Random Posts

Susan Sontag: 3 Steps to Refuting Any Argument

Calling to mind Daniel Dennett’s advice on how to compose a successful critical commentary, Susan Sontag offers three steps to refuting any argument, from the newly released As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, which is an intimate look behind the scenes of an imperfect genius.

From September 16, 1965, written during a trip to Paris, Sontag writes:

The main techniques for refuting an argument:

Find the inconsistency
Find the counter-example
Find a wider context

Instance of (3):

I am against censorship. In all forms. Not just for the right of masterpieces— high art— to be scandalous.

But what about pornography (commercial)?
Find the wider context: notion of voluptuousness à la Bataille?

But what about children? Not even for them? Horror comics, etc.

Why forbid them comics when they can read worse things in the newspapers any day. Napalm bombing in Vietnam, etc.

A just/ discriminating censorship is impossible.

As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh follows up the 2008 Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963. Complement with her thoughts on style and metaphors, the function of common sense, and aphorisms and the commodification of wisdom.

The Feynman Technique: The Best Way to Learn Anything

There are four simple steps to the Feynman Technique, which I’ll explain below:

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify (optional)

***

If you’re not learning you’re standing still. So what’s the best way to learn new subjects and identify gaps in our existing knowledge?

Two Types of Knowledge

There are two types of knowledge and most of us focus on the wrong one. The first type of knowledge focuses on knowing the name of something. The second focuses on knowing something. These are not the same thing. The famous Nobel winning physicist Richard Feynman understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something and it’s one of the most important reasons for his success. In fact, he created a formula for learning that ensured he understood something better than everyone else.

It’s called the Feynman Technique and it will help you learn anything faster and with greater understanding. Best of all, it’s incredibly easy to implement.

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”

— Mortimer Adler

There are four steps to the Feynman Technique.

Step 1: Teach it to a child

Take out a blank sheet of paper and write the subject you want to learn at the top. Write out what you know about the subject as if you were teaching it to a child. Not your smart adult friend but rather an 8-year-old who has just enough vocabulary and attention span to understand basic concepts and relationships.

A lot of people tend to use complicated vocabulary and jargon to mask when they don’t understand something. The problem is we only fool ourselves because we don’t know that we don’t understand. In addition, using jargon conceals our misunderstanding from those around us.

When you write out an idea from start to finish in simple language that a child can understand (tip: use only the most common words), you force yourself to understand the concept at a deeper level and simplify relationships and connections between ideas. If you struggle, you have a clear understanding of where you have some gaps. That tension is good –it heralds an opportunity to learn.

Step 2: Review

In step one, you will inevitably encounter gaps in your knowledge where you’re forgetting something important, are not able to explain it, or simply have trouble connecting an important concept.
This is invaluable feedback because you’ve discovered the edge of your knowledge. Competence is knowing the limit of your abilities, and you’ve just identified one!
This is where the learning starts. Now you know where you got stuck, go back to the source material and re-learn it until you can explain it in basic terms.
Identifying the boundaries of your understanding also limits the mistakes you’re liable to make and increases your chance of success when applying knowledge.

Step 3: Organize and Simplify

Now you have a set of hand-crafted notes. Review them to make sure you didn’t mistakenly borrow any of the jargon from the source material. Organize them into a simple story that flows.
Read them out loud. If the explanation isn’t simple or sounds confusing that’s a good indication that your understanding in that area still needs some work.

Step 4 (optional): Transmit

If you really want to be sure of your understanding, run it past someone (ideally who knows little of the subject –or find that 8-year-old!). The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.

***

Not only is this a wonderful recipe for learning but it’s also a window into a different way of thinking that allows you to tear ideas apart and reconstruct them from the ground up. (Elon Musk calls this thinking from first principles.) This leads to a much deeper understanding of the ideas and concepts. Importantly, approaching problems in this way allows you to understand when others don’t know what they are talking about.

