Tag: Interview

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.

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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!

 

Elon Musk on How to Tell if People Are Lying

elon_musk1

Great tidbit from Elon Musk at the Ignition Conference on how having job applicants explain their thinking at multiple levels helps him figure out if they really worked on the problem.

If you just talk to the people on your team you can learn a tremendous amount. As you iterate through problems … when you struggle with a problem that’s when you understand it. Once you’ve done that for (years), then you have a pretty good grasp of it. In fact, that’s one of the ways, when I interview someone … is to ask them to tell me about the problems they worked on and how they solved them. And if someone was really the person that solved it, they will be able to answer at multiple levels — they will be able to go down to the brass tacks. And if they weren’t, they’ll get stuck. And then you can say, “oh this person was not really the person who solved it because anyone who struggles hard with a problem never forgets it.”

This connects for me a bit with the false record effect:

A group of managers of identical (moderate) ability will show considerable variation in their performance records in the short run. Some will be found at one end of the distribution and will be viewed as outstanding; others will be at the other end and will be viewed as ineffective. The longer a manager stays in a job, the less the probable difference between the observed record of performance and actual ability. Time on the job increased the expected sample of observations, reduced expected sampling error, and thus reduced the chance that the manager (of moderate ability) will either be promoted or exit.

It’s also a good trick for the batesian mimicry problem — that is, separating those who know from those who act like they know.

David Foster Wallace: The Future of Writing In the Age of Information

David Foster Wallace remains both loved and hated. His wisdom shows itself in argumentative writing, ambition, and perfectionism, and perhaps one of the best, most profound, commencement addresses ever. He’s revered, in part, because he makes us think … about ourselves, about society, and about things we don’t generally want to think about.

In this interview from May of 1996 with Charlie Rose, Wallace addresses “the future of fiction in the information age.” His thoughts highlight the difficulties of reading in an age of distraction and are worth considering in a world where we often prefer being entertained to being educated.

On commercial entertainment for the masses and how it changes what we seek, Wallace comments:

Commercial entertainment — its efficiency, its sheer ability to deliver pleasure in large doses — changes people’s relationship to art and entertainment, it changes what an audience is looking for. I would argue that it changes us in deeper ways than that. And that some of the ways that commercial culture and commercial entertainment affects human beings is one of the things that I sort of think that serious fiction ought to be doing right now.

[…]

There’s this part that makes you feel full. There’s this part that is redemptive and instructive, [so that] when you read something, it’s not just delight — you go, “Oh my god, that’s me! I’ve lived like that, I’ve felt like that, I’m not alone in the world …

What’s tricky for me is … It would be one thing if everybody was absolutely delighted watching TV 24/7. But we have, as a culture, not only an enormous daily watching rate but we also have a tremendous cultural contempt for TV … Now TV that makes fun of TV is itself popular TV. There’s a way in which we who are watching a whole lot are also aware that we’re missing something — that there’s something else, there’s something more. While at the same time, because TV is really darn easy, you sit there and you don’t have to do very much.

Commenting on our need for easy fun he elaborates

Because commercial entertainment has conditioned readers to want easy fun, I think that avant garde and art fiction has sort of relinquished the field. Basically I don’t read much avant garde stuff because it’s hilaciously un-fun. … A lot of it is academic and foisted and basically written for critics.

What got him started writing?

Fiction for me, mostly as a reader, is a very weird double-edged sword — on the one hand, it can be difficult and it can be redemptive and morally instructive and all the good stuff we learn in school; on the other hand, it’s supposed to be fun, it’s a lot of fun. And what drew me into writing was mostly memories of really fun rainy afternoons spent with a book. It was a kind of a relationship.

I think part of the fun, for me, was being part of some kind of an exchange between consciousnesses, a way for human beings to talk to each other about stuff we can’t normally talk about.

​​(h/t Brainpickings)

David Foster Wallace on Argumentative Writing and Nonfiction

David Foster Wallace world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie

In December 2004, Bryan A. Garner, who had already struck up a friendship with David Foster Wallace, started interviewing state and federal judges as well as a few key writers. With over a hundred interviews under his belt by January 2006, he called David to suggest they do an interview. So on February 3, 2006 the two finally got together in Los Angeles for an extensive conversation on writing and life that offers a penetrating look into our collective psyche. Their conversation has been captured in Quack This Way: David Foster Wallace & Bryan A. Garner Talk Language and Writing.

