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The Art of Thinking Clearly

Rolf Dobelli’s book, The Art of Thinking Clearly, is a compendium of systematic errors in decision making. While the list of fallacies is not complete, it’s a great launching pad into the best of what others have already figured out.

To avoid frivolous gambles with the wealth I had accumulated over the course of my literary career, I began to put together a list of … systematic cognitive errors, complete with notes and personal anecdotes — with no intention of ever publishing them. The list was originally designed to be used by me alone. Some of these thinking errors have been known for centuries; others have been discovered in the last few years. Some came with two or three names attached to them. … Soon I realized that such a compilation of pitfalls was not only useful for making investing decisions but also for business and personal matters. Once I had prepared the list, I felt calmer and more levelheaded. I began to recognize my own errors sooner and was able to change course before any lasting damage was done. And, for the first time in my life, I was able to recognize when others might be in the thrall of these very same systematic errors. Armed with my list, I could now resist their pull — and perhaps even gain an upper hand in my dealings.

Dobelli’s goal is to learn to recognize and evade the biggest errors in thinking. In so doing, he believes we might “experience a leap in prosperity. We need no extra cunning, no new ideas, no unnecessary gadgets, no frantic hyperactivity—all we need is less irrationality.”

Let’s take a look at some of the content.

Guarding Against Survivorship Bias

People systematically overestimate their chances of success. Guard against it by frequently visiting the graves of once-promising projects, investments, and careers. It is a sad walk but one that should clear your mind.

Pattern Recognition

When it comes to pattern recognition, we are oversensitive. Regain your scepticism. If you think you have discovered a pattern, first consider it pure chance. If it seems too good to be true, find a mathematician and have the data tested statistically.

Fighting Against Confirmation Bias

[T]ry writing down your beliefs — whether in terms of worldview, investments, marriage, health care, diet, career strategies — and set out to find disconfirming evidence. Axing beliefs that feel like old friends is hard work but imperative.

Dating Advice and Contrast

If you are seeking a partner, never go out in the company of your supermodel friends. People will find you less attractive than you really are. Go alone or, better yet, take two ugly friends.

Think Different

Fend it off (availability bias) by spending time with people who think different than you do—people whose experiences and expertise are different from yours.

Guard Against Chauffeur Knowledge

Be on the lookout for chauffeur knowledge. Do not confuse the company spokesperson, the ringmaster, the newscaster, the schmoozer, the verbiage vendor, or the cliche generator with those who possess true knowledge. How do you recognize the difference? There is a clear indicator: True experts recognize the limits of what they know and what they do not know.

The Swimmer’s Body Illusion

Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good swimmers because of their physiques. How their bodies are designed is a factor for selection and not the result of their activities. … Whenever we confuse selection factors with results, we fall prey to what Taleb calls the swimmer’s body illusion. Without this illusion, half of advertising campaigns would not work. But this bias has to do with more than just the pursuit of chiseled cheekbones and chests. For example, Harvard has the reputation of being a top university. Many highly successful people have studied there. Does this mean that Harvard is a good school? We don’t know. Perhaps the school is terrible, and it simply recruits the brightest students around.

Peer Pressure

A simple experiment, carried out in the 1950s by legendary psychologist Solomon Asch, shows how peer pressure can warp common sense. A subject is shown a line drawn on paper, and next to it three lines—numbered 1, 2, and 3—one shorter, one longer, and one the same length as the original one. He or she must indicate which of the three lines corresponds to the original one. If the person is alone in the room, he gives correct answers because the task is really quite simple. Now five other people enter the room; they are all actors, which the subject does not know. One after another, they give wrong answers, saying “number 1,” although it’s very clear that number 3 is the correct answer. Then it is the subject’s turn again. In one-third of cases, he will answer incorrectly to match the other people’s responses

Rational Decision Making and The Sunk Cost Fallacy

The sunk cost fallacy is most dangerous when we have invested a lot of time, money, energy, or love in something. This investment becomes a reason to carry on, even if we are dealing with a lost cause. The more we invest, the greater the sunk costs are, and the greater the urge to continue becomes. … Rational decision making requires you to forget about the costs incurred to date. No matter how much you have already invested, only your assessment of the future costs and benefits counts.

Avoid Negative Black Swans

But even if you feel compelled to continue as such, avoid surroundings where negative Black Swans thrive. This means: Stay out of debt, invest your savings as conservatively as possible, and get used to a modest standard of living—no matter whether your big breakthrough comes or not

Disconfirming Evidence

Munger Destroy ideas

The confirmation bias is alive and well in the business world. One example: An executive team decides on a new strategy. The team enthusiastically celebrates any sign that the strategy is a success. Everywhere the executives look, they see plenty of confirming evidence, while indications to the contrary remain unseen or are quickly dismissed as “exceptions” or “special cases.” They have become blind to disconfirming evidence.