Feynman’s approach intuitively believes that intelligence is a process of growth, which dovetails nicely with the work of Carol Dweck, who beautifully describes the difference between a fixed and growth mindset.

***

Still Curious?

What Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else

The Top 3 Most Effective Ways to Take Notes While Reading

John Keats on the Quality That Formed a Man of Achievement: Negative Capability

John Keats coined the term negative capability to describe the willingness to embrace uncertainty, mysteries and doubts.

The first and only time Keats used the phrase was in a letter on 21 December 1817 to his brothers in reference to his disagreement with the English poet and philosopher Coleridge, who Keats believed “sought knowledge over beauty.”

I had not a dispute but a disquisition with Dilke, upon various subjects; several things dove-tailed in my mind, and at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously – I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason – Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.

From Wikipedia:

Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a “thoroughfare for all thoughts.” Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.

This concept of Negative Capability is precisely a rejection of set philosophies and preconceived systems of nature. He demanded that the poet be receptive rather than searching for fact or reason, and to not seek absolute knowledge of every truth, mystery, or doubt.

The origin of the term is unknown, but some scholars have hypothesized that Keats was influenced in his studies of medicine and chemistry, and that it refers to the negative pole of an electric current which is passive and receptive. In the same way that the negative pole receives the current from the positive pole, the poet receives impulses from a world that is full of mystery and doubt, which cannot be explained but which the poet can translate into art.

Although this was the only time that Keats used the term, this view of aesthetics and rejection of a rationalizing tendency has influenced much commentary on Romanticism and the tenets of human experience.

For the twentieth-century British psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, negative capability “was the ability to tolerate the pain and confusion of not knowing, rather than imposing ready-made or omnipotent certainties upon an ambiguous situation or emotional challenge.”

If you’re still curious, I recommend reading this thesis on Negative Capability and Wise Passiveness.

The Darwin Economy – Why Smith’s Invisible Hand Breaks Down

The Darwin Economy

In The Darwin Economy: Liberty, Competition, and The Common Good Robert H. Frank, an economics professor at Cornell’s Johnson Graduate School of Management, takes on the debate of who was a better economist—Adam Smith or Charles Darwin. Frank, surprisingly, sides with Darwin, arguing that within the next century Darwin will unseat Smith as the intellectual founder of economics.

Why does the invisible hand, “which says that competition challenges self-interest for the common good” break down?

Without question, Adam Smith’s invisible hand was a genuinely ground breaking insight. Producers rush to introduce improved product designs and cost-saving innovations for the sole purpose of capturing market share and profits from their rivals. In the short run, these steps work just as the producers had hoped. But rival firms are quick to mimic the innovations, and the resulting competition quickly causes prices to fall in line with the new, lower costs. In the end, Smith argued, consumers are the ultimate beneficiaries of all this churning.

But many of Smith’s modern disciples believe he made the much bolder claim that markets always harness individual self-interest to produce the greatest good for society as a whole. Smith’s own account, however, was far more circumspect. He wrote, for example, that the profit-seeking business owner “intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it [emphasis added].”

Smith never believed that the invisible hand guaranteed good outcomes in all circumstances. His skepticism was on full display, for example, when he wrote, “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.” To him, what was remarkable was that self-interested actions often led to socially benign outcomes.

Like Smith, modern progressive critics of the market system tend to attribute its failings to conspiracies to restrain competition. But competition was much more easily restrained in Smith’s day than it is now. The real challenge to the invisible hand is rooted in the very logic of the competitive process itself.

Charles Darwin was one of the first to perceive the underlying problem clearly. One of his central insights was that natural selection favors traits and behaviors primarily according to their effect on individual organisms, not larger groups. Sometimes individual and group interests coincide, he recognized, and in such cases we often get invisible hand-like results. A mutation that codes for keener eyesight in one particular hawk, for example, serves the interests of that individual, but its inevitable spread also makes hawks as a species more successful.

