Category: People

Conversations with David Foster Wallace

Five years ago today David Foster Wallace committed suicide.

His May 21st, 2005 commencement speech to the graduating class of Kenyon college, This is Water, is one of greatest of all time.

Offering a simple explanation of the value of education and, quite possibly, some of the best life advice you’ll ever hear, it might be the best thing you read all year.

Stephen Burn has complied a series of David Foster Wallace’s interviews into a book entitled: Conversations with David Foster Wallace.

These interviews are republished in their entirety, so there is a bit of repetition on topics and themes. As the interviews take place over many years, you can also see the evolution of David Foster Wallaces’ thoughts which makes Conversations with David Foster Wallace well worth the read.

It is difficult to find a conversation with David Foster Wallace that does not have insightful moments. I’ve marked so many pages I don’t know where to start.

Here are some of my notes.

When you write fiction …

“When you write fiction,” he explains as part of his critique of a story about a young girl, her uncle, and the evil eye, “you are telling a lie. It’s a game, but you must get the facts straight. The reader doesn’t want to be reminded that it’s a lie. It must be convincing, or the story will never take off in the reader’s mind.”

When asked ‘What would you like your writing to do,’ Wallace gave an honest answer.

It’s very hard to separate what you want the writing to do from your own desires about how you will be regarded because of the work. … So no feelings about desired effect are pure, free of selfish ends.

But there are a few books I have read that I’ve never been the same after, and I think all good writing somehow addresses the concern of and acts as an anodyne against loneliness. We’re all terribly, terribly lonely. And there’s a way, at least in prose fiction, that can allow you to be intimate with the world and with a mind and with characters that you just can’t be in the real world. I don’t know what you’re thinking. I don’t know that much about you as I don’t know that much about my parents or my lover or my sister, but a piece of fiction that’s really true allows you to be intimate with … I don’t want to say people, but it allows you to be intimate with a world that resembles our own in enough emotional particulars so that the way different things must feel is carried out with us into the real world. I think what I would like my stuff to do is make people less lonely. Or really to affect people. … You can’t make sure that everybody’s going to like you, but damn it, if you’ve got some skill you can make sure that people don’t ignore you.

A really great piece of fiction.

A really great piece of fiction for me may or may not take me away and make me forget that I’m sitting in a chair. There’s real commercial stuff can do that, and a riveting plot can do that, but it doesn’t make me feel less lonely.

There’s a kind of Ah-ha! Somebody at least for a moment feels about something or sees something the way that I do. It doesn’t happen all the time. It’s these brief flashes or flames, but I get that sometimes. I feel unalone— intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. I feel human and unalone and that I’m in a deep, significant conversation with another consciousness in fiction and poetry in a way that I don’t with other art.

Interviewer: Who are the writers who do this for you?
OK. Historically the stuff that’s sort of rung my cherries: Socrates’s funeral oration, the poetry of John Donne, the poetry of Richard Crashaw, every once in a while Shakespeare, although not all that often, Keats’ shorter stuff, Schopenhauer, Descartes’s Meditations on First Philosophy and Discourse on Method, Kant’s Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysic, although the translations are all terrible, William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Hemingway— particularly the ital stuff in In Our Time, where you just go oomph!, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, A. S. Byatt, Cynthia Ozick— the stories, especially one called “Levitations,” about 25 percent of the time Pynchon. Donald Barthelme, especially a story called “The Balloon,” which is the first story I ever read that made me want to be a writer, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver’s best stuff— the really famous stuff. Steinbeck when he’s not beating his drum, 35 percent of Stephen Crane, Moby-Dick, The Great Gatsby. And, my God, there’s poetry. Probably Phillip Larkin more than anyone else, Louise Glück, Auden.

Echoing comments made by Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, Wallace believed in taking joy in the process.

There is a lopsided emphasis in writing programs on hermetic fiction, the mechanicalness of craft, technique, and point of view, as opposed to the more occult or spiritual side of writing— taking joys in the process of creation.

A generation that inherited nothing as far as meaningful moral values.

MTV is just hypnotic. So you’ve got us kids, twenty to thirty-five, right on the edge, and all the kids coming after us really getting sucked into that stuff, but learning it in a way that doesn’t allow any sort of incredulity at all. … This is a generation that has an inheritance of absolutely nothing as far as meaningful moral values, and it’s our job to make them up, and we’re not doing it. And we’re being told, by the very systems that the Sixties were so right to fear, that we needn’t worry about making up moral systems: you know, that there isn’t more to being alive than being pretty, having intercourse a lot, and having a lot of possessions.

For Wallace, writing fiction was an escape to a world where time didn’t exist.

“Writing fiction takes me out of time. I sit down and the clock will not exist for me for a few hours. That’s probably as close to immortal as we’ll ever get.”

On learning from an unhappy experience in graduate school.

I didn’t have a very happy experience in graduate school, but it seems there are different ways to learn from it. You can either learn by aligning yourself with the sort of company line at a program or you can play James Dean and align yourself against it. Sometimes it’s not until you have professors— you know, authority figures— kicking your ass, and you still find yourself resisting what they’re saying that you find out what you believe.

What fiction and poetry are doing is what they’ve been trying to do for two thousand years:

affect somebody, make somebody feel a certain way, allow them to enter into relationships with ideas and with characters that are not permitted within the cinctures of the ordinary verbal intercourse we’re having here, you know: you don’t see me, I don’t see you. But every two or three generations the world gets vastly different, and the context in which you have to learn how to be a human being, or to have good relationships, or decide whether or not there is a God, or decide whether there’s such a thing as love, and whether it’s redemptive, become vastly different. And the structures with which you can communicate those dilemmas or have characters struggle with them seem to become appropriate and then inappropriate again and so on.

Responding to a question about how fiction has changed, Wallace pierces deep inside of pop culture.

[O]ne of the ways that things have changed is that fiction used to be a kind of travelogue. It used to be a way to take people to foreign lands and exotic cultures, or to important people, and give readers access to worlds they didn’t have access to. The world that we live in is very different. I can get up and watch satellite footage of a riot in Peking while I eat a Tex-Mex breakfast while I listen to Third World music on my CD player. Fiction’s job used to be to make the strange familiar, to take you somewhere and let you feel that this was familiar to you. It seems that one of the things about living now is that everything presents itself as familiar, so one of the things the artist has to do now is take a lot of this familiarity and remind people that it’s strange.