Still curious?

Read The Art of Thinking Clearly.

The Science of Addictive Junk Food

Michael Moss, a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at The New York Times, just wrote a book called Salt Sugar Fat.

Every year, the average American eats thirty-three pounds of cheese (triple what we ate in 1970) and seventy pounds of sugar (about twenty-two teaspoons a day). We ingest 8,500 milligrams of salt a day, double the recommended amount, and almost none of that comes from the shakers on our table. It comes from processed food. It’s no wonder, then, that one in three adults, and one in five kids, is clinically obese. It’s no wonder that twenty-six million Americans have diabetes, the processed food industry in the U.S. accounts for $1 trillion a year in sales, and the total economic cost of this health crisis is approaching $300 billion a year.

This weekend’s NY Times Magazine has a lengthy excerpt from the book.

In 2011, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study that shed new light on America’s weight gain. The subjects — 120,877 women and men — were all professionals in the health field, and were likely to be more conscious about nutrition, so the findings might well understate the overall trend. Using data back to 1986, the researchers monitored everything the participants ate, as well as their physical activity and smoking. They found that every four years, the participants exercised less, watched TV more and gained an average of 3.35 pounds. The researchers parsed the data by the caloric content of the foods being eaten, and found the top contributors to weight gain included red meat and processed meats, sugar-sweetened beverages and potatoes, including mashed and French fries. But the largest weight-inducing food was the potato chip. The coating of salt, the fat content that rewards the brain with instant feelings of pleasure, the sugar that exists not as an additive but in the starch of the potato itself — all of this combines to make it the perfect addictive food. “The starch is readily absorbed,” Eric Rimm, an associate professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, told me. “More quickly even than a similar amount of sugar. The starch, in turn, causes the glucose levels in the blood to spike” — which can result in a craving for more.

If Americans snacked only occasionally, and in small amounts, this would not present the enormous problem that it does. But because so much money and effort has been invested over decades in engineering and then relentlessly selling these products, the effects are seemingly impossible to unwind. More than 30 years have passed since Robert Lin first tangled with Frito-Lay on the imperative of the company to deal with the formulation of its snacks, but as we sat at his dining-room table, sifting through his records, the feelings of regret still played on his face. In his view, three decades had been lost, time that he and a lot of other smart scientists could have spent searching for ways to ease the addiction to salt, sugar and fat. “I couldn’t do much about it,” he told me. “I feel so sorry for the public.”

Still curious? Learn about why we get fat and what you can do about it.


Two Questions Everyone Asks Themselves When They Meet You

People everywhere differentiate each other by liking (warmth, trustworthiness) and by respecting (competence, efficiency).

Essentially they ask themselves: (1) Is this person warm? and (2) Is this person competent?

The “warmth dimension captures traits that are related to perceived intent, including friendliness, helpfulness, sincerity, trustworthiness and morality, whereas the competence dimension reflects traits that are related to perceived ability, including intelligence, skill, creativity and efficacy.”

“In sum, although both dimensions are fundamental to social perception, warmth judgments seem to be primary, which reflects the importance of assessing other people’s intentions before determining their ability to carry out those intentions.”

Like all perception, social perception reflects evolutionary pressures. In encounters with conspecifics, social animals must determine, immediately, whether the ‘other’ is friend or foe (i.e. intends good or ill) and, then, whether the ‘other’ has the ability to enact those intentions. New data confirm these two universal dimensions of social cognition: warmth and competence. Promoting survival, these dimensions provide fundamental social structural answers about competition and status. People perceived as warm and competent elicit uniformly positive emotions and behavior, whereas those perceived as lacking warmth and competence elicit uniform negativity. People classified as high on one dimension and low on the other elicit predictable, ambivalent affective and behavioral reactions. These universal dimensions explain both interpersonal and intergroup social cognition.

Improve your competence by subscribing to Farnam Street via Email, RSS, or Twitter.


Niccolò Machiavelli and the Four Princes of Pragmatism

To top off the course The Moral Leader, Professor Badaracco’s students dissect Niccolo Machiavelli’s chilling classic The Prince.

“You may think that’s an odd place to end what is essentially a business ethics elective,” Badaracco acknowledged with a smile.

Students talk about what Machiavelli has to say on one crucial key to leadership: leading in the world as it is.

Four different takes on The Prince usually emerge in their discussion—though there are at least a hundred different readings of Machiavelli for scholars who truly delve into the literature, Badaracco points out.

Version 1: “This book is a mess. It was written by a guy who hoped to get to the center of things, was there briefly, offended some of the wrong Medicis, was exiled, was tortured, and wanted to get back in.” It’s “a scholar’s dream because you can find anything you want in it and play intellectual games. But just put it aside.”

