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Charles Darwin — Natural Selection was like Confessing a Murder

Darwin to Hooker

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published.

In Letters of Note we find an interesting letter from him to Joseph Hooker 15 years before what would later be called natural selection, he mentions his theory and likens it to “confessing a murder.”

Down.
Bromley Kent Thursday

My dear Sir

I must write to thank you for your last letter; I to tell you how much all your views and facts interest me.— I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”— which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector.— I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil—

What limit shall you take on the Patagonian side— has d’Orbigny published, I believe he made a large collection at the R. Negro, where Patagonia retains its usual forlorn appearance; at Bahia Blanca & northward the features of Patagonia insensibly blend into the savannahs of La Plata.— The Botany of S. Patagonia (& I collected every plant in flower at the season when there) would be worth comparison with the N. Patagonian collection by d’Orbigny.— I do not know anything about King’s plants, but his birds were so inaccurately habitated, that I have seen specimen from Brazil, Tierra del & the Cape de Verde Isd all said to come from the St. Magellan.— What you say of Mr Brown is humiliating; I had suspected it, but cd not allow myself to believe in such heresy.— FitzRoy gave him a rap in his Preface, & made me very indignant, but it seems a much harder one wd not have been wasted. My crptogamic collection was sent to Berkeley; it was not large; I do not believe he has yet published an account, but he wrote to me some year ago that he had described & mislaid all his descriptions. Wd it not be well for you to put yourself in communication with him; as otherwise some things will perhaps be twice laboured over.— My best (though poor) collection of the Crptogam. was from the Chonos Islands.—

Would you kindly observe one little fact for me, whether any species of plant, peculiar to any isld, as Galapagos, St. Helena or New Zealand, where there are no large quadrupeds, have hooked seeds,—such hooks as if observed here would be thought with justness to be adapted to catch into wool of animals.—

Would you further oblige me some time by informing me (though I forget this will certainly appear in your Antarctic Flora) whether in isld like St. Helena, Galapagos, & New Zealand, the number of families & genera are large compared with the number of species, as happens in coral-isld, & as I believe? in the extreme Arctic land. Certainly this is case with Marine shells in extreme Arctic seas.—Do you suppose the fewness of species in proportion to number of large groups in Coral-islets., is owing to the chance of seeds from all orders, getting drifted to such new spots? as I have supposed.—

Did you collect sea-shells in Kerguelen land, I shd like to know their character.? Your interesting letters tempt me to be very unreasonable in asking you questions; but you must not give yourself any trouble about them, for I know how fully & worthily you are employed.

Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts— At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” &c,— but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his— though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.— You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.— I fear you will also groan at the length of this letter— excuse me, I did not begin with malice prepense.

Believe me my dear Sir
Very truly your’s
C. Darwin

Herbert Simon: Solution By Recognition and the Value of Mental Models

Herbert Simon describes the difference between experienced decision makers and novice ones in his autobiography Models of My Life.

In doing so, he highlights the value of mental models and collecting a repository of positive responses that can be called upon when needed.

One can train a man so that he has at his disposal a list or repertoire of the possible actions that could be taken under the circumstances…A person who is new at the game does not have immediately at his disposal a set of possible actions to consider, but has to construct them on the spot – a time- consuming and difficult mental task.

The decision maker of experience has at his disposal a checklist of things to watch out for before finally accepting a decision. A large part of the difference between the experienced decision maker and the novice in these situations is not any particular intangible like “judgment” or “intuition.” If one could open the lid, so to speak, and see what was in the head of the experienced decision-maker, one would find that he had at his disposal repertoires of possible actions; that he had checklists of things to think about before he acted; and that he had mechanisms in his mind to evoke these, and bring these to his conscious attention when the situations for decisions arose.

Most of what we do is to get people ready to act in situations of encounter consists of drilling in these lists into them sufficiently deeply so that they will be evoked quickly at the time of the decision.

 

A Lesson in Friendship

Around 10:00 pm one night when I was 16 my cell phone rang. My best friend was barely able to remain calm enough to get words out of his mouth.

