Category: Thinking

Illusion of Transparency: Your Poker Face is Better Than You Think

We tend to think that people can easily tell what we’re thinking and feeling. They can’t. Understanding the illusion of transparency bias can improve relationships, job performance, and more.

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“A wonderful fact to reflect upon, that every human creature is constituted to be that profound secret and mystery to every other.” ― Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

When we experience strong emotions, we tend to think it’s obvious to other people, especially those who know us well. When we’re angry or tired or nervous or miserable, we may assume that anyone who looks at our face can spot it straight away.

That’s not true. Most of the time, other people can’t correctly guess what we’re thinking or feeling. Our emotions are not written all over our face all the time. The gap between our subjective experience and what other people pick up on is known as the illusion of transparency. It’s a fallacy that leads us to overestimate how easily we convey our emotions and thoughts.

For example, you arrive at the office exhausted after a night with too little sleep. You drift around all day, chugging espressos, feeling sluggish and unfocused. Everything you do seems to go wrong. At the end of the day, you sheepishly apologize to a coworker for being “useless all day.”

They look at you, slightly confused. ‘Oh,’ they say. ‘You seemed fine to me.’ Clearly, they’re just being polite. There’s no way your many minor mistakes during the day could have escaped their notice. It must be extra apparent considering your coworkers all show up looking fresh as a daisy every single day.

Or imagine that you have to give a talk in front of a big crowd and you’re terrified. As you step on stage, your hands shake, your voice keeps catching in your throat, you’re sweating and flushed. Afterward, you chat to someone from the audience and remark: ‘So that’s what a slow-motion panic attack looks like.’

‘Well, you seemed like a confident speaker,’ they say. ‘You didn’t look nervous at all. I wish I could be as good at public speaking.’ Evidently, they were sitting at the back or they have bad eyesight. Your shaking hands and nervous pauses were far too apparent. Especially compared to the two wonderful speakers who came after you.

No one cares

“Words are the source of misunderstandings.” ― Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince

The reality is that other people pay much less attention to you than you think. They’re often far too absorbed in their own subjective experiences to pick up on subtle cues related to the feelings of others. If you’re annoyed at your partner, they’re probably too busy thinking about what they need to do at work tomorrow or what they’re planning to cook for dinner to scrutinize your facial expressions. They’re not deliberately ignoring you, they’re just thinking about other things. While you’re having a bad day at work, your coworkers are probably distracted by their own deadlines and personal problems. You could fall asleep sitting up and many of them wouldn’t even notice. And when you give a talk in front of people, most of them are worrying about the next time they have to do any public speaking or when they can get a coffee.

In your own subjective experience, you’re in the eye of the storm. But what other people have to go on are things like your tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language. The clues these provide can be hard to read. Unless someone is trying their best to figure out what you’re thinking or feeling, they’re not going to be particularly focused on your body language. If you make even the slightest effort to conceal your inner state, you’re quite able to hide it altogether from everyone.

Our tendency to overestimate how much attention people are paying to us is a result of seeing our own perspective as the only perspective. If we’re feeling a strong emotion, we assume other people care about how we feel as much as we do. This egocentric bias leads to the spotlight effect—in social situations, we feel like there’s a spotlight shining on us. It’s not self-obsession, it’s natural. But overall, this internal self-focus is what makes you think other people can tell what you’re thinking.

Take the case of lying. Even if we try to err on the side of honesty, we all face situations where we feel we have no option except to tell a lie. Setting aside the ethics of the matter, most of us probably don’t feel good about lying. It makes us uncomfortable. It’s normal to worry that whoever you’re lying to will easily be able to tell. Again, unless you’re being very obvious, the chances of someone else picking up on it are smaller than you think. In one study, participants asked to lie to other participants estimated they’d be caught about half the time. In fact, people only guessed they were lying about a quarter of the time—a rate low enough for random chance to account for it.

Tactics

“Even if one is neither vain nor self-obsessed, it is so extraordinary to be oneself—exactly oneself and no one else—and so unique, that it seems natural that one should also be unique for someone else.” ― Simone de Beauvoir

Understanding how the illusion of transparency works can help you navigate otherwise challenging situations with ease.

