Tag: Patrick Collison

How to Do Great Things

Insight is rarely handed to you on a silver platter. Einstein argued that genius was 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration. While we can acknowledge that luck plays a role, we often use that as a crutch to avoid doing what we can do to intelligently prepare for opportunities.

We only get one life, “and it seems to be it is better to do significant things than to just get along through life to its end,” writes Richard Hamming in his book The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn.

The book explores how we do great things. And wouldn’t we all like to do great things? But what are the methods we should employ in order to do great things? What are the mental disciplines that we should learn? Where do we start?

Hamming starts by arguing the way you live your life—the extent to which you intelligent prepare—makes a huge difference.

The major objection cited by people against striving to do great things is the belief it is all a matter of luck. I have repeatedly cited Pasteur’s remark, “Luck favors the prepared mind”. It both admits there is an element of luck, and yet claims to a great extent it is up to you. You prepare yourself to succeed, or not, as you choose, from moment to moment, by the way you live your life.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 209)

In any great outcome, there is a component of luck. Yet if life were all about luck, the same people wouldn’t repeatedly do great things. Einstein did many great things. So did Newton. Elon Musk has been successful in multiple fields. The list goes on.

When someone repeatedly does great things it is because they prepared in advance to advance to recognize, work on, and fill in the blanks when necessary. This is the essence of intelligent preparation.

Intelligence comes in many forms and flavors. A lot of the time it’s not easily recognized — a lot of people who repeatedly do great things were poor students. IQ does not ensure academic success. Brains are nice to have but they are even better if you know how to use them.

How to Do Great Things

You need to believe that you are capable of doing important things. Your mindset determines how you experience things, what you work on, and the tactics and strategies you employ to accomplish those goals.

Among the important properties to have is the belief you can do important things. If you do not work on important problems how can you expect to do important work? Yet, direct observation, and direct questioning of people, shows most scientists spend most of their time working on things they believe are not important nor are they likely to lead to important things.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 210).

If what you are working on is not important and aligned with your goals—and a lot of what you do and say isn’t—then why are you doing it? The question you need to ask yourself if “why are you not working on and thinking about the important problems in your area?” How can we expect to achieve great things if we are not working on the right problems?

You need to be willing to look like an idiot. Think of this as confidence meets courage.

[Claude] Shannon had courage. Who else but a man with almost infinite courage would ever think of averaging over all random codes and expect the average code would be good? He knew what he was doing was important and pursued it intensely. Courage, or confidence, is a property to develop in yourself. Look at your successes, and pay less attention to failures than you are usually advised to do in the expression, “Learn from your mistakes”. While playing chess Shannon would often advance his queen boldly into the fray and say, “I ain’t scaird of nothing”. I learned to repeat it to myself when stuck, and at times it has enabled me to go on to a success. I deliberately copied a part of the style of a great scientist. The courage to continue is essential since great research often has long periods with no success and many discouragements.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

You need to strive for excellence. This isn’t as easy as it sounds but it as an essential feature of doing great work.

Without such a goal you will tend to wander like a drunken sailor. The sailor takes one step in one direction and the next in some independent direction. As a result the steps tend to cancel each other, and the expected distance from the starting point is proportional to the square root of the number of steps taken. With a vision of excellence, and with the goal of doing significant work, there is tendency for the steps to go in the same direction and thus go a distance proportional to the number of steps taken, which in a lifetime is a large number indeed.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

The conditions you think you want are rarely the ones that help you produce your best work. You need the feedback of reality in order to keep your feet planted on the ground.

Age is a factor physicists and mathematicians worry about. It is easily observed the greatest work of a theoretical physicist, mathematician, or astrophysicist, is generally done very early. They may continue to do good work all their lives, but what society ends up valuing most is almost always their earliest great work. The exceptions are very, very few indeed. But in literature, music composition, and politics, age seems to be an asset. The best compositions of a composer are usually the late ones, as judged by popular opinion.

One reason for this is fame in Science is a curse to quality productivity, though it tends to supply all the tools and freedom you want to do great things. Another reason is most famous people, sooner or later, tend to think they can only work on important problems—hence they fail to plant the little acorns which grow into the mighty oak trees. I have seen it many times, from Brattain of transistor fame and a Nobel Prize to Shannon and his Information Theory. Not that you should merely work on random things—but on small things which seem to you to have the possibility of future growth. In my opinion the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, N.J has ruined more great scientists than any other place has created—considering what they did before ore and what they did after going there. A few, like von Neumann, escaped the closed atmosphere of the place with all its physical comforts and prestige, and continued to contribute to the advancement of Science, but most remained there and continued to work on the same problems which got them there but which were generally no longer of great importance to society.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

Work with your door open.