And taking the familiar and reminding people that it is strange is what he tried to do when he pointed to passive entertainment (see Infinite Jest).

U.S. viewers’ relationship with TV is essentially puerile and dependent, as are all relationships based on seduction. This is hardly news. But what’s seldom acknowledged is how complex and ingenious TV’s seductions are. It’s seldom acknowledged that viewers’ relationship with TV is, albeit debased, intricate and profound. It’s easy for older writers just to bitch about TV’s hegemony over the U.S. art market, to say the world’s gone to hell in a basket and shrug and have done with it. But I think younger writers owe themselves a richer account of just why TV’s become such a dominating force on people’s consciousness, if only because we under like forty have spent our whole conscious lives being part of TV’s audience.

I had a teacher I liked who used to say good fiction’s job was to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable. … Since an ineluctable part of being a human self is suffering, part of what we humans come to art for is an experience of suffering, necessarily a vicarious experience, more like a sort of generalization of suffering. … But now realize that TV and popular film and most kinds of “low” art— which just means art whose primary aim is to make money— is lucrative precisely because it recognizes that audiences prefer 100 percent pleasure to the reality that tends to be 49 percent pleasure and 51 percent pain. Whereas “serious” art, which is not primarily about getting money out of you, is more apt to make you uncomfortable, or to force you to work hard to access its pleasures, the same way that in real life true pleasure is usually a by-product of hard work and discomfort. … The problem isn’t that today’s readership is dumb, I don’t think. Just that TV and the commercial-art culture’s trained it to be sort of lazy and childish in its expectations. But it makes trying to engage today’s readers both imaginatively and intellectually unprecedentedly hard.

it’s too simple to just wring your hands and claim TV’s ruined readers. Because the U.S.’ s television culture didn’t come out of a vacuum. What TV is extremely good at— and realize that this is all it does— is discerning what large numbers of people think they want, and supplying it.

Are there any writers that really knock you out?

I’m a huge Don DeLillo fan, although I think his latest book is one of his worst. The DeLillo of Americana and End Zone and Great Jones Street, The Names, and Libra I love. Maybe Gravity’s Rainbow is a better book, but I can’t think of anybody in this tradition since Nabokov who’s put out a better corpus of work than DeLillo. I like Bellow, and I really like the early John Updike— The Poorhouse Fair, Of the Farm, The Centaur, just in terms of sheer fucking beautiful writing. There are a lot of the Latinists too: Julio Cortázar, Manuel Puig, both recently dead. There are young writers now I was telling you about, like Mark Leyner; William T. Vollman, who’s got four books coming out this year; Jon Franzen, Susan Daitch, Amy Homes. The best book I’ve read recently is by Paul Auster’s wife, who’s named Siri Hustvedt. She’s a Norwegian from Minnesota, who wrote this book called The Blindfold. It’s not a lot of fun, but God is it smart. It’s the best piece of feminist postmodernism I’ve ever read. It makes Kathy Acker look sick because it’s so well crafted. I’m not sure there are any really towering giants. I think some Pynchon, some Bellow, some Ozick will be read a hundred years from now; I think DeLillo, maybe.

Wallace was clearly not a fan of the Brat Pack. Commenting on Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, he says:

Look, if the contemporary condition is hopelessly shitty, insipid, materialistic, emotionally retarded, sadomasochistic and stupid, then I (or any writer) can get away with slapping together stories with characters who are stupid, vapid, emotionally retarded, which is easy, because these sorts of characters require no development. With descriptions that are simply lists of brand-name consumer products. Where stupid people say insipid stuff to each other. If what’s always distinguished bad writing— flat characters, a narrative world that’s clichéd and not recognizably human, etc.— is also a description of today’s world, then bad writing becomes an ingenious mimesis of a bad world. If readers simply believe the world is stupid and shallow and mean, then Ellis can write a mean shallow stupid novel that becomes a mordant deadpan commentary on the badness of everything.

Look man, we’d probably most of us agree that these are dark times, and stupid ones, but do we need fiction that does nothing but dramatize how dark and stupid everything is? In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness.

And to give DFW the last word.

The reader walks away from real art heavier than she came to it. Fuller. All the attention and engagement and work you need to get from the reader can’t be for your benefit; it’s got to be for hers. What’s poisonous about the cultural environment today is that it makes this so scary to try to carry out. Really good work probably comes out of a willingness to disclose yourself, open yourself up in spiritual and emotional ways that risk making you look banal or melodramatic or naive or unhip or sappy, and to ask the reader really to feel something. To be willing to sort of die in order to move the reader, somehow.

Still curious? If you want to learn more about his life, read DT Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. If you want to know more about what DFW thinks, read Burn’s book.

Michael Mauboussin, Interview No. 4

Michael Mauboussin is the author of numerous books, including More Than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places, Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, and The Success Equation: Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports, and Investing (a book that found its way to Warren Buffett’s desk.)

While Michael is well known in investment circles for his knowledge of biases and clarity of thinking, a lot of others are missing out on his insight. You need no more proof than listening to his first or second interview on our podcast, The Knowledge Project.

His latest book takes a look at how both skill and luck play a role in outcomes — they are, on a continuum. For instance, he believes that basketball is 12% luck whereas hockey is 53% luck. Skill still plays a certain role but talent might mean more in certain places.

As part of my irregular series of interviews (which has since been replaced by the podcast), Michael and I talk about what advice he’d offer his younger self today, the definition of luck, decision journals, and how organizations can improve their decisions and more.

Let’s get started.

I believe you graduated with a B.A. in Government. How did you end up starting your career as a packaged food analyst?

My first job after college was in a training program at Drexel Burnham Lambert. We had classroom training and rotated through more than a dozen departments in the investment bank. It was during those rotations I realized that I enjoyed research and that it suited my skills reasonably well.