In other cases, however, mutations that help the individual prove quite harmful to the larger group. This is in fact the expected result for mutations that confer advantage in head-to-head competition among members of the same species. Male body mass is a case in point. Most vertebrate species are polygynous, meaning that males take more than one mate if they can. The qualifier is important, because when some take multiple mates, others get none. The latter don’t pass their genes along, making them the ultimate losers in Darwinian terms. So it’s no surprise that males often battle furiously for access to mates. Size matters in those battles, and hence the evolutionary arms races that produce larger males.

Elephant seals are an extreme but instructive example.10 Bulls of the species often weigh almost six thousand pounds, more than five times as much as females and almost as much as a Lincoln Navigator SUV. During the mating season, pairs of mature bulls battle one another ferociously for hours on end, until one finally trudges off in defeat, bloodied and exhausted. The victor claims near-exclusive sexual access to a harem that may number as many as a hundred cows. But while being larger than his rival makes an individual bull more likely to prevail in such battles, prodigious size is a clear handicap for bulls as a group, making them far more vulnerable to sharks and other predators.

Given an opportunity to vote on a proposal to reduce every animal’s weight by half, bulls would have every reason to favor it. Since it’s relative size, not absolute size, that matters in battle, the change would not affect the outcome of any given head-to-head contest, but it would reduce each animal’s risk of being eaten by sharks. There’s no practical way, of course, that elephant seals could implement such a proposal. Nor could any bull solve this problem unilaterally, since a bull that weighed much less than others would never win a mate.

Similar conflicts pervade human interactions when individual rewards depend on relative performance. Their essence is nicely captured in a celebrated example by the economist Thomas Schelling. Schelling noted that hockey players who are free to choose for themselves invariably skate without helmets, yet when they’re permitted to vote on the matter, they support rules that require them. If helmets are so great, he wondered, why don’t players just wear them? Why do they need a rule?

His answer began with the observation that skating without a helmet confers a small competitive edge—perhaps by enabling players to see or hear a little better, or perhaps by enabling them to intimidate their opponents. The immediate lure of gaining a competitive edge trumps more abstract concerns about the possibility of injury, so players eagerly embrace the additional risk. The rub, of course, is that when every player skates without a helmet, no one gains a competitive advantage—hence the attraction of the rule.

As Schelling’s diagnosis makes clear, the problem confronting hockey players has nothing to do with imperfect information, lack of self-control, or poor cognitive skills—shortcomings that are often cited as grounds for government intervention. And it clearly does not stem from exploitation or any insufficiency of competition. Rather, it’s a garden-variety collective action problem. Players favor helmet rules because that’s the only way they’re able to play under reasonably safe conditions. A simple nudge—say, a sign in the locker room reminding players that helmets reduce the risk of serious injury—just won’t solve their problem. They need a mandate.

What about the libertarians’ complaint that helmet rules deprive individuals of the right to choose? This objection is akin to objecting that a military arms control agreement robs the signatories of their right to choose for themselves how much to spend on bombs. Of course, but that’s the whole point of such agreements! Parties who confront a collective action problem often realize that the only way to get what they want is to constrain their own ability to do as they please.

As John Stuart Mill argued in On Liberty, it’s permissible to constrain an individual’s freedom of action only when there’s no less intrusive way to prevent undue harm to others. The hockey helmet rule appears to meet this test. By skating without a helmet, a player imposes harm on rival players by making them less likely to win the game, an outcome that really matters to them. If the helmet rule itself somehow imposed even greater harm, it wouldn’t be justified. But that’s a simple practical question, not a matter of deep philosophical principle.

Rewards that depend on relative performance spawn collective action problems that can cause markets to fail. For instance, the same wedge that separates individual and group interests in Darwinian arms races also helps explain why the invisible hand might not automatically lead to the best possible levels of safety in the workplace. The traditional invisible-hand account begins with the observation that, all other factors the same, riskier jobs tend to pay more, for two reasons. Because of the money employers save by not installing additional safety equipment, they can pay more; and because workers like safety, they will choose safer jobs unless riskier jobs do, in fact, pay more. According to the standard invisible-hand narrative, the fact that a worker is willing to accept lower safety for higher wages implies that the extra income was sufficient compensation for the decrement in safety. But that account rests on the assumption that extra income is valued only for the additional absolute consumption it makes possible. When a worker gets a higher wage, however, there is also a second important benefit. He is able to consume more in absolute terms, yes—but he is also able to consume more relative to others.

