft up a solution as impartially as possible, with both parties giving input, and the final decision being a mere “yes” or “no” by each party. This can simplify and de-personalize the process.

If you cannot change the process to one of seeking a solution on its merits, perhaps a third party can. More easily than one of those directly involved, a mediator can separate the people from the problem and direct the discussion to interests and options. Further, he or she can often suggest some impartial basis for resolving differences. A third party can also separate inventing from decision-making, reduce the number of decisions required to reach agreement, and help the sprites know what they will get when they do decide. One process designed to enable a third party to do all this is known as the one-text procedure.

The essence of that procedure is to have a draft drawn up that best satisfies both sides impartially and without pre-commitment. The final decision for each party is a simple “yes” or “no” to the draft solution. You can do it yourself, asking for opinions and revisions as you go along, or have a third party take it on. In either case, you’re trying to change the game rather than fight a losing battle.

What if they Play Dirty?

A tricky tactic is defined as one that fails the test of reciprocity — they are designed to benefit one side only, and most often, the other side is not supposed to know they’re being used . Some of the most common dirty tactics include: Using phony facts, introducing phony authority, hiding dubious intentions, psychological manipulation, refusal to negotiate, and good-cop, bad-cop type routines. There are too many to enumerate, but the basic answer to all of them will be to refer back to the four central ideas of principle negotiation. You need to point out and negotiate the rules of the game itself when you suspect you’re becoming a victim of “tricky tactics” which you’re not supposed to know about.

There are three steps in negotiating the rules of the negotiating game where the other side seems to be using a tricky tactic: recognize the tactic, raise the issue explicitly, and question the tactics’s legitimacy and desirability — negotiate over it.

You have to know what is going on to be able to do something about it. Learn to spot particular ploys that indicate deception, those designed to make you uncomfortable, and those which lock the other side into their position. Often just recognizing a tactic will neutralize it. Realizing, for example, that the other side is attacking you personally in order to impair your judgment may well frustrate the effort.

The book has some great examples of dirty tactics in play, which are good to refer to. Another book to pick up some of these ploys is Cialdini’s Influence, one of the great books written to protect people against manipulation. However you learn them, it’s good to learn them well. Once you can see that it’s happening, you need to gently, non-threateningly, point out what’s going on and ask to return to principles, or to excuse yourself momentarily. These things serve to defuse an embarrassing situation. And never forget that the best defense in most cases is a worthy set of alternative opportunities, what Fisher calls the BATNA. These give you the ability to walk away if you feel yourself being manipulated with no recourse.

***

Negotiating is difficult. It’s a part of life that some people enjoy and some do not, leading to outcomes in the vein of the old saying Don’t ever wrestle with a pig — you’ll both get dirty but the pig will like it. Strong-willed negotiators have a natural advantage over those of us more averse to confrontation, and yet if we push back, stalemate is a usual result. Adopting the Principled Negotiation approach, rooted deeply in human nature, seems to give us the best chance of getting fair results for all involved.

Still Interested? Check out Fisher’s bestselling book, read Part 1 of our two-part series, or check out our post on Fisher’s approach to giving better feedback in the workplace.

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 1

“Peace is not a piece of paper,
but a way of dealing with conflict when it arises.”

— Roger Fisher

***

(Don’t want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Why are most negotiations so awful? Why do we go into them ready to defend our turf to the death, only to find that our opponent is doing the same? Roger Fisher argues that this is a natural outcome, but one that we need to learn to avoid if we’re going to get things done and maintain good relationships in life. His bestseller Getting to Yes shows the way.

gettingtoyes
Fisher graduated from the Harvard Law School in 1948, in the same class as Charlie Munger, and by 1958 he was a full-time professor. Over a long career specializing in high-stakes negotiation, Fisher played a role in the outcome of the Camp David Accords, the 1979 hostage crisis in Iran, and the apartheid negotiations in South Africa, among other events. He operated at the highest level. (We’ve covered his ideas on giving better feedback before.)

In 1981, Fisher released his magnum opus, Getting to Yes, a short treatise on negotiating in a different way. Fisher recognized that the contentious, heels-dug-in style of most negotiators failed because it either failed to get results, or if it did, destroyed a relationship in the process. He asked the simple question: If being a hard-ass is one style and being a softie is another, is there a third, better style?

Yes there is, and Fisher called it Principled Negotiation. While most businesspeople are now aware of the term Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement, and most are familiar with the phrase Hard on the issues, soft on the people, very few know that Fisher introduced those concepts in his bestselling book, and even fewer have actually read and applied what he had to teach.

So, how do we negotiate better?

