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Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World

The less rigid we are in our thinking, the more open minded, creative and innovative we become. Here’s how to develop the power of an elastic mind.

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Society is changing fast. Do we need to change how we think in order to survive?

In his book Elastic: Flexible Thinking in a Constantly Changing World, Leonard Mlodinow confirms that the speed of technological and cultural development is requiring us to embrace types of thinking besides the rational, logical style of analysis that tends to be emphasized in our society. He also offers good news: we already have the diverse cognitive capabilities necessary to effectively respond to new and novel challenges. He calls this “elastic thinking.”

Mlodinow explains elastic thinking as:

“the capacity to let go of comfortable ideas and become accustomed to ambiguity and contradiction; the capability to rise above conventional mind-sets and to reframe the questions we ask; the ability to abandon our ingrained assumptions and open ourselves to new paradigms; the propensity to rely on imagination as much as on logic and to generate and integrate a wide variety of ideas; and the willingness to experiment and be tolerant of failure.”

In simpler terms, elastic thinking is about letting your brain make connections without direction.

Let’s explore why elastic thinking is useful and how we can get better at it.

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First of all, let’s throw out the metaphor that our brain is exactly like a computer. Sure, it can perform similar analytic functions. But our brains are capable of insight that is neither analytical nor programmable. Before we can embrace the other types of thinking our brains have innate capacity for, we need to accept that analytic thinking—generally described as the application of systematic, logical analysis—has limitations.

As Mlodinow explains,

“Analytical thought is the form of reflection that has been most prized in modern society. Best suited to analyzing life’s more straightforward issues, it is the kind of thinking we focus on in our schools. We quantify our ability in it through IQ tests and college entrance examinations, and we seek it in our employees. But although analytical thinking is powerful, like scripted processing, it proceeds in a linear fashion…and often fails to meet the challenges of novelty and change.”

Although incredibly useful in a variety of daily situations, analytical thinking may not be best for solving problems whose answers require new ways of doing things.

For those types of problems, elastic thinking is most useful. This is the kind of thinking that enjoys wandering outside the box and generating ideas that fly in and out of left field. “Ours is a far more complex process than occurs in a computer, an insect brain, or even the brains of other mammals,” Mlodinow elaborates. “It allows us to face the world armed with a capability for an astonishing breadth of conceptual analysis.”

Think of it this way: when you come to a river and need to cross it, your analytic thinking comes in handy. It scans the environment to evaluate your options. Where might the water be lowest? Where is it moving the fastest, and thus where is the most dangerous crossing point? What kind of materials are on hand to assist in your crossing? How might others have solved this problem?

This particular river might be new for you, but the concept of crossing one likely isn’t, so you can easily rely on the logical steps of an analytical thinking process.

Elastic thinking is about generating new or novel ideas. When contemplating how best to cross a river, it was this kind of thinking that took us from log bridges to suspension bridges and from rowboats to steamboats. Elastic thinking involves us putting together many disparate ideas to form a new way of doing things.

We don’t need to abandon analytical thinking altogether. We just need to recognize that it has its limitations. If the way we are doing things doesn’t seem to be getting us the results we want, that might be a sign that more elastic thinking is called for.

Why Elasticity?

Mlodinow writes that “humans tend to be attracted to both novelty and change.”

Throughout our history we have willingly lined up and paid to be shocked and amazed. From magic shows and roller coasters to the circus and movies, our entertainment industries never seem to run out of audiences. Our propensity to engage with the new isn’t just confined to entertainment. Think back to the large technological expositions around the turn of the twentieth century that displayed the cutting edge of invention and visions for the future and attracted millions of visitors. Or, going further back, think of the pilgrimages that people made to see new architectural wonders often captured in churches and cathedrals in a time when travel was difficult.

Mlodinow contends these types of actions display a quality “that makes us human…our ability and desire to adapt, to explore, and to generate new ideas.” Part of the reason that novelty attracts us is that we get a hit of feel-good dopamine when we are confronted with something new (and non-threatening). Thus, in terms of our evolutionary history, our tendency to explore and learn was rewarded with a boost of pleasure, which then led to more exploration.

He is careful to explain that exploring doesn’t necessarily mean signing up to go to Mars. We explore when we try something new. “When you socialize with strangers, you are exploring the possibility of new relationships.…When you go on a job interview even though you are employed, you are exploring a new career move.”

The relation of exploration to elasticity is that exploration requires elastic thinking. Exploration, by definition, is venturing into parts unknown where we might be confronted with any manner of new and novel experiences. It’s hard to logically analyze something for which you have no knowledge or experience. It is this attraction to novelty that contributed to our ability to think elastically.

The Value of Emotions in Decision-Making

You can’t make a decision without tapping into your emotions.

Mlodinow suggests that “we tend to praise analytical thought as being objective, untinged by the distortions of human feelings, and therefore tending towards accuracy. But though many praise analytical thought for its detachment from emotion, one could also criticize it as not being inspired by emotion, as elastic thinking is.”

He tells the story of EVR, a man who had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. After the surgery, EVR couldn’t make decisions. He passed IQ tests and tests about current affairs and ethics. But his life slowly fell apart because he couldn’t make a decision.

“In hindsight, the problem in diagnosing EVR was that all the exams were focused on his capability for analytical thinking. They revealed nothing wrong because his knowledge and logical reasoning skills were intact. His deficit would have been more apparent had they given him a test of elastic thinking—or watched him eat a brownie, or kicked him in the shin, or probed his emotions in some other manner.”

EVR had his orbitofrontal cortex removed—a big part of the brain’s reward system. According to Mlodinow, “Without it, EVR could not experience conscious pleasure. That left him with no motivation to make choices or to formulate and attempt to achieve goals. And that explains why decisions such as where to eat caused him problems: We make such decisions based on our goals, such as enjoying the food or the atmosphere, and he had no goals.”

Our ability to feel emotions is therefore a large and valuable component of our biological decision-making process. As Mlodinow explains, “Evolution endowed us with emotions like pleasure and fear in order that we may evaluate the positive or negative implications of circumstances and events.” Without emotion, we have no motivation to make decisions. What is new would have the same effect as what is old. This state of affairs would not be terribly useful for responding to change. Although we are attracted to novelty, not everything new is good. It is our emotional capabilities that can help us navigate whether the change is positive and determine how we can best deal with it.

Mlodinow contends that “emotions are an integral ingredient in our ability to face the challenges of our environment.” Our inclination to novelty can be exploited, however, and today we have to face and address the multiple drains on our emotions and thus our cognitive abilities. Chronic distractions that manipulate our emotional responses require energy to address, leaving us emotionally spent. This leaves us with less emotional energy to process new experiences and information, leaving us with an unclear picture of what might benefit us and what we should run away from.

Frozen Thoughts

Mlodinow explains that “frozen thinking” occurs when you have a fixed orientation that determines the way you frame or approach a problem.

Frozen thinking most likely occurs when you are an expert in your field. Mlodinow argues that “it is ironic that frozen thinking is a particular risk if you are an expert at something. When you are an expert, your deep knowledge is obviously of great value in facing the usual challenges of your profession, but your immersion in that body of conventional wisdom can impede you from creating or accepting new ideas, and hamper you when confronted with novelty and change.”

When you cling to the idea that the way things are is the way they always are going to be, you close off your brain from noticing new opportunities. In most jobs, this might translate into missed opportunities or an inability to find solutions under changing parameters. But there are some professions where the consequences can be significantly more dire. For instance, as Mlodinow discusses, if you’re a doctor, frozen thinking can lead to major errors in diagnosis.

Frozen thinking is incompatible with elastic thinking. So if you want to make sure you aren’t just regurgitating more of the same while the world evolves around you, augment your elastic thinking.