In the early to mid-1980s, Drexel had a great food industry analyst – to this day, I believe he’s the best analyst I’ve ever seen. So I naturally followed him closely. Shortly after I left Drexel, I was able to secure a job as a junior analyst working with two analysts – one following capital goods and the other food, beverage, and tobacco. From there I was able to secure a job as a senior analyst following the packaged food industry at County NatWest. Interestingly, County NatWest had taken over a good chunk of Drexel’s equity business after Drexel went bankrupt. So I was back in a familiar environment.

So I guess the answer has three elements. First, I was exposed to an inspirational analyst. Second, I found research to be an area I greatly enjoyed. And, finally, I was a complete failure at the job for which I was trained—a financial advisor. So failure played a big role as well.

If you could hop on the elevator with your younger self going into your first day on the job, what would you say?

I would probably suggest the motto of the Royal Society – “nullius in verba” – which roughly translates to “take nobody’s word for it.” Basically, the founders were urging their colleagues to avoid deferring to authority and to verify statements by considering facts. They wanted to make sure everyone would think for themselves.

In the world of investing, that means constant learning—which entails constant reading. So I would encourage my younger self to read widely, to constantly learn, and to develop points of view independent of what others say and based on facts. Specifically, I would recommend developing the habit of reading. Constantly ask good questions and seek to answer them.

I noticed you recently moved back to Credit Suisse after a stint at Legg Mason. Can you tell me a little about your job there and how it’s different?

Over the years I have been fortunate to have sponsors who have allowed me to do work that is a little off the beaten path. Brady Dougan, now chief executive officer of Credit Suisse, has been one of those people. So when the time came to make a job switch, I was lucky to have a conversation with someone with whom I worked before and who understood the kind of work I do.

My job covers four different parts of the bank, including corporate, investment banking, securities, and the private bank. As I work with talented colleagues in each of these areas, I get to live the firm’s objective of operating as one bank.

My actual research will continue to dwell on four areas. The first is capital markets theory, the attempt to better understand issues of market efficiency. Second is valuation, an area I’ve always been very focused on. Third is competitive strategy analysis—and in particular I’m keen on understanding the intersection of competitive strategy and valuation. Finally, I work on aspects of decision making. How do we make decisions, and what kinds of mistakes are we prone to?

So the types of problems I’m working on will be similar to the past but the constituencies I get to work with are more diverse.

It seems that today, more than ever, people are going to Wall Street with very similar backgrounds. How do you see the impact of this?

For the last few decades Wall Street has attracted a lot of bright people. By and large, the folks I deal with on the Street are smart, thoughtful, and motivated. The key to robust markets and organizations is diversity of thought. And I don’t personally find such diversity greatly lacking.

There are a couple of areas worth watching, though. There does seem to be evidence that hedge funds are increasingly moving into similar positions—often called a “crowded trade.” This was exemplified by the trades of Long-Term Capital Management. Crowded trades can be a big problem.

Somewhat related is the world of quantitative analysis. Many quants read the same papers, use the same data sets, and hence put on similar trades. We’ve seen some hiccups in the quantitative world—August 2007 is a good illustration—and there may well be more to come.

Your most recent book, The Success Equation, points out something that few people seem to consider: that most things in life are a mixture of luck and skill. What’s the mental model we can take away from this?

The main point is to think critically about the activity you’re participating in and consider how much luck contributes to the outcome. In some realms it’s negligible, such as a running race. But in others, it’s huge. Once you understand luck’s role, you can understand how to approach the activity more thoughtfully, including how you develop skill and interpret results.

But I can tell you that our minds are horrible at understanding luck. So any mental model has to overcome our natural tendency to think causally—that is, that good outcomes are the result of good skill and bad outcomes reflect bad skill.

You say, convincingly, that we need to accept the presence of luck so that we can understand where it is not a useful teacher. But we often interpret luck as a quality individuals possess, similar to “judgment” or “good instinct,” rather than as simply the expression of statistics in our lives. What are your thoughts about Napoleon’s famous question regarding a general being praised to him, “yes, yes, I know he is brilliant. But tell me, is he lucky?”

I have read that Napoleon quotation many times and don’t really know what he was trying to convey. Perhaps the answer lies in how you define luck.

Naturally, in writing a book about luck and skill I had to spend a lot of time trying to define luck. I settled on the idea that luck exists when three conditions are in place: it operates for an individual or organization; it can be good or bad; and it is reasonable to expect a different outcome to occur.

Another similar way to think about it is skill is what’s within your control and luck is what is outside your control. If there’s something you can do to improve your lot, I would call that skill.

Now I don’t want to deny that intuition exists. It does. It just happens to dwell in specific domains and hence is vastly rarer than people think. Specifically, intuition can be developed in activities that are stable and linear. This applies to chess, for example, or many sports. In these activities proper training can develop intuition. But in fields that are unstable and non-linear, all bets are off regarding intuition. The problem is we generally don’t distinguish the activity before considering how good intuition is likely to be.

So to answer the question, I wouldn’t want to bet on anyone who has truly succeeded by dint of luck because luck by definition is unlikely to persist.

You describe creeping determinism, the desire we have to give past events rational causes and thus make them inevitable. It is a myth of control. But we have a huge desire to see control. It seems preferable even to give control to someone else rather than to deny it existed at all. I’m not sure we are psychologically capable of saying that something in the past happened because of a conjunction of events and actions without any overriding intent or plan. What do you think?

This reminds me of something Victor Hugo said: “The mind, like nature, abhors a vacuum.” It is psychologically extremely difficult to attribute something to luck. The reason is that in the left hemisphere of our brains is a part that neuroscientists call the “interpreter.” The job of the interpreter is to create a cause for all the effects it sees. Now in most cases, the cause and effect relationships it comes up with make perfect sense. Throw a rock at a window and the window smashes. No problem.

The key is that the interpreter doesn’t know anything about luck. It didn’t get the memo. So the interpreter creates a story to explain results that are attributable solely to luck. The key is to realize that the interpreter operates in all of our brains all of the time. Almost always, it’s on the mark. But when you’re dealing with realms filled with luck, you can be sure that the interpreter will create a narrative that is powerful and false.