An Intro to Principled Negotiation

How does principled negotiation differ from the traditional kind? It’s an attempt to create a win-win in a situation that doesn’t obviously offer one. And as we know, of the four kinds of possible relationships, win-win is the only sustainable one over time. That’s why we want to learn Fisher’s approach. Here’s how he describes it:

There is a third way to negotiate, a way neither hard nor soft, but rather hard and soft. The method of principled negotiation developed at the Harvard Negotiation Project is to decide issues on their merits rather than through a haggling process focused on what each side says it will and won’t do. It suggests that you look for mutual gains whenever possible, and that where your interests conflict, you should insist that the result be based on some fair standards independent of the will of either side. The method of principled negotiation shows you how to obtain what you are entitled to and still be decent. It enables you to be fair while protecting you against those who would take advantage of your fairness.

The most wonderful part of Fisher’s ideas on negotiation is that they don’t require any secrecy. In fact, Fisher thinks it’s just the opposite, saying that Unlike almost all other strategies, if the other side learns this one, it does not become more difficult to use; it becomes easier. If they read this book, all the better. That’s our kind of strategy.

Step One: Separate the People from the Problem

Early in the book, Fisher lays out the goal of better negotiation with three criteria.

Any method of negotiation may be fairly judged by three criteria: It should produce a wise agreement if agreement is possible. It should be efficient. And it should improve or at least not damage the relationship between the parties. (A wise agreement can be defined as one that meets the legitimate interests of each side to the extent possible, resolves conflicting interests fairly, is durable, and take community interests into account.)

The first step of the process is to separate the people from the problem. Fisher’s method of depersonalizing in negotiation is the same method he advises to give better feedback. Why? Because it works! People are emotional creatures — you and I included. In order to deal with each other fairly, we must do our best to move from personal attack into the realm of reason and merit, even when our every fiber is telling us to attack. If we don’t, we miss a chance to build the exact sort of win-win relationship we’d love to have. We fail to understand people.

This human aspect of negotiation can be either helpful or disastrous. The process of working out an agreement may produce a psychological commitment to a mutually satisfactory outcome. A working relationship where trust, understanding, respect, and friendship are built up over time can make each new negotiation smoother and more efficient. And people’s desire to feel good about themselves, and their concern for what others will think of them, can often make them more sensitive to another negotiator’s interests.

On the other hand, people get angry, depressed, fearful, hostile, frustrated, and offended. They have egos that are easily threatened. They see the world from their own personal vantage point, and they frequently confuse their perceptions with reality. Routinely, they fail to interpret what you say in the way you intend and do not mean what you understand them to say. Misunderstanding can reinforce prejudice and lead to reactions that produce counteractions in a vicious circle; rational exploration of possible solutions becomes impossible and a negotiation fails. The purpose of the game becomes scoring points, confirming negative impressions, and apportioning blame at the expense of the substantive interest of both parties.

It’s important to understand the point: There are major transmission errors in a negotiating process. What’s heard is frequently not what’s said or intended. And once a negative feedback loop has been initiated, it can be very hard to pull out. A certain critical mass of bad blood ends the negotiation. This doesn’t have to happen — one thing that separates us from lesser animals is the ability to resist our baser instincts when we know it’s a bad idea, and negotiation is an arena where we’d be wise to learn how to do so.

***

There are three areas to manage: Perception, Emotion, and Communication. Our biggest problem with perception seems to be successfully putting ourselves in the shoes of our adversary, or even seeing them as an adversary to start with. It’s almost impossible to influence somebody who you don’t empathetically understand, except through brute force — something we’re clearly not after. To be clear, just because you understand someone’s position doesn’t mean you agree with it. You may well change your mind, but even without that it allows you to consider the problem on its merits.

The emotional side is fairly simple: How do you feel during a negotiation and how does the other side feel? Fisher makes a great point in the book that we don’t need to be afraid to make our own emotions or theirs explicitI feel like you have not been fair with me thus far, and in order for us to make progress, we will need to establish mutual fairness as a goal. Otherwise, I think we will run into a stalemate.

The communication problem isn’t hard for anyone in a relationship to understand. When we’re in a contentious negotiation, both sides feel like they’re not being heard. Solving that problem requires deep listening skills and as with the perception issue, requires us to understand the person on the other side of the table at their level, not at ours. This feels impossible and unnatural, but it works. Think of the last time you felt someone truly understood and empathized with you. Did you feel contentious towards them?

In the end, the environment we want to create is that of two people sitting next to each other, trying to solve a problem together. Even if you don’t have a great relationship with the other party, or any relationship at all, it helps to make the other person feel like you’re in it together. Which brings us to the next point.

Focus on Interests, Not Positions

This is the simplest and probably the most important aspect on principled negotiation: What do I really want? And what does the other guy really want? It’s the difference between saying you want an open window when what you really want is fresh air.