Version 2: “Now wait a minute. There’s some good common sense in there. Machiavelli is basically saying that if you want to make an omelet you have to break some eggs. … To do some right things, you may have to not do some other right things.”

Version 3: Other students believe the book is still around because it’s so evil. Why is it evil? “If you look closely at The Prince,” he said, “it’s quite interesting what isn’t in the book. Nothing about religion. Nothing about the Church. Nothing about God. There’s nothing about spirituality. Almost nothing about the law. Almost nothing about traditions. You’re out there on your own doing what works for you in terms of naked ambition.”

Version 4: A fourth Prince that other students uncover is the most interesting one, in Badaracco’s mind. Students find that the book reveals a kind of worldview, he says, and it’s not an evil worldview. This version goes: “If you’re going to make progress in the world you’ve got to have a clear sense, a realistic sense, an unsentimental sense, of how things really work: the mixed motives that compel some people and the high motives that compel some others. And the low motives that unfortunately captivate other people.”

Students who claim the fourth Prince, he said, believe that if they’re going to make a difference, it’s got to be in that world, “not in some ideal world that you would really like to live in.”

30 Lessons For Living

Who are the wisest Americans and what can they teach us?

We’re all interested in finding the right partner, staying with them, and (maybe even) raising children who turn out well.

Karl Pillemer wrote 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans to provide us with practical advice from the experts about how to make the most out of life. (I had the chance to interview Karl as well.)

A self described “advice junkie,” Pillemer wanted answers to some of life’s more complicated questions. He wanted practical advice that is “based in lived reality, has stood the test of time, and offers a chance of genuinely helping us make the most of our lives.” So he turned to the experts: the oldest Americans.

“Could we,” he asks, “look at the oldest Americans as experts on how to live our lives?”

I went on a quest for wisdom. I didn’t search in the usual way, by traveling the world, finding a therapist, or taking up an esoteric religious practice. To find practical guidance for living, my answer was to search for the life wisdom of older people.

And when you put together well over a thousand older people,who have lived “rich and fulfilling lives,” you have a source of unique gidence.

Their unique perspective provides a much-needed antidote to conventional wisdom about the “good life” in contemporary American society.

30 Lessons For Living

So what did they have to say?

Happiness is Your Responsibility

“Young man,” she said “you will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. Why in the world would I be unhappy? People here complain all the time, but not me. It’s my responsibility to be as happy as I can, right here, today.”

The Single Most Important Component of a Long and Satisfying Marriage

No matter their socioeconomic background, their religious heritage, their race or ethnicity, or their political leanings, they agree: finding someone who is similar in upbringing, general orientation, and values is the single most important component of a long and satisfying marriage. On the other hand, we live in a pluralistic society that increasingly values diversity, breaking down old barriers, and understanding and appreciation of differences. Is there a conflict here?

The message to take away from this lesson allows for both perspectives. The experts (like the social scientists) don’t tell you unconditionally not to marry someone who is different from you but with whom you are deeply in love. They simply want everyone to recognize that if we marry people very dissimilar to ourselves, and in particular with divergent values, we are much more likely to face complex challenges in married life.

When you wake up in the morning ask what you can do for your partner

Neither one of us is waking up in the morning and saying, “Am I getting what I need out of this?” Instead we’re waking up saying, “What can I do for him?” or “What can I do for her?” …

When you wake up in the morning, think, “What can I do to make her day or his day just a little happier?”

Don’t Keep Score

Don’t keep score. Don’t take the attitude that marriage must always be a fifty-fifty proposition; you can’t get out exactly what you put in. The key to success is having both partners try to give more than they get out of the relationship.

Find Happiness at Work

One of the most striking points is what the thousand-plus experts didn’t say.

No one— not a single person out of a thousand— said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

No one— not a single person— said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success.

No one— not a single person— said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

You need Interpersonal Skills

Their consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant— you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.

Everyone Needs Autonomy

Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top.

Family Life

America’s elders tell you that what you will regret at their age is not having spent more time with your children. … The experts who missed out on spending time with their children regret it, and those who creatively manufactured time together regard it as the best decision they ever made.

Three Key Points

First, it’s your time that kids want, and they will look back on the hours you spend together with fondness and nostalgia. The experts remember this from their own families— indeed it is the source of most of their pleasant memories about childhood. Second, what counts the most are shared activities— time spent on hobbies, sports, camping, hunting, or fishing (it’s extraordinary how many of the male experts cherish memories of hunting or fishing trips with their fathers) or in seeking out a new interest together. Third, the experts agree that we should be willing to make sacrifices to have that kind of time.

What The Experts Say About Getting Older

The experts’ basic message about aging is one of the most counterintuitive recommendations in this entire book: don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.

Improve Your Life by Paying Attention

“Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time,” writes Winifred Gallagher, author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

That your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a stop sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you.

All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being.

What is attention anyways?