You talk about what happens when companies, for examples, hire stars, and how so very often that proves to be an expensive failure, because so much of the star’s success is attributed to the individual him or herself, and the specific context of the star’s success is ignored. It seems to me there must be hundreds of case studies that prove this is true, similarly an overwhelming amount of data that supports your thoughts on hiring sports stars on contracts that don’t take into account their declining skills. A vast amount of data that supports your views, yet the hiring of stars continues; it must be one of the most quantitatively demonstrably false assumptions in the business and sports world. So why does it continue?

I think there are two related underlying factors. The first is a failure to recognize reversion to the mean. Let’s take sports as an example. If a player has a great year statistically, we can almost always conclude that he was skillful and lucky. He gets bid away by another team based on his terrific results. What happens next? Well, on average his skill may remain stable but his luck will run out. So his performance will revert to the mean. Reversion to the mean is a very subtle concept that most people think they understand but few actually do. Certainly, the aggregate behaviors of people suggest that they don’t understand reversion to the mean.

The second underlying factor is underestimating the role of social context in success. An individual within an organization is not operating independently; she is surrounded by colleagues and an infrastructure that contribute to her outcomes. When high-performing individuals go from one organization to another, the social context changes, and generally that has a negative impact on results.

Do you think we make similar mistakes when we promote people in organizations? Specifically, I’m thinking that hiring can get really complicated if you have to look at how long someone has been doing a job, the people they work with, the difficulty of the job itself, there are so many variables at play that it’s hard to tease out skill versus luck. How can we get better at this when it comes to promoting people internally?

This can be a challenge. But there’s an interesting angle here. Typically, the lower you are in an organization, the easier it is to measure your skill. That’s because basic functions are generally “algorithmic,” people are executing their jobs based on certain known principles. So outcomes are an accurate reflection of skill.

But as you move up in an organization, luck often plays a bigger role. For example, developing a strategy for a new product is no sure thing—luck can play a large role in shaping the strategy’s success or failure. Said differently, even strategies that are really well thought through will fail some percentage of the time as the result of bad luck.

So as people move up in organizations, it makes sense to pay more attention to the process of decision making than the outcomes alone. For example, I would argue that capital allocation is a CEO’s most important job. And capital allocation is inherently based on process.

So as individuals advance in their careers, their duties often slide towards the luck side of the continuum. Furthermore, you note that fluid intelligence peaks at age 20. What does this say about leadership? If I was to be extreme, I would interpret you as saying that people assume or are given positions of leadership at the very time when they are least fitted to be leaders. For example, the median age of U.S. presidents is 54. That is not an age when I should expect someone to be able to deal well with complex, or unprecedented issues and decisions. I don’t consider the corresponding increase in crystallized intelligence to be adequate compensation. And what does this say about leadership development, executive coaching and the like? If I am an executive coach, should I be explaining to my clients that their biggest mistake will be to ignore the overwhelming role luck will play in their success as leaders?

There are a couple of issues here. First, as you mentioned, cognitive performance combines fluid intelligence, which peaks when you are young, and crystallized intelligence, which tends to grow throughout your life. For older people the problem is not that they don’t have the knowledge or wisdom to make good decisions, it’s that they tend to become cognitively lazy and fall back on rules of thumb that served them well in the past. Using terms that Danny Kahneman popularized, they rely more on System 1—fast, automatic, and difficult to train—and less on System 2, which is analytical, slower, and more purposeful. You can overcome this tendency by having others work with you on your decision making, ensuring that you’re looking at the proper options, and considering consequences as completely as possible.

If I were an executive coach, I would try to focus each individual on the facets they can control. Emphasizing what’s in your control allows you to adopt an attitude of equanimity toward luck. You’ve done all that you can, and from there you have to live with the results—good or bad.

I thought you description of Mark Granovetter’s research on phase transitions fascinating. But this seems to me to contradict the idea of fundamental attribution error, and in fact, make fundamental attribution a real, existing phenomenon. If we talk about, for example, an organization that is trying to change a common behavior of its executives (say, getting them to stop taking calls or messages on their cellphones when they are in meetings), then it seems to me that if the CEO models this new behavior it has a great likelihood of becoming the norm. If he does not, then the likelihood is nil. So this would be an example of fundamental attribution. Would this not be the same for more complex issues where a specific action or behavior by the leader of the organization would be the cause of phase transition?

I think the common denominator of both of your thoughts is the role of social context. Granovetter’s model emphasizes how small changes in the network structure can lead to disproportionately different outcomes. This is very important for any kind of diffusion process—be it the flu, an idea, a new technology, or a social behavior. The spread of disease provides a vivid example. There are basically two essential parameters in understanding disease propagation: the contagiousness of the disease and the degree of interaction between people in the population. A disease only spreads quickly if contagiousness and interaction are high.

The disease metaphor works pretty well for the diffusion of any innovation or behavior. The main point is that most products, ideas, and diseases fail to propagate. Some of that is a function of the inherent nature of what’s trying to propagate and some is from the network itself.

The fundamental attribution error says that when we observe the behavior of another person—this is especially true for bad behavior—we tend to attribute the behavior more to the individual than to the social context. But both studies and observations in life show that social context is deeply influential in shaping behavior.

Tying this back to your point, I think it’s crucial for leaders to acknowledge two realities. First, they operate in a social context which shapes their behavior. For example, Warren Buffett talks about the “institutional imperative,” which says among other things that a company will mindlessly imitate the behavior of peer companies.

Second, leaders have to recognize that they create a social context for the decisions of their employees. Some social contexts are not conducive to good decisions. For example, if employees feel too much stress, they will shorten the time horizons for their decisions. So an executive may say he or she is thinking for the long term but his or her behavior may be shaping an environment where employees are focused only on the here and now.

When you talk about the qualities that make a statistic useful, do you have any thoughts on organizations that are trying to be more evidence-based and quantitative in how they measure their performance, yet seem to have great trouble in identifying useful statistics? Examples that come to mind would be government departments and agencies, particularly those that do not provide a direct public service. What is the process they organizations should follow to identify what are useful statistics for measuring effectiveness? Government departments and agencies are notorious for confusing luck and skill.