It’s not always as clear as it seems. Let’s take the case of a couple arguing over who’s going to do the dishes. Both people, in the moment, start to feel like it’s really about the damn dishes. But when we step back, we realize it’s probably more about fairness — we want to feel like both parties are chipping in. A sense of fairness is a deeply held human need. And thus, if we focus on creating fairness and using the elementary idea of leading by going first, then we can end the negotiation fairly. (I’ll do the dishes tonight and then we’ll trade every night, sound good?)

It’s this basic method of figuring out what you want and what they want, and satisfying each, that leads us to win-win style outcomes. Viewing a negotiation as something to be “won” is the best way to lose.

Reconciling interests rather than positions works for two reasons. First, for every interest there usually exist several possible positions that could satisfy it. All too often people simply adopt the most obvious position, as Israel did, for example, in announcing that they intended to keep part of the Sinai. When you do look behind opposed positions for the motivating interest, you can often find an alternative position which meets not only our interests but theirs as well.

At the end of the day, all humans have the same basic needs like food, shelter, well-being, belonging, respect, and autonomy. Never violate these in a negotiation.

Invent Options for Mutual Gain

The key here is that we avoid being rigid in our solutions, and if we’ve taken the prior step seriously by focusing on interests, we can start getting creative with our problem-solving.

Let’s imagine you’re renting an apartment. It’s easy to think that you and the landlord are at odds — you want to pay the least amount of money and they want you to pay the most amount of money over the period of the rental. But that’s the wrong way to consider the problem. What you really want is to pay a fair price for a clean and well-maintained living space that you won’t get kicked out of. What the landlord wants is steady rent from a respectful tenant who won’t trash the place and is easy to deal with. Actually, most of your interests probably overlap. If you start any negotiation with that in mind, you’ll find it easier to get along.

Let’s say you’re at odds regarding who pays for repairs: Agreeing to share the cost of repairs as long as they’re completed promptly is where overlapping interests and incentives might create an agreement that could have been contentious. Outline the split, define what promptly means, and you have a settled point. If you were rigid about the problem — I refuse to pay for repairs! — you’d have lost.

Fisher lays out four pretty good reasons we fail to do this:

In most negotiations there are four obstacles that inhibit the inventing of an abundance of options: (1) Premature judgment; (2) searching for the single answer; (3) the assumption of a fixed pie; and (4) thinking that “solving their problem is their problem”.

Any negotiation can get pretty complex when all relevant interests are brought to the table, but the principle to heed is pretty simple: Where do our interests overlap, and where do they not? In the cases where they don’t, what is a mutually satisfying solution? This takes some creative thinking, of course. Rigidity doesn’t work. But if you realize that the car salesman is trying to make a living and wants a quick sale, and you want a good car at a low price, it’s not impossible to mutually satisfy those goals or exit the negotiation if they can’t both be met. The “combat of negotiation” is only in our minds.

This doesn’t mean you’d want to fold to end the negotiation without argument, or to give in. That’s the “softie” style of negotiation. You should have your needs fairly satisfied. But you don’t need to do so at the expense of the other party if it can at all be avoided. Win-lose will eventually haunt you, whether you realize it or not.

Insist on Using Objective Criteria

What is fair? Sometimes in the process of trying to satisfy mutual interests we hit a roadblock in determining just what fair actually means. If two parties can’t agree here, it’s hard to create a win-win solution that maintains and builds the relationship. The usual way is to have a contest of wills. It’s worth $50. No, it’s worth $75! No, $50! And so on.

To solve this, Fisher insists on finding objective criteria by which to measure the fairness of proposed solutions. He’s gives a good example of how this can work in practice.

Suppose you have entered into a fixed-price construction contract for your house that calls for reinforced concrete foundations but fails to specify how deep they should be. The contractor suggests two feet. You think five feet is closer to the usual depth for your type of house.

Now suppose the contractor says: “I went along with you on steel girders for the roof. It’s your turn to go along with me on shallower foundations.” No owner in his right mind would yield. Rather than horse-trade, you would insist on deciding the issue in terms of objective safety standards. “Look, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe two feet is enough. What I want are foundations strong enough and deep enough to hold up the building safely. Does the government have standard specifications for these soil conditions? How deep are the foundations of other buildings in this area? What is the earthquake risk here? where do you suggest we look for standards to resolve this question?”

It is no easier to build a good contract than it is to build strong foundation. If relying on objective standards applies so clearly to a negotiation between the house owner and a contractor, why not to business deals, collective bargaining, legal settlements, and international negotiations?

The idea is to stick to principles over back-and-forth wagering. Refuse to trade tit for tat without setting some standards upon which the decision can be made. Are there a set of precedent transactions? Is there a market for the item? Is there an agreed upon method somewhere? Fisher refers to the sound parenting idea of having one child cut the piece of cake and the other choose the piece. No one can cry foul.

And so there are three main principles to abide by:

Frame each issue as a joint search for objective criteria.