Start with accepting that other people don’t usually know what you’re thinking and feeling. If you want someone to know your mental state, you need to tell them in the clearest terms possible. You can’t make assumptions. Being subtle about your feelings is not the best idea, especially in high-stakes situations. Err on the side of caution whenever possible by communicating plainly in words about your feelings or views.

Likewise, if you think you know how someone else feels, you should ask them to confirm. You shouldn’t assume you’ve got it right—you probably haven’t. If it’s important, you need to double check. The person who seems calm on the surface might be frenzied underneath. Some of us just appear unhappy to others all the time, no matter how we’re feeling. If you can’t pick up on someone’s mental state, they might not be vocalizing it because they think it’s obvious. So ask.

As Dylan Evans writes in Risk Intelligence: How To Live With Uncertainty,

The first and most basic remedy is simply to treat all your hunches about the thoughts and feelings of other people with a pinch of salt and to be similarly skeptical about their ability to read your mind. It can be hard to resist the feeling that someone is lying to you, or that your own honesty will shine through, but with practice it can be done.

The illusion of transparency doesn’t go away just because you know someone well. Even partners, family members and close friends have difficulty reading each other’s mental states. The problem compounds when we think they should be able to do this. We can easily become annoyed when they can’t. If you’re upset or angry and someone close to you doesn’t make any attempt to make you feel better, they are not necessarily ignoring you. They just haven’t noticed anything is wrong, or they may not know how you want them to respond. As Hanlon’s razor teaches us, it’s best not to assume malicious intent. Understanding this can help avoid arguments that spring up based on thinking we’re communicating clearly when we’re not.

“Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

Set yourself free

Knowing about the illusion of transparency can be liberating. Guess what? No one really cares. Or almost no one. If you’ve got food stuck between your teeth or you stutter during a speech or you’re exhausted at work, you might as well assume no one has noticed. Most of the time, they haven’t.

Back to public speaking: We get it all wrong when we think people can tell we’re nervous about giving a talk. In a study entitled “The illusion of transparency and the alleviation of speech anxiety,” Kenneth Savitskya and Thomas Gilovich tested how knowing about the effect could help people feel less scared about public speaking.1 When participants were asked to give a speech, their self-reported levels of nervousness were well above what audience members guessed they were experiencing. Inside, they felt like a nervous wreck. On the outside, they looked calm and collected.

But when speakers learned about the illusion of transparency beforehand, they were less concerned about audience perceptions and therefore less nervous. They ended up giving better speeches, according to both their own and audience assessments. It’s a lot easier to focus on what you’re saying if you’re not so worried about what everyone else is thinking.

The sun revolves around me, doesn’t it?

In psychology, anchoring refers to our tendency to make an estimated guess by selecting whatever information is easily available as our “anchor,” then adjusting from that point. Often, the adjustments are insufficient. This is exactly what happens when you try to guess the mental state of others. If we try to estimate how a friend feels, we take how we feel as our starting point, then adjust our guess from there.

According to the authors of a paper entitled “The Illusion of Transparency: Biased Assessments of Other’s Ability to Read One’s Emotional States,”

People are typically quite aware of their own internal states and tend to focus on them rather intently when they are strong. To be sure, people recognize that others are not privy to the same information as they are, and they attempt to adjust for this fact when trying to anticipate another’s perspective. Nevertheless, it can be hard to get beyond one’s own perspective even when one knows that.

This is similar to hindsight bias, where things seem obvious in retrospect, even if they weren’t beforehand. When you look back on an event, it’s hard to disentangle what you knew then from what you know now. You can only use your current position as an anchor, a perspective which is inevitably skewed.

If you’re trying to hide your mental state, you’re probably doing better than you think. Unless you’re talking to, say, a trained police interrogator or professional poker player, other people are easy to fool. They’re not looking that hard, so a mild effort to hide your emotions is likely to work well. People can’t read your mind, whether you’re trying to pretend you don’t hate the taste of a trendy new beer, or trying to conceal your true standing in a negotiation to gain more leverage.

