Tag: Thinking

Five Simple Notions that Solve Problems

In 1996, Charlie Munger gave a talk titled Practical Thought about Practical Thought, where he explained the success of Coca-Cola using the simplest, most fundamental academic models he could find. Ideas from the physical world, from biology, and from psychology and business.

Munger starts the speech by outlining five simple notions that help him quickly solve problems. His approach, combined with learning how to think, is very much worth downloading into your own brain and using it as a recipe. While the wording Munger uses to describe his approach is different, it’s very similar to the approach used by Elon Musk, Richard Feynman, and others.

1. Simplify

… it is usually best to simplify problems by deciding big “no-brainer” questions first.

2. Numerical Fluency

[this] helpful notion mimics Galileo’s conclusion that scientific reality is often revealed only by math, as if math was the language of God. Galileo’s attitude also works well in messy practical life. Without numerical fluency, in the part of life most of us inhabit, you are like a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.

3. Invert

Inverting the problem won’t always solve it, but it will help you avoid trouble. Call it the avoiding stupidity filter.

… it is not enough to think problems through forward. You must also think in reverse, much like the rustic who wanted to know where he was going to die so that he’d never go there. Indeed, many problems can’t be solved forward. And that is why the great algebraist, Carl Jacobi, so often said: “invert, always invert.” And why Pythagoras thought in reverse to prove that the square root of two was an irrational number.

4. Study The Basics

You need to understand the big nuggets of wisdom in the three buckets of useful knowledge. You can think of the basics as a mental models approach.

Munger believes in using these regularly and in combination:

… the best and most practical wisdom is elementary academic wisdom. But there is one extremely important qualification: you must think in a multidisciplinary manner. You must routinely use all the easy-to-learn concepts from the freshman course in every basic subject. Where elementary ideas will serve, your problem solving must not be limited, as academia and many business bureaucracies are limited, by extreme balkanization into disciplines and subdisciplines, with strong taboos against any venture outside assigned territory. …

If, in your thinking, you rely on others, often through purchase of professional advice, whenever outside a small territory of your own, you will suffer much calamity.

This happens in part because professional advisors are often undone, not by their conscious malfeasance rather by troubles found in their subconscious bias.

His cognition will often be impaired, for your purposes, by financial incentives different from yours. And he will also suffer from the psychological defect caught by the proverb: to a man with a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

5. Lollapalooza Effects

And you need to watch out for when really big ideas combine.

… really big effects, lollapalooza effects, will often come only from large combinations of factors. For instance, tuberculosis was tamed, at least for a long time, only by routine combined use in each case of three different drugs. And other lollapalooza effects, like the flight of an airplane, follow a similar pattern.


Still Curious?  See how Munger applies these in this essay. Learn more about the wit and wisdom of Charlie Munger by picking up a copy of Poor Charlie’s Almanack and Damn Right!: Behind the Scenes with Berkshire Hathaway billionaire Charlie Munger.

Much of What You’re Going to Do or Say Today is Not Essential

If you’re a modern knowledge worker, odds are you’re going to go to work, read some emails, reply to some emails, attend some meetings, grab a coffee, have lunch, attend another meeting or two, catch up on emails, and finally head home. You’ll be busy from the moment you get to work until the moment you go home.

When you do find a nook of time, you’ll likely be bombarded with beeping, dings, calls, and other people who only need a sliver of our time. After all, they too have something urgent to do. They too, have a deadline. After a long day, you’ll come home mentally and physically drained. Eventually, you’ll reach a tipping point and say enough is enough.

The very next day, you’ll head into the office vowing to change things. You’ll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done the work to have an informed opinion on the matter, it matters that you go and make some token contribution to the meeting. The plan to work better flies out the window; any hope of sanity along with it.

If we can’t work smarter, we can work harder. So we end up redoubling our efforts, cutting out lunch and shortening meetings so we can fit more of them in.

Our response to finding ourselves stuck in the muck is to put our foot on the accelerator. Part of the problem is that attending meetings has become some sort of corporate-machoism badge.

“Hey, you want to grab a coffee to talk about that really cool project I’m working on? I’d love to pick your brain?”