Most parents, for example, want to send their children to the best possible schools. Some workers might thus decide to accept a riskier job at a higher wage because that would enable them to meet the monthly payments on a house in a better school district. But other workers are in the same boat, and school quality is an inherently relative concept. So if other workers also traded safety for higher wages, the ultimate outcome would be merely to bid up the prices of houses in better school districts. Everyone would end up with less safety, yet no one would achieve the goal that made that trade seem acceptable in the first place. As in a military arms race, when all parties build more arms, none is any more secure than before.

Workers confronting these incentives might well prefer an alternative state of the world in which all enjoyed greater safety, even at the expense of all having lower wages. But workers can control only their own job choices, not the choices of others. If any individual worker accepted a safer job while others didn’t, that worker would be forced to send her children to inferior schools. To get the outcome they desire, workers must act in unison. Again, a mere nudge won’t do. Merely knowing that individual actions are self- canceling doesn’t eliminate the incentive to take those actions.

The Darwin Economy goes on to explore the consequences and implications of Darwin’s theory being a better model for economics than Smith’s invisible hand.

An Important Life Lesson we can Learn from Sailors

A quick yet incredibly important quote today that adds to the wisdom of Andy Benoit and Joseph Tussman.

Bion of Borysthenes

… [W]e should not try to alter circumstances but to adapt ourselves to them as they really are, just as sailors do. They don’t try to change the winds or the sea but ensure that they are always ready to adapt themselves to conditions. In a flat calm they use the oars; with a following breeze they hoist full sail; in a head wind they shorten sail or heave to. Adapt yourself to circumstances in the same way.

— Bion of Borysthenes (From Peter Bevelin’s All I Want to Know Is Where I’m Going to Die So I’ll Never Go There: Buffett and Munger — A Study in Simplicity and Uncommon, Common Sense)

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Still Curious? you’ll love the the wisdom of Publilius Syrus

Lessons of the Past

The tendency to relate contemporary events to earlier events as a guide to understanding is a powerful one. The difficulty, of course, is in being certain that two situations are truly comparable. Because they are similar in some respects does not assure us that they are similar in all respects.

 

We all know the way in which we set policy is flawed. Ernest May, someone you’ve likely never heard of, argues that in attempting to avoid the mistakes of the previous generations we pursue policies that would have been the most appropriate from a historical context. May argues that lawmakers mentally resort to analogies and tend to seize upon the first analogy that comes to mind without seeking evidence that would disprove their assumptions (like, say, highlighting differences between this event and the previous one before drawing conclusions?). After publicizing policy ambitions our politicians, like anyone, are likely to reject evidence that does not confirm their conclusions

Ernest May, in his book Lessons of the past, traced the impact of historical analogy on US foreign policy.

 

He found that because of reasoning by analogy, US policymakers tend to be one generation behind, determined to avoid the mistakes of the previous generation. They pursue the policies that would have been most appropriate in the historical situation but are not necessarily well adapted to the current one. 

Policymakers in the 1930s, for instance, viewed the international situation as analogous to that before World War I. Consequently, they followed a policy of isolation that would have been appropriate for preventing American involvement in the first World War but failed to prevent the second. Communist aggression after World War II was seen as analogous to Nazi aggression, leading to a policy of containment that could have prevented World War II. 

The Vietnam analogy had been used repeatedly over many years to argue against an activist US foreign policy. For example, some used the Vietnam analogy to argue against US participation in the Gulf War–a flawed analogy because the operating terrain over which battles were fought was completely different in Kuwait/Iraq and much more in our favor there as compared with Vietnam. 

