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Kathryn Schulz on why Knowledge Collapses as often as it Accretes

this will make you smarter, book

Kathryn Schulz comments on the fantasy that knowledge is static in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking.

Because so many scientific theories from bygone eras have turned out to be wrong, we must assume that most of today’s theories will eventually prove incorrect as well. And what goes for science goes in general. Politics, economics, technology, law, religion, medicine, child-rearing, education: no matter the domain of life, one generation’s verities so often become the next generation’s falsehoods that we might as well have a Pessimistic Meta-Induction from the History of Everything.

Good scientists understand this. They recognize that they are part of a long process of approximation. They know that they are constructing models rather than revealing reality…

The rest of us, by contrast, often engage in a kind of tacit chronological exceptionalism. Unlike all those suckers who fell for the flat earth or the geocentric universe or cold fusion or the cosmological constant, we ourselves have the great good luck to be alive during the very apex of accurate human thought. The literary critic Harry Levin put this nicely: “The habit of equating one’s age with the apogee of civilization, one’s town with the hub of the universe, one’s horizons with the limits of human awareness, is paradoxically widespread.” At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.

That fact is the essence of the meta-induction — and yet, despite its name, this idea is not pessimistic. Or rather, it is only pessimistic if you hate being wrong. If, by contrast, you think that uncovering your mistakes is one of the best ways to revise and improve your understanding of the world, then this is actually a highly optimistic insight.

The book is a curated collection of answers to the question: What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit? All of the answers are available online in their entirety.

Still curious? Knowledge, like milk, has an expiry date.

The Four Levels of Reading: Improve Skills One Level At A Time

One of the secrets to acquiring knowledge is to read. A lot. My Hero, Charlie Munger, said it best “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”

Picking up a book and reading the words is the easy part. Reading to understand is much harder.

The key is not simply to read more but rather be selective about what we reading and how we are reading.

This article, the first in a multi-part series on improving our reading skills, outlines the four levels of reading.

“Books give delisght to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join us in a living and intense intimacy.” — Petrarch

Mortimer Adler originally published How To Read A Book in 1940. It immediately became a bestseller. Since that time the book has been updated and recast many times, most notably by Charles van Doren in the 1970’s.

How To Read A Book

Active Reading

There is no such thing as passive reading. All reading, to some degree, is active reading. The only difference is that some reading is more active than others. And when it comes to reading to learn something or reading for information something the more active your reading habits the better.

Reading is a complex activity, just as writing is. It consists of a large number of separate acts, all of which must be performed in a good reading. The person who can perform more of them is better able to read.

Success in reading is determined to the extent that you receive what the writer intended to communicate. That doesn’t mean you agree with them, only that you understood them.

Reading For Understanding or Information

Assuming we’re not reading for entertainment, there are two things we generally want to get from reading. We can read to acquire information and facts or we can read to learn something new and improve our understanding.

Reading for entertainment is self-explanatory.

Reading for information is the one in which we read media or anything else that’s easily digestible. These things give us more information but don’t improve our understanding. There is no shock, no moment of … that doesn’t make sense.

Alternatively, we can try to read something by someone who knows more about the subject than we do. After reading works by authors who know more about a subject than we do, our understanding is changed … it may be the case that we better understand something or perhaps we understand that our understanding was incomplete. Either way, our understanding has changed.

The easiest way to improve our understanding is from people who understand more about the subjec than we do.

So half the battle of reading for understanding is to identify and select works from someone (or a group of people) who know more about a subject than we do. The internet and Amazon have made this much easier with ratings and book reviews.

And if you can read for understanding, you need not worry about reading for information or entertainment as, being less demanding, they will take care of themselves.

Instruction or Discovery

To be informed is to know simply that something is the case. To be enlightened is to know, in addition, what it is all about: why it is the case, what its connections are with other facts, in what respects it is the same, in what respects it is different, and so forth.

This is the difference between being knowing the name of something and knowing something.