I suggest two simple criteria identifying a useful statistic. First, it should be persistent, or what statisticians call “reliable.” A statistic is persistent if it correlates highly with itself over time, and hence is frequently an indicator of skill. Next, it should be predictive, or what statisticians call “valid.” That is, the statistic correlates highly with what the organization is trying to achieve.

With these two criteria in mind, you can adopt a four-step process for finding useful statistics. Step one is to define your governing objective. What is your organization trying to achieve? Step two is to develop a theory of cause and effect to help identify the drivers of success. Step three is identifying the specific actions that people within the organization can take to serve the governing objective. And step four is to regularly evaluate the statistics to see if they are doing the job.

Naturally, luck plays a role in outcomes almost everywhere you look. But this process of selecting statistics gives you the best chance of properly emphasizing what is in the control of the organization.

To sort of round this interview out, I’d like to talk with you about a subject I suspect you spend a lot of time thinking about: improving decisions in organizations. One of your pieces of advice is to create a decision journal, can you tell me what that looks like to you?

A decision journal is actually very simple to do in principle, but requires some discipline to maintain. The idea is whenever you are making a consequential decision, write down what you decided, why you decided as you did, what you expect to happen, and if you’re so inclined, how you feel mentally and physically. This need not take much time.

The value is that you document your thinking in real time and thus immunize yourself against hindsight bias—the pernicious tendency to think that you knew what was going to happen with more clarity than you actually did. The journal also allows you to audit your decision making process, looking for cases where you may have been right for the wrong reasons or wrong for the right reasons.

I imagine what people record in a decision journal is somewhat personal but can you give me an idea of what sorts of things you note?

Since I make few investment decisions, my journal doesn’t have a lot of the material that an investor would have. What I try to do is keep track of meetings, thoughts, and ideas so that I can return to them over time. What I can promise is that if you keep a journal with some detail, you’ll be surprised at how your views change over time.

People’s emotional state has a bearing on how they work. How do you go about accounting for that when making decisions?

Emotional state is enormously important. There is the obvious advice that everyone knows, such as don’t make a consequential decision at a point of high arousal—whether that arousal is positive or negative. We’ve already discussed stress, but I’ll reiterate the point. Too much stress is very debilitating for the process of making good decisions, especially for long-term decisions.

Finally, we all have different personalities and those differences portend strengths and weaknesses. Most great investors are somewhat indifferent about what others think. They feel comfortable following their conviction based on analysis. Investors who are highly attuned to others tend to struggle much more, because they have difficulty being a contrarian.

If there is a single change you could recommend to an organization to improve their decisions, what would it be?

Elizabeth Mannix and Margaret Neale, two well-known psychologists, have a great line in one of their survey papers. They write, “To implement policies and practices that increase diversity of the workforce without understanding how diverse individuals can come together to form effective teams is irresponsible.” I love that. So my answer would be that organizations need to learn how to create and manage diversity within their organizations. Most leaders have no idea how to do that.

Let’s end with a variant on my favorite question. You’ve just taken over a university and are required to pick 3 books for every student to read. What would they be and why?

This is an impossible question to answer!

I’d probably start with The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. Understanding evolution strikes me as essential to be a good thinker. Naturally, much has come along to fortify Darwin’s ideas, but many of the core ideas are there. Plus, Darwin himself is a wonderful model: hardworking, humble, modest, always learning.

Next I’d go with something very modern, Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow. That this is the opus of the man who is likely the greatest living psychologist is reason alone to read it. But my motivation would be that learning how to make good decisions is perhaps the greatest skill you can have in your life. And with some sense of how you are likely to go wrong, perhaps you can increase your odds of getting it right.

Finally, I’d go with How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren. This is a guide on how to be effective at what should be one of your most important activities in life: reading.


If you enjoyed this, you’ll love our podcast.

Robert Oppenheimer And The Shape of Genius

Freeman Dyson reviews the new biography of Oppenheimer by Ray Monk:

The subtitle, “A Life Inside the Center,” calls attention to a rarer skill in which Oppenheimer excelled. He had a unique ability to put himself at the places and times at which important things were happening.

Twice I had a reason to talk with him about bombs. The first occasion came in 1958, when I asked for a leave of absence from the institute to work on a project in California aimed at building a nuclear bomb–propelled spaceship. I told him how happy I was to be putting his bombs to better use than murdering people. He did not share my enthusiasm. He considered the spaceship project to be an exercise in applied science, unworthy of the attention of an institute professor. The only activity worthy of an institute professor was to think deep thoughts about pure science. He grudgingly gave me a leave of absence for one year, making it clear that if I stayed away for longer than a year I would not be coming back.

The second occasion for me to talk with Oppenheimer about bombs came a few years later, when I was chairman of the Federation of American Scientists, a political organization of scientists concerned with weapons and arms control. The federation was opposing the US deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in exposed positions in Europe and Asia. We considered these deployments to be unacceptably dangerous, because nuclear-armed troops involved in local fighting could start a nuclear war that would quickly get out of control. When we examined the history of tactical weapons, we learned that Oppenheimer himself had flown to Paris in 1951 to persuade General Eisenhower, then in command of American forces in Europe, that the United States Army needed tactical nuclear weapons to defend Western Europe against a Soviet invasion. Oppenheimer had been enthusiastically promoting the production and deployment of tactical weapons.

After learning this, I went to see Oppenheimer and asked him directly why he had thought that tactical nuclear weapons were a good idea. This time, he answered my question. He said, “To understand why I advocated tactical weapons, you would have to see the Air Force war plan that we had then. That was the God-damnedest thing I ever saw. It was a mindless obliteration of cities and populations. Anything, even a major ground war fought with nuclear weapons, was better than that.

I understood then how it happened that Oppenheimer came to grief. He was caught in a battle between the Army and the Air Force. The Army wanted small bombs to destroy invading armies. The Air Force wanted big bombs to destroy whole countries. The Army wanted fission bombs and the Air Force wanted hydrogen bombs. Oppenheimer was on the side of the Army. That was why he promoted tactical weapons. That was why he opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.

The Air Force took its revenge on the Army by helping to drive Oppenheimer out of the government.

Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center is considered by one of my friends the best biography yet of Oppenheimer.