May argues that policymakers often perceive problems in terms of analogies with the past, but that they ordinarily use history badly: When resorting to an analogy, they tend to seize upon the first that comes to mind. They do not research more widely. Nor do they pause to analyze the case, test its fitness, or even ask in what ways it might be misleading.

Eight Things I Learned from Peter Thiel’s Zero To One

peter-thiel

Peter Thiel is an entrepreneur and investor. He co-founded PayPal and Palantir. He also made the first outside investment in Facebook and was an early investor in companies like SpaceX and LinkedIn. And now he’s written a book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future, with the goal of helping us “see beyond the tracks laid down” to the “broader future that there is to create.”

Zero To One is an exercise in thinking. It’s about questioning and rethinking received wisdom in order to create the future.

Here are eight lessons I took away from the book.

1. Like Heraclitus, who said that you can only step into the same river once, Thiel believes that each moment in business happens only once.

The next Bill Gates will not build an operating system. The next Larry Page or Sergey Brin won’t make a search engine. And the next Mark Zuckerberg won’t create a social network. If you are copying these guys, you aren’t learning from them.

Of course, it’s easier to copy a model than to make something new. Doing what we already know how to do takes the world from 1 to n, adding more of something familiar. But every time we create something new, we go from 0 to 1. The act of creation is singular, as is the moment of creation, and the result is something fresh and strange.

2. There is no formula for innovation.

The paradox of teaching entrepreneurship is that such a formula (for innovation) cannot exist; because every innovation is new and unique, no authority can prescribe in concrete terms how to be more innovative. Indeed, the single most powerful pattern I have noticed is that successful people find value in unexpected places, and they do this by thinking about business from first principles instead of formulas.

3. The best interview question you can ask.

Whenever I interview someone for a job, I like to ask this question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

This is a question that sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

Most commonly, I hear answers like the following:

“Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.”

“America is exceptional.”

“There is no God.”

These are bad answers. The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”

What does this have to do with the future?

In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come. But what makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today. … Most answers to the contrarian questions are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.

4. A new company’s most important strength

Properly defined, a startup is the largest group of people you can convince of a plan to build a different future. A new company’s most important strength is new thinking: even more important than nimbleness, small size affords space to think.

5. The first step to thinking clearly

Our contrarian question – What important truth do very few people agree with you on? — is difficult to answer directly. It may be easier to start with a preliminary: what does everybody agree on?”

“Madness is rare in individuals
—but in groups, parties, nations and ages it is the rule.”
— Nietzche (before he went mad)

If you can identify a delusional popular belief, you can find what lies hidden behind it: the contrarian truth.

[…]

Conventional beliefs only ever come to appear arbitrary and wrong in retrospect; whenever one collapses we call the old belief a bubble, but the distortions caused by bubbles don’t disappear when they pop. The internet bubble of the ‘90s was the biggest of the last two decades, and the lessons learned afterward define and distort almost all thinking about technology today. The first step to thinking clearly is to question what we think we know about the past.

Here is an example Thiel gives to help illuminate this idea.

The entrepreneurs who stuck with Silicon Valley learned four big lessons from the dot-com crash that still guide business thinking today:

1. Make incremental advances — “Grand visions inflated the bubble, so they should not be indulged. Anyone who claims to be able to do something great is suspect, and anyone who wants to change the world should be more humble. Small, incremental steps are the only safe path forward.”

2. Stay lean and flexible — “All companies must be lean, which is code for unplanned. You should not know what your business will do; planning is arrogant and inflexible. Instead you should try things out, iterate, and treat entrepreneurship as agnostic experimentation.”

3. Improve on the competition — “Don’t try to create a new market prematurely. The only way to know that you have a real business is to start with an already existing customer, so you should build your company by improving on recognizable products already offered by successful competitors.”

4. Focus on product, not sales — “If your product requires advertising or salespeople to sell it, it’s not good enough: technology is primarily about product development, not distribution. Bubble-era advertising was obviously wasteful, so the only sustainable growth is viral growth.”