The illusion of transparency explains why, even once you’re no longer a teenager, it still seems like few people understand you. It’s not that other people are ambivalent or confused. Your feelings just aren’t as clear as you think. Often you can’t see beyond the confines of your own head and neither can anyone else. It’s best to make allowances for that.

Footnotes
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    https://rsrc.psychologytoday.com/files/u47/sdarticle.pdf

Focused and Diffuse: Two Modes of Thinking

Our brains employ two modes of thinking to tackle any large task: focused and diffuse. Both are equally valuable but serve very different purposes. To do your best work, you need to master both.

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As she lost consciousness of outer things…her mind kept throwing up from its depths, scenes, and names, and sayings, and memories and ideas, like a fountain spurting. — Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Professor and former Knowledge Project Podcast guest, Barbara Oakley, is credited with popularizing the concept of focused and diffuse forms of thinking. In A Mind for Numbers, Oakley explains how distinct these modes are and how we switch between the two throughout the day. We are constantly in pursuit of true periods of focus – deep work, flow states, and highly productive sessions where we see tangible results. Much of the learning process occurs during the focused mode of thinking. The diffuse mode is equally important to understand and pursue.

When our minds are free to wander, we shift into a diffuse mode of thinking. This is sometimes referred to as our natural mode of thinking, or the daydream mode; it’s when we form connections and subconsciously mull over problems. Although diffuse thinking comes in the guise of a break from focus, our minds are still working. Often, it’s only after we switch away from this mode that we realize our brains were indeed working for us. Moving into diffuse mode can be a very brief phenomenon, such as when we briefly stare into the distance before returning to work.

Oakley uses evolutionary biology to explain why we have these two distinct modes. Vertebrates need both focused and diffuse modes to survive. The focused mode is useful for vital tasks like foraging for food or caring for offspring. On the other hand, the diffuse mode is useful for scanning the area for predators and other threats. She explains: “A bird, for example, needs to focus carefully so it can pick up tiny pieces of grain as it pecks the ground for food, and at the same time, it must scan the horizon for predators such as hawks…. If you watch birds, they’ll first peck, and then pause to scan the horizon—almost as if they are alternating between focused and diffuse modes.”

Both modes of thinking are equally valuable, but it’s the harmony between them which matters. We can’t maintain the effort of the focused mode for long. At some point, we need to relax and slip into the diffuse mode. Learning a complex skill —a language, a musical instrument, chess, a mental model—requires both modes to work together. We master the details in focused mode, then comprehend how everything fits together in diffuse mode. It’s about combining creativity with execution.

Think of how your mind works when you read. As you read a particular sentence of a book, you can’t simultaneously step back to ponder the entire work. Only when you put the book down can you develop a comprehensive picture, drawing connections between concepts and making sense of it all.

In a journal article entitled “The Middle Way: Finding the Balance between Mindfulness and Mind-Wandering” the authors write that “consciousness… ebbs like a breaking wave, outwardly expanding and then inwardly retreating. This perennial rhythm of the mind—extracting information from the external world, withdrawing to inner musings, and then returning to the outer realm—defines mental life.” This mental oscillation is important. If we stay in a focused mode too long, diminishing returns set in and our thinking stagnates. We stop getting new ideas and can experience cognitive tunnelling. It’s also tiring, and we become less productive. This can also set the conditions for us to fall victim to counter-productive cognitive biases and risky shortcuts, as we lose context and the bigger picture.

History is peppered with examples of serendipitous discoveries and ideas that combined diffuse and focused thinking. In many cases, the broad insight came during diffuse thinking periods, while the concrete development work was accomplished in focused mode.

Einstein figured out relativity during an argument with a friend. He then spent decades refining and clarifying his theories for publication, working until the day before his death. Many of Stephen King’s books begin as single sentences scribbled in a notebook or on a napkin after showering, driving, or walking. To turn these ideas into books, he then sticks to a focused schedule, writing 2000 words each morning. Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road following seven years of travel and drawing links between his experiences. After years of planning and drafting, he wrote his masterpiece in just three weeks using a 120-foot roll of tracing paper to avoid having to change the sheets in his typewriter. Both Thomas Edison and Salvador Dali took advantage of micro-naps lasting less than a second to generate ideas. Take a look at the recorded schedule of any great mind and you will see a careful balance between activities chosen to facilitate both focused and diffuse modes of thinking.