The ‘How’ of Elastic Thinking

Our brains are amazing. In order to tap into our innate elastic thinking abilities, we really just have to get out of our own way and stop trying to force a particular thinking process.

“The default network governs our interior mental life—the dialogue we have with ourselves, both consciously and subconsciously. Kicking into gear when we turn away from the barrage of sensory input produced by the outside world, it looks toward our inner selves. When that happens, the neural networks of our elastic thought can rummage around the huge database of knowledge and memories and feelings that is stored in the brain, combining concepts that we normally would not recognize. That’s why resting, daydreaming, and other quiet activities such as taking a walk can be powerful ways to generate ideas.”

Mlodinow emphasizes that elastic thinking will happen when we give ourselves quiet space to let the brain do its thing.

“The associative processes of elastic thinking do not thrive when the conscious mind is in a focused state. A relaxed mind explores novel ideas; an occupied mind searches for the most familiar ideas, which are usually the least interesting. Unfortunately, as our default networks are sidelined more and more, we have less unfocused time for our extended internal dialogue to proceed. As a result, we have diminished opportunity to string together those random associations that lead to new ideas and realizations.”

Here are some suggestions for how to develop elastic thinking:

  • Cultivate a “beginner’s mind” by questioning situations as if you have no experience in them.
  • Introduce discord by pursuing relationships and ideas that challenge your beliefs.
  • Recognize the value of diversity.
  • Generate lots of ideas and don’t be bothered that most of them will be bad.
  • Develop a positive mood.
  • Relax when you see yourself becoming overly analytical.

The main lesson is that fruitful elastic thinking doesn’t need be directed. Like children and unstructured play, sometimes we have to give our brains the opportunity to just be. We also have to be willing to stop distracting ourselves all the time. Often it seems that we are afraid of our own thoughts, or we assume that to be quiet is to be bored, so we search for distractions that keep our brain occupied. To encourage elastic thinking in our society, we have to wean ourselves away from the constant stimuli provided by screens.

Mlodinow explains that you can prime your brain for insights by cultivating the kind of mindset that generates them. Don’t force your thinking or apply an analytical approach to the situation. “The challenge of insight is the analogous issue of freeing yourself from narrow, conventional thinking.”

When it comes to developing and exploring the possibilities of elastic thinking, it is perhaps best to remember that, as Mlodinow writes, “the thought processes we use to create what are hailed as great masterpieces of art and science are not fundamentally different from those we use to create our failures.”

Daniel Kahneman on the Definition of Rationality and the Difference Between Information and Insight

Lance Workman interviews Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate, co-creator of behavioral economics, and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Among other things Kahneman discusses the definition of rationality, the dual process of thought, the difference between insight and information, and changing our minds.

You’ve demonstrated that people are rather poor at making decisions that involve some degree of uncertainty – and yet you don’t see people as irrational?

Well, I think the whole issue of whether people are rational or irrational depends on your definition of rationality. What you find is that there is a definition of rationality that is accepted in economics and if you stick to that definition then people are definitely not rational – it’s all about economic decision-making. Of course that does not mean that they are crazy, as this is quite different to what being rational means in everyday language.

One way out of this ‘why do we make bad decisions under some circumstances?’ debate is by introducing a dual-process model. This is based on work I did with Shane Frederick, and the model assumes that there are two ways in which decisions are produced. System 1 is very rapid, automatic, effortless and intuitive. System 2 is slower, rule-governed, deliberate and effortful. System 2 sometimes intervenes on behalf of System 1 as it ‘knows’ the latter is prone to violate certain rules. This means that we are likely to make errors when System 2 fails to correct System 1. That’s when we appear to act irrationally at times. We have a very rational system available –but it isn’t always engaged.

You have done a lot of work on cognitive illusions. One of the terms you coined in this area is the ‘illusion of validity’. How did you come up with this concept?

I coined the term ‘the illusion of validity’ when I was 20, but it didn’t make it into the literature until 1973 when we published a paper on the psychology of prediction.

It’s really about the fact that when we are making predictions often there is no real connection between statistical information and our experiences of insight. We think there should be a close connection between these two forms of evidence – but often there isn’t.

One of your more recent areas of interest is something you call adversarial collaboration – it sounds intriguing. What does it involve?

I think that there is a lot of controversy in psychology – perhaps not as much as in some other fields – but in general by the time you get into the cycle of ‘critique’ followed by ‘replies’ and ‘rejoinders’ in journals, you are really wasting your time and energy. People get intensely involved in them. They become emotionally wound up – but usually you find it yields absolutely nothing, with nether side changing their minds about anything or agreeing that they got anything wrong. And so I would very much like to see the reply and rejoinder way of dealing with debates disappear.

I think that it could happen.

Ben Franklin and the Virtues and Ills of Pursuing Luxury

In a letter written in 1784 to his friend Benjamin Vaughan, Ben Franklin has a very interesting cogitation on the aggregate effect of the pursuit of luxuries beyond our needs.

Franklin displays a mastery of rational, balanced thought, and a deep understanding of human nature. Is the pursuit of luxury a net benefit or detriment to a country? Why do we pursue it?

The salient passages are below. (You can find his full writings here.) The last paragraph, in particular, is a gem, but taking 10 minutes to read it through is worth the time.

I have not, indeed yet thought of a Remedy for Luxury  I am not sure, that in a great State it is capable of a Remedy. Nor that the Evil is in itself always so great as it is represented.  Suppose we include in the Definition of Luxury all unnecessary Expence, and then let us consider whether Laws to prevent such Expence are possible to be executed in a great Country, and whether, if they could be executed, our People generally would be happier, or even richer. Is not the Hope of one day being able to purchase and enjoy Luxuries a great Spur to Labour and Industry? May not Luxury, therefore, produce more than it consumes, if without such a Spur People would be, as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent?

[…]

In our Commercial Towns upon the Seacoast, Fortunes will occasionally be made. Some of those who grow rich will be prudent, live within Bounds, and preserve what they have gained for their Posterity ; others, fond of showing their  Wealth, will be extravagant and ruin themselves. Laws  cannot prevent this; and perhaps it is not always an evil to the Publick. A Shilling spent idly by a Fool, may be picked up by a Wiser Person, who knows better what to do with it.  It is therefore not lost. A vain, silly Fellow builds a fine House, furnishes it richly, lives in it expensively, and in few years ruins himself; but the Masons, Carpenters, Smiths, and other honest Tradesmen have been by his Employ assisted in maintaining and raising their Families ; the Farmer has been paid for his labour, and encouraged, and the Estate is now in better Hands. In some Cases, indeed, certain Modes of Luxury may be a publick Evil, in the same Manner as it is a Private one. If there be a Nation, for Instance, that exports its Beef and Linnen, to pay for its Importation of Claret and Porter, while a great Part of its People live upon Potatoes, and wear no Shirts, wherein does it differ from the Sot, who lets his Family starve, and sells his Clothes to buy Drink? Our American Commerce is, I confess, a little in this way. We sell our Victuals to your Islands for Rum and Sugar; the substantial Necessaries of Life for Superfluities. But we have Plenty, and live well nevertheless, tho’ by being soberer, we might be richer.

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It has been computed by some Political Arithmetician, that, if every Man and Woman would work for four Hours each Day on something useful, that Labour would produce sufficient to procure all the Necessaries and Comforts of Life, Want and Misery would be banished out of the World, and the rest of the 24 hours might be Leisure and Pleasure.

What occasions then so much Want and Misery? It is the Employment of Men and Women in Works, that produce neither the Necessaries nor Conveniences of Life, who, [along] with those who do nothing, consume the Necessaries raised by the Laborious.

To explain this.

