Category: Thought and Opinion

How to Do Great Things

Insight is rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn.

The book explores how we do great things. And wouldn’t we all like to do great things? But what are the methods we should employ in order to do great things? What are the mental disciplines that we should learn? Where do we start?

Hamming starts by arguing the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligently prepare—makes a huge difference.

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

In any great outcome, there is a component of luck. Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Einstein did many great things. So did Newton. Elon Musk has been successful in multiple fields. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly does great things it is because they prepared in advance to advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation.

Intelligence comes in many forms and flavors. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Brains are nice to have but they are even better if you know how to use them.

How to Do Great Things

You need to believe that you are capable of doing important things. Your mindset determines how you experience things, what you work on, and the tactics and strategies you employ to accomplish those goals.

Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems how can you expect to do important work? Yet, direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your goals—and a lot of what you do and say isn’t—then why are you doing it? The question you need to ask yourself if “why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area?” How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

You need to be willing to look like an idiot. Think of this as confidence meets courage.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

You need to strive for excellence. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of doing great work.

Without such a goal you will tend to wander like a drunken sailor. The sailor takes one step in one direction and the next in some independent direction. As a result the steps tend to cancel each other, and the expected distance from the starting point is proportional to the square root of the number of steps taken. With a vision of excellence, and with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

The conditions you think you want are rarely the ones that help you produce your best work. You need the feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age is a factor physicists and mathematicians worry about. It is easily observed the greatest work of a theoretical physicist, mathematician, or astrophysicist, is generally done very early. They may continue to do good work all their lives, but what society ends up valuing most is almost always their earliest great work. The exceptions are very, very few indeed. But in literature, music composition, and politics, age seems to be an asset. The best compositions of a composer are usually the late ones, as judged by popular opinion.

One reason for this is fame in Science is a curse to quality productivity, though it tends to supply all the tools and freedom you want to do great things. Another reason is most famous people, sooner or later, tend to think they can only work on important problems—hence they fail to plant the little acorns which grow into the mighty oak trees. I have seen it many times, from Brattain of transistor fame and a Nobel Prize to Shannon and his Information Theory. Not that you should merely work on random things—but on small things which seem to you to have the possibility of future growth. In my opinion the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J has ruined more great scientists than any other place has created—considering what they did before ore and what they did after going there. A few, like von Neumann, escaped the closed atmosphere of the place with all its physical comforts and prestige, and continued to contribute to the advancement of Science, but most remained there and continued to work on the same problems which got them there but which were generally no longer of great importance to society.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Work with your door open.

Working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open get less work done but tend to work on the right problems! I cannot prove the cause and effect relationship, I only observed the correlation. I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did. I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 212)

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The investment of one hour a day by Charlie Munger to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common charasteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

People who do great things tolerate ambiguity — they can both believe and not believe at the same time.

You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also there is much room for improvement! You can sort of see why this is a necessary trait If you believe too much you will not likely see the chances for significant improvements, you will see believe enough you will be filled with doubts and get very little chances for only the 2%, 5%, and 10% improvements; if you do not done. I have not the faintest idea of how to teach the tolerance of ambiguity, both belief and disbelief at the same time, but great people do it all the time. Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten. I must warn you however, the importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem. The three problems in Physics, antigravity, teleportation, and time travel are seldom worked on because we have so few clues as to how to start—a problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it, and not because of its inherent importance.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 213)

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, listen to great people talk in detail about their experiences, and more importantly take ownership. Moving forward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving forward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Love, Happiness, and Time

How many of us regard love and happiness as a place? A box to tick off, a destination we get to? We often conceptualize these two things as goals. Is this responsible for why we are so devastated when they leave after being in our lives for a while?

What do love and happiness have to do with time?

Recently I read The Order of Time, by Carlo Rovelli. In it he writes,

We can think of the world as made up of things. Of substances. Of entities. Of something that is. Or we can think of it as made up of events. Of happenings. Of processes. Of something that occurs. Something that does not last, and that undergoes continual transformation, that is not permanent in time. The destruction of the notion of time in fundamental physics is the crumbling of the first of these two perspectives, not of the second. It is the realization of the ubiquity of impermanence, not of stasis in a motionless time.

This passage, in particular, gets me thinking. By this point in his book, Rovelli has brought me to “a world without time.” Thanks to his writing skills, I am comfortable being there. Time reveals itself to be part of the human condition, not the physical world.

