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The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience

No doubt you’ve seen the clickbait: this is your brain on love. This is your brain on happiness.

Clicking through leads you to a series of pictures that purport to explain why, for example, we choose Coke over Pepsi.

Once relegated to the speciality of neuroscientists and neurologists, the brain has now become mainstream. Never before has brain science captured the attention of the masses. The prime reason behind this is called the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), something that has barely been around long enough to hold a driver’s license. The fMRI, for those wondering, measures brain activity and converts it into some pretty vibrant images.

As I was reading Brainwashed, a book by Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld, it struck me that while we’re advancing, knowledge turns over pretty quickly when it comes to the brain.

What we think we know, doesn’t always turn out to be so. The book’s goal is to bring perspective to the speculations surrounding the promise of neuroscience.

“With its implied promise of decoding the brain,” they write, “it is easy to see why brain imaging would beguile almost anyone interested in pulling back the curtain on the mental lives of others: politicians hoping to manipulate voter attitudes, marketers tapping the brain to learn what consumers really want to buy, agents of the law seeking an infallible lie detector, addiction researchers trying to gauge the pull of temptations, psychologists and psychiatrists seeking the causes of mental illness, and defense attorneys fighting to prove that their clients lack malign intent or even free will. The problem is that brain imaging cannot do any of these things—at least not yet.”

Why are we so fascinated with the fMRI machine?

Well the brain is a pretty big mystery, containing upwards of 80 billion cells, or neurons, each of which can communicated with thousands (millions?) of other neurons. The three pound lump in our heads has more connections than anything we can imagine. Anything that offers the promise of looking inside and telling us how we come about our subjective judgments is sure to capture our imagination and attention.

Now we add pictures. Of all our senses, vision is the most developed. But just because you can see something doesn’t make it true but we have a bias for what psychologists and philosophers call naive realism.

This misplaced faith in the trustworthiness of our perceptions is the wellspring of two of history’s most famously misguided theories: that the world is flat and that the sun revolves around the earth. For thousands of years, people trusted their raw impressions of the heavens.

Despite our best intentions it’s pretty difficult to look at something firing in a certain spot in the brain and draw certain conclusions. Neruoimaging, after-all, barely has a drivers license.

In such a fledgling enterprise, the half-life of facts can be especially brief. To regard research findings as settled wisdom is folly, especially when they emanate from a technology whose implications are still poorly understood. As any good scientist knows, there will always be questions to hone, theories to refine, and techniques to perfect. Nonetheless, scientific humility can readily give way to exuberance. When it does, the media often seem to have a ringside seat at the spectacle.

Brainwashed takes aim at pop neuroscience “because these studies garner a disproportionate amount of media coverage and shape public perception of what brain imaging can tell us.”

“Problems arise,” they write, “when we ascribe too much importance to the brain-based explanations and not enough to psychological or social ones.”

Just as one obtains differing perspectives on the layout of a sprawling city while ascending in a skyscraper’s glass elevator, we can gather different insights into human behavior at different levels of analysis. The key to this approach is recognizing that some levels of explanation are more informative for certain purposes than others.

Advances in knowledge of how the brain works makes us think we understand the underlying mechanics of ourselves. At best, however, this seductive illusion of understanding is only partial.

The neurobiological domain is one of brains and physical causes, the mechanisms behind our thoughts and emotions. The psychological domain, the realm of the mind, is one of people — their desires, intentions, ideals, and anxieties. Both are essential to a full understanding of why we act as we do and to the alleviation of human suffering. The brain and the mind are different frameworks for explaining experience. And the distinction between them is hardly an academic matter; it bears crucial implications for how we think about human nature, personal responsibility, and more action.

What Animals Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

“Obesity is a disease of the environment.”

— Richard Jackson

Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, a cardiologist at the University of California Los Angeles, believes that her fellow human physicians have much to learn from their veterinary counterparts. These are not separate fields, she argues in her book, coauthored with science writer Kathryn Bowers, Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing.

Did you know that animals get cancer? heart disease? They also faint. Even diseases we think of as uniquely human, like depression, sexual performance, and addiction are found in the animal world. A lot of animals even self-injure when faced with stress or boredom.

When asked, “why should doctors listen to veterinarians,” in a recent interview she responded:

I can speak from my own personal experience. I had spent almost a couple decades being a human doctor, a cardiologist, and I had very little awareness about veterinary medicine. I, like most physicians, only interacted with veterinarians when my own animals got sick….I had this wonderful opportunity to help out at the Los Angeles Zoo, and through that experience I began seeing, both through the patients I was helping with and listening to the veterinarians on their rounds, that they were dealing with heart failure, and cancer, and behavioral disturbances, and infectious diseases, and really essentially the same diseases that I was taking care of in human patients.

Only a century or two ago, many humans and animals were treated by the same practitioner.

However, animal and human medicine began a decisive split around the turn of the twentieth century. Increasing urbanization meant fewer people relied on animals to make a living. Motorized vehicles began pushing work animals out of our daily life. With them went a primary revenue stream for many veterinarians. And in the United States, federal legislation called the Morrill Land-Grant Acts of the late 1800s relegated veterinary schools to rural communities while academic medical centers rapidly rose to prominence in wealthier cities.

Most physicians would never dream of consulting a veterinarian about human diseases.

Most physicians see animals and their illnesses as somehow “different.” We humans have our diseases. Animals have theirs.

Well that and the undeniable, and unspoken, medical establishments bias against veterinary medicine. Like all humans, doctors can be snobs. The unwritten hierarchy is based on a combination of factors but it’s pretty safe to bet that a veterinarian is below general practitioner.

Zoobiquity: What Animals Can Teach Us About Health and the Science of Healing

“We do not like to consider [animals] our equals,” Charles Darwin once remarked. And yet we are animals. In fact, we share most of our genetic makeup with other creatures. Of course, we do learn from animals. Mice are commonly used to better understand human conditions.

Zoobiquity isn’t about animal testing. It’s about the fact that “animals in jungles, oceans, forests, and our homes sometimes get sick—just as we do. Veterinarians see and treat these illnesses among a wide variety of species. And yet physicians largely ignore this. That’s a major blind spot, because we could improve the health of all species by learning how animals live, die, get sick, and heal in their animal settings.”