The first Elements of Wealth are obtained by Labour, from the Earth and Waters. I have Land, and raise Corn. With this, if I feed a Family that does nothing, my Corn will be consum’d, and at the end of the Year I shall be no richer than I was at the beginning. But if, while I feed them, I employ them, some in Spinning, others in hewing Timber and sawing Boards, others in making Bricks, &c. for Building, the Value of my Corn will be arrested and remain with me, and at the end of the Year we may all be better clothed and better lodged. And if, instead of employing a Man I feed in making Bricks, I employ him in fiddling for me, the Corn he eats is gone, and no Part of his Manufacture remains to augment the Wealth and Convenience of the family; I shall therefore be the poorer for this fiddling Man, unless the rest of my Family work more, or eat less, to make up the Deficiency he occasions.

Look round the World and see the Millions employ’d in doing nothing, or in something that amounts to nothing, when the Necessaries and Conveniences of Life are in question. What is the Bulk of Commerce, for which we fight and destroy each other, but the Toil of Millions for Superfluities, to the great Hazard and Loss of many Lives by the constant Dangers of the Sea? How much labour is spent in Building and fitting great Ships, to go to China and Arabia for Tea and Coffee, to the West Indies for Sugar, to America for Tobacco! These things cannot be called the Necessaries of Life, for our Ancestors lived very comfortably without them.

A Question may be asked; Could all these People, now employed in raising, making, or carrying Superfluities, be subsisted by raising Necessaries? I think they might. The World is large, and a great Part of it still uncultivated. Many hundred Millions of Acres in Asia, Africa, and America are still Forest, and a great Deal even in Europe. On 100 Acres of this Forest a Man might become a substantial Farmer, and 100,000 Men, employed in clearing each his 100 Acres, would hardly brighten a Spot big enough to be Visible from the Moon, unless with HerschelTs Telescope ; so vast are the Regions still in Wood unimproved.

‘Tis however, some Comfort to reflect, that, upon the whole, the Quantity of Industry and Prudence among Mankind exceeds the Quantity of Idleness and Folly. Hence the Increase of good Buildings, Farms cultivated, and populous Cities filled with Wealth, all over Europe, which a few Ages since were only to be found on the Coasts of the Mediterranean; and this, notwithstanding the mad Wars continually raging, by which are often destroyed in one year the Works of many Years’ Peace. So that we may hope the Luxury of a few Merchants on the Seacoast will not be the Ruin of America.

One reflection more, and I will end this long, rambling Letter. Almost all the Parts of our Bodies require some Expence. The Feet demand Shoes; the Legs, Stockings; the rest of the Body, Clothing; and the Belly, a good deal of Victuals. Our Eyes, tho’ exceedingly useful, ask, when reasonable, only the cheap Assistance of Spectacles, which could not much impair our Finances. But the Eyes of other People are the Eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine Clothes, fine Houses, nor fine Furniture.

Adieu, my dear Friend, I am

Yours ever
B. FRANKLIN.

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Still Interested? Check out Franklin’s Rule for Decision Making, and check out the excellent book The Way to Wealth and Other Writings on Finance for an edited and condensed look at Franklin’s various essays on economics, business, and finance.

 

Stretching yourself to learn new things

Carol Dweck, Daniel Coyle, and Noel Tichy all point out that you need to stretch to learn new things.

First, this from Carol Dweck …

My colleagues and I have conducted interventions with adolescents in which they learn that their brains and intellect are malleable. They discover that when they stretch themselves to learn new things, their neurons form new connections and they can, over time, enhance their intellectual skills. Compared to a control group that learned only study skills, these students showed marked improvements in motivation, and their declining grades were sharply reversed. Researchers Catherine Good and Joshua Aronson have found similar effects. In studies led by David Yeager, high school students who were taught a malleable view of their intellectual and social skills showed positive changes in their grades, stress level, conduct (including aggression), and health that lasted over the course of the school year.

Second, this passage from The Little Book of Talent: 52 Tips for Improving Your Skills:

There is a place, right on the edge of your ability, where you learn best and fastest. It’s called the sweet spot. … the underlying pattern is the same: Seek out ways to stretch yourself. Play on the edges of your competence. As Albert Einstein said, “One must develop an instinct for what one can just barely achieve through one’s greatest efforts.”

The key word is “barely.”

Finally, this passage from Deliberate Practice:

Noel Tichy, professor at the University of Michigan business school and the former chief of General Electric’s famous management development center at Crotonville, puts the concept of practice into three zones: the comfort zone, the learning zone, and the panic zone.

Most of the time we’re practicing we’re really doing activities in our comfort zone. This doesn’t help us improve because we can already do these activities easily. On the other hand, operating in the panic zone leaves us paralyzed as the activities are too difficult and we don’t know where to start. The only way to make progress is to operate in the learning zone, which are those activities that are just out of reach.

Update: This passage from The Art of Learning fits as well:

Usually, growth comes at the expense of previous comfort or safety. The hermit crab is a colorful example of a creature that lives by this aspect of the growth process (albeit without our psychological baggage). As the crab gets bigger, it needs to find a more spacious shell. So the slow, lumbering creature goes on a quest for a new home. If an appropriate new shell is not found quickly, a terribly delicate moment of truth arises. A soft creature that is used to the protection of built-in armor must now go out into the world, exposed to predators in all its mushy vulnerability. That learning phase in between shells is where our growth can come from.

How To Be Happy

If I were to ask you if you wanted to be happy, 100% of you would say yes. But how many us live our lives in a way that makes us happy?

“The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” — Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project.

At the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha this past weekend, a 30-year old asked what advice the 82-year-old Warren Buffett and his 89-year-old business partner, Charlie Munger, would give if they could communicate with their 30-year-old selves.

Their response might surprise you.

First let’s recap a little be about what we think we know about happiness.

Happiness refers to two different phenomena:

The problem begins with language. We use the word happiness, Kahneman says, to refer to two very different and often mutually contradictory phenomena: the mood of the moment and our overall life-satisfaction. The former is an evanescent and notoriously unreliable gauge of the latter. Example: the joy of buying a new car vs. the subsequent, ongoing annoyance of paying the monthly bills.

A lot of people think happiness is about money. But according to Daniel Kahneman:

millions of dollars won’t buy you happiness, but a job that pays $60,000 a year might help. Happiness levels increase up to the $60K mark.

Other people think that if you live a long time you’ll be happy. But Alan Watts offers this tidbit of wisdom:

What would you do if money were no object? You do that, and forget the money. Because if you say that getting the money is the most important part then you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.

To some extent experts feel that happiness involves being busy, but not rushed.

We know that moving to California won’t make you happy. Kahneman explains:

Kahneman’s decades of cognitive research, much of it done in collaboration with longtime colleague Amos Tversky, has shown that humans are subject to what he calls a “focusing illusion.” We focus on the moment, overestimating the importance of certain factors in determining our future happiness and ignoring the factors that really matter.

For this reason, people commonly assume that moving to a warmer climate will make them significantly happier.

Steve Jobs, never one to follow the path, says often what we get told should make us happy results in a very limited life.

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Maybe we’d have more luck if instead of trying to be happy we inverted the problem and avoided the things that make us unhappy.

That brings us back to Buffett and Munger. What they say about life is equally important as what they say about investing.

MUNGER: We’re basically so old-fashioned that we’re boringly trite. We think you ought to keep plugging along, and stay rational, and stay energetic. Just all the old virtues still work.

BUFFETT: But find what turns you on.

MUNGER: Yeah, you have to work where you’re turned on. I don’t know about Warren, but I’ve never succeeded to any great extent in something I didn’t like doing.

The Psychology of We

Two categories of people that can be hard to have a conversation with are good friends and people who have worked together for a long time. Sometimes it’s like they are speaking their own language — and they are. But these connections can transcend conversation and touch on life.

In Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs, Joshua Shenk explores how the identity of pairs resemble that of a mosaic, “a series of pieces that connect to one another.”

A good place to begin is with ritual, since this is often the foundation of creative practice. Igor Stravinsky came into his studio and, first thing, sat down and played a Bach fugue. When he was writing The End of the Affair, Graham Greene produced five hundred words every day, and only five hundred, even if it meant stopping in the middle of a scene. The choreographer Twyla Tharp rises every morning at 5:30, puts on her workout clothes, and catches a taxi to the Pumping Iron gym at Ninety-First Street and First Avenue in Manhattan. “The ritual,” she writes in The Creative Habit, “is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go I have completed the ritual.”

Tharp’s point is that ritual emerges from the smallest, most concrete action. For pairs, the most basic thing is a regular meeting time. James Watson and Francis Crick had lunch most days at the Eagle pub in Cambridge. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and COO Sheryl Sandberg begin and end every week with hourlong private meetings. After they began to exchange their work, J.R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis set aside Mondays to meet at a pub and later met with a group, the Inklings, every Thursday night at Lewis’s apartment.

Meeting rituals may be tied to moments in time — as when partners like Buffett and Munger begin every day with a call—or to a physical space, as when Lennon and McCartney met at Paul’s house to write. Watson and Crick ended up sharing an office at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge because the other scientists in the lab couldn’t stand their incessant chatter.

Moving towards each other as people often means leaving the rest of the world behind. “Every real friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion,” C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves.

In the midst of the feverish and entwined six-year collaboration between Braque and Picasso that led to cubism, both artists signed the back of each of their canvases; only they would know who did what. “People always ask Ulay and me the same questions,” Marina Abramovic told me. ‘”Whose idea was it?’ or ‘How was this done?’… But we never specify. Everything was interrelated and interdependent.”

Partnerships often form impediments to others trying to look in. Outsiders are not part of the club, they are not doing the work, they don’t have the shared understanding, the common goals, the …

This is one reason many epic partnerships end up as historical footnotes or become entirely effaced: “Things were said with Picasso during those years,” Braque said, “that no one will ever say again, things that no one could ever say any more, that no one could ever understand… things that would be incomprehensible and which gave us such joy.” This was one of the very few lines either man ever spoke about the relationship that helped give birth to modern art.

In addition to the physical gestures that a pair can share, there is also an unmistakable private language. This is the key to high-bandwidth communication.

Many pairs have what we could fairly call a private language. Tom Hanks described the communication between director Ron Howard and producer Brian Grazer as “some gestalt Vulcan.” Akio Morita and Ma- saru Ibuka, the cofounders of Sony, “would sit there talking to each other,” Morita’s son Hideo said, “and we would listen but we had no idea what they were saying … It was gibberish to us, but they were understanding each other, and interrupting them for any reason was forbidden.”

Private language emerges organically from constant exchange. Intimate pairs talk fluidly and naturally, having let go of what psychologists call “self-monitoring”—the process of watching impulses and protean thoughts, censoring some, allowing others to pass one’s lips. … The psychologist Daniel Kahneman makes the same point. “Like most people, I am somewhat cautious about exposing tentative thoughts to others,” he said. But after a while with Amos Tversky, “this caution was completely absent.”

You just get so high-bandwidth,” Bill Gates said about talking to Steve Ballmer, his longtime deputy at Microsoft (and eventual successor). “Steve and I would just be going from talking to meeting to talking to meeting, and then I’d stay up late at night, and write him five e-mails. He’d get up early in the morning and maybe not necessarily respond to them, but start thinking about them. And the minute I see him, he’s [at the office whiteboard] saying we could move this guy over here and do this thing here.” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg used that same term, high- bandwidth, to describe his exchanges with his COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We can talk for 30 seconds and have more meaning be exchanged than in a lot of meetings that I have for an hour,” he said.

More than shared language, people develop into shared rhythms and syntactical structures of speech.

This is due in part to the astonishing power of mimicry, which psychologists call “social contagion.” Just by being near each other, the psychologist Elaine Hatfield has shown, people come to match accents, speech rates, vocal intensity, vocal frequency, pauses, and quickness to respond.

Psychologists used to think that people imitated each other in a deliberate attempt to be liked, but mimicry is far more pervasive than this — and largely nonconscious. Intimate partners share physical postures and breathing patterns too. They use the same muscles so often, the psychologist Robert Zajonc and colleagues found in a study of spouses, that they even come to look alike. Warren Buffett has said that he and Charlie Munger are “Siamese twins, practically.” In addition to wearing the same gray suits, the same Clark Kent glasses, and the same comb-overs, writes Buffett biographer Alice Schroeder, they also share a “lurching, awkward gait” and a flickering intensity in their eyes. Whether or not this is due to what Zajonc calls “repeated empathic mimicry,” we can’t be sure, but one does wonder.

The larger point about any physical convergence is that it reflects what psychologists call a “shared coordinative structure.” Shared mannerisms, like similar walking gaits, often come along with shared emotions and ideas. Just as physical qualities are “highly communicable,” write psychologists Molly Ireland and James Pennebaker, so are behaviors, affective states, and beliefs.

Language is an unusually potent mechanism for psychic convergence, because it is so closely tied to thinking. “Linguistic coordination,” Ireland and Pennebaker explain, leads to “the cultivation of common ground (i.e., matching cognitive frameworks in which conversants adopt shared assumptions, linguistic referents, and knowledge).”

Of course, eventually this goes telepathic.

Barry Sonnenfeld, who has directed photography on several films for the Coen brothers, remembers Ethan saying, after a take, “Hey, Joel, you know what?” And Joel replying: “Yeah, I know, I’m going to tell him.” When the writer David Zax visited The Daily Show to profile Steve Bodow, Jon Stewart’s head writer at the time, Zax could understand only a small fraction of their exchanges, given the dominance of “workplace argot and quasi-telepathy.” “If you work with Jon for any length of time, you learn to interpret the short hand,” Bodow said. For example, Stewart might say: “Cut the thing and bring the thing around and do the thing.” ‘”Cut the thing’: You know what thing needs to be cut,” Bodow explained. “‘Bring the thing around’: There’s a thing that works, but it needs to move up in order to set up the ‘do the thing’ thing, which is probably the ‘blow,’ the big joke at the end. It takes time and repetition and patience and frustration, and suddenly you know how to bring the thing around and do the thing.”

Charlie Munger and the Pursuit of Worldly Wisdom

Charlie Munger, the billionaire business partner of Warren Buffett and a major inspiration behind this site, is not only one of the best investors the world has witnessed, but he’s also one of the best thinkers. A quick recap is in order.

Munger has illuminated timeless wisdom in the minds’ search algorithm, Academic Economics, stretch goals, mental models, the value of thinking backward and forward, problem-solving, partnerships, and inversion among others.

“What is elementary, worldly wisdom? Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.”

— Charlie Munger

He’s even offered two sets of book recommendations.

In his book, Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, which has become my new go-to recommendation for people interested in an introduction to Munger’s thinking. Griffin lays out Munger’s path to worldly wisdom.

Munger has adopted an approach to business and life that he refers to as worldly wisdom. Munger believes that by using a range of different models from many different disciplines—psychology, history, mathematics, physics, philosophy, biology, and so on—a person can use the combined output of the synthesis to produce something that has more value than the sum of its parts. Robert Hagstrom wrote a wonderful book on worldly wisdom entitled Investing: The Last Liberal Art, in which he states that “each discipline entwines with, and in the process strengthens, every other. From each discipline the thoughtful person draws significant mental models, the key ideas that combine to produce a cohesive understanding. Those who cultivate this broad view are well on their way to achieving worldly wisdom.”