“Sounds great. How’s three Wednesdays from now sound? … Yea, I know, I’m so busy.“

Sure we do more busywork, but we’re doing less real work. Real work happens when you come in early, stay late, or too often, both. That’s how we find quiet, uninterrupted time.

The paradox is that in an effort to do more, we end up doing less. When you find yourself in a hole, the best thing to do is stop digging. By failing to think about how we’re working, we only end up burning ourselves out.

There is another way to improve performance but it’s a bit unconventional: Eliminate the bullshit.

Stop doing the busy work and start spending your time adding value to yourself, your clients, your co-workers, and your friends.

Focus on what’s important and eliminate the rest.

Before doing anything, ask yourself, “is this necessary?” And if it’s not necessary, ask yourself why you’re doing it.

The idea comes from eminent stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius.

In Meditations, he writes:

[M]ost of what we say and do is not essential. Eliminate it, you’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself, is this necessary.

Ok, that makes sense. So why don’t more people do this?

That’s a good question.

While there are many reasons, this one probably carries a lot of weight.

“Worldly wisdom,” writes John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, “teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

No one wants to be unconventional. No one wants to be different.

More people should follow the advice of Aurelius — It’s not that difficult, it’s common sense. It just looks difficult because it’s unconventional.

Elements of Effective Thinking

Do you want to come up with more imaginative ideas? Do you stumble with complicated problems? Do you want to find new ways to confront challenges?

Of course, you do. So do I.

But when is the last time you thought about how you think?

Do you have a process for making decisions? Are you using mental models and connecting big ideas from multiple disciplines? Are you taking steps to reduce cognitive biases? Have you defined the problem, and do you know what success looks like?

Just as with any skill, some of us are better at thinking than others. Why?

We’re seduced into believing that brilliant thinkers are born that way. We think they magically produce brilliant ideas.

Nothing could be further from the truth while there are likely genetic exceptions, the vast majority of the people we consider brilliant use their minds differently.

Often, these geniuses practice learnable habits of thinking that allow them to see the world differently. By doing so, they avoid much of the folly that so often ensnares others. Eliminating stupidity is easier than seeking brilliance.

“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.”

— Charlie Munger

I came across The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, authored by Dr. Edward B. Burger and Dr. Michael Starbird, which presents some practical ways for us to improve our thinking.

They make a pretty bold claim in the introduction.

You can personally choose to become more successful by adopting five learnable habits, which, in this book, we not only explain in detail but also make concrete and practical.

The five habits are:
1. Understand deeply
2. Make mistakes
3. Raise questions
4. Follow the flow of ideas
5. Change

Let’s explore each of these a little.

Understand Deeply

Don’t face complex issues head-on; first understand simple ideas deeply. Clear the clutter and expose what is really important. Be brutally honest about what you know and don’t know. Then see what’s missing, identify the gaps, and fill them in. Let go of bias, prejudice, and preconceived notions. There are degrees to understanding (it’s not just a yes-or-no proposition) and you can always heighten yours. Rock-solid understanding is the foundation for success.

Make Mistakes

Fail to succeed. Intentionally get it wrong to inevitably get it even more right. Mistakes are great teachers — they highlight unforeseen opportunities and holes in your understanding. They also show you which way to turn next, and they ignite your imagination.

Raise Questions

Constantly create questions to clarify and extend your understanding. What’s the real question? Working on the wrong questions can waste a lifetime. Ideas are in the air — the right questions will bring them out and help you see connections that otherwise would have been invisible.

Follow the Flow of Ideas

Look back to see where ideas came from and then look ahead to discover where those ideas may lead. A new idea is a beginning, not an end. Ideas are rare— milk them. Following the consequences of small ideas can result in big payoffs.

These are the four basic building blocks for effective thinking. The fifth is Change.


The unchanging element is change— by mastering the first four elements, you can change the way you think and learn. You can always improve, grow, and extract more out of your education, yourself, and the way you live your life. Change is the universal constant that allows you to get the most out of living and learning.