… if you remember what an author says, you have learned something from reading him. If what he says is true, you have even learned something about the world. But whether it is a fact about the book or a fact about the world that you have learned, you have gained nothing but information if you have exercised only your memory. You have not been enlightened. Enlightenment is achieved only when, in addition to knowing what an author says, you know what he means and why he says it.

You can’t be enlightened unless you are informed, however you can be informed but not enlightened.

Montaigne speaks of “an abecedarian ignorance that precedes knowledge, and a doctoral ignorance that comes after it.”

The first is the ignorance of those who, not knowing their ABC’s, cannot read at all. The second is the ignorance of those who have misread many books.

The Greeks had a name for people who have read too widely and not well, sophomores.

Being widely read and well-read are not the same thing. Adler argues that to avoid this error we must distinguish between how we learn into instruction and discovery.

The art of reading, in short, includes all of the same skills that are involved in the art of unaided discovery: keenness of observation, readily available memory, range of imagination, and, of course, an intellect trained in analysis and reflection.

The 4 Levels of Reading

The goal of reading determines the best way to read the material in question. If we’re reading for entertainment, we’re going to read a lot differently than if we’re reading to build a rocket ship.

A thorough understanding of the levels of reading is necessary before we can improve our reading skills.

There are four levels of reading. They are thought of as levels because you can’t reach the higher levels without a firm understanding of the previous one — they are cumulative.

1. Elementary Reading

The first level of reading is elementary reading, which is what we learned to do in elementary school. Most of us never get beyond this level.

Other names might be rudimentary reading, basic reading or initial reading; any one of these terms serves to suggest that as one masters this level one passes from nonliteracy to at least beginning literacy. In mastering this level, one learns the rudiments of the art of reading, receives basic training in reading, and acquires initial reading skills.

2. Inspectional Reading

The second level of reading is inspectional reading, which can be thought of us intelligently skimming a book in a limited amount of time. Not only does this prime our brain with the material in the book, but it helps us determine if we want to read the entire book.

Adler writes:

[A]nother name for this level might be skimming or pre-reading. However, we do not mean the kind of skimming that is characterized by casual or random browsing through a book. Inspectional reading is the art of skimming systematically.

The point of inspectional reading is to examine the “surface” of the book.

Adler guides us:

Whereas the question that is asked at the first level is “What does the sentence say?” the question typically asked at this level is “What is the book about?” That is a surface question; others of a similar nature are “What is the structure of the book?” or “What are its parts?”

Inspectional reading is underappreciated by a lot of readers because they see it as a waste of time.

A lot of people like to read linearly. They pick up a book, turn to page one, and plow steadily through it without ever reading so much as the table of contents. “They are,” writes Adler, “thus faced with the task of achieving a superficial knowledge of the book at the same time that they are trying to understand it.” This makes reading more difficult, not less.

3. Analytical Reading

The third level of reading is called analytical reading, which goes deeper than inspectional reading. If your goal in reading is entertainment or acquiring information, analytical reading is not necessary. However, if you are reading to improve understanding, analytical reading is entirely necessary.

It is both a more complex and a more systematic activity than either of the two levels of reading discussed so far. … Analytical reading is thorough reading, complete reading, or good reading— the best reading you can do. If inspectional reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given a limited time, then analytical reading is the best and most complete reading that is possible given unlimited time. The analytical reader must ask many, and organized, questions of what he is reading. … [A]nalytical reading is always intensely active. On this level of reading, the reader grasps a book— the metaphor is apt— and works at it until the book becomes his own.

Francis Bacon remarked “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.” Think of analytical reading as chewing and digesting.

4. Syntopical Reading

The fourth and most difficult level of reading is syntopical reading.

It is the most complex and systematic type of reading of all. It makes very heavy demands on the reader, even if the materials he is reading are themselves relatively easy and unsophisticated. Another name for this level might be comparative reading. When reading syntopically, the reader reads many books, not just one, and places them in relation to one another and to a subject about which they all revolve. But mere comparison of texts is not enough. … With the help of the books read, the syntopical reader is able to construct an analysis of the subject that may not be in any of the books. It is obvious, therefore, that syntopical reading is the most active and effortful kind of reading.