Working with one’s door closed lets you get more work done per year than if you had an open door, but I have observed repeatedly later those with the closed doors, while working just as hard as others, seem to work on slightly the wrong problems, while those who have let their door stay open get less work done but tend to work on the right problems! I cannot prove the cause and effect relationship, I only observed the correlation. I suspect the open mind leads to the open door, and the open door tends to lead to the open mind; they reinforce each other.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 211)

People who do great things typically have a great drive to do things.

I had worked with John Tukey for some years before I found he was essentially my age, so I went to our mutual boss and asked him, “How can anyone my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back, grinned, and said, “You would be surprised how much you would know if you had worked as hard as he has for as many years”. There was nothing for me to do but slink out of his office, which I did. I thought about the remark for some weeks and decided, while I could never work as hard as John did, I could do a lot better than I had been doing.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 212)

Focused investment of only one hour a day can double your lifetime output. Intelligent preparation is like compound interest, the more you invest, the more situations you can handle, the more you learn how to do, so the more you can do, etc. The investment of one hour a day by Charlie Munger to learning new things is an overlooked gem hiding in plain sight.

This isn’t about who works the hardest but rather who focuses their limited energy on the right things. Learning things that (1) change slowly and (2) apply to a wide variety of situations could be a better use of time than learning something incredibly time-consuming, rapidly changing, and of limited application.

Hamming dedicated his Friday afternoons to “great thoughts.” Setting aside time to think is a common charasteristic of people that do great things. Not only does this help you live consciously it helps get your head out of the weeds. The rest of us are too busy with the details to ask if we’re going in the right direction.

People who do great things tolerate ambiguity — they can both believe and not believe at the same time.

You must be able to believe your organization and field of research is the best there is, but also there is much room for improvement! You can sort of see why this is a necessary trait If you believe too much you will not likely see the chances for significant improvements, you will see believe enough you will be filled with doubts and get very little chances for only the 2%, 5%, and 10% improvements; if you do not done. I have not the faintest idea of how to teach the tolerance of ambiguity, both belief and disbelief at the same time, but great people do it all the time. Most great people also have 10 to 20 problems they regard as basic and of great importance, and which they currently do not know how to solve. They keep them in their mind, hoping to get a clue as to how to solve them. When a clue does appear they generally drop other things and get to work immediately on the important problem. Therefore they tend to come in first, and the others who come in later are soon forgotten. I must warn you however, the importance of the result is not the measure of the importance of the problem. The three problems in Physics, antigravity, teleportation, and time travel are seldom worked on because we have so few clues as to how to start—a problem is important partly because there is a possible attack on it, and not because of its inherent importance.

Hamming, Richard R.. Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (Page 213)

If you find yourself blaming your (mental) tools, do something about it. Learn the mental models, listen to great people talk in detail about their experiences, and more importantly take ownership. Moving foward requires change but change does not mean that you are moving foward. As Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

29 of the Most Gifted and Highly Recommended Books

It started with a simple question:

What book (or books) have you given away to people the most and why?

The email was sent to an interesting subset of people I’ve interacted with over the past year — CEOs, entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, hedge fund managers, and more.

While not everyone replied, and some of those that did preferred not to have attributions to them, I think you’ll find the resulting list contains a lot of gems. One book is over $400. (We ordered that one and will share what we learn.)

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“The way I give books away is basically I read a book I get excited about and then get it for like nine people over the next couple weeks and then move onto some other book I’m excited about and start pushing that on everyone. At the moment, I’ve been giving Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant’s Option B to a lot of people. Reading it helped me understand what someone mourning a loss is going through better than I ever had before. So the first people I thought of were those I know currently in mourning, and I sent it to most of them. Then I sent it to some other people who are close with the people who are grieving, because it’s also very useful (and fascinating) as a guide for how to support someone coping with a loss.”
— Tim Urban, author of Wait But Why

Kennedy and King by Levingston. “The reason I am giving it is because I don’t think most people have a good enough understanding of the civil rights movement and why Trump is so reviled by those who made that progress in the ‘60s.”
— The source of this suggestion prefers to remain anonymous

“I started giving books away after I met Mohnish Pabrai and I saw that he was doing it. First book I gave away was the Checklist Manifesto. Now I am constantly giving books away – my own, those of friends, and those that I think will be interesting. Sometimes I just give away my own, personal copy, and sometimes I give away a number that I buy in from the publisher. Other books (that I’ve given away) have included: Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Shipping Man, Dangerous Odds by Marissa Lankester, Sapiens, Homo Deus, Cialdini’s Pre-suasion, Peter Bevelin’s books (Seeking Wisdom, All I Want To Know Is Where I’m Going To Die So I’ll Never Go ThereA Few Lessons for Investors and Managers), Alice Shroeder’s biography of Buffett.”
— Guy Spier, Aquamarine Capital Management

“I make it a point to give everyone Simple Wealth, Inevitable Wealth by Nick Murray when they ask about my investing philosophy and my career. No single book has been more formative or more influential on how I give advice to others, and how I think about my own financial future.”
Downtown Josh Brown