After a bit of time, I figured out that he was at his girlfriend’s high school dance. A few things happened and a bunch of the local hooligans were gonna jump him when the dance was over at 11.

So I dutifully snuck out of the house, took the car, and drove to meet him. If he’s going down, I’m going down with him.

When I look back on this moment I can’t decide if it was a brilliant act of friendship or teenage stupidity.

The now older me asks what causes someone to drive to a near-certain walloping. The younger me still answers: friendship. If you won’t lay it on the line for your friends, who will you lay it on the line for?

I tend to agree with Henry Miller, who wrote: “Next to love friendship, in my opinion, is the most valuable thing life has to offer.”

But I never really thought about what makes a good friend.

When the chips are down and the odds are nearly impossible, I wanted people to be able to count on me. I might not be at your Super Bowl party, but if you needed help I would drop everything and be there in an instant.

This was the type of friend I wanted to be and to a large extent that’s the friend I still am.

Those Super Bowl parties, however, are way more important than I thought.

All through my life my friends have confessed their deepest struggles and conflicts with me. If you polled them, I’d probably be the first person they would call if they killed someone and needed to bury the body. In the words of Dr. Dre, “Well if you ever kill … I’ll show you where the ocean is.”

I was the wartime consigliere. However in times of peace — which is the vast majority of friendships — I wasn’t the first person people called. I was missing something that didn’t really dawn on me until recently.

No matter what was going on in my life – no matter my struggles, errors, or mistakes, I never called them. I wanted to be self-sufficient.

“The wise man is self-sufficient,” said Lucilius. He wants for nothing. He needs nothing. Chrysippus declared that the wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool.”

I can count on my hand the number of times I’ve ever called anyone and said something to the effect of: I really need you right now.

I never knew how many of these cards you’d get in a lifetime and I certainly didn’t want to waste one on whatever was troubling me at the moment. This has been one of my biggest shortcomings.

Seneca has some good thoughts on the matter. In epistle III, he writes:

There is a class of men who communicate, to anyone whom they meet, matters, which should be revealed to friends alone, and unload upon the chance listener whatever irks them. Others, again, fear to confide in their closest intimates; and if it were possible, they would not trust even themselves, burying their secrets deep in their hearts. But we should do neither. It is equally faulty to trust everyone and to trust no one. Yet the former fault is, I should say, the more ingenuous, the latter the more safe.

If I had struggles in my life my friends would sometimes never know. I’m not entirely sure if I was hiding these things from them or hiding them from myself.

A few days ago when I told one of my best friends some big news, he replied saying something to the effect of ‘as with many things in your life Shane, I had no idea.’ The message between the lines was clear: I would have been here for you, why didn’t you let me be there for you?

In that instant it hit me. I wasn’t the friend I needed to be because friendship is more than being there for them it’s also allowing them to be there for you.

For the longest time I thought that avoiding being vulnerable to people was strength. It’s not. It takes a lot more strength to make yourself vulnerable than it does to keep the walls up and stay protected.

Since this blog is about learning the best of what other people have figured out, I wanted to share this personal lesson with you.

The Return of a Decision-Making Jedi [The Knowledge Project #28]

Michael Mauboussin

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Michael Mauboussin returns for a fascinating encore interview on the Knowledge Project, a show that explores ideas, methods, and mental models, that will help you expand your mind, live deliberately, and master the best of what other people have already figured out.

In my conversation with Michael, we geek out on decision making, luck vs. skill, work/life balance, and so much more.

Mauboussin was actually the very first guest on the podcast when it was still very much an experiment. I enjoyed it so much, I decided to continue with the show. (If you missed his last interview, you can listen to it here, or if you’re a member of The Learning Community, you can download a transcript.)

Michael is one of my very favorite people to talk to, and I couldn’t wait to pick up right where we left off.