This is the first article in a multi-part series on how to improve our reading skills.

The Impoverishment of Attention

“While the link between attention and excellence remains hidden most of the time, it ripples through almost everything we seek to accomplish.”


Focus matters enormously for success in life and yet we seem to give it little attention.

Daniel Goleman‘s book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence, explores the power of attention. “Attention works much like a muscle,” he writes, “use it poorly and it can wither; work it well and it grows.”

To get the results we want in life, Goleman argues we need three kinds of focus: inner, other, and outer.

Inner focus attunes us to our intuitions, guiding values, and better decisions. Other focus smooths our connections to the people in our lives. And outer focus lets us navigate in the larger world. A (person) tuned out of his internal world will be rudderless; one blind to the world of others will be clueless; those indifferent to the larger systems within which they operate will be blindsided.

How we deploy attention shapes what we see. Or as Yoda says, “Your focus is your reality.”

Goleman argues that, despite the advantages of everything being only a click away, our attention span is suffering.

An eighth-grade teacher tells me that for many years she has had successive classes of students read the same book, Edith Hamilton’s Mythology. Her students have loved it— until five years or so ago. “I started to see kids not so excited— even high-achieving groups could not get engaged with it,” she told me. “They say the reading is too hard; the sentences are too complicated; it takes a long time to read a page.”

She wonders if perhaps her students’ ability to read has been somehow compromised by the short, choppy messages they get in texts. One student confessed he’d spent two thousand hours in the last year playing video games. She adds, “It’s hard to teach comma rules when you are competing with World of WarCraft.”

Here is a telling story. I was in a coffee shop just the other day and I noticed that when two people were having a conversation they couldn’t go more than a few minutes without picking up their phone. Our inability to resist checking email, Facebook, and Twitter rather than focus on the here and now leads to a real life out-of-office. Sociologist Erving Goffman, calls this “away,” which tells other people “I’m not interested” in you right now.

We continually fight distractions. From televisions on during supper, text messages, emails, phone calls … you get the picture. This is one reason I’ve changed my media consumption habits.

It feels like we’re going through life in a state of “continuous partial attention.” We’re there but not really there. Unaware of where we place our attention. Unconscious about how we live.

I once worked with the CEO of a private organization. We often discussed board meetings, agendas, and other areas of time allocation. I sensed a disconnect between where he wanted to spend his time and what he actually spent time on.

To verify, I went back over the last year of board meetings and categorized each scheduled agenda item. I found a substantial mismatch; he was spending a great deal of time on issues he thought were not important. In fact, the ‘scheduled time’ was almost the complete inverse of what he wanted to focus on.

Goleman also points to some of the implications of our modern world.

The onslaught of incoming data leads to sloppy shortcuts, like triaging email by heading, skipping much of voice mails, skimming messages and memos. It’s not just that we’ve developed habits of attention that make us less effective, but that the weight of messages leaves us too little time simply to reflect on what they really mean.

In 1977, foreseeing what was going to happen, the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon wrote:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

William James, a pioneer of modern psychology, defined attention as “the sudden taking possession by the mind, in clear and vivid form, of one of what seems several simultaneously possible objects or trains of thought.”

We naturally focus when we’re lost. Imagine for a second the last time you were driving in your car without your GPS and you got lost. Think back to the first thing you did in response. I bet you turned off the radio so you could increase your focus.

Goleman, paraphrasing research, argues there are two main varieties of distractions: sensory and emotional.

The sensory distractors are easy: as you read these words you’re tuning out (our sponsor and all of the text on the right). Or notice for a moment the feeling of your tongue against your upper palate—just one of an endless wave of incoming stimuli your brain weeds out from the continuous wash of background sounds, shapes and colors, tastes, smells, sensations, and on and on.