Reason and be open to reason as to which standards are most appropriate and how they should be applied.

Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

[…]

Pressure can take many forms: a bribe, a threat, a manipulative appeal to trust, or a simple refusal to budge. In all these cases, the principled response is the same: invite them to state their reasoning, suggest objective criteria you think apply, and refuse to budge except on this basis. Never yield to pressure, only to principle.

The last is worth cogitating on. When the heat comes, as it can in many negotiations, can you stick to your guns? If you’re in a traditional battle of wills, you may not be able to. But if you’ve taken some of the steps outlined here and stuck to objective criteria, sticking to the issue and not the person, you may find it’s a lot easier to hold your ground. In this way, fairness is helpful to you as much as to the other party.

Still Interested? Check out the book for a lot more depth on these topics. In Part 2, we address some negotiating questions like What if they are more powerful?, What if they won’t play?, and What if they use dirty tricks? Stay tuned.

***

Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Roger Fisher and Alan Sharp On How to Provide Feedback. When was the last time you really felt your feedback improved someone else’s life, whether it was your spouse’s cooking or your employee’s performance? The problem is that we forget we’re giving feedback to a fellow human being, not an advice-taking robot.

Dan Ariely takes us to Grand Bazaar to demonstrate the psychology of Negotiation.

The Three Buckets of Knowledge

The three most fundamental sources of knowledge are physics, math, and human history. They offer us endless learning and mental models. Here’s how mastering the three buckets of knowledge can give you a deeper understanding of the world.

***

When we seek to understand the world, we’re faced with a basic question: Where do I start? Which sources of knowledge are the most useful and the most fundamental?

FS takes its lead here from Charlie Munger, who argued that the “base” of your intellectual pyramid should be the great ideas from the big academic disciplines: Mental models (For a great book on the subject check out The Great Mental Models series.)

Similarly, Peter Kaufman’s idea, presented above, is that we can learn the most fundamental knowledge from the three oldest and most invariant forms of knowledge: Physics and math, from which we derive the rules the universe plays by; biology, from which we derive the rules life on Earth plays by; and human history, from which we derive the rules humans have played by.

“Every statistician knows that a large, relevant sample size is their best friend. What are the three largest, most relevant sample sizes for identifying universal principles? Bucket number one is inorganic systems, which are 13.7 billion years in size. It’s all the laws of math and physics, the entire physical universe. Bucket number two is organic systems, 3.5 billion years of biology on Earth. And bucket number three is human history, you can pick your own number, I picked 20,000 years of recorded human behavior. Those are the three largest sample sizes we can access and the most relevant.”

— Peter Kaufman

With that starting point, we’ve explored a lot of ideas and read a lot of books, looking for connections among the big, broad areas of useful knowledge. Our search led us to a wonderful book called The Lessons of History, which we’ve previously discussed.

The book is a hundred-page distillation of the lessons learned in 50 years of work by two brilliant historians, Will and Ariel Durant. The Durants’ spent those years writing a sweeping 11-book, 10,000-page synthesis of the major figures and periods in human history, with an admitted focus on Western civilization.(Although they admirably tackle Eastern civilization up to 1930 or so in the epic Our Oriental Heritage.) With The Lessons of History, the pair sought to derive a few major lessons learned from the long pull.

Let’s explore a few ways in which the Durants’ work connects with the three buckets of human knowledge that help us understand the world at a deep level.

Lessons of Geologic Time

Durant has a classic introduction for this kind of “big synthesis” historical work:

Since man is a moment in astronomic time, a transient guest of the earth, a spore of his species, a scion of his race, a composite of body, character, and mind, a member of a family and a community, a believer or doubter of a faith, a unit in an economy, perhaps a citizen in a state or a soldier in an army, we may ask under the corresponding heads—astronomy, geology, geography, biology, ethnology, psychology, morality, religion, economics, politics, and war—what history has to say about the nature, conduct, and prospects of man. It is a precarious enterprise, and only a fool would try to compress a hundred centuries into a hundred pages of hazardous conclusions. We proceed.

The first topic Durant approaches is our relationship to the physical Earth, a group of knowledge we can place in the second bucket, in Kaufman’s terms. We must recognize that the varieties of geology and physical climate we live in have to a large extent determined the course of human history. (Jared Diamond would agree, that being a major component of his theory of human history.)

History is subject to geology. Every day the sea encroaches somewhere upon the land, or the land upon the sea; cities disappear under the water, and sunken cathedrals ring their melancholy bells. Mountains rise and fall in the rhythm of emergence and erosion; rivers swell and flood, or dry up, or change their course; valleys become deserts, and isthmuses become straits. To the geologic eye all the surface of the earth is a fluid form, and man moves upon it as insecurely as Peter walking on the waves to Christ.