It is clear that Munger loves to learn. He actually has fun when he is learning, and that makes the worldly wisdom investing process enjoyable for him. This is important because many people do not find investing enjoyable, especially when compared to gambling, which science has shown can generate pleasure via chemicals (e.g., dopamine) even though it is an activity with a negative net present value. What Munger has done is created a system—worldly wisdom—that allows him to generate the same chemical rewards in an activity that has a positive net present value. When you learn something new, your brain gives itself a chemical reward, which motivates you to do the work necessary to be a successful investor. If you do this work and adopt a worldly wisdom mindset, Munger believes you will create an investing edge over other investors.

Munger used a latticework of mental models in developing his approach. Herbert Simon, in his autobiography, Models of My Life, captured the idea of a mental model when he said:

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.

“You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models.”

— Charlie Munger

Latticework

Munger carefully chose the latticework model, to convey the idea that things are interconnected. We need more than a deep understanding of one segment, we need a working knowledge of all of them and how they interact and link. This is conveyed by the Japanese proverb “The frog in a well knows nothing of the mighty ocean.”

In Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, Griffin continues:

Understanding the worldly wisdom methodology is made easier if you see it applied in an example. To illustrate the method, Munger gave the example of a business that raises the price of its product and yet sells more of that product. This would appear to violate the rule of supply and demand as taught in economics. However, if one thinks about the discipline of psychology, one might conclude that the product is a Geffen good, which people desire more of at higher prices. Or one could conclude that low prices signal poor quality to buyers and that raising prices will result in more sales. Alternatively, you can look for bias caused by incentives and discover that what has actually happened in his example is that the seller has bribed the purchasing agents of the purchasers.

Munger described a situation in which this actually happens:

Suppose you’re the manager of a mutual fund, and you want to sell more. People commonly come to the following answer: You raise the commissions which, of course, reduces the number of units of real investments delivered to the ultimate buyer, so you’re increasing the price per unit of real investment that you’re selling the ultimate customer. And you’re using that extra commission to bribe the customer’s purchasing agent. You’re bribing the broker to betray his client and put the client’s money into the high-commission product.

While we can’t know everything, we can know the big ideas from multiple disciplines. We don’t want to be the frog. This is one way we can add value in the decision-making process and it allows for the effective use of what I call the Munger two-step, which is something we talk about at Re:Think Decision Making.

“Simply put,” Griffin writes, “Munger believes that people who think very broadly and understand many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.”

In a 2003 speech as UCB Business School entitled Academic Economics — Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs, Munger said:

You’ve got a complex system and it spews out a lot of wonderful numbers that enable you to measure some factors. But there are other factors that are terribly important, [yet] there’s no precise numbering you can put to these factors. You know they’re important, but you don’t have the numbers. Well, practically (1) everybody overweighs the stuff that can be numbered, because it yields to the statistical techniques they’re taught in academia, and (2) doesn’t mix in the hard-to-measure stuff that may be more important. That is a mistake I’ve tried all my life to avoid, and I have no regrets for having done that.

Worldly Wise

Griffin continues:

In Munger’s view, it is better to be worldly wise than to spend lots of time working with a single model that is precisely wrong.

A multiple-model approach that is only approximately right will produce a far better outcome in anything that involves people or a social system. While making the case for a lattice of mental models approach (described here shortly), Robert Hagstrom pointed out that Munger is providing support for those who advocate for a wide-ranging liberal arts education.

Munger would be what the poet Archilochus calls a fox. The ancient Greeks said “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog one great thing.”

“The theory of modern education is that you need a general education before you specialize. And I think to some extent, before you’re going to be a great stock picker, you need some general education.”

— Charlie Munger

Commenting on Munger, former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates said, “(he) is truly the broadest thinker I have ever encountered.” Buffett added that Munger has “the best 30-second mind in the world. He goes from A to Z in one move. He sees the essence of everything before you even finish the sentence.”

How does Munger do this? That’s a question worth slowing down and thinking about.

“You have to realize the truth of biologist Julian Huxley’s idea that ‘Life is just one damn relatedness after another.’ So you must have the models, and you must see the relatedness and the effects from the relatedness.”

— Charlie Munger

Where do we get these ideas? We let history be our guide. If one way to ensure you make poor decisions is to use a small sample size, we can reason that we should seek out the biggest sample sizes we can.

What crosses most of history? Biology, Chemistry, Physics. And of course, throw in some Psychology so we can better understand how we are led astray.

Thinking

Griffin continues:

Munger’s breadth of knowledge is something that is naturally part of his character but also something that he intentionally cultivates. In his view, to know nothing about an important subject is to invite problems. Both Munger and Buffett set aside plenty of time each day to just think. Anyone reading the news is provided with constant reminders of the consequences of not thinking. Thinking is a surprisingly underrated activity. Researchers published a study in 2014 that revealed that approximately a quarter of women and two-thirds of men chose electric shocks over spending time alone with their own thoughts.

If you can’t be alone with your thoughts, you don’t deserve them. We try to run away from the pain of thinking. Instead, we turn to the instant gratification of Netflix.

Munger’s speeches and essays are filled with the thoughts of great people from the past and present from many different domains. Munger is also careful to set aside a lot of time in his schedule for reading. To say he loves books is an understatement. Buffett has said that Munger has read hundreds of biographies, as just one example. He is very purposeful in his approach to worldly wisdom, preferring not to fill his calendar with appointments and meetings.

When talking about how to get smarter, Buffett said: “You could hardly find a partnership in which two people settle on reading more hours of the day than in ours.” Adding, “Look, my job is essentially just corralling more and more and more facts and information, and occasionally seeing whether that leads to some action.”

This is where we go astray so easily. It’s easy to think about our own discipline, the one we live in on a daily basis. This comes naturally. However, it’s likely to lead to problems. We become the proverbial man with a hammer, “To the man with a hammer everything looks like a nail. If you only have one model you will fit whatever problem you face to the model you have.” It’s hard work to think. That’s why so few people seem to take this passage. But it should be hard, otherwise, it would be too easy.

“I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart.”

— Charlie Munger

A Multidisciplinary Approach

The tagline for this website: Mastering the best of what other people have already figured out, comes from the Munger quote above.

Griffin continues:

It is critical for a person who desires to be wise to think broadly and learn from others. Munger has said many times that someone who is really smart but has devoted all of their time to being an expert in a narrow area may be dangerous to themselves and others. Examples of this include macroeconomists who study the economy but are disastrous when investing their own portfolios and marketing experts who may think that most all business problems can be solved through marketing. Financiers tend to think similarly about their own profession. Too many people believe that what they do at work is hard and what others do is easy.

The best approach is the multi-disciplinary one, Munger argues:

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough—because eighty or ninety important models will carry about 90 percent of the freight in making you a worldly wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

“This reference to eighty or ninety important models” Griffin writes, “has caused people to ask Munger for a complete list of these important models.”

While Munger identified many models in the discipline of psychology in his famous The Psychology of Human Misjudgment speech and mentioned other models on an ad-hoc basis, he has never prepared a complete list covering all disciplines.

Munger believes that by learning to recognize certain dysfunctional decision-making processes, an investor can learn to make fewer mistakes. He also believes that no matter how hard someone works and learns, mistakes cannot be completely eliminated. The best one can hope for is to reduce their frequency and, hopefully, their magnitude.

Munger elaborates in a 1995 speech at Harvard University:

Man’s imperfect, limited-capacity brain easily drifts into working with what’s easily available to it. And the brain can’t use what it can’t remember or when it’s blocked from recognizing because it’s heavily influenced by one or more psychological tendencies bearing strongly on it … the deep structure of the human mind requires that the way to full scope competency of virtually any kind is to learn it all to fluency—like it or not.