More daunting is the second variety of lures: emotionally loaded signals. While you might find it easy to concentrate on answering your email in the hubbub of your local coffee shop, if you should overhear someone mention your name (potent emotional bait, that) it’s almost impossible to tune out the voice that carries it— your attention reflexively alerts to hear what’s being said about you. Forget that email. The dividing line between fruitless rumination and productive reflection lies in whether or not we come up with some tentative solution or insight and then can let those distressing thoughts go—or if, on the other hand, we just keep obsessing over the same loop of worry.

The more our focus gets disrupted, the worse we do.

To focus we must tune out emotional distractions. But not at all costs. The power to disengage focus is also important.

That means those who focus best are relatively immune to emotional turbulence, more able to stay unflappable in a crisis and to keep on an even keel despite life’s emotional waves.

Failure to drop one focus and move on to others can, for example, leave the mind lost in repeating loops of chronic anxiety. At clinical extremes it means being lost in helplessness, hopelessness, and self-pity in depression; or panic and catastrophizing in anxiety disorders; or countless repetitions of ritualistic thoughts or acts (touch the door fifty times before leaving) in obsessive-compulsive disorder. The power to disengage our attention from one thing and move it to another is essential for well-being.

We’ve all seen what a strong selective focus looks like. It’s the couple in the coffee shop mentioned above, eyes locked, who fail to realize they are not alone.

It should come as no surprise that we learn best with focused attention.

As we focus on what we are learning, the brain maps that information on what we already know, making new neural connections. If you and a small toddler share attention toward something as you name it, the toddler learns that name; if her focus wanders as you say it, she won’t.

When our mind wanders off, our brain activates a host of brain circuits that chatter about things that have nothing to do with what we’re trying to learn. Lacking focus, we store no crisp memory of what we’re learning.

Goleman goes on to discuss how we connect what we read to our mental models, which is the heart of learning.

As we read a book, a blog, or any narrative, our mind constructs a mental model that lets us make sense of what we are reading and connects it to the universe of such models we already hold that bear on the same topic.

If we can’t focus we’ll have more holes in our understanding. (To find holes in your understanding, try the Feynman Technique, which was actually an invention of George Eliot’s but I’ll save that for another day.)

When we read a book, our brain constructs a network of pathways that embodies that set of ideas and experiences. Contrast that deep comprehension with the interruptions and distractions that typify the ever-seductive Internet.

The continuous onslaught of texts, meetings, videos, music, email, Twitter, Facebook, and more is the enemy of understanding. The key, argues Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, is “deep reading.” And the internet is making this nearly impossible.

There is, however, perhaps no skill better than deep and focused thought. “The more information that’s out there,” says Tyler Cowen, author of Average Is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation, “the greater the returns to just being willing to sit down and apply yourself. Information isn’t what’s scarce; it’s the willingness to do something with it.” Deep thought must be learned. In order to do that, however, we must tune out most of the distractions and focus.

Goleman reminds us that some of this too was foreseen.

Way back in the 1950s the philosopher Martin Heidegger warned against a looming “tide of technological revolution” that might “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be … the only way of thinking.” That would come at the loss of “meditative thinking,” a mode of reflection he saw as the essence of our humanity.

I hear Heidegger’s warning in terms of the erosion of an ability at the core of reflection, the capacity to sustain attention to an ongoing narrative. Deep thinking demands sustaining a focused mind. The more distracted we are, the more shallow our reflections; likewise, the shorter our reflections, the more trivial they are likely to be. Heidegger, were he alive today, would be horrified if asked to tweet.

The rest of Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence goes on to narrow in on “the elusive and under-appreciated mental faculty in the mind’s operations” known as attention and its role in living “a fulfilling life.”

Why is it so difficult for us to think statistically?

We easily think associatively, we think metaphorically, we think causally, but statistics requires thinking about many things at once, which is something that System 1 is not designed to do.