One example of where we can learn from is why animals get fat and how they get thin.

Fattening in the animal world has enormous potential lessons for humans—including dieters looking to shed a few pounds and doctors grappling with obesity, one of the most serious and devastating health challenges of our time.

Millions cope with this life-threatening epidemic. Millions of domestic animals that is. These pets are “fatter than ever before, and steadily gaining more weight.” While hard to determine, studies put the number of overweight and obese dogs and cats somewhere between 25 and 40 percent. In case you’re wondering, that’s still, at least for now, well below the proportion of U.S. human adults who are now either overweight or obese, which is closer to 70 percent.

What sets domestic animals apart from their wild cousins? We feed them.

They are mostly or completely dependent on humans for every meal, and we regulate both the quality and the quantity of everything that passes their lips and beaks. Consequently, we can’t really blame them for their weight problems. … And so we’re left with one conclusion: we, the species that both manipulates food to make it more unhealthful and has the intelligence to understand that we shouldn’t eat so much of it, are to blame. We’re responsible not only for our own expanding waistlines but for those of our animal charges as well.

It’s easy and pleasing to assume that animals in their native environments effortlessly stay lean and healthy. That’s not the case.

Abundance plus access—the twin downfalls of many a human dieter—can challenge wild animals, too.

Although we may think of food in the wild as hard to come by, at certain times of the year and under certain conditions, the supply may be unlimited.

So wild animals get fat the same way we humans do: access to abundant food.

Of course, animals also fatten normally—and healthily—in response to seasonal and life cycles. But what’s key is that an animal’s weight can fluctuate depending on the landscape around it.

Learning from animals, call it the zoobiquitous approach, we learn that “weight is not just a static number on a chart. Rather, it’s a dynamic, ever-changing reaction to a huge variety of external and internal processes ranging from the cosmic to the microscopic.”

Richard Jackson says “Obesity is a disease of the environment.” In 2010 he explained what he meant:

One of the problems with the obesity epidemic is we too often blame the victim. And yes, every one of us ought to have more self-control and ought to exert more willpower. But when everyone begins to develop the same set of symptoms, it’s not something in their mind, it’s something in our environment that is changing our health. And what’s changing in our environment is that we have made dangerous food, sugar-laden food, high-fat food, high-salt food … and we’ve made it absolutely the easiest thing to buy, the cheapest thing to buy, and yes, it tastes good, but it’s not what we should be eating.

In a 2009 book, The End of Overeating, David Kessler made a similar point: excess sugar, fat, and salt “hijack our brains and bodies and drive cycles of appetite and desire that make it nearly impossible to resist certain fattening foods.” In a new book I’ve just started reading, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Michael Moss makes the same point. (In case you’re wondering, the calories in calories out argument is bunk.)

One of the lessons we can take away

If you want to lose weight the wild animal way, decrease the abundance of food around yourself and interrupt your access to it. And expend lots of energy in the daily hunt for food. In other words: change your environment.

Nassim Taleb makes a similar point in his book Anti-Fragile:

Perhaps what we mostly need to remove is a few meals at random, or at least avoid steadiness in food consumption. The error of missing nonlinearities is found in two places, in the mixture and the frequency of food intake.

The problem with the mixture is as follows. We humans are said to be omnivorous, compared to more specialized mammals, such as cows and elephants and lions. But such ability to be omnivorous had to come in response to more variegated environments with unplanned, haphazard, and, what is key, serial availability of sources—specialization is the response to a very stable habitat free of abrupt changes, redundancy of pathways the response to a more variegated one. Diversification of function had to come in response to variety. And a variety of certain structure.

Note a subtly in the way we are built: the cow and the other herbivores are subjected to much less randomness than the lion in their food intake; they eat steadily but need to work extremely hard in order to metabolize all these nutrients, spending several hours a day just eating. … The lion, on the other hand, needs to rely on more luck; it succeeds in a small percentage of the kills, less than 20 percent, but when it eats, it gets in a quick and easy way all these nutrients produced thanks to very hard and boring work by the prey. So take the following principles derived from the random structure of the environment: when we are herbivores, we eat steadily; but when we are predators we eat more randomly. Hence our proteins need to be consumed randomly for statistical reasons.

So if you agree that we need “balanced” nutrition of a certain combination, it is wrong to immediately assume that we need such balance at every meal rather than serially so. … There is a big difference between getting them together at every meal … or having them separately, serially.

Why? Because deprivation is a stressor—and we know what stressors do when allowed adequate recovery. Convexity effects at work here again: getting three times the daily dose of protein in one day and nothing the next two is certainly not biologically equivalent to “steady” moderate consumption if our metabolic reactions are nonlinear.

… I am convinced that we are antifragile to randomness in food delivery and composition—at least over a certain range or number of days.

We’ve all known that antibiotics are used to stop the spread of certain diseases. But, Zoobiquity, offers another explanation:

Antibiotics don’t kill just the bugs that make animals sick. They also decimate beneficial gut flora. And these drugs are routinely administrated even when infection is not a concern. The reason may surprise you. Simply by giving antibiotics, farmers can fatten their animals using less feed. The scientific jury is still out on exactly why these antibiotics promote fattening, but a plausible hypothesis is that by changing the animals’ gut microflora, antibiotics create an intestine dominated by colonies of microbes that are calorie-extraction experts. This may be why antibiotics act to fatten not just cattle, with their multistomached digestive systems, but also pigs and chicken, whose GI tracts are more similar to ours.

This is really a key point: antibiotic use can change the weight of farm animals. It’s possible that something similar occurs in other animals—namely, us. Anything that alters gut flora, including but not limited to antibiotics, has implications not only for body weight but for other elements of our metabolism, such as glucose intolerance, insulin resistance and abnormal cholesterol.

The diet and exercise dogma:

Even without an assist from 32-ounce sodas, the yellow-bellied marmots in the Rockies, blue whales off the coast of California and country rats in Maryland have gotten steadily chubbier in recent years. The explanation might lie in the disruption of circadian rhythms. Of the global dynamics controlling our biological clocks — including temperature, eating, sleeping and even socializing — no “zeitgeber” is more influential than light.