Maria Konnikova, Interview No. 3

Maria Konnikova is the author of Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. The book takes a deep look at Sherlock Holmes’s methodology to develop the habits of mind that will allow us to mindfully engage the world.

As part of my ongoing, yet irregular, series of interviews with authors and experts, I had the chance to speak with Maria about what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, our memory attic, decision making, and the perils of multitasking.

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You graduated from Harvard. How did you end up there?


I’d grown up in the Boston area and spent a lot of time around Cambridge and Harvard Square. I’d always loved the feel of the Harvard campus and knew from a relatively young age that I’d like to one day progress from onlooker to actual student. I ended up applying for early admission and getting accepted, so didn’t ever need to weigh relative pros and cons. I never regretted the decision, though. Harvard was every bit as wonderful as it had seemed to my ten-year-old mind.


Why did you write Mastermind?


I wanted to convey what I saw as crucial principles about how we think and how we experience the world to a broader audience than would otherwise read psychology books. I thought that the Sherlock Holmes angle would bring an interesting, integrative and novel perspective to the research—and with any luck, reach a wider audience.


Some would argue that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character who never solved a real crime. Why should we try to learn from him?


He was real before he was fictional: Dr. Joseph Bell. Bell inspired the character and most of Holmes’s salient features are taken directly from real life. We should try to learn from his principles of thought so that we can become better diagnosticians, in a sense—people who are more aware of the possibilities and limits of both their own minds and those of others around them.


In your research did you read about any of the other great fictional detectives?


Only superficially. I chose Holmes because the inspiration behind him was a real person, and his principles of thought were taken from a very real way of approaching the world. As far as I know, none of the other great sleuths of his time have the same distinction.


You wrote that one of the key qualities that sets Holmes’ apart is his mindfulness. What does mindfulness mean?


At its simplest, mindfulness means awareness of the present moment.


How can we improve our own mindfulness? What are the habits of thought we need to cultivate? Is it as simple as just turning off twitter?


Turning off Twitter is a start, but far from the whole story. Yes, we need to stop multitasking and letting our attention be pulled in any and every direction. But on the flip-side, we also need to cultivate our ability to pay attention, to be present, to allow ourselves to really experience our surroundings—and our own thoughts. It’s crazy how often we forget to pay attention to what’s going on inside our own heads and bodies.


What should we avoid if we want to improve our mindfulness?


One word: multitasking. In any form.


You mention that Holmes’ offers a process for thinking. Can you elaborate on that?


I mean that his routine and his approach to problems is one that is very clear-cut and that we can strive to emulate. Really, it’s just a version of the scientific method. He always takes the time to think before speaking or acting, to observe and get a feel for the entirety of a person or a question or a situation. Then, he explores it deliberately, with pointed questions and additional observations. He thinks some more—the downtime of not actually doing anything is crucial for him; he always lets things integrate and settle before he moves on. And only then does he act. He also understands the foibles of his own mind better than most of us ever will and strives to constantly take them into consideration so that they don’t cloud his judgment.


How does one ingrain a process into their thinking?


Conscious practice is really the only way. You have to think about doing it and do it, over and over, until it’s second nature.


One thing that characterizes Holmes’ way of thinking is a natural skepticism and inquisitiveness. As you write “nothing is taken at face value.” A lot of Organizations, on the other hand, don’t seem to value these particular traits. How do you think this translates into organizations and group decision-making?


It’s great for compliance and efficiency, if you count efficiency as length of time it takes to get things done. It’s quite poor for innovation and spotting any flaws in existing processes. If you always do things the way they’ve always been done, you may never discover that there’s a much more effective way to do them.


What is a brain attic?


It’s our mind – or rather, the metaphor that Holmes uses to describe our mind and, more specifically, our memory.


Why is the structure and contents of our memory important to our thought process?


In a way, we are our memories. Our background and experiences color how we perceive each moment, how we interpret each input, how we make each decision. If you and I have different memories and perspectives (as we necessarily do), we will never even see (and, later, recall) the same physical event in the same terms—let alone make the same decision in the same situation.


How does what’s already in the attic act as a filter for how we see the world?


This is essentially the same as the last question: it’s our memory, and our memory inherently affects how we view and react to everything.


If I’m just browsing around the Internet mindlessly or, say, sitting in a meeting, are things working their way into my attic?


Yes—but whether or not they stay there, or what form they’ll take, is an entirely different question. If you weren’t really paying attention, you are likely to misremember and conflate things, in the worst case, or fail to remember the particulars, in a better scenario.


How can I become selective about what I let in?


It all goes back to mindfulness. You need to learn to actively pay attention. Your greatest shot at remembering something is at the point of initial encoding, when you first encounter it. Make that memory a strong one.


In the book you talk about the importance of Observation. What does that mean?


Learning to pay attention to everything, with all of our senses. We tend to rely too much on sight, but all of the other senses are equally strong, and sometimes stronger. True observation entails making use of them all.


In the book you mention Marcus Raichle. Can you explain why his work is so important?


Raichle is a pioneer in discovering and explaining how our brain works. He was the first to show us what happens when our minds are not doing much of anything at all—what the brain’s baseline resting state (what he terms the Default Mode Network) is like. That work has inspired a great deal of research in basically every single field of psychology and neuroscience.


You mention that attention is a limited resource. How can it be replenished?


Through rest; through mind breaks and moments of quiet; through food that feeds your brain (as in, you actually have to consume calories); through simple, undervalued sleep.


You mention the work of Yaacov Trope. He argues that psychological distance may be one of the most important factors in terms of improving your thinking and decision making. Can you elaborate on the concept of psychological distance and why it’s important?


It’s actually exactly what it sounds like: you need to step away from yourself and the situation. You can do that by mentally distancing yourself or by physically taking a step back. In a way, distancing forces mindfulness. You have to be aware enough to step back, and stepping back in turn forces you to see the big picture, take in details that you would have missed and perspectives that differ from your own.


What are the best activities to distance ourselves?


Honestly, the physical activity is going to differ for everyone. But for psychological distance, a classic distancing mechanism is the so-called “fly-on-the-wall” paradigm: you simply imagine yourself to be a fly on the wall observing yourself in whatever situation you happen to want distance on. And you see what that hypothetical you is feeling and experiencing, and take it from there. It’s a remarkably effective exercise.