There are some big, useful lessons we can draw from studying geologic time. The most obvious might be the concept of gradualism, or slow incremental change over time. This was most well-understood by Darwin, who applied that form of reasoning to understand the evolution of species. His hero was Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology created our understanding of a slow, move-ahead process on the long scale of geology.

And of course, that model is quite practically useful to us today — it is through slow, incremental, grinding change, punctuated at times by large-scale change when necessary and appropriate, that things move ahead most reliably. We might be reminded in the modern corporate world of General Electric, which ground ahead from an electric lamp company to an industrial giant, step-by-step over a long period which destroyed many thousands of lesser companies with less adaptive cultures.

We can also use this model to derive the idea of human nature as nearly fixed; it changes in geologic time, not human time. This explains why the fundamental problems of history tend to recur. We’re basically the same as we’ve always been:

History repeats itself in the large because human nature changes with geological leisureliness, and man is equipped to respond in stereotyped ways to frequently occurring situations and stimuli like hunger, danger, and sex. But in a developed and complex civilization individuals are more differentiated and unique than in a primitive society, and many situations contain novel circumstances requiring modifications of instinctive response; custom recedes, reasoning spreads; the results are less predictable. There is no certainty that the future will repeat the past. Every year is an adventure.

Lastly, Mother Nature’s long history also teaches us something of resilience, which is connected to the idea of grind-ahead change. Studying evolution helps us understand that what is fragile will eventually break under the stresses of competition: Most importantly, fragile relationships break, but strong win-win relationships have super glue that keeps parties together. We also learn that weak competitive positions are eventually rooted out due to competition and new environments, and that a lack of adaptiveness to changing reality is a losing strategy when the surrounding environment shifts enough. These and others are fundamental knowledge and work the same in human organizations as in Nature.

The Biology of History

Durant moves from geology into the realm of human biology: Our nature determines the “arena” in which the human condition can play out. Human biology gives us the rules of the chessboard, and the Earth and its inhabitants provide the environment in which we play the game. The variety of outcomes approaches infinity from this starting point. That’s why this “bucket” of human knowledge is such a crucial one to study. We need to know the rules.

Thinking with the first “bucket” of knowledge — the mathematics and physics that drive all things in the universe — it’s easy to derive that compounding multiplication can take a small population and make it a very large one over a comparatively short time. 2 becomes 4 becomes 8 becomes 16, and so on. But because we also know that the spoils of the physical world are finite, the “Big Model” of Darwinian natural selection flows naturally from the compounding math: As populations grow but their surroundings offer limitations, there must be a way to derive who gets the spoils.

Not only does this provide the basis for biological competition over resources, a major lesson in the second bucket, it also provides the basis for the political and economic systems in bucket three of human history: Our various systems of political and economic organization are fundamentally driven by decisions on how to give order and fairness to the brutal reality created by human competition.

In this vein, we have previously discussed Durant’s three lessons of biological history: Life is Competition. Life is Selection. Life must Replicate. These simple precepts lead to the interesting results in biology, and most relevant to us, to similar interesting results in human culture itself:

Like other departments of biology, history remains at bottom a natural selection of the fittest individuals and groups in a struggle wherein goodness receives no favors, misfortunes abound, and the final test is the ability to survive.

***

We do, however, need to be careful to think with the right “bucket” at the right time. Durant offers us a cautionary tale here: The example of the growth and decay of societies shows an area where the third bucket, human culture, offers a different reality than what a simple analogy from physics or biology might show. Cultural decay is not inevitable, as it might be with an element or a physical organism:

If these are the sources of growth, what are the causes of decay? Shall we suppose, with Spengler and many others, that each civilization is an organism, naturally and yet mysteriously endowed with the power of development and the fatality of death? It is tempting to explain the behavior of groups through analogy with physiology or physics, and to ascribe the deterioration of a society to some inherent limit in its loan and tenure of life, or some irreparable running down of internal force. Such analogies may offer provisional illumination, as when we compare the association of individuals with an aggregation of cells, or the circulation of money from banker back to banker with the systole and diastole of the heart.

But a group is no organism physically added to its constituent individuals; it has no brain or stomach of its own; it must think or feel with the brains or nerves of its members. When the group or a civilization declines, it is through no mystic limitation of a corporate life, but through the failure of its political or intellectual leaders to meet the challenges of change.

[…]

But do civilizations die? Again, not quite. Greek civilization is not really dead; only its frame is gone and its habitat has changed and spread; it survives in the memory of the race, and in such abundance that no one life, however full and long, could absorb it all. Homer has more readers now than in his own day and land. The Greek poets and philosophers are in every library and college; at this moment Plato is being studied by a hundred thousand discoverers of the “dear delight” of philosophy overspreading life with understanding thought. This selective survival of creative minds is the most real and beneficent of immortalities.