Rovelli continues:

The difference between things and events is that things persist in time; events have a limited duration. A stone is a prototypical “thing”: we can ask ourselves where it will be tomorrow. Conversely, a kiss is an “event.” It makes no sense to ask where the kiss will be tomorrow. The world is made up of networks of kisses, not of stones.

Will it be more rewarding and useful to conceptualize love and happiness like time? An event, not a thing. A kiss, not a stone.

If you think of love like a stone—to be fair, we often do—it is a thing that you attain. You may have an expectation that it will persist and continue to exist. So when you and your partner fight, and it seems the love disappears for an evening, you panic. The love is gone! The thing that connects you wasn’t permanent at all. What does that say about your relationship?

If we change our thinking to love being an event, like a kiss, then a burden is lifted. It’s an event we experience with our partners many times, but not always. And then we can focus on creating the conditions that the event of love requires, even if it might not come to pass every moment of every day.

Rovelli has more to say:

On closer inspection, in fact, even the things that are most “thing-like” are nothing more than long events. The hardest stone, in the light of what we have learned from chemistry, from physics, from mineralogy, from geology, from psychology, is in reality a complex vibration of quantum fields, a momentary interaction of forces, a process that for a brief moment manages to keep its shape, to hold itself in equilibrium before disintegrating again into dust…gradually, an intricate knot in that cosmic game of mirrors that constitutes reality.

Even a stone, the most “thing-like” of things, is fleeting, its definition multilayered and dependent on my perception.

Perhaps it is useful to consider happiness the same way. It’s not something we achieve in perpetuity, an object external to ourselves, as if we could just find it and break off a chunk to keep with us forever. Its existence is bound with our ability to experience it.

“I remember one morning getting up at dawn. There was such a sense of possibility. You know, that feeling. And I…I remember thinking to myself: So this is the beginning of happiness, this is where it starts. And of course there will always be more…never occurred to me it wasn’t the beginning. It was happiness. It was the moment, right then.”

— The Hours (screenplay by David Hare)

As with love, we can reconfigure happiness into an event. It happens. It holds itself in equilibrium for a moment and then disintegrates.

Right now it is fall. Outside my window I am super lucky to witness the unrelenting biological changes that produce such spectacular leaf colours every year. It’s a moment that keeps its shape for a small part of the year. As I get older, I make sure to take the time each October to pay attention and enjoy it.

Could we enjoy happiness more if we consider it the same way? It may sound odd to say that, because who doesn’t enjoy happiness? But there seems to be an eternal struggle with happiness. When it goes, it hurts. Sometimes, when it comes back, it’s bittersweet, because we know it will go again.

The idea of time being an event, and how we experience it, relates, I think, to fundamental conceptions of happiness and love. Time, source of much of our anxiety and sadness, can be understood as a momentary holding together of a set of factors that we experience because of how we are built. I think we can consider love and happiness the same way.

Rovelli explains it this way:

And we begin to see that we are time. We are this space, this clearing opened by the traces of memory inside the connections between our neurons. We are memory. We are nostalgia. We are longing for a future that will not come. The clearing that is opened up in this way, by memory and by anticipation, is time: a source of anguish sometimes, but in the end a tremendous gift. A precious miracle that the infinite play of combinations has unlocked for us, allowing us to exist. We may smile now. We can go back to serenely immersing ourselves in time—in our finite time—to savoring the clear intensity of every fleeting and cherished moment of the brief circle of our existence.

There’s Seldom Any Traffic on the High Road

We’ve all been there: someone says something rude to us and our instinct is to strike back with a quick-witted comeback. That’s what many people do. It’s also a big reason that many people don’t get what they want. Consider this example from my recent travels:

“Are you dense?” the gate agent blurted to me, clearly frustrated as I asked a question she’d be asked a million times that day. Only moments before, I had been sitting on a plane to Seattle when the announcement came over the PA system that the flight was cancelled.

The instructions were clear: check with the gate agent for reassignment.  I was tenth in line. By the time I talked to her, this agent had already had to deal with nine angry customers. She wasn’t frustrated with me, but I knew that everyone else had verbally beat her up. I also travel enough to know how seldom that works. She had instructed the previous nine passengers to collect their bags, go through customs, and go to the Air Canada customer service desk for reassignment.

“I guess you’re right, I can be slow sometimes,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

Her words finally caught up with her, and she apologized. “I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I didn’t mean—”

“You’ve had a long day. People are frustrated and taking it out on you when it’s not your fault. I know how hard that can be.”