What’s the difference between active and passive knowledge. And how does that play in?


Active knowledge is what we have at our fingertips and can easily apply in any situation. Passive knowledge, we need to think about and may not be able to put to use immediately: we have to work harder to access it and figure out the specifics. You’ll use your active knowledge much more freely and frequently—it’s a kind of self-reinforcing circle. You use it more because you know it better, and it remains more active because you use it more frequently.


We often have a hard time distinguishing between crucial details and incidental ones. Why is that?


Probably, because we haven’t listened to Sherlock Holmes or Yaacov Trope. We forget the importance of distance, space, and time. Instead, we leap right in – and then, all the details blur together. We can’t see the proverbial forest because we never stopped to figure out that we’re in the woods to begin with.


Changing gears a little… How has writing this book changed the way you think?


It has made me more aware of how often I multitask, and how negatively that affects my thinking, my writing, and basically, all of my interactions. I’m trying to be better about noticing when my attention drifts and forcing it back on track. I also pre-schedule my tweets very, very frequently (yes, my dirty little secret) and turn off the internet for long stretches at a time.


If you could recommend five book that everyone should read tomorrow what would they be and why?


I can’t do that. I usually go through multiple books a week, mostly fiction, and have too many that I feel are absolutely essential. But here are a few that stand out: The Collected Poems of W. H. Auden. I read that over and over, and never fail to learn something new about the world and about myself. I am a huge believer in poetry and its power to stimulate your thinking on a deep, mindful level.

Joseph Brodsky’s “Less Than One,” for a remarkable look at a remarkable mind. It also never fails to stimulate my thinking and imagination.

Alice in Wonderland,” by Lewis Carroll, and “The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh” by A. A. Milne, because those are two books that you absolutely must re-read as an adult. They’ve taught me more about the world—and about psychology—than almost anything else.

And if you must have something non-fiction (or, non-literary essays, as in Brodsky’s case), anything by Steven Pinker, one of my mentors and a constant source of inspiration to me in everything I write.

Still curious? Read Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.

Karl Pillemer, Interview No. 2

Karl Pillemer is the author of 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

I posted some of the key lessons from his book last week.

As part of my ongoing series of interviews with authors and experts, I had the chance to speak with Karl about the most important lessons that should be passed on to the younger generations, whether happiness is a choice, the keys to a happy marriage, and the biggest regrets.

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Can you tell me about yourself? This was a fascinating project, how did this project come about?


As a gerontologist – someone who studies older people – I realized that I had focused much of my research over the past 25 years on problems of aging: nursing homes, Alzheimer’s disease, elder abuse. And that’s how our society also often looks at old people: as frail, needy, and about to bust our federal budget. But in my work, I kept meeting older people – many of whom had lost loved ones, been through tremendous difficulties, and had serious health problems – but who nevertheless were happy, fulfilled, and deeply enjoying life. I found myself asking: “What’s that all about?”

And I started seeing some fascinating research in the field of positive psychology. Study after study has shown that older people – in their 70s, 80s, and beyond – are actually happier than younger people.

One day it hit me: Maybe older people know things that younger people don’t about living a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. To my surprise I found that no one had actually done a study to answer the question: What practical advice do older people have for the younger generation? That set me off on a quest for knowledge – for the practical wisdom of older people – that lasted seven years.

So two of the main reasons for doing the project are these:

First, the fundamental hypothesis of this project and the book is that older people are the most credible experts we have on how to live happy and fulfilled lives during hard times. They have experienced extraordinarily historical events that tested their limits – and they have learned how to cope with them, to survive and to thrive. They have also been through the kinds of personal challenges and tragedies that younger people lie awake at night worrying about: loss of parents and spouses, even children; the ups and downs of marriage, child-rearing problems, bad jobs and unemployment. And they have come through them, and often are happier than younger people, as research shows us. What better source of advice for living for the rest of us?

Second, it was absolutely urgent to do a project like this now. Because this precious resource – the wisdom for living from this greatest generation – is about to disappear. In 10 years, most of this extraordinary generation – who lived through poverty in the Depression, who fought or held families together in WW II – will almost all be gone. And their advice for living would be lost forever.

That’s what I was able to capture in the Legacy Project: Not clichés or platitudes – like you see in some self-help books – but real, practical advice and tips for living better, on things like how to find a mate and stay happily married, how to raise kids, how to find a great job and succeed at it, how to avoid regrets, and how to age successfully. I wanted to take it and make it easy and fun to read for younger people – and older as well.


You interviewed a diverse group of over 1,000 seniors. A group you call “the experts” because they’ve done something we haven’t, that is, they’ve lived a long life. What is the most important lesson they want to pass along to the young?


At the core of their lessons for younger people is one major insight. And this lesson is a key to understanding their other lessons. It’s a beautiful example, because it shows something older people uniquely know – because of where they stand on life’s road – but that younger people can benefit from.

This lesson is one that almost everyone expressed. And they did it vehemently. It is kind of like one of those nightmares where you are yelling and no one can hear you. What they want younger people to know is this: life is short. The older the respondent, the more likely to say that life passes by in what seems like an instant.

They say this not to depress younger people, but to get them to be more aware and selective about how they use their time. Older people practice what psychologists call ‘socioemotional selectivity” – because their time is limited, they make careful decisions about how to use their time. The discovery of the Legacy Project is that younger people can learn from this and practice it earlier in life. As one man told me: “I wish I’d learned this in my 30s instead of in my 60s; I would have had so much more time to enjoy life.”

So they tell young people to stop wasting time and instead to use it more carefully. Some implications of this insight are to say things now to people you care about, whether it is expressing gratitude, asking forgiveness, or getting information; spending the maximum amount of time with children; and savoring daily pleasures instead of waiting for “big-ticket items” to make you happy.

Another piece of advice comes from this idea that life is much shorter than you realize: Take a chance. People in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond endorse taking risks when you’re young, contrary to a stereotype that elders are conservative. Their message to young people starting out is “Go for it!” They say that you are much more likely to regret what you didn’t do than what you did. As one 80-year old, successful entrepreneur told me: ‘Unless you have a compelling reason to say no, always say yes to opportunities.”