Attention is commonly understood as “the concentration of the mental powers” or “the direction or application of the mind to any object of sense or thought. Recently, however, a rare convergence of insights from both neuroscience and psychology suggests a paradigm shift in how to think about this cranial laser and its role in behavior: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, you’re on the right track. And there is no one better to learn from than Sherlock Holmes.

So if attention is the key, what should you pay attention to? The positive.

… Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it — a fact that has important implications for your daily experience.

You can control what you focus on …

As to the idea that the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over your experience and well being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lama and the Penn positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

At the end of a discussion of attention and decision-making, Kahneman remarks on research that suggests older people connect more with the experiencing self, which is inclined to pay rapt attention to little everyday delights, like sunbeams dancing on water or music drifting through a window.

Always look on the bight side.

As the abundance of vaguely annoying sayings such as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” proves, the idea of restoring emotional equilibrium by refocusing on a problem in a different way is not new. What is is the impressive research that increasingly shows that Pollyanna’s insistence on “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life.

If a snowstorm prevents a trip to the store for groceries, one person curses the weather and has a rotten day, while another quickly focuses on what a good thing it is to be snug inside and to have that nice leftover meatloaf. Research on the so-called cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by the psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus, confirms that what happens to you, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to your well-being than how you respond to it. Because your reaction to any event is at least partly a matter of interpretation, the aspects you concentrate on become what the UNC psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls “leverage points” for a simple attentional-attitudinal adjustment that works as an emotional “reset button.” If you want to get over a bad feeling, she says, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.”

That’s not to say that when something upsetting happens, you immediately try to force yourself to “be happy.” First, says Fredrickson, you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how you honestly feel about what occurred. Then you direct your attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light. After a big blowup over an equitable sharing of the housework, rather than continuing to concentrate on your partner’s selfishness and sloth, you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood. Interestingly, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this venerable attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

How you react to life is more important than what happens. Those are the words that legendary psychiatrist and Auschwitz-survivor, Viktor Frankl, so aptly found out the hard way. In Man’s Search for Meaning, he wrote:

Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.

Oh, and one more thing. While we think that shopping makes us feel better, it doesn’t.

Despite your initial excitement and a high price tag, adaptation guarantees that your focus will soon stray from the wondrous pleasures of your new computer or larger apartment, consigning them to mere comfort status. Rather than binging on such big, costly amenities, a better — and cheaper — strategy for boosting your daily satisfaction quotient would be to add many more simple, inexpensive ones … After all, on any given Monday morning, your comfortable bank balance pales beside a good cup of coffee.

Paying attention to what you pay attention to is a simple point. If you think multi-tasking is the answer: it isn’t. Reading Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, is a quick reminder that what you focus on can literally change your world.

A Guide to Meditation

If I could encourage you to look into one thing to think and focus better, Lodro Rinzler’s Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation would be it.

Rinzler walks us through 10 steps. Step 1 is about knowing your why, your intention. Step 2 is learning a meditation technique. Step 3 is cultivating mindfulness and awareness. Step 4 is about consistency. Step 5 is developing a deep understanding of gentleness. Step 6 is discovering how to work with obstacles. Step 7 is learning how to move away from getting caught up in your emotions. Step 8 is about connecting with your “inherent peaceful state.” Step 9 is becoming a practitioner. Step 10, the final step, is “learning to rest in the present moment even when you’re not on the meditation seat.”

I’m not going to cover all ten in this article, but I’m going to give you enough to get started today.

What is my motivation for wanting to meditate?

Don’t skip this part. This is the foundational aspect for everything that follows.

The most common reasons for exploring meditation are to be less stressed, live more in the present moment, or better deal with emotions. But before you get started it’s important that you ask why.

Whenever someone tells me that they are interested in meditating I always ask them why. They sometimes are surprised, thinking I would simply be overjoyed to learn that they are even remotely interested. Often I am and am just displaying an awesome poker face. However, I’ve found that if someone is not clear about why they want to meditate, they will soon find out that meditation is not necessarily easy and end up discouraged early on, not pursuing it in depth.

We have an intention even if it’s unconscious. More often than not we go through life without a clear understanding of why we’re doing things.

We never pause and develop a conscious intention and, as a result, things tend to get messy down the road. … I’m a firm believer that when you live your life in line with conscious intentions, as opposed to unconscious ones, you live a fuller, happier life overall.

When you get stuck or disheartened you can look back at the why and say “Oh right. That’s why I’m doing this. I want to be kinder/more self-aware/less stressed out all the time.” This is something I’ve been missing. In yoga class, for over a year now, we’ve been setting an intention for our practice. But no one ever told me what that intention was supposed to be fore; this is where you come to when things get difficult.

Learning the Meditation Technique

The meditation practice that Rinzler walks us through is called shamatha, or “calm-abiding meditation.” That doesn’t mean it’s going to help you fall asleep — just the opposite. This is intended to wake you up to what is going on in this very moment, through training in paying attention to something that embodies this very moment: the breath.