The cycle

Modern, affluent humans have created a continuous eating cycle, a kind of “uniseason.” … Sugar is abundant, whether in our processed foods or in beautiful whole fruits that have had their inconvenient seeds bread out of them and that “unzip” from easy-to-peel skins and pop open into ready to eat segments. Protein and fat are everywhere available—in eternal harvest the prey never grows up and learns to run away or fight us off. Our food is stripped of microbes, and we remove more while scrubbing off dirt and pesticides. Because we control it, the temperature is always a perfect 74 degrees. Because we’re in charge, we can safely dine at tables aglow in light long after the sun goes down. All year round, our days are lovely and long; our nights are short.

As animals, we find this single season an extremely comfortable place to be. But unless we want to remain in a state of continual fattening, with accompanying metabolic diseases, we will have to pry ourselves out of this delicious ease.

Check out the book

Elon Musk on How To Build Knowledge

elon musk
Elon Musk recently did an AMA on reddit. Here are three question-and-response pairs that I enjoyed, including how to build knowledge.

He knows how to say I don’t know.

Previously, you’ve stated that you estimate a 50% probability of success with the attempted landing on the automated spaceport drone ship tomorrow. Can you discuss the factors that were considered to make that estimation?

Musk: I pretty much made that up. I have no idea :)

Everyone has that one teacher…

I’m a teacher, and I always wonder what I can do to help my students achieve big things. What’s something your teachers did for you while you were in school that helped to encourage your ideas and thinking? Or, if they didn’t, what’s something they could have done better?

Musk: The best teacher I ever had was my elementary school principal. Our math teacher quit for some reason and he decided to sub in himself for math and accelerate the syllabus by a year.

We had to work like the house was on fire for the first half of the lesson and do extra homework, but then we got to hear stories of when he was a soldier in WWII. If you didn’t do the work, you didn’t get to hear the stories. Everybody did the work.

Finally, his answer on building knowledge reminds me of The Five Elements of Effective Thinking and the latticework of mental models.

How do you learn so much so fast? Lots of people read books and talk to other smart people, but you’ve taken it to a whole new level.

Musk: I do kinda feel like my head is full! My context switching penalty is high and my process isolation is not what it used to be.

Frankly, though, I think most people can learn a lot more than they think they can. They sell themselves short without trying.

One bit of advice: it is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree — make sure you understand the fundamental principles, ie the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.

Follow your curiosity to Elon Musk Recommends 12 Books.

(image source: forbes)

Peter Bevelin on Seeking Wisdom, Mental Models, Learning, and a Lot More

One of the most impactful books we’ve ever come across is the wonderful Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, written by the Swedish investor Peter Bevelin. In the spirit of multidisciplinary learning, Seeking Wisdom is a compendium of ideas from biology, psychology, statistics, physics, economics, and human behavior.

Mr. Bevelin is out with a new book full of wisdom from Warren Buffett & Charlie Munger: All I Want to Know is Where I’m Going to Die So I Never Go There. We were fortunate enough to have a chance to interview Peter recently, and the result is the wonderful discussion below.

***

What was the original impetus for writing these books?

The short answer: To improve my thinking. And when I started writing on what later became Seeking Wisdom I can express it even simpler: “I was dumb and wanted to be less dumb.” As Munger says: “It’s ignorance removal…It’s dishonorable to stay stupider than you have to be.” And I had done some stupid things and I had seen a lot of stupidity being done by people in life and in business.

A seed was first planted when I read Charlie Munger’s worldly wisdom speech and another one where he referred to Darwin as a great thinker. So I said to myself: I am 42 now. Why not take some time off business and spend a year learning, reflecting and write about the subject Munger introduced to me – human behavior and judgments.

None of my writings started out as a book project. I wrote my first book – Seeking Wisdom – as a memorandum for myself with the expectation that I could transfer some of its essentials to my children. I learn and write because I want to be a little wiser day by day. I don’t want to be a great-problem-solver. I want to avoid problems – prevent them from happening and doing right from the beginning. And I focus on consequential decisions. To paraphrase Buffett and Munger – decision-making is not about making brilliant decisions, but avoiding terrible ones. Mistakes and dumb decisions are a fact of life and I’m going to make more, but as long as I can avoid the big or “fatal” ones I’m fine.

So I started to read and write to learn what works and not and why. And I liked Munger’s “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there” approach. And as he said, “You understand it better if you go at it the way we do, which is to identify the main stupidities that do bright people in and then organize your patterns for thinking and developments, so you don’t stumble into those stupidities.” Then I “only” had to a) understand the central “concept” and its derivatives and describe it in as simple way as possible for me and b) organize what I learnt in a way that was logical and useful for me.

And what better way was there to learn this from those who already knew this?

After I learnt some things about our brain, I understood that thinking doesn’t come naturally to us humans – most is just unconscious automatic reactions. Therefore I needed to set up the environment and design a system that helped me make it easier to know what to do and prevent and avoid harm. Things like simple rules of thumbs, tricks and filters. Of course, I could only do that if I first had the foundation. And as the years have passed, I’ve found that filters are a great way to save time and misery. As Buffett says, “I process information very quickly since I have filters in my mind.” And they have to be simple – as the proverb says, “Beware of the door that has too many keys.” The more complicated a process is, the less effective it is.

Why do I write? Because it helps me understand and learn better. And if I can’t write something down clearly, then I have not really understood it. As Buffett says, “I learn while I think when I write it out. Some of the things, I think I think, I find don’t make any sense when I start trying to write them down and explain them to people … And if it can’t stand applying pencil to paper, you’d better think it through some more.”

My own test is one that a physicist friend of mine told me many years ago, ‘You haven’t really understood an idea if you can’t in a simple way describe it to almost anyone.’ Luckily, I don’t have to understand zillion of things to function well.