In a 2007 speech at USC law school, Munger says:

I constantly see people rise in life who are not the smartest, sometimes not even the most diligent, but they are learning machines. They go to bed every night a little wiser than they were when they got up, and boy, does that help, particularly when you have a long run ahead of you. … So if civilization can progress only with an advanced method of invention, you can progress only when you learn the method of learning. Nothing has served me better in my long life than continuous learning. I went through life constantly practicing (because if you don’t practice it, you lose it) the multidisciplinary approach and I can’t tell you what that’s done for me. It’s made life more fun, it’s made me more constructive, it’s made me more helpful to others, and it’s made me enormously rich. You name it, that attitude really helps.

Back to Griffin, writing in Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor, who says:

In looking at a decision, Munger believes that it is wise to ask questions. Have dysfunctional decision-making heuristics from psychology caused an error? Are there approaches one can use to find those mistakes? Munger likes to use a model from algebra and invert problems to find a solution. Looking for models that can reveal and explain mistakes so one can accumulate worldly wisdom is actually lots of fun. It is like a puzzle to be solved.

A lattice approach is, in effect, a double-check on the investing process. But instead of just two checks, you are checking the result over and over. Munger believes that by going over your decision-making process and carefully using skills, ideas, and models from many disciplines, you can more consistently not be stupid. You will always make some bone-headed mistakes even if you’re careful, but his process is designed to decrease the probability of those mistakes.

To make sure he is taking advantage of as many models as possible, Munger likes checklists. At the 2002 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting, Munger said:

“You need a different checklist and different mental models for different companies. I can never make it easy by saying, “Here are three things.” You have to derive it yourself to ingrain it in your head for the rest of your life.”

— Charlie Munger

Learning From Mistakes

An aspect of Munger’s approach is learning from your mistakes. I’ve made more than my fair share of them.

“I like people admitting they were complete stupid horses’ asses. I know I’ll perform better if I rub my nose in my mistakes. This is a wonderful trick to learn.”

— Charlie Munger

Griffin writes:

Munger has said repeatedly that he made more mistakes earlier in life than he is making now. One of his early mistakes was to own a company that made electrical transformers. He has also said that he has found himself in real estate ventures that would only be enjoyed by a masochist. He seems to have more tolerance for mistakes in real estate than other areas of business. The idea of building things as opposed to just trading stocks has a particular appeal to Munger.

Munger believes that one great way to avoid mistakes is to own a business that is simple to understand, given your education and experience. He pointed out: “Where you have complexity, by nature you can have fraud and mistakes.” This approach echoes the view of Buffett, who likes challenges that are the business equivalent of netting fish in a barrel.

Buffett has said that if you cannot explain why you failed after you have made a mistake, the business was too complex for you. In other words, Munger and Buffett like to understand why they made a mistake so they can learn from the experience. If you cannot understand the business, then you cannot determine what you did wrong. If you cannot determine what you did wrong, then you cannot learn. If you cannot learn, you will not know what you’re doing, which is the real cause of risk.

“Forgetting your mistakes is a terrible error if you’re trying to improve your cognition. Reality doesn’t remind you. Why not celebrate stupidities in both categories?”

— Charlie Munger

Griffin concludes:

Munger has chosen the word wisdom purposefully because he believes that mere knowledge, especially from only one domain, is not enough. To be wise, one must also have experience, common sense, and good judgment. How one actually applies these things in life is what makes a person wise.

Charlie Munger: The Complete Investor is about more than investing, it’s about the pursuit of wisdom across boundaries.

Why Do People Choose Political Loyalties Over Facts?

One of the theories is cognitive dissonance—we find it difficult to hold contradictory ideas in our head at the same time. Cognitive dissonance predicts that given the choice between our emotional ties and facts, we’ll pick emotional every time. Facts lose.

When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

Nyhan and Reifler hypothesized that partisans reject such information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful. That notion suggested a possible solution: If partisans were made to feel better about themselves — if they received a little image and ego boost — could this help them more easily absorb the “blow” of information that threatens their pre-existing views?

Nyhan said that ongoing — and as yet, unpublished — research was showing the technique could be effective. The researchers had voters think of times in their lives when they had done something very positive and found that, fortified by this positive memory, voters were more willing to take in information that challenged their pre-existing views.

“One person talked about taking care of his elderly grandmother — something you wouldn’t expect to have any influence on people’s factual beliefs about politics,” Nyhan said. “But that brings to mind these positive feelings about themselves, which we think will protect them or inoculate them from the threat that unwelcome ideas or unwelcome information might pose to their self-concept.”

Source

The Wrong Side of Right

One big mistake people repeatedly make is focusing on proving themselves right, instead of focusing on achieving the best outcome. This is the wrong side of right.

Most people never work as hard as they do when they are trying to prove themselves right. They unconsciously hold on to the ideas and evidence that reinforce their beliefs and dismiss anything that counters. When this happens, it’s not about the best outcome, it’s about protecting your ego. If you’ve made this mistake, you’re not the only one.

“You should take the approach that you, the entrepreneur, are wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

— Elon Musk

One of the biggest differences between running a company and working for a company is how you tend to think about solving problems.

As a knowledge worker employed by someone else, I wanted to be right. I saw being right as how I proved my worth to both myself and the company. The best outcome was my being right. Because …

If I wasn’t right, then what was I? Wrong?

But … I couldn’t be wrong. My ego wouldn’t let me.

Other people? They could be wrong. But not me.

If I was wrong, then what was I?

I worked toward achieving the best outcome I came up with myself and not the best outcome that was possible.

For the longest time, I thought that if the winning idea wasn’t my idea, I’d be nothing. I thought no one would see me as valuable. No one would see me as insightful. People would think I wasn’t adding value. And worse, I’d see myself as not contributing.

I’ve never been so wrong.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”

— Colin Powell

I had so much of my identity wrapped up in being right that I was blind to how the world really works. I was acting like an amateur — I worked toward achieving the best outcome I came up with myself and not the best outcome possible.

At Farnam Street, one of our principles is that we work with the world as it really is, not as we want it to be. My desire to be right reflected how I wanted the world to work, not how it actually worked. Instead of trying to be right, I try to be less wrong.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from running a company is that the more I give up trying to be right, the better the outcomes get for everyone. I don’t care who gets the credit. I care about creating the best possible work.

Half Life: The Decay of Knowledge and What to Do About It

Understanding the concept of a half-life will change what you read and how you invest your time. It will explain why our careers are increasingly specialized and offer a look into how we can compete more effectively in a very crowded world.

The Basics

A half-life is the time taken for something to halve its quantity. The term is most often used in the context of radioactive decay, which occurs when unstable atomic particles lose energy. Twenty-nine elements are known to be capable of undergoing this process. Information also has a half-life, as do drugs, marketing campaigns, and all sorts of other things. We see the concept in any area where the quantity or strength of something decreases over time.

Radioactive decay is random, and measured half-lives are based on the most probable rate. We know that a nucleus will decay at some point; we just cannot predict when. It could be anywhere between instantaneous and the total age of the universe. Although scientists have defined half-lives for different elements, the exact rate is completely random.

Half-lives of elements vary tremendously. For example, carbon takes millions of years to decay; that’s why it is stable enough to be a component of the bodies of living organisms. Different isotopes of the same element can also have different half-lives.

Three main types of nuclear decay have been identified: alpha, beta, and gamma. Alpha decay occurs when a nucleus splits into two parts: a helium nucleus and the remainder of the original nucleus. Beta decay occurs when a neutron in the nucleus of an element changes into a proton. The result is that it turns into a different element, such as when potassium decays into calcium. Beta decay also releases a neutrino — a particle with virtually no mass. If a nucleus emits radiation without experiencing a change in its composition, it is subject to gamma decay. Gamma radiation contains an enormous amount of energy.