She cracked a smile, the first I had seen from her since I joined the line. And she happily found me a seat on the next flight.

She was being rude. Yes. But that wasn’t the best version of her.

When people are rude, our subconscious interprets it as an assault on hierarchy instincts. Our evolutionary programming responds with thoughts like, “Who are you to tell me something so rude? I’ll show you….”

Our instincts are to escalate when really, we should be focused on de-escalating the situation. One way to do that is to take the high road.

Say something along the lines of “I can see that.” You don’t have to apologize. You don’t have to agree with what the other person is saying. But I promise the results are magic. It’s hard to be angry with someone who agrees with you. And when there is no one to argue with and they’re the only person worked up about the situation, they will quickly feel uncomfortable and try to correct course.

Making enemies is expensive. Sometimes you don’t even realize how expensive. I saw one of those other nine passengers two and a half hours later, running to the gate to board the flight I was on. They had only just gotten through the hassle that resulted from their dealings with the gate agent—while I had grabbed a glass of wine and read a book. They had no idea how much their rudeness cost them in time and energy. It wasn’t visible to them. It was, however, visible to me.

The high road not only holds your frictional costs to the minimum, but it makes you happier. You’ll go farther and faster than others in the same situation. Sure, it involves putting your ego aside for a second—but if you think about it, this approach can often be the quickest to getting what you want.

What’s Staying the Same

We all want to know the future. Yet, our desire to know the future leads us to seek answers to unanswerable questions.

The question, “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” is a popular one in nearly all industries. The siren song of avoiding uncertainty and knowing the future is hard to resist. Having the answer is the equivalent of signaling to the world that you’re an oracle. We’re trying to get ahead of the change, so we’re ready.

The problem is we’re mostly wrong. Luckily, no one will remember how wrong.

To capitalize on what’s going to change in the future, a lot of things have to go right. Not only do you have to speculate the variables correctly, but you have to guess how they will play out in the future. On top of that, if you really want to prepare yourself, you need to go all-in on that version of the future. And you have to hope that everyone else thought you were crazy and didn’t prepare for that version of the future. This is why it rarely works, and when it does it’s mostly luck.

While predicting the future can be a fun thought experiment, it’s often not knowable. We’re speculating but our brains convince themselves otherwise. Plausible answers about the future tend to cement as a reality in our minds. We convince ourselves that we know something that is not knowable.

The range of possible futures is always changing, a lot like electrons. Electrons baffle physicists because they are hard to pin down.  Any attempts to locate them require the use of energy.  Electrons are so light that the energy we use to locate them changes their location. In the same way that shining a light on an electron will change its position ever so slightly, investing in a particular version of the future will change the probability of that particular future ever so slightly. Complicating things further, it’s not a single-player game—it’s a multi-person game and the odds are always changing.

The More Important Question

While looking to the future is fun, the more important question is, “What’s not going to change in the next ten years?”

Both Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett agree on this question being important. Think about that for a second. The leader of one of the most innovative high-tech companies in the world and the leader of one of the most boring conglomerates in history both agree that a question about what’s not going to change is more important than one about what will change.

Bezos realizes that energy and effort put into predicting what’s going to change is a speculative bet. It might work, and it might not. The hope is that if it works, it pays off spectacularly, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t cost you much.

While investing in what’s changing is risky, investing in what stays the same is not. Bezos realizes investments in what doesn’t change will still be paying off in ten years. “When you have something you know is true, even over the long term,” he said, “you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

Predicting what’s going to change is hard. Predicting what’s going to stay the same is relatively easy. Think about the dotcoms. Everyone was running around and saying this time would be different—everyone but Warren Buffett. He was sitting in his office in Omaha asking himself what would stay the same.

Alice Schroeder, Buffett’s authorized biographer, explains it this way:

There is less emphasis on trying to reason out things on the basis that they are special because they are unique, which in a financial context is perhaps the definition of a speculation. But pattern recognition is his default way of thinking. It creates an impulse always to connect new knowledge to old and to primarily be interested in new knowledge that genuinely builds on the old.

While you can’t know what’s going to change in the future, you can intelligently speculate on it, which is the best path. The safe play is to invest resources into all probable futures. This conveniently keeps options open, allows you to tell the board of directors with a straight face that you’re working on it, and makes you better off than had you not explored the future. The problem, again, is that the game has many players. While most companies took the same safe strategy as yours, someone—somewhere—went all in on this particular version of the future. That company is now being expensively acquired, by you or someone else.