Studies exploring creative thinking have supported the idea that we need both types of thinking. In a paper entitled “The Richness of Inner Experience: Relating Styles of Daydreaming to Creative Processes,” Zedelius and Schooler write that “Research has supported the theorized benefit of stimulus independent thought for creativity. It was found that taking a break from consciously working on a creative problem and engaging in an unrelated task improves subsequent creativity, a phenomenon termed incubation.” When asked to generate novel uses for common objects such as a brick or paperclip, a useful test of creativity, individuals who are given breaks to engage in tasks which facilitate diffuse thinking tend to come up with more ideas. So how can we better fit the two modes together?

One way is to work in intense, focused bursts. When the ideas stop flowing and diminishing returns set in, do something which is conducive to mind-wandering. Exercise, walk, read, or listen to music. We veer naturally toward this diffuse state—gazing out of windows, walking around the room or making coffee when focusing gets too hard. The problem is that activities which encourage diffuse thinking can make us feel lazy and guilty. Instead, we often opt for mediocre substitutes, like social media, which give our mind a break without really allowing for true mind-wandering.

Our minds are eventually going to beg for a diffuse mode break no matter how much focus we try to maintain. Entering the diffuse mode requires stepping away and doing something which ideally is physically absorbing and mentally freeing. It might feel like taking a break or wasting time, but it’s a necessary part of creating something valuable.

The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness

Along the same vein as Yvon Chouinard’s Let My People Go Surfing, The Eternal Pursuit of Unhappiness is the business philosophy handbook from the marketing, advertising, and PR firm Ogilvy & Mather.

The book is a roadmap for the desired organizational culture at Ogilvy & Mather and clearly articulates the unique culture they espouse: one focused heavily on creativity.

The book outlines eight simple virtues of an organization where creativity is pervasive:

  1. Courage
  2. Idealism
  3. Curiosity
  4. Playfulness
  5. Candour
  6. Intuition
  7. Free-Spiritedness
  8. Persistence

These eight virtues are common to creative people down through the ages. They are our path to recognizing our own inner greatness. Together, they should represent the distillation of what is best in this company. We must live by them and for them.

1. Courage

If fear is our principal adversary, then, courage is our chief ally. It is the first of the eight creative habits for good reason: it is the habit that guarantees all the others.

In the absence of courage, nothing worthwhile can be accomplished.

2. Idealism

Helen Keller, the deaf and blind activist, was asked by a journalist what she thought would be worse than being born blind. She replied without missing a beat, ‘to have sight and no vision.’

3. Curiosity

‘He who no longer pauses to wonder and stand rapt in awe,’ Einstein pronounced, ‘is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.’

It is only in the open state of curiosity that we can explore, dream and make babies in our heads.

For a start, we have to ask stupid questions like a pesky 6-year-old.

Once again, Einstein has something to say on the matter (as well as proving that he would have made a very short-lived cat): ‘I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted,’ the physicist said. ‘I am only very, very curious.’

4. Playfulness

David (Ogilvy) never entirely grew up.

He would heckle in meetings, throw chocolate cakes at dinner parties and roll down grassy slopes in Brooks Brothers suits.

He told us to develop our eccentricities while we’re young so people would not think we’re going gaga as we got older.

Like all creative people, David knew that necessity may be the mother of invention, but it is horseplay that’s most certainly the father.

5. Candour

We are a company of problem solvers.

Our job requires us to be brutally honest and totally dedicated to the truth.

For unless we know the truth, in all its unlovely details, how are we going to go about the business of problem solving.

The tendency to be nice and avoid telling the truth is so omnipresent in human beings that it can properly be considered a characteristic of human nature.

6. Intuition

We waste our beautiful mind by leaning lopsidedly on logic.

We are in the business of creativity and discovery. What clients value most about us is our ability to find one-of-a-kind solutions for their business problems through intuitive leaps.

7. Free-Spiritedness

Ironically, most agencies fail to grasp the fragility of the idea-generation process.