And even if some of mine and others thoughts ended up as books, they are all living documents and new starting points for further, learning, un-learning and simplifying/clarifying. To quote Feynman, “A great deal of formulation work is done in writing the paper, organizational work, organization. I think of a better way, a better way, a better way of getting there, of proving it. I never do much — I mean, it’s just cleaner, cleaner and cleaner. It’s like polishing a rough-cut vase. The shape, you know what you want and you know what it is. It’s just polishing it. Get it shined, get it clean, and everything else.

Which book did you learn the most from the experience of writing/collecting?

Seeking Wisdom because I had to do a lot of research – reading, talking to people etc. Especially in the field of biology and brain science since I wanted to first understand what influences our behavior. I also spent some time at a Neurosciences Institute to get a better understanding of how our anatomy, physiology and biochemistry constrained our behavior.

And I had to work it out my own way and write it down in my own words so I really could understand it. It took a lot of time but it was a lot of fun to figure it out and I learnt much more and it stuck better than if I just had tried to memorize what somebody else had already written. I may not have gotten everything letter perfect but good enough to be useful for me.

As I said, the expectation wasn’t to create a book. In fact, that would have removed a lot of my motivation. I did it because I had an interest in becoming better. It goes back to the importance of intrinsic motivation. As I wrote in Seeking Wisdom: “If we reward people for doing what they like to do anyway, we sometimes turn what they enjoy doing into work. The reward changes their perception. Instead of doing something because they enjoy doing it, they now do it because they are being paid. The key is what a reward implies. A reward for our achievements makes us feel that we are good at something thereby increasing our motivation. But a reward that feels controlling and makes us feel that we are only doing it because we’re paid to do it, decreases the appeal.

It may sound like a cliché but the joy was in the journey – reading, learning and writing – not the destination – the finished book. Has the book made a difference for some people? Yes, I hope so but often people revert to their old behavior. Some of them are the same people who – to paraphrase something that is attributed to Churchill – occasionally should check their intentions and strategies against their results. But reality is what Munger once said, “Everyone’s experience is that you teach only what a reader almost knows, and that seldom.” But I am happy that my books had an impact and made a difference to a few people. That’s enough.

Why did the new book (All I Want To Know Is Where I’m Going To Die So I’ll Never Go There) have a vastly different format?

It was more fun to write about what works and not in a dialogue format. But also because vivid and hopefully entertaining “lessons” are easier to remember and recall. And you will find a lot of quotes in there that most people haven’t read before.

I wanted to write a book like this to reinforce a couple of concepts in my head. So even if some of the text sometimes comes out like advice to the reader, I always think about what the mathematician Gian-Carlo Rota once said, “The advice we give others is the advice that we ourselves need.”

How do you define Mental Models?

Some kind of representation that describes how reality is (as it is known today) – a principle, an idea, basic concepts, something that works or not – that I have in my head that helps me know what to do or not. Something that has stood the test of time.

For example some timeless truths are:

  • Reality is that complete competitors – same product/niche/territory – cannot coexist (Competitive exclusion principle). What works is going where there is no or very weak competition + differentiation/advantages that others can’t copy (assuming of course we have something that is needed/wanted now and in the future)
  • Reality is that we get what we reward for. What works is making sure we reward for what we want to achieve.

I favor underlying principles and notions that I can apply broadly to different and relevant situations. Since some models don’t resemble reality, the word “model” for me is more of an illustration/story of an underlying concept, trick, method, what works etc. that agrees with reality (as Munger once said, “Models which underlie reality”) and help me remember and more easily make associations.

But I don’t judge or care how others label it or do it – models, concepts, default positions … The important thing is that whatever we use, it reflects and agrees with reality and that it works for us to help us understand or explain a situation or know what to do or not do. Useful and good enough guide me. I am pretty pragmatic – whatever works is fine. I follow Deng Xiaoping, “I don’t care whether the cat is black or white as long as it catches mice.” As Feynman said, “What is the best method to obtain the solution to a problem? The answer is, any way that works.

I’ll tell you about a thing Feynman said on education which I remind myself of from time to time in order not to complicate things (from Richard P. Feynman, Michael A. Gottlieb, Ralph Leighton, Feynman’s Tips on Physics: A Problem-Solving Supplement to the Feynman Lectures on Physics):

“There’s a round table on three legs. Where should you lean on it, so the table will be the most unstable?”
The student’s solution was, “Probably on top of one of the legs, but let me see: I’ll calculate how much force will produce what lift, and so on, at different places.”
Then I said, “Never mind calculating. Can you imagine a real table?”
“But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!”
“Never mind how you’re supposed to do it; you’ve got a real table here with the various legs, you see? Now, where do you think you’d lean? What would happen if you pushed down directly over a leg?”
“Nothin’!”
I say, “That’s right; and what happens if you push down near the edge, halfway between two of the legs?”
“It flips over!”
I say, “OK! That’s better!”
The point is that the student had not realized that these were not just mathematical problems; they described a real table with legs. Actually, it wasn’t a real table, because it was perfectly circular, the legs were straight up and down, and so on. But it nearly described, roughly speaking, a real table, and from knowing what a real table does, you can get a very good idea of what this table does without having to calculate anything – you know darn well where you have to lean to make the table flip over. So, how to explain that, I don’t know! But once you get the idea that the problems are not mathematical problems but physical problems, it helps a lot.
Anyway, that’s just two ways of solving this problem. There’s no unique way of doing any specific problem. By greater and greater ingenuity, you can find ways that require less and less work, but that takes experience.

Which mental models “carry the most freight?” (Related follow up: Which concepts from Buffett/Munger/Mental Models do you find yourself referring to or appreciating most frequently?)

Ideas from biology and psychology since many stupidities are caused by not understanding human nature (and you get illustrations of this nearly every day). And most of our tendencies were already known by the classic writers (Publilius Syrus, Seneca, Aesop, Cicero etc.)

Others that I find very useful both in business and private is the ideas of Quantification (without the fancy math), Margin of safety, Backups, Trust, Constraints/Weakest link, Good or Bad Economics slash Competitive advantage, Opportunity cost, Scale effects. I also think Keynes idea of changing your mind when you get new facts or information is very useful.