The important point is that while you’re doing that, you should be inverting the problem. Answers to what’s going to stay the same in the next ten years, while boring, offer the best investment opportunities.

Why Honor Matters

Quick — who’s your favorite character in The Godfather?

The most popular answer to this question surprised me. About half the people who are asked pick Sonny: Santino Corleone.

“Everyone loves Sonny,” writes Talmer Sommers in his book Why Honor Matters.

Sonny is a hothead. He’s the oldest of the Godfather’s three children and arguably the most unstable, impulsive, and violent. The guy is a moral sewer — he cheats on his wife, speaks out of turn, and almost goes out of his way to find violence. He single-handedly almost brings the whole family from the apex to ruin. He’s the reason his father gets killed. In the end, it’s his impulsive behavior that gets him killed at the tollbooth.

And yet we love Sonny. Sommers argues, “we love him for his passion, courage, guts, integrity, and most of all for his loyalty to his family.”

When he learns that his sister has been abused by Carlo, her husband, Sonny loses his temper. There is no hesitation. No deeper consideration. He just hops in his car, heads straight for Carlo, and gives him the beating we all know he deserves. “When it comes to defending his family,” Sommers writes, “Sonny doesn’t calculate the best move, the most profitable move … Sonny just acts out of stubborn passion and a sense of honor.”

Honor might be about business for Michael, the cold, calculating brother, but for Sonny, it’s deeper. It’s personal.

But what is honor? A word? A tangible thing with value? A shared belief?

Honor can be a verb (“Honor thy mother and father”), a noun (“We must preserve the family honor”), an adjective (honor society), and a form of address (“Your honor, I object”). … Honor spins a dizzying web of values, virtues, codes, commandments, and prohibitions that are constantly changing and evolving. And honor makes no pretense to universality. The honor of the Mafia is different from the honor of hockey teams.

So, our definition of honor can change over time and depend on context. Furthermore, our cultural attitudes toward honor are all over the map. Sommers writes:

When it comes to honor we’re positively schizophrenic. On the one hand, we have deep nostalgia for the honorable way of life. … But at the same time, we find many aspects of honor to be absurd, petty, and morally reprehensible. After all, doesn’t honor lead to blood feuds, pointless duels, vigilantism, revenge, racism, nationalism, terrorism, bullying, and violence against women? Isn’t one of the signs of civilizations progress that we’ve put honor in the rearview mirror and replaced it with a commitment to dignity, equality, and human rights?

Nobody teaches us about honor. Sommers was trained in the Western ethical tradition in school, “which meant that [he spent his] time engaging in debates between harm-based theories (such as utilitarianism) and dignity- or rights-based theories (from Locke, Kant, and John Rawls).”

Then he stumbled upon so-called honor cultures, “societies where honor was a central part of their value system.” He writes,

To my surprise these cultures had a starkly different way of understanding responsibility and its connection to freedom. Like most philosophers in my area, I was obsessed with questions about how we can be truly free in a world governed by the laws of nature. How can we blame, praise, and punish people for actions that didn’t originate in them, but were caused by factors that might trace back all the way to the big bang? Honor cultures didn’t struggle with this problem, because they didn’t think a strong form of free will was necessary for holding people responsible for their actions. They didn’t regard the absence of control as an excuse for behavior. In honor cultures, you can get blamed for actions that weren’t intentional, for actions committed by relatives, ancestors, or other members of your group.

Most societies throughout history have been on the side of honor, the exceptions being the “WEIRD (Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic) societies.”

Sommers was drawn to the courage, integrity, solidarity, drama, and a sense of purpose and meaning that exist within honor-based cultures. He regards these as “attractive values and characteristics, important for living a good life.” He also says that he has “come to believe that the Western liberal approach to ethics is deeply misguided. The approach is too systematic, too idealized and abstract—incapable of reckoning with the messy complexity of the real world.”

***

The rest of the Why Honor Matters goes on to offer a defense of honor. Sommers’ ultimate conclusion is that “honor systems flourish only when they’re effectively contained. Fortunately, honor can be contained; we can restore honor into a larger value system while at the same time limiting its potential abuses.”

My Berkshire Hathaway Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guy Spier and Shane Parrish

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Street in Omaha where we got our name.

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

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

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

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