Category: People

Jeff Bezos on Why People that Are Often Right Change Their Minds Often

Jeff Bezos recently stopped by the office of 37 Signals. After talking product strategy he answered some questions.

In his answer to one question he shared some thoughts on people who were “right a lot.”

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.

Bezos isn’t alone. Warren Buffett’s long time business partner Charlie Munger captures this:

If Berkshire has made modest progress, a good deal of it is because Warren and I are very good at destroying our own best-loved ideas. Any year that you don’t destroy one of your best-loved ideas is probably a wasted year.

John Kenneth Galbraith put it this way:

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

If you liked this, you’ll love:

How to Change How We Think — In the end changing how we think — that is our thought patterns — becomes about changing the language we use for internal and external communication.

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have — “I think when you multi-task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.”

Nassim Taleb: The Winner-Take-All Effect In Longevity

Nassim Taleb elaborates on the Copernican Principle, a concept first introduced on Farnam Street in How To Predict Everything.

For the perishable, every additional day in its life translates into a shorter additional life expectancy. For the nonperishable, every additional day implies a longer life expectancy.

So the longer a technology lives, the longer it is expected to live. Let me illustrate the point. Say I have for sole information about a gentleman that he is 40 years old and I want to predict how long he will live. I can look at actuarial tables and find his age-adjusted life expectancy as used by insurance companies. The table will predict that he has an extra 44 to go. Next year, when he turns 41 (or, equivalently, if apply the reasoning today to another person currently 41), he will have a little more than 43 years to go. So every year that lapses reduces his life expectancy by about a year (actually, a little less than a year, so if his life expectancy at birth is 80, his life expectancy at 80 will not be zero, but another decade or so).

The opposite applies to nonperishable items. I am simplifying numbers here for clarity. If a book has been in print for forty years, I can expect it to be in print for another forty years. But, and that is the main difference, if it survives another decade, then it will be expected to be in print another fifty years. This, simply, as a rule, tells you why things that have been around for a long time are not “aging” like persons, but “aging” in reverse. Every year that passes without extinction doubles the additional life expectancy. This is an indicator of some robustness. The robustness of an item is proportional to its life!

This is the “winner-take-all” effect in longevity.

The main argument against this idea is the counterexample — newspapers and traditional telephone lines come to mind. These technologies, widely considered inefficient and dying, have been around for a long time. Yet the Copernican Principle would suggest they will continue to live on for a long time.

These arguments miss the point of probability. The argument is not about a specific example, but rather about the life expectancy, which is, Taleb writes “simply a probabilistically derived average.”

Perhaps an example, from Taleb, will help illustrate. If I were to ask you to guess the life expectancy of the average 40 year old man, you would probably guess around 80 (at least that’s what the actuarial tables likely reveal). However, if I now add that the man is suffering from cancer, we would revisit our decision and most likely revise our estimate downward. “It would,” Taleb writes, “be a mistake to think that he has forty four more years to live, like others in his age group who are cancer-free.”

“In general, the older the technology, not only the longer it is expected to last, but the more certainty I can attach to such statement.”

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If you liked this, you’ll love these three other Farnam Street articles:

The Copernican Principle: How To Predict Everything — Based on one of the most famous and successful prediction methods in the history of science.

Ten Commandments for Aspiring Superforecasters — The ten key themes that have been “experimentally demonstrated to boost accuracy” in the real-world.

Philip Tetlock on The Art and Science of Prediction — How we can get better at the art and science of prediction, including diving into makes some people better at making predictions and how we can learn to improve our ability to guess the future.

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Happy Birthday Jean-Jacques Rousseau

“Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born to a family in Geneva. His mother passed only a few days after his birth. A few years later, his father fled after a duel. At the tender age of 16 he left for France and converted to Catholicism.

At first, he would try to make his way as a musician and composer. After meeting Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert in 1740, he became interested in philosophy.

When responding to a competition organized by the Academy of Dijon to answer the question “Has the restoration of the sciences and the arts contributed to refining moral practices?” Rousseau stumbled upon the idea that society might be a harmful influence. Not one to agree with the consensus answer, Rousseau argued the “no” case in his Discourse on the Sciences and Arts, which won him first prize. Far from improving minds and lives, he argued, the arts destroy happiness.

His second essay, Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, sowed the seeds for the future by arguing that man is born free.

people are endowed with innate virtue and, more importantly, the attributes of compassion and empathy. But once this state of innocence is disrupted, and the power of reason begins to separate humankind from the rest of nature, people become detached from their natural virtues. The imposition of civil society on the state of nature therefore entails a move away from virtue toward vice, and from idyllic happiness toward misery.

Rousseau sees the fall from a state of nature and the establishment of civil society as regrettable but inevitable, because it resulted from the human capacity for reason. The process began, he thought, the first time that a man enclosed a piece of land for himself, so introducing the notion of property. As groups of people began to live side by side like this, they formed societies, which could only be maintained through a system of laws. But Rousseau claims that every society loses touch with humanity’s natural virtues, including empathy, and so imposes laws that are not just, but selfish.”

(via The Philosophy Book)

These laws, to protect property, were inflicted on the poor by the rich. “The move from a natural to a civilized state therefore brought about a move not only from virtue to vice, Rousseau points out, but also from innocence and freedom to injustice and enslavement.” Humanity, in the eyes of Rousseau, became corrupted by society. Thus while he is born free, the laws imposed by the state ensure he lives his life “in chains.”

As you can imagine this second Discourse caused quite the stir.

Rousseau’s rallying cry of ‘back to nature!’ and his pessimistic analysis of modern society as full of inequalities and injustices sat well with the growing social unrest of the 1750s, especially in France.