But since reality isn’t divided into different categories but involves a lot of factors interacting, I need to synthesize many ideas and concepts.

Are there any areas of the mental models approach you feel are misunderstood or misapplied?

I don’t know about that but what I often see among many smart people agrees with Munger’s comment: “All this stuff is really quite obvious and yet most people don’t really know it in a way where they can use it.”

Anyway, I believe if you really understand an idea and what it means – not only memorizing it – you should be able to work out its different applications and functional equivalents. Take a simple big idea – think on it – and after a while you see its wider applications. To use Feynman’s advice, “It is therefore of first-rate importance that you know how to “triangulate” – that is, to know how to figure something out from what you already know.” As a good friend says, “Learn the basic ideas, and the rest will fill itself in. Either you get it or you don’t.”

Most of us learn and memorize a specific concept or method etc. and learn about its application in one situation. But when the circumstances change we don’t know what to do and we don’t see that the concept may have a wider application and can be used in many situations.

Take for example one big and useful idea – Scale effects. That the scale of size, time and outcomes changes things – characteristics, proportions, effects, behavior…and what is good or not must be tied to scale. This is a very fundamental idea from math. Munger described some of this idea’s usefulness in his worldly wisdom speech. One effect from this idea I often see people miss and I believe is important is group size and behavior. That trust, feeling of affection and altruistic actions breaks down as group size increases, which of course is important to know in business settings. I wrote about this in Seeking Wisdom (you can read more if you type in Dunbar Number on Google search). I know of some businesses that understand the importance of this and split up companies into smaller ones when they get too big (one example is Semco).

Another general idea is “Gresham’s Law” that can be generalized to any process or system where the bad drives out the good. Like natural selection or “We get what we select for” (and as Garrett Hardin writes, “The more general principle is: We get whatever we reward for).

While we are on the subject of mental models etc., let me bring up another thing that distinguishes the great thinkers from us ordinary mortals. Their ability to quickly assess and see the essence of a situation – the critical things that really matter and what can be ignored. They have a clear notion of what they want to achieve or avoid and then they have this ability to zoom in on the key factor(s) involved.

One reason to why they can do that is because they have a large repertoire of stored personal and vicarious experiences and concepts in their heads. They are masters at pattern recognition and connection. Some call it intuition but as Herbert Simon once said, “The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.

It is about making associations. For example, roughly like this:
Situation X Association (what does this remind me of?) to experience, concept, metaphor, analogy, trick, filter… (Assuming of course we are able to see the essence of the situation) What counts and what doesn’t? What works/not? What to do or what to explain?

Let’s take employing someone as an example (or looking at a business proposal). This reminds me of one key factor – trustworthiness and Buffett’s story, “If you’re looking for a manager, find someone who is intelligent, energetic and has integrity. If he doesn’t have the last, make sure he lacks the first two.”

I believe Buffett and Munger excel at this – they have seen and experienced so much about what works and not in business and behavior.

Buffett referred to the issue of trust, chain letters and pattern recognition at the latest annual meeting:

You can get into a lot of trouble with management that lacks integrity… If you’ve got an intelligent, energetic guy or woman who is pursuing a course of action, which gets put on the front page it could make you very unhappy. You can get into a lot of trouble. ..We’ve seen patterns…Pattern recognition is very important in evaluating humans and businesses. Pattern recognition isn’t one hundred percent and none of the patterns exactly repeat themselves, but there are certain things in business and securities markets that we’ve seen over and over and frequently come to a bad end but frequently look extremely good in the short run. One which I talked about last year was the chain letter scheme. You’re going to see chain letters for the rest of your life. Nobody calls them chain letters because that’s a connotation that will scare you off but they’re disguised as chain letters and many of the schemes on Wall Street, which are designed to fool people, have that particular aspect to it…There were patterns at Valeant certainly…if you go and watch the Senate hearings, you will see there are patterns that should have been picked up on.

This is what he wrote on chain letters in the 2014 annual report:

In the late 1960s, I attended a meeting at which an acquisitive CEO bragged of his “bold, imaginative accounting.” Most of the analysts listening responded with approving nods, seeing themselves as having found a manager whose forecasts were certain to be met, whatever the business results might be. Eventually, however, the clock struck twelve, and everything turned to pumpkins and mice. Once again, it became evident that business models based on the serial issuances of overpriced shares – just like chain-letter models – most assuredly redistribute wealth, but in no way create it. Both phenomena, nevertheless, periodically blossom in our country – they are every promoter’s dream – though often they appear in a carefully-crafted disguise. The ending is always the same: Money flows from the gullible to the fraudster. And with stocks, unlike chain letters, the sums hijacked can be staggering.

And of course, the more prepared we are or the more relevant concepts and “experiences” we have in our heads, the better we all will be at this. How do we get there? Reading, learning and practice so we know it “fluently.” There are no shortcuts. We have to work at it and apply it to the real world.

As a reminder to myself so I understand my limitation and “circle”, I keep a paragraph from Munger’s USC Gould School of Law Commencement Address handy so when I deal with certain issues, I don’t fool myself into believing I am Max Planck when I’m really the Chauffeur:

In this world I think we have two kinds of knowledge: One is Planck knowledge, that of the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. Then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned to prattle the talk. They may have a big head of hair. They often have fine timbre in their voices. They make a big impression. But in the end what they’ve got is chauffeur knowledge masquerading as real knowledge.

Which concepts from Buffett/Munger/Mental Models do you find most counterintuitive?

One trick or notion I see many of us struggling with because it goes against our intuition is the concept of inversion – to learn to think “in negatives” which goes against our normal tendency to concentrate on for example, what we want to achieve or confirmations instead of what we want to avoid and disconfirmations. Another example of this is the importance of missing confirming evidence (I call it the “Sherlock trick”) – that negative evidence and events that don’t happen, matter when something implies they should be present or happen.

Another example that is counterintuitive is Newton’s 3d law that forces work in pairs. One object exerts a force on a second object, but the second object also exerts a force equal and opposite in direction to the force acting on it – the first object. As Newton wrote, “If you press a stone with your finger, the finger is also pressed by the stone.” Same as revenge (reciprocation).