The Discovery of Half-Lives

The discovery of half-lives (and alpha and beta radiation) is credited to Ernest Rutherford, one of the most influential physicists of his time. Rutherford was at the forefront of this major discovery when he worked with physicist Joseph John Thompson on complementary experiments leading to the discovery of electrons. Rutherford recognized the potential of what he was observing and began researching radioactivity. Two years later, he identified the distinction between alpha and beta rays. This led to his discovery of half-lives, when he noticed that samples of radioactive materials took the same amount of time to decay by half. By 1902, Rutherford and his collaborators had a coherent theory of radioactive decay (which they called “atomic disintegration”). They demonstrated that radioactive decay enabled one element to turn into another — research which would earn Rutherford a Nobel Prize. A year later, he spotted the missing piece in the work of the chemist Paul Villard and named the third type of radiation gamma.

Half-lives are based on probabilistic thinking. If the half-life of an element is seven days, it is most probable that half of the atoms will have decayed in that time. For a large number of atoms, we can expect half-lives to be fairly consistent. It’s important to note that radioactive decay is based on the element itself, not the quantity of it. By contrast, in other situations, the half-life may vary depending on the amount of material. For example, the half-life of a chemical someone ingests might depend on the quantity.

In biology, a half-life is the time taken for a substance to lose half its effects. The most obvious instance is drugs; the half-life is the time it takes for their effect to halve, or for half of the substance to leave the body. The half-life of caffeine is around 6 hours, but (as with most biological half-lives) numerous factors can alter that number. People with compromised liver function or certain genes will take longer to metabolize caffeine. Consumption of grapefruit juice has been shown in some studies to slow caffeine metabolism. It takes around 24 hours for a dose of caffeine to fully leave the body.

The half-lives of drugs vary from a few seconds to several weeks. To complicate matters, biological half-lives vary for different parts of the body. Lead has a half-life of around a month in the blood, but a decade in bone. Plutonium in bone has a half-life of a century — more than double the time for the liver.

Marketers refer to the half-life of a campaign — the time taken to receive half the total responses. Unsurprisingly, this time varies among media. A paper catalog may have a half-life of about three weeks, whereas a tweet might have a half-life of a few minutes. Calculating this time is important for establishing how frequently a message should be sent.

“Every day that we read the news we have the possibility of being confronted with a fact about our world that is wildly different from what we thought we knew.”

— Samuel Arbesman

The Half-Life of Facts

In The Half-Life of Facts: Why Everything We Know Has an Expiration Date, Samuel Arbesman (see our Knowledge Project interview) posits that facts decay over time until they are no longer facts or perhaps no longer complete. According to Arbesman, information has a predictable half-life: the time taken for half of it to be replaced or disproved. Over time, one group of facts replaces another. As our tools and knowledge become more advanced, we can discover more — sometimes new things that contradict what we thought we knew, sometimes nuances about old things. Sometimes we discover a whole area that we didn’t know about.

The rate of these discoveries varies. Our body of engineering knowledge changes more slowly, for example, than does our body of psychological knowledge.

Arbesman studied the nature of facts. The field was born in 1947, when mathematician Derek J. de Solla Price was arranging a set of philosophical books on his shelf. Price noted something surprising: the sizes of the books fit an exponential curve. His curiosity piqued, he began to see whether the same curve applied to science as a whole. Price established that the quantity of scientific data available was doubling every 15 years. This meant that some of the information had to be rendered obsolete with time.

Scientometrics shows us that facts are always changing, and much of what we know is (or soon will be) incorrect. Indeed, much of the available published research, however often it is cited, has never been reproduced and cannot be considered true. In a controversial paper entitled “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” John Ioannides covers the rampant nature of poor science. Many researchers are incentivized to find results that will please those giving them funding. Intense competition makes it essential to find new information, even if it is found in a dubious manner. Yet we all have a tendency to turn a blind eye when beliefs we hold dear are disproved and to pay attention only to information confirming our existing opinions.

As an example, Arbesman points to the number of chromosomes in a human cell. Up until 1965, 48 was the accepted number that medical students were taught. (In 1953, it had been declared an established fact by a leading cytologist). Yet in 1956, two researchers, Joe Hin Tjio and Albert Levan, made a bold assertion. They declared the true number to be 46. During their research, Tjio and Levan could never find the number of chromosomes they expected. Discussing the problem with their peers, they discovered they were not alone. Plenty of other researchers found themselves two chromosomes short of the expected 48. Many researchers even abandoned their work because of this perceived error. But Tjio and Levan were right (for now, anyway). Although an extra two chromosomes seems like a minor mistake, we don’t know the opportunity costs of the time researchers invested in faulty hypotheses or the value of the work that was abandoned. It was an emperor’s-new-clothes situation, and anyone counting 46 chromosomes assumed they were the ones making the error.

As Arbesman puts it, facts change incessantly. Many of us have seen the ironic (in hindsight) doctor-endorsed cigarette ads from the past. A glance at a newspaper will doubtless reveal that meat or butter or sugar has gone from deadly to saintly, or vice versa. We forget that laughable, erroneous beliefs people once held are not necessarily any different from those we now hold. The people who believed that the earth was the center of the universe, or that some animals appeared out of nowhere or that the earth was flat, were not stupid. They just believed facts that have since decayed. Arbesman gives the example of a dermatology test that had the same question two years running, with a different answer each time. This is unsurprising considering the speed at which our world is changing.

As Arbesman points out, in the last century the world’s population has swelled from 2 billion to 7 billion, we have taken on space travel, and we have altered the very definition of science.

Our world seems to be in constant flux. With our knowledge changing all the time, even the most informed people can barely keep up. All this change may seem random and overwhelming (Dinosaurs have feathers? When did that happen?), but it turns out there is actually order within the shifting noise. This order is regular and systematic and is one that can be described by science and mathematics.

The order Arbesman describes mimics the decay of radioactive elements. Whenever new information is discovered, we can be sure it will break down and be proved wrong at some point. As with a radioactive atom, we don’t know precisely when that will happen, but we know it will occur at some point.

If we zoom out and look at a particular body of knowledge, the random decay becomes orderly. Through probabilistic thinking, we can predict the half-life of a group of facts with the same certainty with which we can predict the half-life of a radioactive atom. The problem is that we rarely consider the half-life of information. Many people assume that whatever they learned in school remains true years or decades later. Medical students who learned in university that cells have 48 chromosomes would not learn later in life that this is wrong unless they made an effort to do so.

OK, so we know that our knowledge will decay. What do we do with this information? Arbesman says,

… simply knowing that knowledge changes like this isn’t enough. We would end up going a little crazy as we frantically tried to keep up with the ever changing facts around us, forever living on some sort of informational treadmill. But it doesn’t have to be this way because there are patterns. Facts change in regular and mathematically understandable ways. And only by knowing the pattern of our knowledge evolution can we be better prepared for its change.

Recent initiatives have sought to calculate the half-life of an academic paper. Ironically, academic journals have largely neglected research into how people use them and how best to fund the efforts of researchers. Research by Philip Davis shows the time taken for a paper to receive half of its total downloads. Davis’s results are compelling. While most forms of media have a half-life measured in days or even hours, 97 percent of academic papers have a half-life longer than a year. Engineering papers have a slightly shorter half-life than other fields of research, with double the average (6 percent) having a half-life of under a year. This makes sense considering what we looked at earlier in this post. Health and medical publications have the shortest overall half-life: two to three years. Physics, mathematics, and humanities publications have the longest half-lives: two to four years.