As Marcus Aurelius says:

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come–for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest-and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

The point is all we own is the present. The here and now and yet we never really focus on it. We’re always focused on the past or the future but never the here and now. When you’re with your friends, you’re thinking about all the things you have to do. When you’re out running errands, you’re thinking about what’s for dinner or next weekend. When you’re at work, you’re just wanting the day to be over. These are all examples of how we’re never really present in the moment.

Meditation instructors tend to lose me when they talk about enlightenment. The point to meditation, a lot of people would have you believe, is to move toward enlightenment. I’ve never really bought into that … until now. Rinzler did the best job of connecting with me on this subject. Let me see if I can explain how it clicked for me.

When you think about enlightenment, what is really meant is that you become “in tune with the way reality is.” This is also one of the key components of rationality — your mental models line up with the way the world really is and not your idea of how the world should work or some notion of how it could be. It’s a pragmatic view of life. That’s enlightenment.

Ok, on to the good stuff. How can we meditate?


Begin by taking a comfortable seat on a cushion on the ground. If it will hurt to sit on the ground you can sit instead in a chair. In either situation, sit with your butt firmly in the center of your seat. You want to feel a sense of being grounded, physically, which will help ground you mentally. Feel the weight of your body on the earth. If you are on a cushion, loosely cross your legs with your knees falling a little bit below your hip bones. If you are in a chair, place your feet firmly on the ground about hip-width apart.

From this strong base you expand upward toward the sky. Elongate your spine in order to sit up straight. Don’t throw your shoulders back or you will end up sore and in pain. Actually connect with your skeletal curvature and use that as the basis for your support. If visualizing is helpful I always recommend imagining a string at the top of your head, pulling you straight up. … I promise you that it gets easier over time. For now please exert yourself to stick with this upright posture. Do not lean back if you are in a chair.

Now drop your hands at your sides for a moment. Pick them up at the elbows and drop them, palms down, on your thighs. This specific positioning should allow for a bit of extra support for your back. …

Your skull rests at the top of your spine. The only thing you need to do positioning-wise there is to slightly tuck in your chin. Relax the muscles in your face, particularly in your forehead, around your eyes, and your jaw. That might mean that your jaw hangs open, which is preferred. You can place your tongue up against the roof of your mouth, which slows down the swallowing process and allows for clear breathing.

Finally, rest your gaze about two to four feet ahead of you on the ground. It may surprise you that I recommend keeping your eyes open. It’s a matter of view. If you intend to become more awake to what is going on around you it seems counterproductive to close your eyes.

Meditation is not “an intellectual exercise,” but rather a way to “connect with what’s going on in your body.”

Now for the hard part. This is simple but not easy.

Wait, how hard can it be? We breathe all day right? The problem is this isn’t something we normally pay attention to. Try it. Stop right now and pay attention to your breath for one minute. Do nothing else.

Not so easy is it?

Our mind is habituated to running amok, not staying focused on something as basic as the breath. This is why meditation practice is difficult. We have spent years habituating ourselves to do anything other than be present with what is going on in this very moment. The breath serves as our anchor to the present. So feel your breathing, as it is right now.

You don’t need to alter your breath from its normal pattern and you don’t need to place an emphasis on either the outgoing or incoming breath. Just breathe like you normally do. Relax. “Let your body naturally do its thing. In some sense, the true object of your meditation practice is appreciation of your very being.”


You will get distracted from the breath. It may be a few seconds or it may be minutes but you will get distracted. That’s also very natural. Since we are not used to being in the present moment the mind habitually gravitates toward the past and future. For instance, you may attempt to be present but you start reliving a conversation you had with someone who annoyed you earlier. From there your mind jumps to the future and how you will tell that person off the next time you see them.

In any such case where your attention gets stolen by the past or future just remember that your intention is to be present with the breath. If your mind is lost in big thoughts that take you out of the room you can silently and gently say “thinking” to yourself as a reminder that what you are doing is very normal but not what you want to do.

Labelling this as thinking allows you to bring your attention back to the breath.

That’s it. That’s the basic shamatha practice. The power is in the simplicity.

We don’t need extra practices or new techniques to challenge ourselves. For the course of our work together please use this shamatha practice. Its power is in its simplicity. Over time you will get to see yourself more clearly. You will become a connoisseur of your own thought process. That is what a meditator is; someone who appreciates the many flavors of their own mind and is able to be present with all of them.

Mindfulness and Awareness: The Ultimate Tag-Team Combo

Practice can be challenging. While the intent is to have a “calm-abiding” meditation it can feel like your mind is going crazy.