One of the things I took away from the book is that a lot of the people you interviewed believed that happiness is a choice, that we can just choose to be happy. Some people are skeptical of the claim happiness is a choice. Can you elaborate on that?


One of my first interviewees made me aware of this core piece of elder wisdom. I asked her to help me to understand the sources of her happiness. She thought for a moment and then offered the explanation that could serve as a motto for the elders: “In my 89 years, I’ve learned that happiness is a choice – not a condition.”

Most of the elders said that taking charge of one’s own happiness simply must happen at some point if one is going to live a fulfilling life, and especially in old age. Not trying to assume control over everything that happens to us – they laughed at that idea – but over our own conscious attitude toward happiness.

Another elder told me: “My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life.”

The elders make the key distinction between events that happen to us on the one hand, and our internal attitude toward happiness on the other. Happy in spite of. Happiness is not a passive condition dependent on external events, nor is it the result of our personalities – just being born a happy person. Instead, happiness requires a conscious shift in outlook, in which one chooses – daily – optimism over pessimism, hope over despair.

Another of the elders described this idea as a revelation to her: “The biggest light bulb over my head came to me when I saw I could move away from painful situations by using my choices. I didn’t have to stay and take the pain. I could initiate change. This was a turning point in my life.”

You can choose to be happy, the Experts tell us, in spite of financial hardship, illness and loss. And it’s not an empty cliché, because so many are doing it right now.


What do the experts say is most important for a long and happy marriage?


Their number one lesson is: Choose your mate carefully! The key is not to rush the decision, taking all the time needed to get to know the prospective partner and to determine your compatibility with them. Said one respondent: “Don’t rush in without knowing each other deeply. That’s very dangerous, but people do it all the time.” Also make sure you like his or her family.


One of the tips was to work in a job you love. They were essentially saying life is short, choose a job for intrinsic not monetary rewards. Can you expand on that and maybe touch on any tips they had on making the best of a bad job?


The elders are unanimous on that one point: Choose a career for its intrinsic value rather than how much money you will make. Our elders are keenly aware of how short life is, and they think it’s a mistake to waste precious lifetime in work you don’t like. They tell you to avoid statements like: ‘I’d really love to do ___, but I think I can make more money doing ___.’ According to our elders, you need to be able to get up on the morning excited about work, so choose your career with that in mind.

And it’s true that the older generation has this advice for work: Make the most of a bad job. Remember that many of these folks who grew up in the Great Depression had bad jobs early on – in fact, their bad jobs make our bad jobs look like good jobs! They found, however, that they learned invaluable lessons from these less-than-ideal work situations. You can learn how the industry works, about communicating with other employees, about customer service. As one man told me: ‘You can even learn from a bad boss – how not to be a bad boss!’ All this is useful in your future career.

I would add that when asked about what makes a job truly rewarding, the oldest Americans stress autonomy. They suggest that you look for a job that offers you as much self-direction as possible – and that taking a lower salary for a job that offers you greater freedom is worth it. An 82-year old successful entrepreneur told me: “The autonomy – most people never understand that. They’re slaves to somebody. The feeling that when you have this freedom –– there’s no money that can pay for it. You can’t buy it. You have to earn it, you have to feel it, and you know something? It doesn’t get better!’”


What were their biggest regrets?


When asked what they regret in life, many of the oldest Americans said: ‘I wish I’d traveled more.’ They recommend that people embrace travel, and especially when they are young. So if young people right now are wondering what to do with those graduation gifts, elder wisdom says to look into some travel (and low budget is fine) before you begin that first job.

Another of their biggest regrets made a real impression on me. I need to admit that I’m a world-class worrier. So for me a particularly striking lesson for avoiding regret – and a nearly unanimous one – was this: Stop worrying. The elders deeply regret time wasted worrying about things that never happened. So looking back from the end of life, they take a radical view of worry. As one elder told me: “Worry wastes your life.” In the book, I give readers specific tips offered by the elders for breaking the worry habit – and they work!


What’s changed in your life — what do you do differently now — after writing this book?


I can genuinely say that the six years I spent talking to older people all over the country about their lessons for living changed my own life. I have tried to put into practice what they told me as much as I can. One thing just about every elder advises is this: “Live like your life is short.” That’s one thing they know from the vantage point at the end of the life course. They say this not to depress us, but to help us make better decisions, to savor daily life, and to say things to people that need to be said (while they are still around). I have developed more of a “carpe diem” mentality since doing this project, and I think people who read the book will too.

Probably the most extraordinary thing I learned was this: Old age is much better than we think it will be. For a lot of people who read the book, I think they will wind up being a lot less fearful about the last third of life, and much more optimistic. As one person told me: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.” Despite their problems, most of the people I interviewed feel that they are happier in some ways, freer, clearer in their priorities than they were when they were younger.

If anything comes out of this book, I hope it’s this: Making people aware of the source of wisdom that’s right in front of them: America’s elders. We’re going through economic upheavals and families are struggling: Who better to ask than people who survived the Great Depression? Families are struggling with our military involvements: Why not ask people who supported families through World War II? Struggling in your marriage? Why not ask people who have been happily married for 50 or 60 years? I’d love to see these kinds of conversations going on in every family – how about starting with family holidays like Thanksgiving?

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Still curious? Buy 30 Lessons for Living.

Daniel Dennett: Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

After reading How to Make Mistakes and How to Criticize with Kindness, a reader sent in a link to this video of Philosopher Daniel Dennett speaking at Google. Dennett is the author of the faboulous Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking.

Dennett deploys his thinking tools to gain traction on … thorny issues while offering readers insight into how and why each tool was built. Alongside well-known favorites like Occam’s Razor and reductio ad absurdum lie thrilling descriptions of Dennett’s own creations: Trapped in the Robot Control Room, Beware of the Prime Mammal, and The Wandering Two-Bitser. Ranging across disciplines as diverse as psychology, biology, computer science, and physics, Dennett’s tools embrace in equal measure light-heartedness and accessibility as they welcome uninitiated and seasoned readers alike. As always, his goal remains to teach you how to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions.”