The Half-Life of Secrets

According to Peter Swire, writing in “The Declining Half-Life of Secrets,” the half-life of secrets (by which Swire generally means classified information) is shrinking. In the past, a government secret could be kept for over 25 years. Nowadays, hacks and leaks have shrunk that time considerably. Swire writes:

During the Cold War, the United States developed the basic classification system that exists today. Under Executive Order 13526, an executive agency must declassify its documents after 25 years unless an exception applies, with stricter rules if documents stay classified for 50 years or longer. These time frames are significant, showing a basic mind-set of keeping secrets for a time measured in decades.

Swire notes that there are three main causes: “the continuing effects of Moore’s Law — or the idea that computing power doubles every two years, the sociology of information technologists, and the different source and methods for signals intelligence today compared with the Cold War.” One factor is that spreading leaked information is easier than ever. In the past, it was often difficult to get information published. Newspapers feared legal repercussions if they shared classified information. Anyone can now release secret information, often anonymously, as with WikiLeaks. Governments cannot as easily rely on media gatekeepers to cover up leaks.

Rapid changes in technology or geopolitics often reduce the value of classified information, so the value of some, but not all, classified information also has a half-life. Sometimes it’s days or weeks, and sometimes it’s years. For some secrets, it’s not worth investing the massive amount of computer time that would be needed to break them because by the time you crack the code, the information you wanted to know might have expired.

(As an aside, if you were to invert the problem of all these credit card and SSN leaks, you might conclude that reducing the value of possessing this information would be more effective than spending money to secure it.)

“Our policy (at Facebook) is literally to hire as many talented engineers as we can find. The whole limit in the system is that there are not enough people who are trained and have these skills today.”

— Mark Zuckerberg

The Half-Lives of Careers and Business Models

The issue with information having a half-life should be obvious. Many fields depend on individuals with specialized knowledge, learned through study or experience or both. But what if those individuals are failing to keep up with changes and clinging to outdated facts? What if your doctor is offering advice that has been rendered obsolete since they finished medical school? What if your own degree or qualifications are actually useless? These are real problems, and knowing about half-lives will help you make yourself more adaptable.

While figures for the half-lives of most knowledge-based careers are hard to find, we do know the half-life of an engineering career. A century ago, it would take 35 years for half of what an engineer learned when earning their degree to be disproved or replaced. By the 1960s, that time span shrank to a mere decade. Today that figure is probably even lower.

In 1966 paper entitled “The Dollars and Sense of Continuing Education,” Thomas Jones calculated the effort that would be required for an engineer to stay up to date, assuming a 10-year half-life. According to Jones, an engineer would need to devote at least five hours per week, 48 weeks a year, to stay up to date with new advancements. A typical degree requires about 4800 hours of work. Within 10 years, the information learned during 2400 of those hours would be obsolete. The five-hour figure does not include the time necessary to revise forgotten information that is still relevant. A 40-year career as an engineer would require 9600 hours of independent study.

Keep in mind that Jones made his calculations in the 1960s. Modern estimates place the half-life of an engineering degree at between 2.5 and 5 years, requiring between 10 and 20 hours of study per week. Welcome to the treadmill, where you have to run faster and faster so that you don’t fall behind.

Unsurprisingly, putting in this kind of time is simply impossible for most people. The result is an ever-shrinking length of a typical engineer’s career and a bias towards hiring recent graduates. A partial escape from this time-consuming treadmill that offers little progress is to recognize the continuous need for learning. If you agree with that, it becomes easier to place time and emphasis on developing heuristics and systems to foster learning. The faster the pace of knowledge change, the more valuable the skill of learning becomes.

A study by PayScale found that the median age of workers in most successful technology companies is substantially lower than that of other industries. Of 32 companies, just six had a median worker age above 35, despite the average across all workers being just over 42. Eight of the top companies had a median worker age of 30 or below — 28 for Facebook, 29 for Google, and 26 for Epic Games. The upshot is that salaries are high for those who can stay current while gaining years of experience.

In a similar vein, business models have ever shrinking half-lives. The nature of capitalism is that you have to be better last year than you were this year — not to gain market share but to maintain what you already have. If you want to get ahead, you need asymmetry; otherwise, you get lost in trench warfare. How long would it take for half of Uber or Facebook’s business models to be irrelevant? It’s hard to imagine it being more than a couple of years or even months.

In The Business Model Innovation Factory: How to Stay Relevant When the World Is Changing, Saul Kaplan highlights the changing half-lives of business models. In the past, models could last for generations. The majority of CEOs oversaw a single business for their entire careers. Business schools taught little about agility or pivoting. Kaplan writes:

During the industrial era once the basic rules for how a company creates, delivers, and captures value were established[,] they became etched in stone, fortified by functional silos, and sustained by reinforcing company cultures. All of a company’s DNA, energy, and resources were focused on scaling the business model and beating back competition attempting to do a better job executing the same business model. Companies with nearly identical business models slugged it out for market share within well-defined industry sectors.

[…]

Those days are over. The industrial era is not coming back. The half-life of a business model is declining. Business models just don’t last as long as they used to. In the twenty-first century business leaders are unlikely to manage a single business for an entire career. Business leaders are unlikely to hand down their businesses to the next generation of leaders with the same business model they inherited from the generation before.

The Burden of Knowledge

The flip side of a half-life is the time it takes to double something. A useful guideline to calculate the time it takes for something to double is to divide 70 by the rate of growth. This formula isn’t perfect, but it gives a good indication. Known as the Rule of 70, it applies only to exponential growth when the relative growth rate remains consistent, such as with compound interest.

The higher the rate of growth, the shorter the doubling time. For example, if the population of a city is increasing by 2 percent per year, we divide 70 by 2 to get a doubling time of 35 years. The rule of 70 is a useful heuristic; population growth of 2 percent might seem low, but your perspective might change when you consider that the city’s population could double in just 35 years. The Rule of 70 can also be used to calculate the time for an investment to double in value; for example, $100 at 7 percent compound interest will double in just a decade and quadruple in 20 years. The average newborn baby doubles its birth weight in under four months. The average doubling time for a tumor is also four months.

We can see how information changes in the figures for how long it takes for a body of knowledge to double in size. The figures quoted by Arbesman (drawn from Little Science, Big Science … and Beyond by Derek J. de Solla Price) are compelling, including:

  • Time for the number of entries in a dictionary of national biographies to double: 100 years
  • Time for the number of universities to double: 50 years
  • Time for the number of known chemical compounds to double: 15 years
  • Time for the number of known asteroids to double: 10 years

Arbesman also gives figures for the time taken for the available knowledge in a particular field to double, including:

  • Medicine: 87 years
  • Mathematics: 63 years
  • Chemistry: 35 years
  • Genetics: 32 years

The doubling of knowledge increases the learning load over time. As a body of knowledge doubles so does the cost of wrapping your head around what we already know. This cost is the burden of knowledge. To be the best in a general field today requires that you know more than the person who was the best only 20 years ago. Not only do you have to be better to be the best, but you also have to be better just to stay in the game.

The corollary is that because there is so much to know, we specialize in very niche areas. This makes it easier to grasp the existing body of facts, keep up to date on changes, and rise to the level of expert. The problem is that specializing also makes it easier to see the world through the narrow focus of your specialty, makes it harder to work with other people (as niches are often dominated by jargon), and makes you prone to overvalue the new and novel.

Conclusion

As we have seen, understanding how half-lives work has numerous practical applications, from determining when radioactive materials will become safe to figuring out effective drug dosages. Half-lives also show us that if we spend time learning something that changes quickly, we might be wasting our time. Like Alice in Wonderland — and a perfect example of the Red Queen Effect — we have to run faster and faster just to keep up with where we are. So if we want our knowledge to compound, we’ll need to focus on the invariant general principles.