Who are some of the non-obvious, or under-the-radar thinkers that you greatly admire?

One that immediately comes to mind is one I have mentioned in the introduction in two of my books is someone I am fortunate to have as a friend – Peter Kaufman. An outstanding thinker and a great businessman and human being. On a scale of 1 to 10, he is a 15.

What have you come to appreciate more with Buffett/Munger’s lessons as you’ve studied them over the years?

Their ethics and their ethos of clarity, simplicity and common sense. These two gentlemen are outstanding in their instant ability to exclude bad ideas, what doesn’t work, bad people, scenarios that don’t matter, etc. so they can focus on what matters. Also my amazement that their ethics and ideas haven’t been more replicated. But I assume the answer lies in what Munger once said, “The reason our ideas haven’t spread faster is they’re too simple.”

This reminds me something my father-in-law once told me (a man I learnt a lot from) – the curse of knowledge and the curse of academic title. My now deceased father-in-law was an inventor and manager. He did not have any formal education but was largely self-taught. Once a big corporation asked for his services to solve a problem their 60 highly educated engineers could not solve. He solved the problem. The engineers said, “It can’t be that simple.” It was like they were saying that, “Here we have 6 years of school, an academic title, lots of follow up education. Therefore an engineering problem must be complicated”. Like Buffett once said of Ben Graham’s ideas, “I think that it comes down to those ideas – although they sound so simple and commonplace that it kind of seems like a waste to go to school and get a PhD in Economics and have it all come back to that. It’s a little like spending eight years in divinity school and having somebody tell you that the 10 commandments were all that counted. There is a certain natural tendency to overlook anything that simple and important.”

(I must admit that in the past I had a tendency to be extra drawn to elegant concepts and distracting me from the simple truths.)

What things have you come to understand more deeply in the past few years?

  • That I don’t need hundreds of concepts, methods or tricks in my head – there are a few basic, time-filtered fundamental ones that are good enough. As Munger says, “The more basic knowledge you have the less new knowledge you have to get.” And when I look at something “new”, I try to connect it to something I already understand and if possible get a wider application of an already existing basic concept that I already have in my head.
  • Neither do I have to learn everything to cover every single possibility – not only is it impossible but the big reason is well explained by the British statistician George Box. He said that we shouldn’t be preoccupied with optimal or best procedures but good enough over a range of possibilities likely to happen in practice – circumstances which the world really present to us.
  • The importance of “Picking my battles” and focus on the long-term consequences of my actions. As Munger said, “A majority of life’s errors are caused by forgetting what one is really trying to do.”
  • How quick most of us are in drawing conclusions. For example, I am often too quick in being judgmental and forget how I myself behaved or would have behaved if put in another person’s shoes (and the importance of seeing things from many views).
  • That I have to “pick my poison” since there is always a set of problems attached with any system or approach – it can’t be perfect. The key is try to move to a better set of problems one can accept after comparing what appear to be the consequences of each.
  • How efficient and simplified life is when you deal with people you can trust. This includes the importance of the right culture.
  • The extreme importance of the right CEO – a good operator, business person and investor.
  • That luck plays a big role in life.
  • That most predictions are wrong and that prevention, robustness and adaptability is way more important. I can’t help myself – I have to add one thing about the people who give out predictions on all kinds of things. Often these are the people who live in a world where their actions have no consequences and where their ideas and theories don’t have to agree with reality.
  • That people or businesses that are foolish in one setting often are foolish in another one (“The way you do anything, is the way you do everything”).
  • Buffett’s advice that “A checklist is no substitute for thinking.” And that sometimes it is easy to overestimate one’s competency in a) identifying or picking what the dominant or key factors are and b) evaluating them including their predictability. That I believe I need to know factor A when I really need to know B – the critical knowledge that counts in the situation with regards to what I want to achieve.
  • Close to this is that I sometimes get too involved in details and can’t see the forest for the trees and I get sent up too many blind alleys. Just as in medicine where a whole body scan sees too much and sends the doctor up blind alleys.
  • The wisdom in Buffett’s advice that “You only have to be right on a very, very few things in your lifetime as long as you never make any big mistakes…An investor needs to do very few things right as long as he or she avoids big mistakes.”

What’s the best investment of time/effort/money that you’ve ever made?

The best thing I have done is marrying my wife. As Buffett says and it is so so true, “Choosing a spouse is the most important decision in your life…You need everything to be stable, and if that decision isn’t good, it may affect every other decision in life, including your business decisions…If you are lucky on health and…on your spouse, you are a long way home.”

A good “investment” is taking the time to continuously improve. It just takes curiosity and a desire to know and understand – real interest. And for me this is fun.

What does your typical day look like? (How much time do you spend reading… and when?)

Every day is a little different but I read every day.

What book has most impacted your life?

There is not one single book or one single idea that has done it. I have picked up things from different books (still do). And there are different books and articles that made a difference during different periods of my life. Meeting and learning from certain people and my own practical experiences has been more important in my development. As an example – When I was in my 30s a good friend told me something that has been very useful in looking at products and businesses. He said I should always ask who the real customer is: “Who ultimately decides what to buy and what are their decision criteria and how are they measured and rewarded and who pays?

But looking back, if I have had a book like Poor Charlie’s Almanack when I was younger I would have saved myself some misery. And of course, when it comes to business, managing and investing, nothing beats learning from Warren Buffett’s Letters to Berkshire Hathaway Shareholders.

Another thing I have found is that it is way better to read and reread fewer books but good and timeless ones and then think. Unfortunately many people absorb too many new books and information without thinking.

Let me finish this with some quotes from my new book that I believe we all can learn from:

  • “There’s no magic to it…We haven’t succeeded because we have some great, complicated systems or magic formulas we apply or anything of the sort. What we have is just simplicity itself.” – Buffett
  • “Our ideas are so simple that people keep asking us for mysteries when all we have are the most elementary ideas…There’s nothing remarkable about it. I don’t have any wonderful insights that other people don’t have. Just slightly more consistently than others, I’ve avoided idiocy…It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.” – Munger
  • “It really is simple – just avoid doing the dumb things. Avoiding the dumb things is the most important.” – Buffett

Finally, I wish you and your readers an excellent day – Everyday!