In this interview, Michael and I dive deep into some of the topics we care most about here at Farnam Street, including:

  • The concept of “base rates” and how they can help us make far better decisions and avoid the pain and consequences of making poor choices.
  • How to know where you land on the luck/skill continuum and why it matters
  • Michael’s advice on creating a systematic decision-making process in your organization to improve outcomes.
  • The two most important elements of any decision-making process
  • How to train your intuition to be one of your most powerful assets instead of a dangerous liability
  • The three tests Michael uses in his company to determine the health and financial stability of his environment
  • Why “algorithm aversion” is creating such headaches in many organizations and how to help your teams overcome it, so you can make more rapid progress
  • The most significant books that he’s read since we last spoke, his reading habits, and the strategies he uses to get the most out of every book
  • The importance of sleep in Michael’s life to make sure his body and mind are running at peak efficiency
  • His greatest failures and what he learned from them
  • How Michael and his wife raised their kids and the unique parenting style they adopted
  • How Michael defines happiness and the decisions he makes to maximize the joy in his life

Any one of those insights alone is worth a listen, so I think you’re really going to enjoy this interview.

Listen

Transcript

An edited transcript is available to members of our learning community or for purchase separately ($7).

More Episodes

A complete list of all of our podcast episodes.

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Members can discuss this post on the Learning Community Forum

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think will change the way you think about your next meal.

According to eating behavior expert Brian Wansink the mind makes food-related decisions, more than 200 a day, and many of them without pause for actual thought. In Mindless Eating, Wansink argues that we don’t have to change what we eat as much as how we eat. Make no mistake, this isn’t a diet book.

Wansink says “This book is not about dietary extremism—just the opposite. It’s about reengineering your environment so that you can eat what you want without guilt and without gaining weight. It’s about reengineering your food life so that it is enjoyable.”

The research summaries are entertaining. Take the study of how much people ate when their plates were literally bottomless. “It seems,” Wansink writes, “that when estimating almost anything—such as weight, height, brightness, loudness, sweetness, and so on—we consistently under-estimate things as they get larger.”

“While most Americans stop eating when they’re full, those in leaner cultures stop eating when they’re no longer hungry.” Not only that, unlike our (leaner) European friends, we tend to have bigger package sizes (and bigger kitchens), which means we end up eating (or pouring) more — “Because big packages (like big portions) suggest a consumption norm—what is appropriate or normal to use or eat.”

The problem is we’re all tricked by our environment. We think others could be fooled by something as simple as a bigger plate, but we never think we are fooled. That is what gives mindless eating so much power over us—we’re not aware it’s happening. Wansink’s approach is to change the environment.

Wansink believes that warehouse clubs are bad for our health. He also explains why you should leave empty wine glasses on the table, why Cinnabon stores are positioned beside stores that don’t sell food, how Subway is bad for your health, and why you should be the last person to start eating.

Check out this five-minute interview of Wansink.

“Regardless of how well we think we are tuned into our eating decisions, we will serve 25% to 35% more on a larger plate than a smaller plate.” Don’t think it makes a difference? 150 extra-calories a day is up to 15 pounds a year.

Interested in learning more? Check out Mindless Eating and this link on Why We Get Fat.

Intuition vs. Rationality: Where One Stops the Other Starts

Here’s an interesting passage from Anne Lamott, found in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, that requires some consideration.

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

The great French mathematician Henri Poincaré said something adding to our understanding of the roles that both rationality and intuition play in discovery: “It is through science that we prove, but through intuition that we discover.”

Furthering our understanding, I ran across a quote by Steve Jobs on the same topic: “Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion.” The source of that quote is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs:

The people in the Indian countryside don’t use their intellect like we do, they use their intuition instead, and the intuition is far more developed than in the rest of the world… Intuition is a very powerful thing, more powerful than intellect, in my opinion. That’s had a big impact on my work.

Western rational thought is not an innate human characteristic, it is learned and it is the great achievement of Western civilization. In the villages of India, they never learned it. They learned something else, which is in some ways just as valuable but in other ways is not. That’s the power of intuition and experiential wisdom.

It’s not really acceptable to admit but most of the time we make our decisions on intuition, rationalizing them after the fact by cherry picking. (If you want to see what it looks like to make rational decisions and catalouge your data, try using our decision journal for a month.) Intuition can be thought of as subconscious pattern matching, honed over weeks, years, and decades. The more we are within our circle of competence the more likely our intuition proves correct.