These lessons have become dogma in the startup world; those who would ignore them are presumed to invite the justified doom visited upon technology in the great crash of 2000. And yet the opposite principles are probably more correct.

1. It is better to risk boldness than triviality.
2. A bad plan is better than no plan.
3. Competitive markets destroy profits.
4. Sales matters just as much as product.”

To build the future we need to challenge the dogmas that shape our view of the past. That doesn’t mean the opposite of what is believed is necessarily true, it means that you need to rethink what is and is not true and determine how that shapes how we see the world today. As Thiel says, “The most contrarian thing of all is not to oppose the crowd but to think for yourself.

6. Progress comes from monopoly, not competition.

The problem with a competitive business goes beyond lack of profits. Imagine you’re running one of those restaurants in Mountain View. You’re not that different from dozens of your competitors, so you’ve got to fight hard to survive. If you offer affordable food with low margins, you can probably pay employees only minimum wage. And you’ll need to squeeze out every efficiency: That is why small restaurants put Grandma to work at the register and make the kids wash dishes in the back.

A monopoly like Google is different. Since it doesn’t have to worry about competing with anyone, it has wider latitude to care about its workers, its products and its impact on the wider world. Google’s motto—”Don’t be evil”—is in part a branding ploy, but it is also characteristic of a kind of business that is successful enough to take ethics seriously without jeopardizing its own existence. In business, money is either an important thing or it is everything. Monopolists can afford to think about things other than making money; non-monopolists can’t. In perfect competition, a business is so focused on today’s margins that it can’t possibly plan for a long-term future. Only one thing can allow a business to transcend the daily brute struggle for survival: monopoly profits.

So a monopoly is good for everyone on the inside, but what about everyone on the outside? Do outsize profits come at the expense of the rest of society? Actually, yes: Profits come out of customers’ wallets, and monopolies deserve their bad reputation—but only in a world where nothing changes.

In a static world, a monopolist is just a rent collector. If you corner the market for something, you can jack up the price; others will have no choice but to buy from you. Think of the famous board game: Deeds are shuffled around from player to player, but the board never changes. There is no way to win by inventing a better kind of real-estate development. The relative values of the properties are fixed for all time, so all you can do is try to buy them up.

But the world we live in is dynamic: We can invent new and better things. Creative monopolists give customers more choices by adding entirely new categories of abundance to the world. Creative monopolies aren’t just good for the rest of society; they’re powerful engines for making it better.

7. Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.

Marx and Shakespeare provide two models that we can use to understand almost every kind of conflict.

According to Marx, people fight because they are different. The proletariat fights the bourgeoisie because they have completely different ideas and goals (generated, for Marx, by their very different material circumstances). The greater the difference, the greater the conflict.

To Shakespeare, by contrast, all combatants look more or less alike. It’s not at all clear why they should be fighting since they have nothing to fight about. Consider the opening to Romeo and Juliet: “Two households, both alike in dignity.” The two houses are alike, yet they hate each other. They grow even more similar as the feud escalates. Eventually, they lose sight of why they started fighting in the first place.”

In the world of business, at least, Shakespeare proves the superior guide. Inside a firm, people become obsessed with their competitors for career advancement. Then the firms themselves become obsessed with their competitors in the marketplace. Amid all the human drama, people lose sight of what matters and focus on their rivals instead.

[…]

Rivalry causes us to overemphasize old opportunities and slavishly copy what has worked in the past.

8. Last can be first

You’ve probably heard about “first mover advantage”: if you’re the first entrant into a market, you can capture significant market share while competitors scramble to get started. That can work, but moving first is a tactic, not a goal. What really matters is generating cash flows in the future, so being the first mover doesn’t do you any good if someone else comes along and unseats you. It’s much better to be the last mover – that is, to make the last great development in a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.

Grandmaster José Raúl Capablanca put it well: to succeed, “you must study the endgame before everything else.”