In fact, it’s not uncommon for beginning meditators to feel as if they have opened the floodgates and there is a barrage of thoughts pummeling them, as if they were standing at the bottom of a waterfall and thoughts just hit them with that level of speed and velocity. It can feel that overwhelming.

The good news is (and trust me I speak from experience here) it gets easier. As you begin to meditate consistently, you start to gradually see an increase in the ability to stay with the breath and be more present, both on the meditation cushion and with various elements of the rest of your life.

Two tools that help us with meditation are mindfulness and awareness. First, let’s define them.

The Tibetan word for mindfulness is trenpa, which, if we want to get long-winded about it, can also be translated as “the ability to hold your attention to something.” That is pretty straightforward, right? If you want to be mindful of the breath that means you are holding your attention to your breathing. If you want to be mindful of a conversation it means fully engaging that discussion. If you want to be mindful while you eat it means paying attention to and enjoying your meal. Mindfulness is the simple act of being fully with whatever you are doing. “Ness” in this sense implies the essence of, so when we say “mindful ness” we are saying we are cultivating the essence of being mindful, or being present.

Mindfulness is an inherent capacity that we all have. … This tool, this drill, is already on our tool belt. We just need to learn how to use it. I use the example of the drill because mindfulness is a precise instrument; it specifically keeps us attuned to the present moment. While it may feel uncomfortable or difficult to be mindful with the breath, it is in fact just applying this tool to retrain our mind to do something it’s very accustomed to doing in other ways.

In a way we are always meditating on something. Whether it’s an upcoming work project or our home renovations, our focus is always placed on something other than what is going on right now. This is the difference between seeing and observing.

Our mind is accustomed to meditating on the future and the past, but we need to retrain it to come back to the present. That is the power of mindfulness: we learn to be precise with the breath as an anchor to the present so that later on we are more mindful with the rest of our lives.

The next tool is awareness.

The Tibetan word for awareness is sheshin. She can be translated into English as “knowing,” while shin is “present.” In other words, we can think of this phrase as “presently knowing,” or knowing what is going on in this very moment. It is a sense of awareness of our environment, both our physical environment and our mental environment. This tool of awareness is, not unlike mindfulness, something we already possess.

Mindfulness and awareness work together to keep us engaged in the present moment.

They are the tag team of meditative tools. In the case of our physical environment, we may be going about our day and we hear our phone ring. In this example, it is awareness that says, “Oh. Hey. My phone is ringing.” Recognizing that a noise occurred and that it is your telephone is an awareness of your physical environment. Then you pick up your phone and begin talking to whomever called you, and become fully engaged in that conversation. That is mindfulness bringing you to the point where you are truly in the moment with a dialogue. Maybe the person on the other end of the phone starts to bore you at some point and you lose your sense of mindfulness. When they call you on that and say, “Are you even listening to me?” your awareness will snap you back to what is going on in the moment and you will once more be present with that person.

In the case of our mental environment, awareness is that aspect of our mind that notices when we are no longer present with the breath. You know how you can be sitting there meditating, then all of a sudden a few minutes have passed and you have been plotting out that vacation you may or may not ever take, and then you catch yourself and say, “Whoa! Get back to meditating on the breath”? …

Another way to think of awareness is that it is the sheriff of the small town of your mind, constantly and kindly keeping watch and enforcing your ability to come back to your breathing.

“Every moment has its energy; either it will ride us, or we can ride it.” — Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche

If we do not live our lives with mindfulness and awareness we are missing a lot of opportunities to enjoy all the little moments throughout our day. We are instead letting our habitual patterns play out randomly as the energy of the moment rides us. It is a bit like listening to some horribly indulgent elevator music on a never-ending ride where every stop along the way opens the doors to self-involvement and suffering. If you are able to be in the moment and recognize the energy of what is going on, you can live your life with intention. If you cannot ride the energy of this very moment then it will ride you; in other words you will live a life based in unconscious intentions, held hostage to whatever discursive whims your mind cooks up. No matter what floor of the elevator you get off at it will lead to pain and inner turmoil.

Applying these tools to meditation and life will help you flourish.

Another word for meditation in Tibetan is gom. It can also be translated as “become familiar with.” In the process of meditation we are essentially becoming more familiar with our own mind and our habitual patterns. Now that you are beginning to look at your mind you can treat it like a new acquaintance. You may at first view that waterfall of thoughts that occurs when you sit down to meditate and say, “Um … I don’t know if I want to get to know you, Mr. Mind,” but you persevere and as you continue to apply mindfulness and awareness you become more accustomed to the eccentricities of your own mental being.