The point isn’t choosing between cold rationality and intuition but rather understanding that each serves a purpose. If we let it, intuition can be an able guide but we must check it when the consequences of being wrong are high.

Footnotes

Roger Fisher on a Better Way to Negotiate, Part 2

In Part 1 of our series on the best-selling negotiation book Getting to Yes, we covered Roger Fisher’s four-part framework on Principled Negotiation — his “way out” of highly contentious negotiation. To review, the four parts were as follows:

  1. Separate the People from the Problem
  2. Focus on Interests, Not Positions
  3. Invent Options for Mutual Gain
  4. Insist on Objective Criteria

Habitual use of these four criteria is a way to build, or at least not destroy, win-win relationships in the process of negotiation. The truth is we all must negotiate from time to time. Refusing to negotiate is a strategy in and of itself — and usually a pretty bad one relative to the alternatives.

Fisher’s framework brings up some obvious follow-on questions: What if the other side is more powerful? What if they refuse to play by your rules? What if they play dirty?

Let’s check out a few.

(Don’t want to read online? Purchase a sexy PDF of the two-part series for only $3.99.)

Negotiate Fairly

What if they are more Powerful?

We’re all afraid of being taken advantage of in a negotiation. Our tendency to demand fairness is a big part of it, as is our tendency to try to minimize future regret. In a negotiation with a more “powerful” part, it would seem at times like our only play is to make a stand — demand that they meet us or we will not negotiate. That turns out to be a bad play sometimes, and completely unnecessary at other times.

To combat this, Roger Fisher introduced a concept that a lot of people know the name of but not how to use: the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. He addresses the basic problem of powerlessness first:

In response to power, the most any method of negotiation can do is to meet two objectives: first, to protect you against making an agreement you should reject and second, to help you make the most of the assets you do have so that any agreement you reach will satisfy your interest as well as possible.

The common tactics are to either cave very easily, thus ending the negotiation and any possible bitterness, or to set a “bottom line” and walk away if it’s not met. They’re both weak responses: The “softie” tactic almost assures you’ll take a deal that’s not in your best interest, while the “bottom line” mentality makes you rigid, unable to learn and adapt during the negotiation process and probably too focused on one single variable at the expense of other ones. (Lack of creativity.)

The better approach to understand your BATNABest Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. It’s simple to understand in the context of a job offer negotiation: If you lose this negotiation, what alternatives do you have? If you set your “bottom line” too high and you lose, are you on the street? Or, do you have a great second or third option to go to?

While the BATNA acronym is useful and explanatory, it’s really just a dressed-up version of the elementary concept we call opportunity cost, which is constantly at play in life. Realizing that opportunity cost is a “superpower” in negotiation, we can derive the following:

  1. He with the best opportunity cost holds the power. Let’s say you’re negotiating with a large car dealership over the price of a new sedan. Who holds the power? On the surface it might look like the dealer does, given their stature in power. But if you have three dealerships in a 30-mile radius which can sell you the same car, the power is yours, not the dealer’s. When you enter into negotiation, you can almost always afford to lose and go down the street to another dealership, find a different type of car to buy, change your mind and go used, or even keep your current car longer. (That’s one reason why the car business is such a tough one.) Point being, size does not = power. Opportunity cost = power.
  2. Developing alternative opportunities is the way to gain power. If you’re afraid you’re entering into a job negotiation with no power, your best bet probably isn’t to play hardball, it’s to develop other job offers, or even figure out if you can afford to start your own business. Once you can afford to walk away, the power shifts at least slightly. Raise your opportunity cost bar to shift the odds and make the negotiation a little more fair.
  3. Think about their opportunity cost as much as your own. Can they afford to lose? If not, you probably have more power than you think.
  4. If they win the opportunity cost battle, argue on merit. Roger Fisher makes this final point well: To the extent that they have muscle and you have principle, the larger a role you can establish for principle, the better off you are. If your opportunity costs are weak, you must resort to making it clear that the house is objectively worth X, that you deserve to be paid Y, or that a drawn-out fight will only ruin your relationship. This goes back to insisting on objective criteria.