The notion that bureaucratic sausage factories pumping out fodder for meetings will solve the problem is ludicrous, as are the box-ticking, paint-by-numbers follow-up sessions.

The work is, not infrequently, as dull as the meetings that precede it.

Bureaucracy has no place in an ideas company.

8. Persistence

If the client kills your day, do him a better one.

If he kills the better one, do him an even better one.

If he kills that even better one, do him your damn best one.

Dogged determination is often the only trait that separates a moderately creative person from a highly creative one.

If you’re interested in reading the book for yourself, you’ll have a very hard time finding it on the open market (as the Amazon link above attests). To learn more this video does a great job of summarizing the eight virtues. You could also listen to The Knowledge Project Podcast Episode #19 with Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather.

The Lies We Tell

We make up stories in our minds and then against all evidence, defend them tooth and nail. Understanding why we do this is the key to discovering truth and making wiser decisions.

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Our brains are quirky.

When I put my hand on a hot stove, I have instantly created awareness of a cause and effect relationship—“If I put my hand on a hot stove, it will hurt.” I’ve learned something fundamental about the world. Our brains are right to draw that conclusion. It’s a linear relationship, cause and effects are tightly coupled, feedback is near immediate, and there aren’t many other variables at play.

The world isn’t always this easy to understand. When cause and effect aren’t obvious, we still draw conclusions. Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman offers an example of how our brains look for, and assume, causality:

“After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.”

That’s all you get. No background on Jane, or any particulars about where she went. Kahneman presented this miniature story to his test subjects hidden among several other statements. When Kahneman later offered a surprise recall test, “the word pickpocket was more strongly associated with the story than the word sights, even though the latter was actually in the sentence while the former was not.” 1

What happened here?

There’s a bug in the evolutionary code that makes up our brains. We have a hard time distinguishing between when cause and effect is clear,  as with the hot stove or chess, and when it’s not, as in the case of Jane and her wallet. We don’t like not knowing. We also love a story.

Our minds create plausible stories. In the case of Jane, many test subjects thought a pickpocket had taken her wallet, but there are other possible scenarios. More people lose wallets than have them stolen. But our patterns of beliefs take over, such as how we feel about New York or crowds, and we construct cause and effect relationships. We tell ourselves stories that are convincing, cheap, and often wrong. We don’t think about how these stories are created, whether they’re right, or how they persist. And we’re often uncomfortable when someone asks us to explain our reasoning.

Imagine a meeting where we are discussing Jane and her wallet, not unlike any meeting you have this week to figure out what happened and what decisions your organization needs to make next.

You start the meeting by saying “Jane’s wallet was stolen. Here’s what we’re going to do in response.”

But one person in the meeting, Micky, Jane’s second cousin, asks you to explain the situation.

You volunteer what you know. “After spending a day exploring beautiful sights in the crowded streets of New York, Jane discovered that her wallet was missing.” And you quickly launch into improved security measures.

Micky, however, tells herself a different story, because just last week a friend of hers left his wallet at a store. And she knows Jane can sometimes be absentminded. The story she tells herself is that Jane probably lost her wallet in New York. So she asks you, “What makes you think the wallet was stolen?”

The answer is obvious to you. You feel your heart rate start to rise. Frustration sets in.

You tell yourself that Micky is an idiot. This is so obvious. Jane was out. In New York. In a crowd. And we need to put in place something to address this wallet issue so that it doesn’t happen again. You think to yourself that she’s slowing the group down and we need to act now.

What else is happening? It’s likely you looked at the evidence again and couldn’t really explain how you drew your conclusion. Rather than have an honest conversation about the story you told yourself and the story Micky is telling herself, the meeting gets tense and goes nowhere.

The next time you catch someone asking you about your story and you can’t explain it in a falsifiable way, pause, and hit reset. Take your ego out of it. What you really care about is finding the truth, even if that means the story you told yourself is wrong.

Footnotes
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    Kahneman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux 2011

Compounding Knowledge

The filing cabinet of knowledge stored in Warren Buffett’s brain has helped make him the most successful investor of our time. But it takes much more than simply reading a lot. In this article, learn how to create your own “snowball effect” to compound what you know into opportunity.