Appreciating uncertainty is not exactly rewarded either:

An unbiased appreciation of uncertainty is a cornerstone of rationality—but it is not what people and organizations want. Extreme uncertainty is paralyzing under dangerous circumstances, and the admission that one is merely guessing is especially unacceptable when the stakes are high. Acting on pretended knowledge is often the preferred approach.

Via Thinking, Fast and Slow

Books Everyone Should Read on Psychology and Behavioral Economics

Psychology and Behavioral Economics Books

Earlier this year, a prominent friend of mine was tasked with coming up with a list of behavioral economics book recommendations for the military leaders of a G7 country and I was on the limited email list asking for input.


While I read a lot and I’ve offered up books to sports teams and fortune 100 management teams, I’ve never contributed to something as broad as educating a nation’s military leaders. While I have a huge behavorial economics reading list, this wasn’t where I started.

Not only did I want to contribute, but I wanted to choose books that these military leaders wouldn’t normally have come across in everyday life. Books they were unlikely to have read. Books that offered perspective.

Given that I couldn’t talk to them outright, I was really trying to answer the question ‘what would I like to communicate to military leaders through non-fiction books?’ There were no easy answers.

I needed to offer something timeless. Not so outside the box that they wouldn’t approach it, and not so hard to find that those purchasing the books would give up and move on to the next one on the list. And it can’t be so big they get intimidated by the commitment to read. On top of that, you need a book that starts strong because, in my experience of dealing with C-level executives, they stop paying attention after about 20 pages if it’s not relevant or challenging them in the right way.

In short there is no one-size-fits-all but to make the biggest impact you have to consider all of these factors.

While the justifications for why people chose the books below are confidential, I can tell you what books were on the final email that I saw. I left one book off the list, which I thought was a little too controversial to post.

These books have nothing to do with military per se, rather they deal with enduring concepts like ecology, intuition, game theory, strategy, biology, second order thinking, and behavioral psychology. In short these books would benefit most people who want to improve their ability to think, which is why I’m sharing them with you.

If you’re so inclined you can try to guess which ones I recommended in the comments. Read wisely.

In no order and with no attribution:

  1. Risk Savvy: How to Make Good Decisions by Gerd Gigerenzer
  2. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  3. The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande
  4. The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and the Common Good by Robert H. Frank
  5. David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants by Malcolm Gladwell
  6. Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  7. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
  8. The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life by Robert Trivers
  9. The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: Risk Taking, Gut Feelings and the Biology of Boom and Bust by John Coates
  10. Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure by Tim Harford
  11. The Lessons of History by Will & Ariel Durant
  12. Poor Charlie’s Almanack
  13. Passions Within Reason: The Strategic Role of the Emotions by Robert H. Frank
  14. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t by Nate Silver
  15. Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan & Cacilda Jetha
  16. The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature by Matt Ridley
  17. Introducing Evolutionary Psychology by Dylan Evans & Oscar Zarate
  18. Filters Against Folly: How To Survive Despite Economists, Ecologists, and the Merely Eloquent by Garrett Hardin
  19. Games of Strategy (Fourth Edition) by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath & David H. Reiley, Jr.
  20. The Theory of Political Coalitions by William H. Riker
  21. The Evolution of War and its Cognitive Foundations (PDF) by John Tooby & Leda Cosmides.
  22. Fight the Power: Lanchester’s Laws of Combat in Human Evolution by Dominic D.P. Johnson & Niall J. MacKay.

Baltasar Gracián and The Art of Worldly Wisdom

The Art of Wordly Wisdom

The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle, a book by Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658) offers three hundred aphorisms for understanding the world and successfully diverging from the pack. The book is for for those who crave substance over image.  While relatively unheard of today, the book was imitated by La Rochefoucauld, cherished by Friedrich Nietzsche, and translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche observed that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”

Gracián was a Jesuit priest who developed little tolerance for human folly and went about collecting and organizing his observations. Similar to Machiavelli’s The Prince, Gracián subordinated ethics to strategy.