Pema Chodron

Your mind may sometimes be chaotic; it may sometimes be peaceful. In either case, if you can investigate it through simply being present then you are becoming more thoroughly who you are. You are more able to be with your experience, whether it is good or bad. As a bonus, when you continue to apply mindfulness and awareness while meditating you will find that they will naturally manifest more as you go about your day-to-day life. You will end up being more present with friends when you go out to dinner, or lovers when you are in bed, or family members even if you are in an argument. In all of these situations you can tune in to the present moment. You can be mindful of what is going on right now. You can maintain awareness of your environment and who you are relating to. With the tag-team combination of the precise drill of mindfulness and the rapid-fire snap of the measuring tape of awareness you can live a fuller, more content life overall, in tune with the way things are.


Sit Like a Buddha: A Pocket Guide to Meditation is totally worth exploring in its entirety over a glass of wine.

Getting the World to Do the Work for You

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

The key to getting what you want out of life is to identify how the world works and align yourself accordingly. The problem is we often think the world should work differently than it does. The word “should” is important. Because we think the world should work in a way that it doesn’t, our approach is suboptimal.

Why don’t we align ourselves with reality?

Part of the answer is we don’t listen to the feedback of reality. When we don’t get the outcome we’re seeking, the last place we look is with our actions. It’s too easy to wiggle out of responsibility by blaming others and circumstances. It’s not that this approach is entirely ineffective. We eventually get the job half done in twice the time. The person working with the world, however, gets the job fully done in half the time.

The most common source of feedback is people not reality. One problem with feedback from people is that it’s hard to give someone else high quality feedback. Think about it. People will tell you a few helpful things but they’ll often avoid the big thing that’s holding you back. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They want you to like them. That’s not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that people rarely know much more than you do. If they had all the answers, they’d get better results.

Another form of people feedback comes from groups, institutions, and society. This is the way things have been done. And while there might be good reason for doing things the same way they’ve always been done, if you take your feedback from these folks, you’ll incrementally improve what’s already exists rather than use first principles to design something new.  If exiting institutions knew what they were doing, we wouldn’t have startups or bankruptcy lawyers.

How do we identify how the world really works?

Outcome over ego.  You are accountable for your outcomes. When you take responsibility for your outcomes you get feedback from reality. When you get feedback from reality, you adjust your behavior.

FS is an exploration of timeless insights that you can apply at work and business for better results. We don’t cherry pick from one discipline because the world is multidisciplinary.


Still Curious? Pair with Andy Benoit’s wisdom and make some time to think about them.

Civilization and its Fundamental Passions

“To describe a culture is to describe the structure of its institutions.”
— Joseph Tussman


In his book The Burden of Office, the educator and philosopher Joseph Tussman, who brought us profound wisdom, does a remarkable job, in just a few short pages, of describing one of the fundamental truths of human life: The same things we cherish are also the things that destroy us. It is exactly the qualities which give us vitality that create our problems. This is a fundamental truth. (Gary Taubes made a similar point recently, calling the thirst for knowledge a tightrope walk.)

Tussman breaks down the fundamental passions into five areas: Eros (Love), Indignation (Moral Righteousness), Curiosity, Acquisitiveness, and Pride. These are the things which bless and bedevil us, as Tussman puts it.

On Eros:

Powerful, necessary, the root of self-transcendence, of the varieties of love and all that we value flowing from that. And yet, a source of anguish, of misery, of torment, of unhappiness, of conflict, madness, murder, war. Half of wisdom is learning to tiptoe in the presence of eros.

On Moral Fervor:

A deeply instinctive reaction to something that threatens us, the social group, the basic human unit. Its absence–indifference, genuine carelessness–is a fatal disease. Its moderate presence supports the justice that makes trust and cooperation possible. Its raging presence brings fanatical or holy war, the horrors of unslaked vengeance, the interminable feud.

On Curiosity:

Without it, no knowledge, no science, no arts, no power. But feared today as the human passion that may bring us to the end of the world. In its grip we stop at nothing recognizing no forbidden fruit, undeterred by decency.

On Acquisitiveness:

If we do not leap to a pejorative sense, we see that it begins as a kind of prudent concern to get what we need to satisfy our wants, now and in the future, to provide for ourselves, our families, our friends, our fellows […] But carried away, we can become misers, acquire the Midas touch, turn ugly with greed, cupidity, avarice–transforming a virtue into a destructive vice.

On Pride:

At one end of the scale we find something desirable and necessary–proper pride, self-respect, a sense of dignity, the capacity to know shame, to feel disgrace. At the other end we encounter the thirst for fame, for status, for glory–the arrogance, the heedless autonomy, the pride that goes before a fall.

Civilizing Passion

In the face of these two-faced passions, the whole point of human civilization and culture is to harness them into being useful and safe. This reminds one of the English saying that Politics is the art of marshaling hatreds. In other words, we build our culture knowing full well what the passions are and what they’re capable of.

Some people, of course, hate the rule-making and the institutionalizing of passions. We all probably do, from time to time. Many political campaigns have been run on the idea that society is reigning in the glorious individual too much.