If you’re stuck, need a new idea, or just want to improve your thinking, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking will help you on your way.

What Is Critical Thinking?

Based on our dysfunctional national dialogue, Hamilton College Professor Paul Gary Wyckoff articulates the critical thinking skills he wants his students to learn.

1. The ability to think empirically, not theoretically. By this I mean the habit of constantly checking one’s views against evidence from the real world, and the courage to change positions if better explanations come along. …

2. The ability to think in terms of multiple, rather than single, causes. When you drop a book, it will fall on the floor — a single-cause event. But most of the interesting things in the world have multiple causes; educational success, for example, is affected by a student’s aptitude, but also by the educational achievements of the student’s parents, the quality of the school he or she attends, and the attitudes and intelligence of the other students in that school. In such cases, simple comparisons become unreliable guides to action, because the effects of intervening variables haven’t been screened out. …

3. The ability to think in terms of the sizes of things, rather than only in terms of their direction. Our debates are largely magnitude-free, but decisions in a world with constrained resources always demand a sense of the sizes of various effects. …

4. The ability to think like foxes, not hedgehogs. In his seminal book, Expert Political Judgment, Philip Tetlock followed Isaiah Berlin in distinguishing between hedgehogs, who know one big thing and apply that understanding to everything around them, and foxes, who know many small things and pragmatically apply a “grab bag” of knowledge to make modest predictions about the world. In his study of hundreds of foreign policy experts over 20 years, Tetlock showed that foxes outperform hedgehogs in making predictions, and hence tend to make better decisions. …

5. The ability to understand one’s own biases. An expanding literature in psychology and behavioral economics suggests that we are full of unconscious biases, and a failure to understand these biases contributes to poor decision-making. Perhaps the most common and dangerous of these is confirmation bias, the tendency to seek out information in accordance with our previous views and ignore or dismiss information contrary to those views. …

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Why Words, Names, and Labels matter

Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why words, names, and labels matter.

The lesson? Choose your words carefully.

The universe is hard enough. The last thing the universe needs is a complex lexicon laid down between the communicator and the listener to confuse them about what it is they’re trying to listen to.

Still curious? Read Tyson’s The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.

Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies

Robert Gula in Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies:

Let’s not call them laws; and, since they’re not particularly original, I won’t attach my name to them. They are merely a description of patterns that seem to characterize the ways that people tend to respond and think. For example, people:

  1. Tend to believe what they want to believe;
  2. Tend to project their own biases or experiences upon situations;
  3. Tend to generalize from a specific event;
  4. Tend to get personally involved in the analysis of an issue and tend to let their feelings overcome a sense of objectivity;
  5. Are not good listeners;
  6. Are eager to rationalize;
  7. Are often unable to distinguish what is relevant from what is irrelevant;
  8. Are easily diverted from the specific issue at hand;
  9. Are usually unwilling to explore thoroughly the ramifications of a topic; tend to oversimplify;
  10. Often judge from appearances. They observe something, misinterpret what they observe, and make terrible errors in judgment;
  11. Often simply don’t know what they are talking about, especially in matters of general discussion. They rarely think carefully before they speak, but they allow their feelings, prejudices, biases, likes, dislikes, hopes, and frustrations to supersede careful thinking.
  12. Rarely act according to a set of consistent standards. Rarely do they examine the evidence and then form a conclusion. Rather, they tend to do whatever they want to do and to believe whatever they want to believe and then post hoc find whatever evidence will support their actions or beliefs and conveniently ignore any counter-evidence. They often think selectively: in evaluating a situation they are eager to find reasons to support what they want to support and they are just as eager to ignore or disregard reasons that don’t support what they want.
  13. Do not have a clear conceptual understanding of words employed in the discussion and consequently often do not say what they mean and often do not mean what they say.

…The above comments may seem jaundiced. They are not meant to be. They are not even meant to be critical or judgmental. They merely suggest that it is a natural human tendency to be subjective rather than objective and that the untrained mind will usually take the path of least resistance. But the path of least resistance rarely follows the path of rationality and logic.

Still curious? Read Nonsense: A Handbook of Logical Fallacies.