Resilience by Eric Greitens. It’s a book I give someone whenever I find out they’re going through some type of adversity. In Resilience, former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens (and now governor of Missouri) shares a series of letters written between him and a SEAL buddy who was going through a rough time in his life with alcoholism, job loss, and PTSD. Greitens calls upon his background in philosophy to provide insights and advice for his struggling friend on how to develop resilience in the face of adversity and suffering. Greitens’ book is by far the best I’ve ever read on the subject. Every page has some nugget of wisdom on how you can become more resilient to big adversities, or just life’s mundane struggles. Along the way you’re treated to personal war stories from Greitens’ SEAL days, as well as excerpts from Thucydides, Aristotle, and Aquinas.”
— Brett McKay, The Art of Manliness

Addiction by Design by Natasha Dow Schull. The book is a cutting look into the machine gambling industry and the nature of addiction. It paints a telling portrait of who gets addicted and the games designed to take advantage of them.”
— Nir Eyal, author of Hooked

Chapters in My Life by Frederick Taylor Gates. Charlie Munger says that extreme outcomes – good and bad – often educate best. With useful detail, these memoirs recount the extreme good outcome of Gates, a Baptist minister with no business education or business experience, who came to be lauded by John D. Rockefeller as the greatest businessman he ever encountered, better than Henry Ford and Andrew Carnegie.”
— Peter Kaufman, CEO of Glenair and Editor of Poor Charlie’s Almanack (I realize this is a very expensive book, so I’ve ordered it and will share what I learn with you).

The Power Broker – a perfect book on the relentless nature of accruing power, and how it can be wielded without a large public persona. As a counter-weight –Jane Jacobs’ biography. One of the few people to defeat Bob Moses, AND she came to Toronto, AND the godmother of advocating for urban planning in a dense manner. Deep Work + So Good They Can’t Ignore YouCal hit’s the nail on the head – it’s not about passion, it’s about solving problems. Biographies – Arnold, Steve Martin, George Carlinhonest insight on how people succeeded, self-awareness, and more. Dumas’ Three Musketeers and Count of Monte Cristo. Just great fiction, and too many entrepreneurs don’t take the time to appreciate that. Anything You Want: 40 Lessons for a New Kind of Entrepreneur by Sivers – just no-nonsense entrepreneur advice. No platitudes, not aspirational/inspirational – just the hard info.”
— Sol Orwell, SJO.com

“I love gifting The Specialist, a tiny little book written in the ‘30s by Chic Sale. It’s about a fictional carpenter called Lem Putt, who builds crappers. But these outhouses are the most considered, the most empathetic constructions you can imagine. He’ll suggest techniques like locating the outhouse past the wood pile, so when folks are going out to use the bathroom, they can come back with wood in their hands, rather than making it obvious they’ve just been doing their business. When you see how much thought and craft can go into building a bogger, you understand how much better we can all be at our chosen craft. Oh, and because it has been around forever, it’s fun gifting old school second hand versions, that feel like they’ve already inspired other folks to elevate their craft. I hope it makes the recipient feel more like they’re receiving ancient wisdom that has already served others well.”
— Andy Fallshaw, CEO of Bellroy

The Dream Machine by Mitchell Waldrop.”
— Patrick Collison, CEO of Stripe

Frederick Lewis Allen’s book The Big Change. It explains technology and social change better than any book I’ve come across. There are so many small lessons about how America works — culturally and economically — that I’ve never seen articulated elsewhere. “
— Morgan Housel, Partner at the Collaborative Fund

“I like to give The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Balthasar Gracián and The Waste Books by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Both are collections of aphorisms and notes around similar themes: how to live, how to grow and improve as a person, what success means, and how to understand and work with people as they are – not as we wish they would be. They are also quite witty, making them a joy to read. Gracián was a 17th-century Jesuit priest and administrator, and Lichtenberg was an 18th-century scientist and academic. Neither author is fond of the many failings of human behavior (many of which we’d categorize today as cognitive biases), and they don’t pull their punches. The aphoristic style also makes these books wonderful for repeated browsing. I’ve read them both many times, and every other page is dog-eared to mark a particularly insightful section. Time with either of these books is time well-invested.”
— Josh Kaufman, author of The Personal MBA

“I run a small team of about 10 remote employees, and we have had to reinvent ourselves completely more than a few times in the decade Nerd Fitness has been in business. For that reason, I’ve given Who Moved My Cheese?” by Spencer Johnson to everybody on Team Nerd Fitness – it’s a fast, fun, thought-provoking parable that has helped us pivot faster, embrace change, and seek out challenges rather than shy away from them. When it comes to peers and friends, I’ve gifted Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemymore times than I can count (along with reading it multiple times myself) – it’s a great reminder that we can be our own worst enemy when it comes to growth and success.”
— Steve Kamb, author of Level Up Your Life