But rarely do we give society much credit for what it accomplishes by creating useful institutions to marshal our passions. Tussman points out a few that have been especially useful. The first one being the modern legal system, which provides a great example of how we tame the passion of moral fury for the sake of civilization.

Moral indignation gives way to legal argument; fury is tied in legal knots–trapped, confined, restrained, transformed, tamed. The passion finds itself institutionalized, learns to express itself in a set of appropriate habits. Impulse and intuition give way to bureaucracy. Morality bows to legality. War gives way to the rule of law. We become civilized.

The story of fury and its taming into law is the story of all the great passions. We develop the forms within which they are both recognized, acknowledged, satisfied, and nevertheless, banked, kept within limits, restrained.

We do this with Eros too — we find ways to tame and institutionalize love, one of the most fundamental biological passions of humanity:

In its most assertive mood, the institution of marriage aspires to a total monopoly of legitimate sexuality. A rather daring claim, not unlike the claim of the institutions of the sovereign to a monopoly of legitimate coercive power, honored only to a degree. But the point is that marriage and its ancillary institutions are cultural attempts to tame eros into a benign form The pattern may vary from culture to culture and time to time, but every human group will erect its temples to this deity.

It’s even true with the passion for knowledge — something we’d all consider a fundamental right and generally a positive passion for the world. It’s given us so much. But we rein it in all the same, recognizing its power to mislead.

The passion for knowledge might not seem to belong in this fevered company, and may not seem to need restraining. At least it may not seem so in the academic world where we commonly worry more about kindling the passion than dampening. But there is a long tradition of the fear of the mad scientist with his unquenchable thirst–Faust and all those restless probing minds uncovering the secrets of the atom, of the genetic code, of the mind, of the soul, of all that heady fruit the taste of which may threaten what remains of innocence. In spite of bold claims to freedom, however, even the pursuit of truth is subject to social and political constraint. Much of it could not even go on without governmental sanction and support.

Yuval Harari makes similar points in his awesome book Sapiens: There is a long marriage between governmental and capitalistic institutions and the pursuit of knowledge. These pursuits don’t exist independently of each other, but work as complements. Karl Popper also wrote deeply about the need for an Open Society–the need for proper institutions to support the growth of knowledge, which can be suppressed under the wrong conditions.

In the end, says Tussman, we are the sum of our passions and our institutions — every culture answers this problem in its own way.

Civilization requires the institutionalization of the necessary but dangerous passions. Any civilization is a particular way of doing so, achieving–growing into–its complex forms more or less by happy accident. To describe a culture is to map its institutions. To criticize or evaluate a culture is to judge the adequacy of its institutions in light of some conception of how the various passions can best be expressed or shaped or harnessed to serve a variety of human purposes.


Still Interested? Check out Tussman’s brilliant quote on understanding the world.

Ethical Breakdowns: Why Good People often Let Bad Things Happen

When Charlie Munger recommended reading Max Bazerman’s Judgment in Managerial Decision Making I had never hear of the HBS professor. A lot of reading later and I’m a huge fan.

In the HBR article below Bazerman covers some of the ground from his new book Blind Spots (see my notes).

These days, many of us are instructed to make decisions from a business perspective (thereby reducing or eliminating the ethical implications of our decisions). The Ford Pinto example below is very telling:

Consider an infamous case that, when it broke, had all the earmarks of conscious top-down corruption. The Ford Pinto, a compact car produced during the 1970s, became notorious for its tendency in rear-end collisions to leak fuel and explode into flames. More than two dozen people were killed or injured in Pinto fires before the company issued a recall to correct the problem. Scrutiny of the decision process behind the model’s launch revealed that under intense competition from Volkswagen and other small-car manufacturers, Ford had rushed the Pinto into production. Engineers had discovered the potential danger of ruptured fuel tanks in preproduction crash tests, but the assembly line was ready to go, and the company’s leaders decided to proceed. Many saw the decision as evidence of the callousness, greed, and mendacity of Ford’s leaders—in short, their deep unethicality.

But looking at their decision through a modern lens—one that takes into account a growing understanding of how cognitive biases distort ethical decision making—we come to a different conclusion. We suspect that few if any of the executives involved in the Pinto decision believed that they were making an unethical choice. Why? Apparently because they thought of it as purely a business decision rather than an ethical one.

Taking an approach heralded as rational in most business school curricula, they conducted a formal cost-benefit analysis—putting dollar amounts on a redesign, potential lawsuits, and even lives—and determined that it would be cheaper to pay off lawsuits than to make the repair. That methodical process colored how they viewed and made their choice. The moral dimension was not part of the equation. Such “ethical fading,” a phenomenon first described by Ann Tenbrunsel and her colleague David Messick, takes ethics out of consideration and even increases unconscious unethical behavior.

Continue Reading at HBR.

I recommend you purchase Judgment in Managerial Decision Making and Blind Spots.