Zero to One is full of counterintuitive insights that will help your thinking and ignite possibility.

(image source)

Philosopher Kahlil Gibran on Why The Best Thing To Give is Yourself

In 1923 the Lebanese-American artist, poet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran (1883–1931) published his masterpiece, The Prophet, which endures as a timeless classic meditation on living. While Kahlil’s thoughts on love capture his brilliance, his book offered more wisdom.

In our annual letter we highlight that the most valuable thing you give Farnam Street, is your time. This moves beyond something physical and into something that is part of you. Gibran captures this well when he writes:

You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

As if speaking in our time — to our fear or boredom, our inability to want something without instant gratification, and our ability to never be satisfied with what we have, Gibran writes

And what is fear of need but need itself.
Is not dread of thirst when your well is full, the thirst that is unquenchable?

On whether we should wait to be asked before we give, the answer is clear. We should give first. More than that, however, we need to be deserving. Something Charlie Munger hit on when he said “The best way to get success is to deserve success.”

It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding;
And to the open-handed the search for one who shall receive is joy greater than giving.
[…]
You often say, “I would give, but only to the deserving.”
The trees in your orchard say not so, nor the flocks in your pasture.
They give that they may live, for to withhold is to perish.
[…]
See first that you yourself deserve to be a giver, and an instrument of giving.
For in truth it is life that gives unto life—while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.

The Prophet is a must read in its entirety. Complement with Gibran’s thoughts on love.

The Books That Influenced Edward O. Wilson

harvard guide to influential books

Too often life gets in the way of reading and thinking. Rarely are we given a chance to look back at what influenced our thinking. Sometimes these are small fragments — words, thoughts, marginalia, ideas, or even a book.

The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking contains an annotated listing of the books that mattered to over a hundred Harvard University faculty members along with some commentary on why.

Here is Pulitzer-winning writer and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s contribution.

I was an adolescent, from fifteen to eighteen years of age, when I encountered the books that were to have the most profound and lasting influence on my life. Thereafter I read thousands of books, many of equal or superior quality, and put most to good use; but I have to confess that individually they have had a steadily declining effect on my world view, style and ambition. Hence I can only offer you works that might, either literally or as examples of a genre, influence a certain kind of young person to take up a career as a biologist and naturalist. More I cannot promise.

Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Even as a small child I dreamed of going on faraway expeditions to collect insects and other animals. This book set my imagination on fire, and I was thereafter a nesiophile, a lover of islands, the concrete symbols of new worlds awaiting exploration. The compulsion was one of the mental factors that led me in later years to develop (with Robert H. MacArthur) the theory of island biogeography, which has become an influential part of ecology.

Heredity and Its Variability by Trofim D. Lysenko

Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was, false in conception, political in aim, and very nearly the death of Soviet genetics, I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. It appealed to my mood of rebelliousness. It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.

An Essay on Morals by Philip Wylie

When I was a seventeen-year-old college student, these Menckenesque essays broke me out of the fundamentalist Protestant faith in which I had been raised and moved me toward the secular humanism with which I increasingly identify today. I still find Wylie a delightful read.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

The perfect young man’s book: a vision of a pure life devoted to the search for scientific truth, above money grubbing and hypocrisy. How I longed to be like Arrowsmith, to find my mentor in a real Gottlieb. The feeling was intensified when I discovered Jack London’s Martin Eden shortly afterward.

What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

This taut little book, which I encountered as a college freshman, invited biologists to think of life in more purely physical terms. Schrodinger was right of course, as witness the rise of molecular biology soon afterward. For me his arguments suggested delicious mysteries and great challenges. (Later, I was especially pleased when a reviewer likened my own book Genes, Mind, and Culture, published with C. J. Lumsden in 1981, to What Is Life? saying that it offered a comparable challenge from biology to the social sciences.)

Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist by Ernst Mayr

By defining the biological species in strong, vital language and connecting the process of species formation to genetics, Mayr opened a large part of natural history to a more scientific form of analysis. This is an example of a very heuristic work, which invited young scientists to join an exciting quest in field research. More than forty years after its publication, I am still wholly involved in this effort.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I hope that I have not missed the editors’ purpose entirely by listing books that affected one rather rebellious adolescent in the 1940s, but I was quite surprised myself when I came up with this list after careful reflection. Let me make partial amends by citing the work that I pull off the shelf most often, and gives me the greatest pleasure, now that I am in my fifties: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. For this work reflects the point to which I have come, in company with such a magnificent spirit who “bears in mind that all that is rational is akin, and that it is in man’s nature to care for all men, and that we should not embrace the opinion of all, but of those alone who live in conscious agreement with Nature.

The Man In The Arena: Citizenship In A Republic

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.
Theodore Roosevelt1

There are those among us who dare to do more and in so doing draw attention to themselves. Sometimes they win, and sometimes they come up short but what they really enjoy is the fight — the striving to do better that’s needed to accomplish great things.

In contrast, most adults play it safe — standing on the sidelines watching others struggle to do more. As such, they know neither victory nor defeat — they only know how to comment on the struggle of others.

Remember Roosevelt’s oration the next time you criticize.

***

In Rising Strong, Brene Brown comments on Roosevelt’s speech, focusing on one particular part: “The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood.” She writes —

Imagine the sound of a needle scratching across a record. Stop here. Before I hear anything else about triumph or achievement, this is where I want to slow down time so I can figure out exactly what happens next.

We’re facedown in the arena. Maybe the crowd has gone silent, the way it does at football games or my daughter’s field hockey matches when the players on the field take a knee because someone is hurt. Or maybe people have started booing and jeering. Or maybe you have tunnel vision and all you can hear is your parent screaming, “Get up! Shake it off!”

Our “facedown” moments can be big ones like getting fired or finding out about an affair, or they can be small ones like learning a child has lied about her report card or experiencing a disappointment at work. Arenas always conjure up grandeur, but an arena is any moment when or place where we have risked showing up and being seen. Risking being awkward and goofy at a new exercise class is an arena. Leading a team at work is an arena. A tough parenting moment puts us in the arena. Being in love is definitely an arena.

When I started thinking about this research, I went to the data and asked myself, What happens when we’re facedown? What’s going on in this moment? What do the women and men who have successfully staggered to their feet and found the courage to try again have in common? What is the process of rising strong?

I wasn’t positive that slowing down time to capture the process was possible, but I was inspired by Sherlock Holmes to give it a shot. …

In Season 3, there’s an episode where Sherlock is shot. Don’t worry, I won’t say by whom or why, but, wow, I did not see it coming. The moment he’s shot, time stops. Rather than immediately falling, Sherlock goes into his “mind palace”—that crazy cognitive space where he retrieves memories from cerebral filing cabinets, plots car routes, and makes impossible connections between random facts. Over the next ten minutes or so, many of the cast of recurring characters appear in his mind, each one working in his or her area of expertise and talking him through the best way to stay alive.

First, the London coroner who has a terrific crush on Sherlock shows up. She shakes her head at Sherlock, who seems completely taken aback by his inability to make sense of what’s happening, and comments, “It’s not like it is in the movies, is it, Sherlock?” Aided by a member of the forensics team at New Scotland Yard and Sherlock’s menacing brother, she explains the physics of how he should fall, how shock works, and what he can do to keep himself conscious. The three warn him when pain is coming and what he can expect. What probably takes three seconds in real time plays out for more than ten minutes on the screen. I thought the writing was genius, and it re-energized my efforts to keep at my own slow-motion project.

My goal for this book is to slow down the falling and rising processes: to bring into our awareness all the choices that unfurl in front of us during those moments of discomfort and hurt, and to explore the consequences of those choices.

[…]

On a cultural level, I think the absence of honest conversation about the hard work that takes us from lying facedown in the arena to rising strong has led to two dangerous outcomes: the propensity to gold-plate grit and a badassery deficit.

Footnotes