Very few things get me more excited than reading one smart person interview another. I mean, we’re not talking TV puff pieces here, we’re talking outright depth with an incisive look at culture.

For context, Garner is the author of a book that, admittedly, I have a hard time not opening on a weekly basis: Garner’s Modern American Usage, which helps explain some of the insightful banter between the two.

When asked if, before writing a long nonfiction piece, he attempts to understand the structure of the whole before starting, Wallace simply responded “no.”

Elaborating on this he goes on to say:

Everybody is different. I don’t discover the structure except by writing sentences because I can’t think structurally well enough. But I know plenty of good nonfiction writers. Some actually use Roman-numeral outlines, and they wouldn’t even know how to begin without it.

If you really ask writers, at least most of the ones I know— and people are always interested and want to know what you do— most of them are habits or tics or superstitions we picked up between the ages of 15 and 25, often in school. I think at a certain point, part of one’s linguistic nervous system gets hardened over that time or something, but it’s all different.

I would think for argumentative writing it would be very difficult, at a certain point, not to put it into some kind of outline form.

Were it me, I see doing it in the third or fourth draft as part of the “Oh my God, is what I’m saying making any sense at all? Can somebody who’s reading it, who can’t read my mind, fit it into some sort of schematic structure of argument?”

I think a more sane person would probably do that at the beginning. But I don’t know that anybody would be able to get away with . . . Put it this way: if you couldn’t do it, if you can’t put . . . If you’re writing an argumentative thing, which I think people in your discipline are, if you couldn’t, if forced, put it into an outline form, you’re in trouble.

Commenting on what constitutes a good opening in argumentative writing, Wallace offers:

A good opener, first and foremost, fails to repel. Right? So it’s interesting and engaging. It lays out the terms of the argument, and, in my opinion, should also in some way imply the stakes. Right? Not only am I right, but in any piece of writing there’s a tertiary argument: why should you spend your time reading this? Right? “So here’s why the following issue might be important, useful, practical.” I would think that if one did it deftly, one could in a one-paragraph opening grab the reader, state the terms of the argument, and state the motivation for the argument. I imagine most good argumentative stuff that I’ve read, you could boil that down to the opener.

Garner, the interviewer, follows this up by asking “Do you think of most pieces as having this, in Aristotle’s terms, a beginning, a middle, and an end—those three parts?”

I think, like most things about writing, the answer lies on a continuum. I think the interesting question is, how much violence do you do to the piece if you reprise it in a three-act . . . a three-part structure.

The middle should work . . . It lays out the argument in steps, not in a robotic way, but in a way that the reader can tell (a) what the distinct steps or premises of the argument are; and (b), this is the tricky one, how they’re connected to each other. So when I teach nonfiction classes, I spend a disproportionate amount of my time teaching the students how to write transitions, even as simple ones as however and moreover between sentences. Because part of their belief that the reader can somehow read their mind is their failure to see that the reader needs help understanding how two sentences are connected to each other— and also transitions between paragraphs.

I’m thinking of the argumentative things that I like the best, and because of this situation the one that pops into my mind is Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language.” If you look at how that’s put together, there’s a transition in almost every single paragraph. Right? Like, “Moreover, not only is this offense common, but it is harmful in this way.” You know where he is in the argument, but you never get the sense that he’s ticking off items on a checklist; it’s part of an organic whole. My guess would be, if I were an argumentative writer, that I would spend one draft on just the freaking argument, ticking it off like a checklist, and then the real writing part would be weaving it and making the transitions between the parts of the argument— and probably never abandoning the opening, never letting the reader forget what the stakes are here. Right? Never letting the reader think that I’ve lapsed into argument for argument’s sake, but that there’s always a larger, overriding purpose.

Why are transitions so important?

[pause] Reading is a very strange thing. We get talked to about it and talk explicitly about it in first grade and second grade and third grade, and then it all devolves into interpretation. But if you think about what’s going on when you read, you’re processing information at an incredible rate.

One measure of how good the writing is is how little effort it requires for the reader to track what’s going on. For example, I am not an absolute believer in standard punctuation at all times, but one thing that’s often a big shock to my students is that punctuation isn’t merely a matter of pacing or how you would read something out loud. These marks are, in fact, cues to the reader for how very quickly to organize the various phrases and clauses of the sentence so the sentence as a whole makes sense.