What if they Won’t Play?

A problem arises if you aren’t successful in shifting the negotiation to objective criteria or creating win-wins. Sometimes the other side simply takes a position and stubbornly (often irrationally) holds their ground. What then? There are two approaches.

The first tactic Fisher argues for is Negotiation Jujitsu. In other words, using their own forcefulness against them. Not playing their game. It’s nuanced and we won’t try to cover it all here — the book does it well. But the salient point is that you can’t react emotionally to forceful negotiation. Let them criticize, let them attack if they must. But your job is to keep asking objective questions. “You say you won’t accept less than $2,000 — where do you get that figure from? What makes you say that this is a fair number?” Keep things in the realm of objectivity and don’t get them further entrenched by “attacking back.”

Another part of the jujitsu is to explain to them the consequences of adopting an extreme position. Ask them, hypothetically, what would happen if things went the way they preferred. Fisher gives the example of an Arab-Israeli negotiation where an American was able to get the Arab contingent to understand that if the Israelis gave in entirely, their people would castigate them back home. It was enough to end that line of negotiation.

The last jujitsu tactic is to take criticism unusually well — not allowing the discussion to get personal, even if the other side wants to make it so. I understand you don’t want to be taken advantage of, neither do I — can you explain how your proposal is fair to me as well as you? Can you explain how my position could be altered to be more fair? What would you do if you were in my position? Soliciting an adversary for advice can be disarming if used wisely. All it takes is tamping down your ego. Good lines of inquiry don’t criticize, they probe and try to be helpful. And when you do so, simply pausing and letting the other side talk themselves into or out of a corner can work as well. Use silence to your advantage if you’re making sense and they’re reacting emotionally.

***

The second approach is to use a third-party to mediate. Have them draft up a solution as impartially as possible, with both parties giving input, and the final decision being a mere “yes” or “no” by each party. This can simplify and de-personalize the process.

If you cannot change the process to one of seeking a solution on its merits, perhaps a third party can. More easily than one of those directly involved, a mediator can separate the people from the problem and direct the discussion to interests and options. Further, he or she can often suggest some impartial basis for resolving differences. A third party can also separate inventing from decision-making, reduce the number of decisions required to reach agreement, and help the sprites know what they will get when they do decide. One process designed to enable a third party to do all this is known as the one-text procedure.

The essence of that procedure is to have a draft drawn up that best satisfies both sides impartially and without pre-commitment. The final decision for each party is a simple “yes” or “no” to the draft solution. You can do it yourself, asking for opinions and revisions as you go along, or have a third party take it on. In either case, you’re trying to change the game rather than fight a losing battle.

What if they Play Dirty?

A tricky tactic is defined as one that fails the test of reciprocity — they are designed to benefit one side only, and most often, the other side is not supposed to know they’re being used . Some of the most common dirty tactics include: Using phony facts, introducing phony authority, hiding dubious intentions, psychological manipulation, refusal to negotiate, and good-cop, bad-cop type routines. There are too many to enumerate, but the basic answer to all of them will be to refer back to the four central ideas of principle negotiation. You need to point out and negotiate the rules of the game itself when you suspect you’re becoming a victim of “tricky tactics” which you’re not supposed to know about.

There are three steps in negotiating the rules of the negotiating game where the other side seems to be using a tricky tactic: recognize the tactic, raise the issue explicitly, and question the tactics’s legitimacy and desirability — negotiate over it.

You have to know what is going on to be able to do something about it. Learn to spot particular ploys that indicate deception, those designed to make you uncomfortable, and those which lock the other side into their position. Often just recognizing a tactic will neutralize it. Realizing, for example, that the other side is attacking you personally in order to impair your judgment may well frustrate the effort.