 

Sol LeWitt on the Power of Doing

Stop is and just DO
Stop it and just DO

In 1960 two American artists met for the first time: Sol LeWitt and Eva Hesse. The meeting sparked a bond that resulted in “countless inspirational discussions and rich exchanged of ideas” until Hesse passed away in 1970.

In 1965 Hesse was facing a creative block, plagued with self-doubt. She told LeWitt who replied with this work of art found in Letters of Note. “An invaluable letter of advice, it has since inspired many other artists, and copies now grace the walls of art studios the world over.”

Dear Eva,
April 14

It will be almost a month since you wrote to me and you have possibly forgotten your state of mind (I doubt it though). You seem the same as always, and being you, hate every minute of it. Don’t! Learn to say “Fuck You” to the world once in a while. You have every right to. Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder, wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping, confusing, itching, scratching, mumbling, bumbling, grumbling, humbling, stumbling, numbling, rambling, gambling, tumbling, scumbling, scrambling, hitching, hatching, bitching, moaning, groaning, honing, boning, horse-shitting, hair-splitting, nit-picking, piss-trickling, nose sticking, ass-gouging, eyeball-poking, finger-pointing, alleyway-sneaking, long waiting, small stepping, evil-eyeing, back-scratching, searching, perching, besmirching, grinding, grinding, grinding away at yourself. Stop it and just

Do

From your description, and from what I know of your previous work and your ability; the work you are doing sounds very good “Drawing— clean— clear but crazy like machines, larger and bolder . . . real nonsense.” That sounds fine, wonderful—real nonsense. Do more. More nonsensical, more crazy, more machines, more breasts, penises, cunts, whatever— make them abound with nonsense. Try and tickle something inside you, your “weird humor.” You belong in the most secret part of you. Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you— draw & paint your fear & anxiety. And stop worrying about big, deep things such as “to decide on a purpose and way of life, a consistant approach to even some impossible end or even an imagined end.” You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to

Do

I have much confidence in you and even though you are tormenting yourself, the work you do is very good. Try to do some BAD work— the worst you can think of and see what happens but mainly relax and let everything go to hell— you are not responsible for the world— you are only responsible for your work— so DO IT. And don’t think that your work has to conform to any preconceived form, idea or flavor. It can be anything you want it to be. But if life would be easier for you if you stopped working— then stop. Don’t punish yourself. However, I think that it is so deeply engrained in you that it would be easier to

Do

It seems I do understand your attitude somewhat, anyway, because I go through a similar process every so often. I have an “Agonizing Reappraisal” of my work and change everything as much as possible— and hate everything I’ve done, and try to do something entirely different and better. Maybe that kind of process is necessary to me, pushing me on and on. The feeling that I can do better than that shit I just did. Maybe you need your agony to accomplish what you do. And maybe it goads you on to do better. But it is very painful I know. It would be better if you had the confidence just to do the stuff and not even think about it. Can’t you leave the “world” and “ART” alone and also quit fondling your ego. I know that you (or anyone) can only work so much and the rest of the time you are left with your thoughts. But when you work or before your work you have to empty your mind and concentrate on what you are doing. After you do something it is done and that’s that. After a while you can see some are better than others but also you can see what direction you are going. I’m sure you know all that. You also must know that you don’t have to justify your work—not even to yourself. Well, you know I admire your work greatly and can’t understand why you are so bothered by it. But you can see the next ones & I can’t. You also must believe in your ability. I think you do. So try the most outrageous things you can— shock yourself. You have at your power the ability to do anything.

I would like to see your work and will have to be content to wait until Aug or Sept. I have seen photos of some of Tom’s new things at Lucy’s. They are very impressive—especially the ones with the more rigorous form; the simpler ones. I guess he’ll send some more later on. Let me know how the shows are going and that kind of stuff.

My work has changed since you left and it is much better. I will be having a show May 4– 29 at the Daniels Gallery 17 E 64th St (where Emmerich was), I wish you could be there. Much love to you both.

Sol

sol2
sol3

Still curious? Letters of Note is full of interestingness.

The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

The Bed of Procrustes, the title of Nassim Taleb‘s book of aphorisms, takes its title from Greek Mythology.
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The Bed of Procrustes

Procrustes (“the stretcher”) owned a small estate along the sacred way between Athews and Eleusis. He invited every passer-by to spend the night in his iron bed. No one ever fit the bed exactly (because he had two) so he would physically alter his visitors so they would fit by stretching or amputating. Eventually he was fitted to his own bed by Theseus.

Even in myth, that sounds pretty grotesque. Who would do such a thing? Who would take something that doesn’t fit and make it fit.

We do this all the time. Not with people but with ideas. I think that’s Taleb’s point.

Taleb contrasts the ideal classical values against “modern diseases of nerdiness, philistinism, and phoniness.”

Every aphorism here is about a Procrustean bed of sorts — we humans, facing limits of knowledge, and things we do not observe, the unseen and the unknown, resolve tension by squeezing life and the world into crisp commoditized ideas, reductive categories, specific vocabularies, and prepackaged narratives, which, on the occasion, has explosive consequences.

You can consider this a stand alone, yet synthesized, version of Taleb’s other works: Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan, and Antifragile. All of these books deal with how to live in a world we don’t quite understand (or as Taleb would put it, “how we deal, and should deal, with what we don’t know.”)

Education

Education makes the wise slightly wiser, but it makes the fool vastly more dangerous.

Erudite

An erudite is someone who displays less than he knows; a journalist or consultant the opposite.

Anger

If your anger decreases with time, you did injustice; if it increases, you suffered injustice.

Advice

When we want to do something while unconsciously certain to fail, we seek advice so we can blame someone else for the failure.

Winning Arguments

You never win an argument until they attack your person.

Listening

Usually, what we call a “good listener” is someone with a skillfully polished indifference.

On Our Need For Stimulation

Most people fear being without audiovisual stimulation because they are too repetitive when they think and imagine things on their own.

Newspapers

To be completely cured of newspapers, spend a year reading the previous week’s newspapers.