I believe psycholinguists, as part of neuro-science, spend . . . I mean, they hook little sensors up to readers’ eyes and study this stuff. I don’t know much about that, but I do know that when you’re not punctuating effectively for your genre, or when you fail to supply sufficient transitions, you are upping the amount of effort the reader has to make in order . . . forget appreciate . . . simply to understand what it is that you are communicating. My own guess is that at just about the point where that amount— the amount of time that you’re spending on a sentence, the amount of effort— becomes conscious, when you are conscious that this is hard, is the time when college students’ papers begin getting marked down by the prof. Right?

But one of the things I end up saying to the students is, “Realize your professors are human beings. They’re reading these things really fast, but you’re often being graded down for reasons that the professor isn’t consciously aware of because of an immense amount of reading and an immense amount of evaluation of the quality of a piece of writing, the qualities of the person producing it, occur below, just below, the level of consciousness, which is really the way you want it. And one of the things that really good writing does is that it’s able to get across massive amounts of information and various favorable impressions of the communicator with minimal effort on the part of the reader.”

That’s why people use terms like flow or effortless to describe writing that they regard as really superb. They’re not saying effortless in terms of it didn’t seem like the writer spent any work. It simply requires no effort to read it— the same way listening to an incredible storyteller talk out loud requires no effort to pay attention. Whereas when you’re bored, you’re conscious of how much effort is required to pay attention. Does that make sense?

One of the things that makes a really good writer, according to Wallace, is they “can just kind of feel” when to make transitions and when not to.

Which doesn’t mean such creatures are born, but it does mean that’s why practicing and paying attention never stop being important. Right? It’s because we’re training the same part of us that knows how to swing a golf club or shift a standard transmission, things we want to be able to do automatically. So we have to pay attention and learn how to do them so we can quit thinking about them and just do them automatically.

In case you’re wondering, it was Tense Present, DFW’s review of Garner’s book that sparked their friendship. The full article, before Harper’s cuts, appears in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.

Quack This Way is an insightful interview by two terrific minds.

My Interview with Jenny Blake

In May I did an interview with Jenny Blake on some of the public speaking I do and what it means to speak like a pro. The interview is live (and free) for 24 hours. Some excerpts are below.

On reading books.

Jenny: Shane and I both share that we have a compulsive shopping problem when it comes to books and I love when I first found Shane’s blog, he has this philosophy that he makes reading and learning an absolute priority. If there’s room in the budget for it, if there’s room in his day, he will cut out TV. He will cut out all other kinds of spending to make room for reading and gathering information. Shane, what’s so important to you about that?

Shane: I think it’s been, over my life, it’s been the key to learning, so throughout all school and university and it’s always been book based and I love books. I love the depth of thought that goes into them. I love the organization that people put into them.

I love that they’re not a two-page article just giving you a little bit of a twist on a topic where you run away thinking that you know something, but if you read four or five books on a subject, you have a much better understanding of that subject. Personally, I spend most of my time reading books when I can. I love them.

On our headline culture.

Jenny: I love the recent blog post you wrote on 10 Ways to be Smarter, Sexier, Faster and More Productive. You get to your blog and it’s like, “This is all BS. Stop clicking these links. Go read a book instead.”

Shane: I get emails all the time from people going, “How do I be more productive? What do I need to do?” I found myself drifting in that way too. I’m trying to get out of those headlines, but I’ve been experimenting a little bit. People click more on them. I get more traffic out of them, so it’s this great positive feedback loop.

But, at the end of the day, I think I just went through my Twitter feed one day and I was like, “I’m sick of this. I don’t want to see any more of this.” Why do people click on this? Because you forget it. The next day you’re clicking on the exact same thing because you’ve completely forgotten the 10 ways you can be healthy that change every two weeks.

My accountability talk at Bradley University.

Jenny: I love – on the topic of bringing all these disparate seeming things together, you recently gave a talk at Bradley University. … It just jumped out of the screen to me because the title of your blog post was something like On Accountability, but then I start reading your notes, your transcript from the speech and you talked about courage, resilience, moral codes, acquiring knowledge, failure, deserving success, complex problem solving. All of a sudden, I’m blown away. I’m like, “This isn’t about accountability. This is about so many important ideas.”

Shane: Thank you. It was one of the most amazing – yeah. It was an amazing experience for me … somebody asked for a custom speech on accountability and I kind of went through, “What does accountability mean?” What do I already know about accountability and how do I package that together and connect it?