Here’s a look at some of his aphorisms.

Never outshine the master, something Robert Greene echoes.

Being defeated is hateful, and besting one’s boss is either foolish or fatal. Superiority is always odious, especially to superiors and sovereigns. The common sort of advantages can be cautiously hidden, as beauty is hidden with a touch of artful neglect. Most people do not mind being surpassed in good fortune, character, or temperament, but no one, especially not a sovereign, likes to be surpassed in intelligence. For this is the king of attributes, and any crime against it is lèse-majesté. Sovereigns want to be so in what is most important. Princes like to be helped, but not surpassed. When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see. It is the stars who teach us this subtlety. They are brilliant sons, but they never dare to outshine the sun.

You might not be pre-disposed in life with the best genes, but you can nonetheless make the most of them by applying yourself.

Application and capacity. Eminence requires both. When both are present, eminence outdoes itself. The mediocre people who apply themselves go further than the superior people who don’t. Work makes worth.

The key to happiness is low expectations, so make sure to keep the expectations of those around you in check.

When you start something, don’t raise other people’s expectations. What is highly praised seldom measures up to expectation. Reality never catches up to imagination. It is easy to imagine something is perfect, and difficult to achieve it. Imagination marries desire, and conceives much more than things really are. No matter how excellent something is, it never satisfies our preconceptions. The imagination feels cheated, and excellence leads more often to disappointment than to admiration. Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgment bridle her, so that enjoyment will surpass desire. Honorable beginnings should serve to awaken curiosity, not to heighten people’s expectations. We are much better off when reality surpasses our expectations, and something turns out better than we thought it would.

While luck plays an inevitable roll, you can increase your odds by working hard.

Good fortune has its rules, and to the wise not everything depends upon chance. Fortune is helped along by effort.

You can checkmate someone’s will if you put yourself in their shoes.

Find each person’s “handle,” his weak point. The art of moving people’s wills involves more skill than determination. You must know how to get inside the other person. Each will has its own special object of delight; they vary according to taste. Everyone idolizes something. Some want to be well thought of, others idolize profit, and most people idolize pleasure. The trick is to identify the idols that can set people in motion. It is like having the key to someone else’s desires. Go for the “prime mover,” which isn’t always something lofty and important. Usually it is something low, for the unruly outnumber the well ruled. First size up someone’s character and then touch on his weak point. Tempt him with his particular pleasure, and you’ll checkmate his will.

You need to know when to put something aside.

One of life’s great lessons lies in knowing how to refuse, and it is even more important to refuse yourself, both to business and to others. There are certain inessential activities—moths of precious time—and it is worse to busy yourself with the trivial than to do nothing. To be prudent, it isn’t enough not to meddle in other people’s business: you must also keep them from meddling in yours. Don’t belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself. You shouldn’t abuse your friends, or ask them for more than they give on their own initiative. All excess is a vice, especially in your dealings with others. With this judicious moderation you will stay in the good graces of others and keep their esteem; and propriety, which is precious, will not be worn away. Retain your freedom to care passionately about the best, and never testify against your own good taste.

Think slow. Act Fast.

Diligence is quick to carry out what intelligence has lingered over. Fools are fond of hurry: they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously. The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything. Sometimes things are judged correctly but go wrong out of inefficiency and neglect. Readiness is the mother of luck. It is a great deed to leave nothing for the morrow. A lofty motto: make haste slowly.

Act only when prudent to do so.

If the person doing something suspects he will fail, it will be evident to the person watching, even more so when he is a rival. If your judgment wavers in the heat of emotion, you’ll be thought a fool when things cool down. It is dangerous to undertake something when you doubt its wisdom. It would be safer not to act at all. Prudence refuses to deal in probability: it always walks under the midday sun of reason. How can something turn out well when caution started to condemn it the moment it was conceived? Even resolutions that passed the inner examination nemine discrepante* often turn out badly; so what can we expect from those that reason


Let time be your filter.