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Alice Schroeder, the author of Warren Buffett’s authorized biography The Snowball, tells the story of getting into Buffet’s thinking in this informative talk. In her words,

Starting [at a young age] he’s read everything that he could find about business. The subject that interests him, he’s read newspapers, biographies, trade press. He went over to his grandfather who was a grocer and he read the progressive grocer magazine, and he read articles on how to stock a meat department. He’s gone to visit every company that he could find that was even slightly interesting to him, he went down to visit a barrel maker and spent hours talking about how to make barrels. He went to American Express, and he spent hours talking about that business, he went to GEICO and learned about the insurance business. He has stacks of reports on his desk from the companies he owns, pig stalls, jewelry, boat winches, everything you can imagine. He reads hundreds of annual reports every year from companies that he doesn’t own yet, because he just wants to understand their businesses, and then when the opportunity arises, then he’s ready and he can make a decision. What he’s really done is he’s created this immense vertical filing cabinet in his brain of layers and layers and layers of files of information that he can draw back on now for more than 70 years worth of data.

Expiring Information

A lot of us are on the treadmill of consuming expiring information. Not Buffett. He filled his mental filing cabinet with information that had a long half-life.

While most of us focus on consuming information that we won’t care about next month, let alone next year, Buffett focused on knowledge and companies that change very, very slowly or not at all. And because the information he was learning changed slowly he could compound his knowledge over time. And as Schroeder notes, Buffett has been in business for a long time, giving him incredible opportunities to create a cumulative base of knowledge.

Expiring information is sexy but it’s not knowledge. Here are a few telltale signs you’re dealing with expiring information. First, it’s marketed to you. Second, lacking details and nuance, it’s easily digestible. This is why it’s commonly telling you what happened, not why it happened or under what conditions it might happen again. Third, it won’t be relevant in a month or a year.  Expiring information is one reason I stopped reading most news. It’s a false map.

But there is another subtle difference to Buffett’s approach that often goes unnoticed and few people talk about.

Matching Patterns

Buffett insists on doing his own thinking and vacuums up the details. When we don’t think for ourselves it’s easy to put the blame on someone else, to “pass the buck” so to speak.

When we consume information that doesn’t expire or expires slowly;  is very detailed; and we spend time thinking about it not passing the buck, we can match patterns. This is how you learn to see what other people are missing. The longer you do this, the more advantage you get.

Most of us use a computer to store information so that we can retrieve it when we need it. We’ve organized our knowledge around a computer. Not Buffett.

The biggest thing he’s done is to learn and create this cumulative base of knowledge in his head. One reason that he doesn’t use a computer is that in a sense, he is one. He also needs a computer to get…he uses it for news. He wants to know what’s going on in the world. So he is on the internet a lot to get news reports, and he’s up late at night seeing what’s going on. He doesn’t use it as a filing cabinet or for computation.

Just like the rest of us, Buffett’s dependent on information and knowledge to make great decisions. Unlike most of us, he has a great memory—perhaps because he’s not trying to outsource his memory or thinking to others.

A lot of what the snowball is about the concept of learning, and creating, and the advantage of having the information and knowing it. When I came here today one of the things that I was thinking is that what you do is so much at the intersection, because retrieving information is different from having it already in your head. The internet is wonderful for being able to retrieve and get information.

What you do is different. You work on manipulating how you use the information. In fact, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger have the files in their head. That’s why they aren’t really out there googling all the time looking for, trying to look stuff up, because they already know it.

There are applications that somebody who doesn’t have the upper digits memory and their computational power would need in order to be as successful as them. Sometimes when they say, we don’t use computers. An ordinary person can be them.

I think a lot of the work that you do here is helpful to the ordinary person, but Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger don’t need it. At the same time, the lesson that they have, which is that learning yourself, making yourself as smart as you can is extremely valid, and not just relying on a library where you can look something up all the time, because a lot of times when you need to make a decision, and you need 50 pieces of information, you need to know it then.

That’s been one of Warren Buffet’s greatest secrets of success.