The book has some great examples of dirty tactics in play, which are good to refer to. Another book to pick up some of these ploys is Cialdini’s Influence, one of the great books written to protect people against manipulation. However you learn them, it’s good to learn them well. Once you can see that it’s happening, you need to gently, non-threateningly, point out what’s going on and ask to return to principles, or to excuse yourself momentarily. These things serve to defuse an embarrassing situation. And never forget that the best defense in most cases is a worthy set of alternative opportunities, what Fisher calls the BATNA. These give you the ability to walk away if you feel yourself being manipulated with no recourse.

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Negotiating is difficult. It’s a part of life that some people enjoy and some do not, leading to outcomes in the vein of the old saying Don’t ever wrestle with a pig — you’ll both get dirty but the pig will like it. Strong-willed negotiators have a natural advantage over those of us more averse to confrontation, and yet if we push back, stalemate is a usual result. Adopting the Principled Negotiation approach, rooted deeply in human nature, seems to give us the best chance of getting fair results for all involved.

Still Interested? Check out Fisher’s bestselling book, read Part 1 of our two-part series, or check out our post on Fisher’s approach to giving better feedback in the workplace.

Jeff Bezos on Why People that Are Often Right Change Their Minds Often

Jeff Bezos recently stopped by the office of 37 Signals. After talking product strategy he answered some questions.

In his answer to one question he shared some thoughts on people who were “right a lot.”

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.

What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.

Bezos isn’t alone. Warren Buffett’s long time business partner Charlie Munger captures this:

If Berkshire has made modest progress, a good deal of it is because Warren and I are very good at destroying our own best-loved ideas. Any year that you don’t destroy one of your best-loved ideas is probably a wasted year.

John Kenneth Galbraith put it this way:

Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.

If you liked this, you’ll love:

How to Change How We Think — In the end changing how we think — that is our thought patterns — becomes about changing the language we use for internal and external communication.

Multitasking: Giving the World an Advantage it Shouldn’t Have — “I think when you multi-task so much, you don’t have time to think about anything deeply. You’re giving the world an advantage you shouldn’t do. Practically everybody is drifting into that mistake.”

Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

Albert Einstein on Sifting the Essential from the Non-Essential

Charlie Munger once said: “We have a passion for keeping things simple.”

Albert Einstein says, “I soon learned to scent out what was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things that clutter up the mind.” Most of us try to consume more information, thinking it will lead to more signal, without thinking about how we filter and how we process the information coming in.

Knowing some basic principles helps as does knowing how to combine them. As Einstein says “A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of applicability.”

It wasn’t because he understood more about the complicated than other people, as John Wheeler points out in his short biographical memoir on Einstein:

Many a man in the street thinks of Einstein as a man who could only make headway in his work by dint of pages of complicated mathematics; the truth is the direct opposite. As Hilbert put it, “Every boy in the streets of our mathematical Gottingen understands more about four-dimensional geometry than Einstein. Yet, despite that, Einstein did the work and not the mathematicians.” Time and again, in the photoelectric effect, in relativity, in gravitation, the amateur grasped the simple point that had eluded the expert.

Where did Einstein acquire this ability to sift the essential from the non-essential? For this we turn to his first job.

In the view of many, the position of clerk of the Swiss patent office was no proper job at all, but it was the best job available to anyone with (Einstein’s) unpromising university record. He served in the Bern office for seven years, from June 23, 1902 to July 6, 1909. Every morning he faced his quote of patent applications. Those were the days when a patent application had to be accompanied by a working model. Over and above the applications and the models was the boss, a kind man, a strict man, a wise man. He gave strict instructions: explain very briefly, if possible in a single sentence, why the device will work or why it won’t; why the application should be granted or why it should be denied.

Day after day Einstein had to distill the central lesson out of objects of the greatest variety that man has power to invent. Who knows a more marvelous way to acquire a sense of what physics is and how it works? It is no wonder that Einstein always delighted in the machinery of the physical world—from the action of a compass needle to the meandering of a river, and from the perversities of a gyroscope to the drive of Flettner’s rotor ship.

Who else but a patent clerk could have discovered the theory of relativity? “Who else,” Wheeler writes, “could have distilled this simple central point from all the clutter of electromagnetism than someone whose job it was over and over to extract simplicity out of complexity.”

Charles Munger speaks to the importance of sifting folly.