Some take nothing into account, and others want to account for everything. They are always talking importance, always taking things too seriously, turning them into debate and mystery. Few bothersome things are important enough to bother with. It is folly to take to heart what you should turn your back on. Many things that were something are nothing if left alone, and others that were nothing turn into much because we pay attention to them. In the beginning it is easy to put an end to problems, but not later. Sometimes the cure causes the disease. Not the least of life’s rules is to leave well enough alone.

While I wish the world worked in another way, one of the great lessons of politics is that optics matter.

Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice. What is invisible might as well not exist. Reason itself is not venerated when it does not wear a reasonable face. Those easily duped outnumber the prudent. Deceit reigns, and things are judged from without, and are seldom what they seem. A fine exterior is the best recommendation of inner perfection.

A confused mind is often on that rambles.

Take the pulse of the business at hand. Many see the trees but not the forest, or bark up the wrong tree, speaking endlessly, reasoning uselessly, without going to the pith of the matter. They go round and round, tiring themselves and us, and never get to what is important. This happens to people with confused minds who do not know how to clear away the brambles. They waste time and patience on what it would be better to leave alone, and later there is no time for what they left.

Echoing the concept of do something syndrome, Gracián writes:

Remedies often worsen evils. Let nature take its course, and morality. The wise physician knows when to prescribe and when not to, and sometimes it takes skill not to apply remedies. Throwing up your hands is sometimes a good way to put down vulgar storms. If you bow to time for the present, you will conquer in the future. It takes little to muddy a stream. You can’t make it grow clear by trying to, only by leaving it alone. There is no better remedy for disorder than to leave it alone to correct itself.

This explains why most of your smart friends are impatient for incompetence.

The wise are the least tolerant, for learning has diminished their patience. Wide knowledge is hard to please. Epictetus tells us that the most important rule for living lies in knowing how to bear all things: to this he reduced half of wisdom. To tolerate foolishness much patience is needed. Sometimes we suffer most from those we most depend upon, and this helps us conquer ourselves. Patience leads to an inestimable inner peace, which is bliss on earth. And the person who does not know how to put up with others should retire into himself, if indeed he can suffer even himself.

This wisdom has been around for ages: never compete with someone who has nothing to lose.

The struggle will be unequal. One of the contestants enters the fray unencumbered, for he has already lost everything, even his shame. He has cast off everything, has nothing further to lose, and throws himself headlong into all sorts of insolence. Never risk your precious reputation on such a person. It took many years to win it, and it can be lost in a moment, on something far from momentous. One breath of scandal freezes much honorable sweat. The righteous person knows how much is at stake. He knows what can damage his reputation, and, because he commits himself prudently, he proceeds slowly, so that prudence has ample time to retreat. Not even if he triumphs will he win back what he lost by exposing himself to the risk of losing.

It is a mistake to anticipate the move someone will take is what is in their best interests. Think about possibilities and probabilities, not what you would do.

The fool never does what the prudent person thinks he will, for he cannot understand that it is to his advantage. Nor will he do it if he is wise, for he will want to dissimulate his intent, which you may have discovered and planned for. Examine both sides of things; go back and forth between them. Try to remain impartial. Don’t think about what will happen; think about what could.

Never lie but don’t tell the entire truth.

Don’t lie, but don’t tell the whole truth. Nothing requires more skill than the truth, which is like a letting of blood from the heart. It takes skill both to speak it and to withhold it. A single lie can destroy your reputation for honesty. The man deceived seems faulty, and the deceiver seems false, which is worse. Not all truths can be spoken: some should be silenced for your own sake, others for the sake of someone else.

When you don’t believe others they set about to convince you and in so doing often tell you more than they should.