In this sense, the ideas that thrive in human history are not bound by the precepts of physics. Knowledge — the kind which can be passed from generation to generation in an accumulative way — is a unique outcome in the human culture bucket. Other biological creatures only pass down DNA, not accumulated learning. (Yuval Harari similarly declared that“The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.”)

***

With that caveat in mind, the concept of passed-down ideas does have some predictable overlap with major mental models of the first two buckets of physics/math and biology.

The first is compounding: Ideas and knowledge compound in the same mathematical way that money or population does. If I have an idea and tell my idea to you, we both have the idea. If we each take that idea and recombine it with another idea we already had, we now have three ideas from a starting point of only one. If we can each connect that one idea to two ideas we had, we now have five ideas between us. And so on — you can see how compounding would take place as we told our friends about the five ideas and they told theirs. So the Big Model of compound interest works on ideas too.

The second interplay is to see that human ideas go through natural selection in the same way biological life does.

Intellect is therefore a vital force in history, but it can also be a dissolvent and destructive power. Out of every hundred new ideas ninety-nine or more will probably be inferior to the traditional responses which they propose to replace. No one man, however brilliant or well-informed, can come in one lifetime to such fullness of understanding as to safely judge and dismiss the customs or institutions of his society, for these are the wisdom of generations after centuries of experiment in the laboratory of history.

This doesn’t tell us that the best ideas survive any more than natural selection tells us that the best creatures survive. It just means, at the risk of being circular, that the ideas most fit for propagation are the ones that survive for a long time. Most truly bad ideas tend to get tossed out in the vicissitudes of time either through the early death of their proponents or basic social pressure. But any idea that strikes a fundamental chord in humanity can last a very long time, even if it’s wrong or harmful. It simply has to be memorable and have at least a kernel of intuitive truth.

For more, start thinking about the three buckets of knowledge, read Durant, and start getting to work on synthesizing as much as possible.

Steven Pinker on What a Broad Education Should Entail

Harvard’s great biologist/psychologist Steven Pinker is one of my favorites, even though I’m just starting to get into his work.

What makes him great is not just his rational mind, but his multidisciplinary approach. He pulls from many fields to make his (generally very good) arguments. And he’s a rigorous scientist in his own field, even before we get to his ability to synthesize.

I first encountered Pinker in reading Poor Charlie’s Almanack: Charlie Munger gives him the edge over Noam Chomsky and others in the debate over whether the capacity for language has been “built into” our DNA through natural selection. Pinker wrote the bestseller, The Language Instinct, in which he argued that the capacity for complex language is innate. We develop it, of course, throughout our lives, but it’s in our genes from the beginning (an idea that has since been criticized).

Pinker went on to write books with modest titles like How the Mind Works, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, and The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. The latter is a controversial one: Bill Gates loves it, Nassim Taleb hates it. You’ll have to make up your own mind.

***

The reason for writing about Pinker is that, while re-reading William Deresiewicz’s brilliant speech, Solitude and Leadership, I noticed that he had an extremely popular piece about not sending your kids to Ivy League schools. It’s an interesting argument, though I’m not sure I agree with all of it.

A little Googling told me that Pinker, himself a professor at an Ivy League school, responded with an even better piece on why Deresiewicz was imprecise in his criticisms and anecdotes.

I was fascinated most by Pinker’s discussion of what an elite education should entail. This tells you a lot about his mind:

This leads to Deresiewicz’s second goal, “building a self,” which he explicates as follows: “it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.” Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn’t taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we’ve never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it. I submit that if “building a self” is the goal of a university education, you’re going to be reading anguished articles about how the universities are failing at it for a long, long time.

I think we can be more specific. It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish. The conviction that they are teachable gets me out of bed in the morning. Laying the foundations in just four years is a formidable challenge. If on top of all this, students want to build a self, they can do it on their own time.

If this seems familiar to some of you, that’s because it very closely parallels thoughts by Charlie Munger, who has argued many times for something similar in his demand for multidisciplinary worldly wisdom. We must learn the big ideas from the big disciplines. Notice the buckets Pinker talks about: 13 billion years of organic and inorganic history, 10,000 years of human culture, hundreds of years of modern civilization. These are the most reliable forms of wisdom.

So if the education system won’t do it for you, the job must be done anyway. Pinker and Munger have laid out the kinds of things you want to go about learning. Don’t let the education system keep you from having a real education. Learn how to think. Figure out how to spend more time reading. When you do, focus on the most basic and essential wisdom — including the lessons from history.