Part of that (possessing uncommon sense), I think, is being able to tune out folly, as distinguished from recognizing wisdom. You’ve got whole categories of things you just bat away so your brain isn’t cluttered with them. That way, you’re better able to pick up a few sensible things to do.

Spring 2016 Reading List — More Curated Recommendations For a Curious Mind

We hear a lot from people who want to read more. That’s a great sentiment. But it won’t actually happen until you decide what you’re going to do less of. We all get 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It’s up to you how you’ll spend that time.

For those who want to spend it reading, we’ve come across a lot of great books so far this year. Here are seven recommendations across a variety of topics. Some are newer, some are older — true knowledge has no expiration date.

1. The Evolution of Everything

Matt Ridley is a longtime favorite. Originally a PhD zoologist, Ridley went on to write great books like The Red Queen and The Rational Optimist, and wrote for The Economist for a while. This book makes the argument for how trial-and-error style evolution occurs across a wide range of phenomena. I don’t know that I agree with all of it, but he’s a great thinker and a lot of people will really enjoy the book.

2. A Powerful Mind: The Self-Education of George Washington

What a cool book idea by Adrienne Harrison. There are a zillion biographies of GW out there, with Chernow’s getting a lot of praise recently. But Harrison narrows in on Washington’s self-didactic nature. Why did he read so much? How did he educate himself? Any self-motivated learner is probably going to enjoy this. We’ll certainly cover it here at some point.

3. The Tiger

A Ryan Holiday recommendation, The Tiger is the story of a man-eating tiger in Siberia. Like, not that long ago. Pretty damn scary, but John Vaillant is an amazing writer who not only tells the tale of the tiger-hunt, but weaves in Russian history, natural science, the relationship between man and predator over time, and a variety of other topics in a natural and interesting way. Can’t wait to read his other stuff. I read this in two flights.

4. The Sense of Style

This is such a great book on better writing, by the incomparable Steven Pinker. We have a post about it here, but it’s worth re-recommending. If you’re trying to understand great syntax in a non-dry and practical way — Pinker is careful to show that great writing can take many forms but generally shares a few underlying principles — this is your book. He weaves in some cognitive science, which must be a first for a style guide.

5. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

I really loved this book. It’s written by Ed Catmull, who along with John Lasseter built the modern Pixar, which is now part of Disney. Catmull talks about the creative process at Pixar and how their movies go from a kernel of an idea to a beautiful and moving finished product. (Hint: It takes a long time.) Pixar is one of the more brilliant modern companies, and Bob Iger’s decision to buy it when he was named CEO of Disney ten years ago was a masterful stroke. I suspect Catmull and Lasseter are hugely responsible for the resurgence of Disney animation.

6. The Song Machine

This is a tough recommendation because it simultaneously fascinates and horrors me. The book is about the development of modern glossy pop music. I suspect anyone with an interest in music will be interested to see how this goes, with some people reading out of morbid curiosity and some because they want to learn more about the music they actually listen to. Pursue at your peril. I pulled out my old ’90s rock music to soothe myself.

7. Plato at the Googleplex

Does philosophy still matter? Rebecca Goldstein, who is a modern analytical philosopher, goes after this topic in a pretty interesting way by exploring what it’d be like if Plato were interacting with the modern world. Very quirky subject matter and approach, but I actually appreciated that. There’s a lot of cookie-cutter writing going on and Goldstein breaks out as she explores a timeless topic. Probably most reserved for those actually interested in philosophy, but even if you’re not, it might stretch your brain a bit.

Bonus Bestseller

Alexander Hamilton

Farnam Street related travel has brought me to quite a few airports recently. I make a habit of checking out the airport bookstores because bookstores are awesome. Recently, I noticed that Chernow’s biography of Hamilton was suddenly sitting amongst the bestsellers. Chernow’s books are amazing, but airport bestsellers? It wasn’t until I realized that Hamilton’s life had been turned into a massive smash hit Broadway play, based on the book, that everything clicked. In any case, if you want to learn about an amazing American life and also be “part of the conversation,” check out Hamilton.