You end up with all these disparate threads and it’s really cool how you can take that – the students there, I thought they appreciated the fact that I’m giving them multiple examples across a different subject. I’m not just up there talking about how to be accountable and all of that. How do you design systems that are accountable for people? How does accountability factor into different aspects of your life from sports to politics to school, to you as an individual?

Jenny: That’s what I love about it. It really stood out to me. That’s actually when I decided to reach out to you for this conference because yeah, it just – it’s what makes speeches like Neil Gaiman’s speech or even Steve Jobs – I’m putting you up there in the mix – Randy Pausch, these are speeches that, I think, they stand out to people because they don’t just give one topic where it is around one of them, but they really draw upon so many different areas to give a framework. Here’s how to think about this across multiple areas of your life and how it’s going to show up.

On why I started doing speaking engagements …

Shane: I know for me, I got interested in speaking because it was a way for me to challenge myself and frankly, it scared me. It was something I wanted to do to kind of push myself towards my limits, but not go past them and I really appreciated that.

Jenny: I love that you started speaking precisely because it scares you.

Shane: Yeah, well it’s scary to do that, but it’s necessary to challenge yourself too right?

On how I prepared for my first (and every speech since then) … hello deliberate practice:

My first speech I actually – and this is going to sound ridiculous, I can’t believe I’m saying this – I went out and I’m a big fan of deliberate practice. I went out … I bought a video camera. I recorded myself. I set it up in the room, recorded myself talking for about 20 times. The 20th time I felt reasonably confident so I sent it to my friends and I’m like, “I need some feedback on this.” It was just horrible. They were like, “Well, it’s not bad for a first try.” I was like “That’s my 20th try!!! What are you guys talking about?” Through that process I’ve gotten a little better at it (maybe.)”

How to follow through on all the interesting tips and ideas.

Jenny: Okay, our last Twitter question. How to follow through on all the interesting tips and ideas. I think that’s an actually important one going back to speaking. When you get up on stage, I often will say, “If all I do is inspire you today, I have failed.” If you don’t actually go do something differently as a result of this talk or workshop I don’t really see that as a success. I’m curious to hear – how do you help people actually take meaningful action?

Shane: I think it’s up to people to take meaningful action. That’s a choice you make as a person. I can give you all the tools and the blueprints to build a house, but unless you’re willing to do it it’s not going to happen. I think the way to do that is make things easy for people. If you want to start a new habit of flossing your teeth, I think it’s like B.J. Fogg who says, “Start with one tooth a night.”

Then the minute you do that one tooth you’re going to do the rest of them, but you break it down into the first step. Remove the inertia of doing nothing. Create some positive momentum. Two or three days later you’ll be flossing your teeth every night. I think that part of what we can do as speakers is when people walk away, the big thing to do is not sell all your possessions, fly to Tibet and become a monk.

It’s what can you be doing that’s a small step in your life, that may resonate with you or may not? Although it’s opening the door for people, but I don’t want to make people walk through doors. I want to open doors.

David Foster Wallace: The Relationship Between Ambition and Perfectionism

“If your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything.”
— David Foster Wallace
***

Conversations with David Foster Wallace is an essential look into the thinking of one of the great minds. It doesn’t however, offer many thoughts on the relationship between ambition and perfection. For that, we can turn to this beautiful PBS clip.

On perfectionism, Foster Wallace says:

You know, the whole thing about perfectionism — The perfectionism is very dangerous, because of course if your fidelity to perfectionism is too high, you never do anything. Because doing anything results in … It’s actually kind of tragic because it means you sacrifice how gorgeous and perfect it is in your head for what it really is.

On learning through teaching:

I was a very difficult person to teach when I was a student and I thought I was smarter than my teachers and they told me a lot of things that I thought were retrograde or outdated or B.S. And I’ve learned more teaching in the last three years than I ever learned as a student. And a lot of it is that when you see students work where the point, whether it’s stated or not, is basically that they’re clever, and to try and articulate to the student how empty and frustrating it is for a reader to invest their time and attention in something and to feel that the agenda is basically to show you that the writer is clever. All the kind of stuff, right, when I’m doing my little onanistic, clever stuff in grad school, that when my professors would talk to me about it, I would go, “Well, they don’t understand. I’m a genius, blah, blah, blah, blah.” Now that I’m the teacher, I’m starting to learn—it’s like the older you get, the smarter your parents get—now I’m starting to learn that they had some smart stuff to tell me.

Still curious? Compliment with conversations with David Foster Wallace and the DT Max Biography on Wallace: Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace.

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