Article Summary

  • If the goal of university education is to build the self, we will be disappointed.
  • Rather, the goal of university education should be to: (1) give people an idea of our prehistory; (2) the basic laws governming the physical and living words; (3) the timeline of human history; (4) multiple cultures; (5) the formative events in human history; (6) the principles behind democracy and the rule of law; (7) read the great works of fiction and appreciate the great works of art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and reflections on the human condition; (8) make the habits of rationality second nature; (9) learn how to express ideas clearly in writing and talking; (10) appreciate objective knowledge; (11) learn how to reason and think statistically; (12) think causally rather than magically and understand the difference between causation and correlation and coincidence; and (13) appreciate human fallibility, most notably our own.
  • You can’t blame the education system if you don’t get this education, it’s up to you.

 

Knowledge Makes Everything Simpler

Operating a screw is pretty simple as John Maeda points out in The Laws of Simplicity:

Just mate the grooves atop the screw’s head to the appropriate tip-slotted or Phillips-of a screwdriver. What happens next is not as simple, as you may have noted while observing a child or a woefully sheltered adult turning the screwdriver in the wrong direction.

My children remember this rule through a mnemonic taught by my spouse, “righty tighty, lefty loosy.” Personally I use the analogy of a clock, and map the clockwise motion of the hands to the positive penetration curve of the screw. Both methods are subject to a second layer of knowledge: knowing right versus left, or knowing what direction the hands of a clock turn. Thus operating a screw is not as simple as it appears. And it’s such an apparently simple object!

So while the screw is a simple design, you need to know which way to turn it. Knowledge makes everything simpler. This is true for any object, no matter how difficult. The problem with taking time to learn a task is that you often feel you are wasting time, a violation of the third Law. We are well aware of the dive-in-head-first approach-“I don’t need the instructions, let me just do it.” But in fact this method often takes longer than following the directions in the manual.

Maeda goes on to present a few of his design-informed approaches to “good learning.”

Use Your Brain

The doctrine of “the carrot or the stick” points to a choice between positive and negative motivation-a reward versus a punishment. I disagree when teachers give their students candy and other perks for correct answers, but I also disagree with a colleague at MIT who throws erasers at students that fall asleep during class.

Instead, my ten years of data as a professor show that giving students a seemingly insurmountable challenge is the best motivator to learn. It is said that a massive amount of homework is a kind of reward for the average over-achieving MIT student. But after recently experiencing student life myself, I’ve lost my masochistic attitude in favor of a holistic approach:

BASICS are the beginning.
REPEAT yourself often.
AVOID creating desperation.
INSPIRE with examples.
NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

The first step in conveying the BASICS is to assume the position of the first-time learner. As the expert, playing this role is not impossible, but it is best ceded to a focus group or any other gathering of external participants. Observing what fails to make sense to the non-expert, and then following that trail successively to the very end of the knowledge chain is the critical path to success. Gathering these truths is worthwhile but can be time consuming or else done poorly. … the easiest way to learn the basics is to teach the basics yourself.

Maeda relates a lecture he attended to illustrate the point of simplicity.

A few years ago, I visited the master of Swiss typographic design, Wolfgang Weingart, in Maine to give a lecture for his then regular summer course. I marveled at Weingart’s ability to give the exact same introductory lecture each year. I thought to myself, “Doesn’t he get bored?” Saying the same thing over and over had no value in my mind, and I honestly began to think less of the Master. Yet it was upon maybe the third visit that I realized how although Weingart was saying the exact same thing, he was saying it simpler each time he said it. Through focusing on the basics of basics, he was able to reduce everything that he knew to the concentrated essence of what he wished to convey. His unique example rekindled my excitement for teaching.

We think that REPEATing ourselves is simple or even embarrassing. One of the biggest things I’ve had to overcome with public speaking was my fear of repeating myself. I used to catch myself saying the same thing and I’d just assume that everyone heard it the first time.

AVOID-ing desperation is something to target when learning is concerned.

We all want to “wow” people from the beginning with the newest bells and whistles in an amazing new product, but sometimes “wow” can become “woah” and you need an aspirin to cope with the anxiety of the overwhelming aspects of the new. I dread upgrading software on my computer because I know how eager the new program will be to tell me its latest and most wondrous features. The strategy of “shock and awe” can discourage the shocked-and-awed as I learned by experiencing the vast chasm of knowledge between teacher and learner as an MBA student. I also became aware of how professors can unknowingly become insensitive in a university setting. A gentle, inspired start is the best way to draw students, or even a new customer, into the immersive process of learning.

“INSPIRATION,” Maeda writes, “is the ultimate catalyst for learning: internal motivation trumps external reward.” The belief in something greater than ourselves (be it a person or mission) fuels our self-belief and adds direction.

And finally. NEVER forget to repeat yourself.

Metaphors

We’ve spoken before about the power of metaphors and how they shape our thoughts. While metaphors are great, if you surprise with a metaphor you create a positive emergent effect. Or, put another way, if you can surprise along an unexpected positive dimension, you create the possibility for a non-linear response.