It is a great way to provoke others: they commit themselves and you commit nothing. You can use contradiction to pry loose the passions of others. Showing disbelief makes people vomit up their secrets; it is the key to tightly closed breasts. With great subtlety you can test the will and judgment of others. Shrewdly scorn the word that someone else has cloaked in mystery, and you will hunt down his deepest secrets and make them come little by little to his tongue, where they can be trapped in the nets of subtle deceit. The prudent person’s reserve makes others lose theirs. It discovers their feelings when their hearts should have been inscrutable. A feigned doubt is the best skeleton key your curiosity can have: it will find out all it wants. Even when it comes to learning, the good student contradicts his teacher and makes him more eager to explain and defend the truth. Challenge someone discreetly and his teaching will be more perfect.

Flattery is as deadly a weapon as a sword.

Don’t think highly of the person who never opposes you. It doesn’t show that he loves you, it shows he loves himself. Don’t be fooled by flattery: don’t reward it, condemn it. Consider it an honor to be criticized, especially by those who speak ill of good people. You should be pained when your things please everyone; it is a sign that they are not good, for perfection belongs to only a few.

When speaking, it’s important to get your point across but not too clearly. People will value it more if they have to do al little work to understand it (see also: Ikea Effect).

Most people think little of what they understand, and venerate what they do not. To be valued, things must be difficult: if they can’t understand you, people will think more highly of you. To win respect, make yourself seem wiser and more prudent than is required by the person you are dealing with. But do so with moderation. Intelligent people value brains, but most people demand a certain elevation. Keep them guessing at your meaning, and don’t give them a chance to criticize you. Many praise without being able to say why. They venerate anything hidden or mysterious, and they praise it because they hear it praised.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom is well worth a read (and there is a .99 cent kindle edition). It pairs well with La Rochefoucauld’s collected maxims.

Oliver Burkeman: The Power of Negative Thinking

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking

“Think Positive.”

That’s what magazines and friends advise us to do in order to cope with the stress of the holiday season.

That’s the same advice that Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, was dispensing six decades ago. It turns out that thinking positive might not be the best way to cope with our stress.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman argues that we should explore an alternative to the “think positive” mantra: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed “the negative path to happiness.” The heart of this approach is to embrace uncertainty.

Burkeman writes in the WSJ:

This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.

Albert Ellis, who died in 2007, rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers: sometimes the best way to address the future is to focus on the worst-case scenario, not on the best.

Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ ”

To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely.

Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.

The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy.

Steve Jobs on the Destination We All Share

“…death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It’s life’s change agent; it clears out the old to make way for the new … Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

— Steve Jobs

Multitasking: The Costs of Switching From One Task to Another

You may think that as you juggle emails, my-book, twitter, google, work, life, the phone and casual web surfing that you’re really doing all of that stuff at once, but what you’re really doing is quickly switching constantly between tasks. And switching carries a cognitive cost.

Steven Yantis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, says:

In addition to the switch cost, each time you switch away from a task and back again, you have to recall where you were in that task, what you were thinking about. If the tasks are complex, you may well forget some aspect of what you were thinking about before you switched away, which may require you to revisit some aspect of the task you had already solved (for example, you may have to re-read the last paragraph you’d been reading). Deep thinking about a complex topic can become nearly impossible.

What if I told you that some people (singletaskers) claim that our most valuable mental habits—things like deep and focused thought—must be learned through concentrated practice.

Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain, comments on his blog:

The fact that people who fiddle with cell phones drive poorly shouldn’t make us less concerned about the cognitive effects of media distractions; it should make us more concerned.

And then there’s this: “It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people.” Exactly. And that’s another cause for concern. Our most valuable mental habits – the habits of deep and focused thought – must be learned, and the way we learn them is by practicing them, regularly and attentively. And that’s what our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives are stealing from us: the encouragement and the opportunity to practice reflection, introspection, and other contemplative modes of thought. Even formal research is increasingly taking the form of “power browsing,” according to a 2008 University College London study, rather than attentive and thorough study. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, warned in a Science article last year that our growing use of screen-based media appears to be weakening our “higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”