Stating the problem was one thing, but in The Social Contract, Rousseau offered a solution. The book opens with the famous quote: “Man is born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” In time, this would become the slogan for the French Revolution. The solution, argued Rousseau, was to have citizens, not aristocrats, monarchy, or the Church, run the state.

Modeled on Classical republican ideas of democracy, Rousseau imagines the citizen body operating as a unit, prescribing laws according to the volonté générale, or general will. The laws would arise from all and apply to all — everyone would be considered equal. In contrast with the social contract envisaged by Locke, which was designed to protect the rights and property of individuals, Rousseau advocates for the benefit of all, administered by the general will.

He believed that freedom to participate in the legislative process would lead to an elimination of inequality and injustice and promote a feeling of belonging to society.

In the end, Rousseau’s controversial views lead to his books being banned in several countries, including Switzerland and France. Warrants were issued for his arrest. David Hume invited him to live in England, which Rousseau accepted. After a short while a row erupted between Hume and Rousseau and he returned to France under a fake name. At the time of his death in 1778, revolution was imminent.

Key Works:
1750 Discourse on the Sciences and Arts
1755 Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men
1755 Discourse on Political Economy
1762 The Social Contract

Still curious? Learn more about Rousseau by reading his key works.

 

Christopher Hitchens: On The Trouble with Causation

From Hitch-22: A Memoir:

In his brilliant book What Is History?, Professor E.H. Carr asked about ultimate causation. Take the case of a man who drinks a bit too much, gets behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes, drives it round a blind corner, and hits another man, who is crossing the road to buy cigarettes. Who is the one responsible? The man who had one drink too many, the lax inspector of brakes, the local authorities who didn’t straighten out a dangerous bend, or the smoker who chose to dash across the road to satisfy his bad habit?

Still curious? Try The Ambiguities of Experience.

The Simple Principles of Good Management

Herbert Simon, Nobel Prize laureate and polymath, offered many contributions to the world in fields such as computer science/artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, economics, and management.

This brief excerpt, taken from his remarkable autobiography, offers some timeless wisdom.

The principles of good management are simple, even trivial. They are not widely practiced for the same reason that Christianity is not widely practiced. It is not enough to know what the principles are; you must acquire deeply ingrained habits of carrying them out, in the face of all sorts of strong urges to stray onto more comfortable and pleasant paths, to respond without inhibition to provocations, and just to goof off. “

Micheal Jordan could tell you every insight and secret he knows about basketball and you still wouldn’t play basketball like him.  The same goes for other things. Mark Leonard, Steve Jobs, Tobi Lutke, Jeff Bezos or any other phenomenal CEO could sit down with you and explain all the insights and nuances and you still wouldn’t replicate their performance.

The greats can only share all there is to teach about the subject. The problem is that’s not all there is to learn.

The principles of good management are simple but not easy. Mastering them will give you slightly above average performance.

If you want exceptional results, you need to learn things that can’t be taught. Consider two things rarely found together patience and extreme decisiveness.

Patience is one of those things that’s easy to understand and hard to practice. That’s what makes it so rare and so valuable. It’s easy to say no to bad opportunities. It’s hard to say no to average opportunities so you have room for the good ones. It’s even harder to say no to good opportunities so you have room for great ones. One way to improve your patience is to be as proud of the opportunities you say no to as the ones you say yes to.

Deciding to commit in a meaningful way is hard. While you might know all the data and have confidence in your decision, acting on it in a way that’s going to make a huge difference if you’re right isn’t something you’re taught. Most of us would prefer the comfort of a group decision or the hindsight knowing how things played out, wishing we had committed in a more meaningful way. No one can teach you when to go all in. One small way to improve your decisiveness is to start making decisions as a person, not a group. A person makes decisions. Groups provide information.

The most important things can’t be taught, they must be learned. Just because you can’t be taught what you need doesn’t mean you can absolve yourself from learning. You can learn the principles but you can’t learn the patience. You can copy the answer but not the understanding and confidence. These you need to learn on your own.

 

Notes
The idea that ‘some things can’t be taught, they must be learned’ first came to my attention in a conversation with Naval Ravikant.

Herbert Simon on the Distinction Between What is Legal and What We Will Tolerate

You’d break the law. In fact most of us would. How can I say this with near certainty? Because if you were put in a position where the ends justified the means, the means would become acceptable.

The person who steals bread so his starving child can eat is an easy one to sympathize with. While illegal, most of us understand and even tolerate this petty behaviour.

However, would we tolerate bigger transgressions? Where would we draw the line?

For the answer to this question we turn to Nobel Prize winning social scientist Herbert Simon. Simon’s contributions to our growing repository of wisdom include why the principles of good management are not often followed, the role of intuition in experts, and why organizational planning is doomed to failure.

In his autobiography Models of My Life, Simon touches on the difference between what a society will tolerate and its laws.

A revolution aims at bringing about fundamental changes in institutions by employing illegal tactics. What is legal and what a society will tolerate are distinct. When there is sympathy for ends, illegal means may become acceptable and the laws against them unenforceable.

Fundamentally we seem to believe that if the means warrant the ends, they will be accepted.

Killing to overthrow a dictator, which is obviously against the law, becomes acceptable at a certain point if the dictator is too horrible. The question of when it becomes acceptable, however, while easily distinguishable for the edge cases, becomes grey in the middle.

Simon continues:

If a revolution aims at overthrowing an entire legal system, the role of the illegal action is to arouse an already sympathetic population; to goad the defenders of the legal system to severity that will arouse additional sympathy; to demonstrate strength, hence to reduce fear fo the authorities and to increase fear of the revolutionaries; and finally to seize weapons and strong points. When people no longer believe that the existing laws can be enforced, the first half of the revolution has been won. There remains the task of securing for it the “right” party. This has been the common point of failure for the moderates.

There are also situations where the laws are better than what the government will enforce.