I’m not suggesting we all copy Buffett.

While there is no denying he’s successful, the way we think he developed his remarkable facility owes a great deal to living in a certain time period, with a certain biology, and a level of focus and dedication to a single pursuit that few of us can manage. That doesn’t mean we should go to the other extreme and ignore him.

There is much we can learn from him. The key questions are: what’s he doing that works, why does it work, and can I adapt it to my circumstances?

Further Considerations:

  • Will you care about what you’re reading in a month? In a year? In five years?
  • Are you focused enough on the same thing to build cumulative knowledge or are you too spread out?
  • What do you spend time on that’s likely to change in the next few years? What’s not likely to change?
  • What would need to happen for you to stop outsourcing organization of information to the computer?

The Snowball is about learning, lifelong learning. Spending some time with these questions will allow you to find ways to make your own learning and your knowledge base more powerfully productive for you.

***

Members of the FS Learning Community can discuss this article on the inside.

Your First Thought Is Rarely Your Best Thought: Lessons on Thinking

The best advice I’ve ever gotten about thinking came from a private-company CEO who has a thirty-year track record that’s up there with Warren Buffett’s. One day he said to me, “Shane, most people don’t actually think. They just take their first thought and go.”

We’re all busy. We’ve got meetings, phone calls, texts, kids, spouses, parents, friends, and of course the ever-present email. Busyness has become an end in itself, and nothing is more dangerous. What my CEO friend meant was that people are losing the ability to think through a problem.

Most people schedule themselves like lawyers. They work in five- to eight-minute increments, scheduled back to back. The best part of their day is when they manage to sneak away for a quick coffee with a friend before heading into the next meeting they haven’t had time to prepare for.

I actually schedule time to think. It sounds ridiculous, I know, but I protect this time as if my livelihood depended on it because it does. Sometimes I’m in the office and sometimes I’m in a coffee shop. I’m not always thinking about a problem that I’m wresting with. I’m often just thinking about things I already know or, more accurately, things I think I know. Setting aside time for thinking works wonders, not only for me but also for most of the people I’ve convinced to give it a try.

The problem with not having time to think is nailed by William Deresiewicz, who said:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom.

Here’s what Deresiewicz says does work:

It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

A lot of people see thinking more than a few minutes as a waste of time, but this viewpoint is shortsighted and flawed. While it might take me 30 minutes to come to the same conclusion that you come to in 5, I’ll likely have a better idea of the nuances of the situation, including which variables matter the most. I’ll know what to watch for and I’ll know how to frame things for other people to appeal to their interests. Not only will collaboration take less time, but I’ll make fewer mistakes. That’s the real advantage.

Thinking time is non-linear. The time you spend thinking – walking around a problem in a three-dimensional way and exploring all of the various perspectives and mental models – pays you back tenfold in the end. The problem for those who are shortsighted is that this time will appear as a negative for a while because it looks like nothing is getting done. This situation is a great example of what I call first-order negative, second-order positive.

A lot of things in life are first-order positive and second-order negative. Heroin is an obvious one, sugar less so. We have trouble delaying gratification, so we do a lot of things that are first-order positive, second-order negative. We buy bigger houses than we need, only to find that rising interest rates make the mortgage payment untenable. We buy the sexy car only to discover later that it depreciates faster than the commuter car.

A real advantage is conferred on people who can do things that are first-order negative, second-order positive. Especially if these first-order negatives are very visible costs with no immediate benefit in the short term and a non-linear benefit at some future time.

Intuitively we know the value of delayed gratification. We tell our kids that they need to get an education, which is nothing more than preparation for life. And yet once we get out of school and start working full time, we are conditioned to think in terms of today and tomorrow, rather than months or years ahead. Suddenly, everything we do is supposed to provide an instant and visible benefit to the organization. At an individual level, this means that for your organization to value you more, you must run faster and faster. At a corporate level, this means you’re ripe for disruption from a competitor willing to play the long game.

Making time to think is a great example of something that’s first-order negative with some future payoff that’s not easily visible. However, when you think through problems, you’ll not only come to better decisions on the whole but you’ll also avoid a lot of problems.

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