Metaphors are useful platforms for transferring a large body of existing knowledge from one context to another with minimal, often imperceptible, effort on the part of the person crossing the conceptual bridge. But metaphors are only deeply engaging if they SURPRISE along some unexpected, positive dimension.

The Real Reward

The real reward is learning. We learned to walk largely though trial and error. Not because daddy offered us $5. The reward was our own growth, something we’ve forgotten as we get older. We could just as easily learn today but we want immediate and usually financial reward.

Difficult tasks seem easier when they are “need to know” rather than “nice to know.” A course in history, mathematics, or chemistry is nice to know for a teenager, but completing driver’s education satisfies a fundamental need for autonomy. In the beginning of life we strive for independence, and at the end of life it is the same. At the core of the best rewards is this fundamental desire for freedom in thinking, living, and being. I’ve learned that the most successful product designs, whether simple, complex, rational, illogical, domestic, international, technophilic, or technophobic, are the ones that connect deeply to the greater context of learning and life.

The Laws of Simplicity is a great book that you should read.

Albert Bandura on Acquiring Self-Efficacy and Personal Agency

Psychologist Albert Bandura is famous for his social learning theory which is really more of a model than a theory.

He stresses the importance of observational learning. Who you spend time with matters. “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do,” Bandura explains.

There is an excerpt in Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed that explains how we can acquire and maintain the factors of personal resilience.

1. Seek to successfully demonstrate and repeatedly practice each of our five factors of personal resilience. Success is a powerful learning tool—Just do it! If the challenge is too large or complex at first, start by taking small steps in the desired direction. Don’t try to achieve too much at first. And keep trying until you succeed. The first success is the hardest.

2. Observe resilient people. Use them as role models. Human beings learn largely by observation. Frequent venues where you can watch people exhibiting the skills you wish to acquire. Read books about people who have overcome obstacles similar to those you face. Call or write them. Ask them to share their lessons learned. Their successes will be contagious.

3. Vigorously pursue the encouragement and support of others. Affiliate with supportive and compassionate people who are willing to give of themselves to be supportive of you.

4. Practice self-control. In highly stressful times, myriad physiological and behavioral reactions occur. Physiologically, people experience the fight-or-flight response we mentioned in Chapter One. This cascade of hormones such as adrenalin better prepares you to fight or to flee a threat. They increase your heart rate, muscle strength, and tension. They dramatically improve your memory for certain things while decreasing your ability to remember others, and they cause your blood vessels to shift their priorities. This often results in headaches, cold hands and feet, and even an upset gastrointestinal system. The most significant problem, however, is that this very basic survival mechanism also tends to interfere with rational judgment and problem solving.

According to Bandura we need to control the stress around us so that it doesn’t become excessive, in part because we often act without thinking in stressful situations.

People often act impulsively in reaction to stressful events, sometimes running away from them. Remember the 1999 movie Runaway Bride, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts? It was the fictional story of a woman who had a penchant for falling in love and getting engaged, then developing cold feet and leaving her fiances at the altars. On a more somber note, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, many veterans chose to retreat to lives of isolation and solitude. The stress of war and the lack of social support motivated many to simply withdraw from society.

Similarly, over many years of clinical practice, we have seen individuals who have great difficulty establishing meaningful relationships after surviving a traumatic or vitriolic divorce. It’s hard for them to trust another person after having been “betrayed.” They exhibit approach-avoidance behaviors—engaging in a relationship initially but backing away when it intensifies.

Contrary to these patterns of escape and avoidance, sometimes people will impulsively act aggressively in response to stressful situations. Chronic irritability is often an early warning sign of subsequent escalating aggressive behavior. Rarely, although sometimes catastrophically, people will choose to lie, cheat, or steal in highly stressful situations. For years, psychologists have tried to predict dishonesty using psychological testing. The results have been uninspiring. The reason is that the best predictor of dishonesty is finding oneself in a highly stressful situation. So in highly stressful times, resist the impulsive urges to take the easy way out.

Also, remember to take care of yourself, physically as well as psychologically. Maladaptive self-medication is a common pattern of behavior for people who find themselves in the abyss. Alcohol has long been observed as a chemical crutch. Others that have only recently emerged are the myriad energy drinks on the market. Both of these crutches have been linked to numerous physical ailments and even deaths. If you are looking for the best single physical mechanism to aid you in your ascent from the abyss, it’s establishing healthy patterns of rest and sleep.

But note the distinction between controlling and suppressing. Often controlling is impossible so we suppress and fool ourselves into thinking we’re controlling. And suppressing volatility is often a horrible idea, especially in the long-run.

Instead of what’s intended, we create a coiled spring that most often leads to negative leaping emergent effects. In the end, this moves us toward fragility and away from robustness and resiliency.

***

If you’re still curious, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind discusses a bit of this topic as well.