Freedom

You don’t become completely free by just avoiding to be a slave; you also need to avoid becoming a master.

Montaigne makes a similar point.

Modernity

Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.

Inversion
You can tell a lot about people from their heroes. Taleb inverts this.

People focus on role models; it is more effective to find antimodels—people you don’t want to resemble when you grow up.

Debates

In most debates, people seem to be trying to convince once another; but all they can hope for is new arguments to convince themselves.

Addiction

The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.

Writing

Writing is the art of repeating oneself without anyone noticing.

Book Reviews

It is much harder to write a book review for a book you’ve read than for a book you haven’t read.

Information Age

The calamity of the information age is that the toxicity of data increases much faster than its benefits.

This is a point he elaborates on in detail:

The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part called the signal); hence the higher the noise to signal ratio. And there is a confusion, that is not psychological at all, but inherent in the data itself.

Via negativa

Most info-Web-media-newspaper types have a hard time swallowing the idea that knowledge is reached (mostly) by removing junk from people’s heads.

Trust

Don’t trust a man who needs an income—except if it is minimum wage. (Those in corporate captivity would do anything to “feed a family.”)

Convincing Others

You can only convince people who think they can benefit from being convinced.

What do you do When Nobody is Looking?

The difference between magnificence and arrogance is in what one does when nobody is looking.

Those are only some of the highlights throughout my copy of The Bed of Procrustes, which I regret having put off reading until now.

Footnotes

Science, Religion, and The Universe

I could listen to Neil deGrasse Tyson talk all day. His argument that persuading with facts is not enough, offers some fantastic insight.

Here he talks to Bill Moyers about our mysterious universe and whether faith and science can be reconciled. This is part two of a three part series. The first part is on the new cosmos and the second on science literacy.

In an interesting moment he touches on why, despite the invention of Google street view and online tours, there is no substitute for the real thing.

If you tour the air and space museum in Washington, which has the history of flight, including space flight … (The) museum people could have made an exact replica of the Apollo 11 command module that went to the moon. And then we’d say, here is an exact replica.. so that’s ok. But if I now say this actual thing went to the moon, intellectually that means something different to you. Your eyes see exactly the same thing. You can make a replica … with all the blemishes and the heat shield damage but if you know it is the real thing the meaning is magnified.

Kurt Vonnegut: How To Write With Style

Kurt Vonnegut on writing with style.

Why should you examine your writing style with the idea of improving it? Do so as a mark of respect for your readers, whatever you’re writing. If you scribble your thoughts any which way, your readers will surely feel that you care nothing about them. They will mark you down as an egomaniac or a chowderhead -or, worse, they will stop reading you. The most damning revelation you can make about yourself is that you do not know what is interesting and what is not.

How to use the power of the printed word

Some awesome advice on writing can be found in a rather obscure 1985 essay, “How to Write with Style,” by Kurt Vonnegut published in the hard-to-find anthology How to Use the Power of the Printed Word.

Vonnegut is a literary master who brought us some other treasures on the art of writing including, The Shapes of Stories and Eight Tips on How to Write a Good Short Story. (*updated* If you’re interested, you can find his daily routine here.)

Vonnegut’s eight rules for great writing:

Find a Subject You Care About
Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.

I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way — although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.

Do Not Ramble, Though
I won’t ramble on about that.

Keep It Simple
As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. ‘To be or not to be?’ asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story ‘Eveline’ is just this one: ‘She was tired.’ At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.

Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and earth.’

Have the Guts to Cut
It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.

Sound like Yourself
The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was the novelist Joseph Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.

I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.

Say What You Mean to Say
I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable — and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledly-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.

Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.

Pity the Readers
Readers have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school — twelve long years.

So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient teachers, ever willing to simplify and clarify, whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.

That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.

For Really Detailed Advice
For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, a more technical sense, I commend to your attention The Elements of Style, by Strunk, Jr., and E. B. White. E. B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.

You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.

Still curious? Read the best book on the art of writing.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: A List of Things to Worry About and Things to Not Worry About

From F. Scott Fitzgerald—famous author of The Great Gatsby—comes this letter to his daughter Frances Scott Fitzgerald. Offering a hint of his parenting, the letter from August 1933 concludes with a list of things to worry about and things not to worry about.

Below is the full letter, published in the New York Times in 1958.

AUGUST 8, 1933
LA PAIX RODGERS’ FORGE
TOWSON, MATYLAND

DEAR PIE:

I feel very strongly about you doing duty. Would you give me a little more documentation about your reading in French? I am glad you are happy– but I never believe much in happiness. I never believe in misery either. Those are things you see on the stage or the screen or the printed page, they never really happen to you in life.

All I believe in in life is the rewards for virtue (according to your talents) and the punishments for not fulfilling your duties, which are doubly costly. If there is such a volume in the camp library, will you ask Mrs. Tyson to let you look up a sonnet of Shakespeare’s in which the line occurs Lilies that fester smell far worse than weeds…

I think of you, and always pleasantly, but I am going to take the White Cat out and beat his bottom hard, six times for every time you are impertinent. Do you react to that?…

Half-wit, I will conclude. Things to worry about:

Worry about courage
Worry about cleanliness
Worry about efficiency
Worry about horsemanship

Things not to worry about:
Don’t worry about popular opinion
Don’t worry about dolls
Don’t worry about the past
Don’t worry about the future
Don’t worry about growing up
Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you
Don’t worry about triumph
Don’t worry about failure unless it comes through your own fault
Don’t worry about mosquitoes
Don’t worry about flies
Don’t worry about insects in general
Don’t worry about parents
Don’t worry about boys
Don’t worry about disappointments
Don’t worry about pleasures
Don’t worry about satisfactions

Things to think about:
What am I really aiming at?
How good am I really in comparison to my contemporaries in regard to:
(a) Scholarship
(b) Do I really understand about people and am I able to get along with them?
(c) Am I trying to make my body a useful intrument or am I neglecting it?

With dearest love,

Sounds like a timeless list, except, of course, for horsemanship.

Still Curious? Check out The Crack Up.

Footnotes

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.”