Tag: Wisdom

The Iconic Think Different Apple Commercial Narrated by Steve Jobs

Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes… the ones who see things differently — they’re not fond of rules… You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can’t do is ignore them because they change things… they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do.

— Steve Jobs, 1997

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about creativity and to what extent attitude plays a role.

The most creative people I know are often the ones who have a hell-raiser trait in them, regardless of whether this comes from nature or nurture.

These are people who think different, feel different, behave different. These are the people who can’t easily fit into the square corporate box.

Organizations both value and despise them. They make people uncomfortable. They challenge thoughts, processes, and the status quo. They disrupt and dismiss. They push. They raise the bar for everyone else and they call people out. They’re not being difficult on purpose — they’re being themselves. They see things differently. And that comes with both opportunities and challenges.

Many people — especially those who are less secure about themselves — have a hard time working with people that push boundaries and challenge the way things are done. They don’t want to be challenged. They don’t want the bar raised. They don’t want to explain why something needs to stay the same. All of this, after all, is exhausting. It’s much easier to just ignore, dismiss, or add layers of management to dilute the impact these people can have.

The problem with that approach, however, is that you dilute what your organization is capable of. Embracing people who think differently is not a sign of weakness as a leader (and I’m not advocating for embracing everyone who thinks differently, there is some nuance here). Allowing yourself to hear the perspective of others who think differently is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

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Two related Farnam Street Posts:

Steve Jobs on Creativity. Steve Jobs had a lot to say about creativity.

Steve Jobs on The Most Important thing. Life can be so much better once you understand this one simple fact.

A Journey of Self Discovery

“Beautiful people do not just happen.”

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In her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert told her story of self discovery in which she spent a year journeying through Italy, India, and Indonesia. On how people can go on a journey of self discovery she notes:

The last thing I ever wanted to become is the Poster Child for “Everyone Must Leave Their Husband and Move to India In Order to Find God.” … It was my path—that is all it ever was. I drew up my journey as a personal prescription for solving my life. Transformative journeys come in many forms, though, and often happen without people ever leaving home.

As Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire note in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “knowing loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat is crucial to the positive disintegration process and acts as a catalyst for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation.” He continues:

Rather than something to be avoided or denied, it is the hardships and challenges both internal and external — that make us beautiful.

As Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Making the best out of difficult experiences, something Marcus Aurelius advised, is the key to turning adversity into advantage.

As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously wrote in On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

James Cash Penney and the Golden Rule


It is then we must remember that all good days in human life come from
the mastery of the days of 
trouble that are forever recurrent.
-J.C. Penney

Many are unaware that the department store J.C. Penney was originally the work of a man named, appropriately, James Cash Penney. Penney was raised in Missouri by a father who doubled as a preacher and a farmer. After a career full of turbulence, James became manager of a Golden Rule store in Evanston, Wyoming. The stores traded in dry goods — grain, flour, beans; anything that wouldn’t spoil. After a few years of success, Penney was offered his own store in Kemmerer, Wyoming, and took his shot.

James_Cash_Penney_(ca._1902)
Penney turned the venture into a great success, and by 1913 had ownership of 34 Golden Rule stores which were renamed J.C. Penney. He’d go on to expand the chain into a dominant national department store chain that continues on today, albeit in a less prosperous form.

In 1949, Penney published a very slim book called My Experience with the Golden Rule — it didn’t describe in detail his retail experience, but instead his thoughts on the Rule itself. The little volume has some beautiful passages worth sharing. He speaks with a bit of a Southern Baptist tone, but whether you are a spiritual person or not, the lessons hold.

On the Teachings of Life

He starts with a refrain which echoes our favorite from Joseph Tussman:

As I look back over the entire range of my life’s journey I would say that discipline has never let up. I seem to have moved from one contest to another—from one hard situation to another. As I try to read it all now it seems to me as if life has been trying to make me understand that a man has only to work with the universal law and purpose and they, in turn, will work for him. But if he decides to work, trusting wholly to his own judgment, ignoring all wiser leadership, he will get hurt.

On The Challenge of Ethical Principles

I want to show that we build lasting values for later life precisely as we are motivated in our youth. For what we do in the beginning of our careers capitalizes us all the way along. If it happens that one is challenged in youth by ethical principles and if one is led, or even compelled, to adopt them, he will begin to have high altitude experiences. In other words, it is well for every one of us to be forced by whatever circumstances to work righteously. This is the supreme benefit even if, in the doing it, it seems to “go against the grain.” We learn, slowly, that all accomplishment and advancement are gained only by a contest—a fight with the circumstances and conditions through which we pass.

And we gradually begin to see that great principles have it in them to make the going rough, hard and foot-wearying. To seek to do best for ourselves by doing right for all concerned is by no means an easy proposition. It is, in fact, infinitely hard. But at the same time it guarantees us safety and security as a dividend on the investment of the effort we make. It does not keep us from attaining material success, hard as the going may be. But it makes the way safe and the method effective.

[…]

There were a lot of cowboys in Kemmerer in my time. One of them put the fact I have in mind in better words than I can command. Speaking of a rodeo he said: “There is one thing about a bronco that is always true. With never an exception. He is full of unexpectedness.”

The point is this, any ethical principle that one may adopt is just as full of unexpectedness. I mean, in the challenge it puts up to one. The problem with the bronco is to get on and stay on.

On the Value of Having One’s Principles Tested

Penney proceeds to tell the story of his father forcing him to start earning his own money if he wants new clothes. Upon earning a small amount, he buys a pig and uses the earnings from the first pig to bankroll the purchase of many more, until he’s got about a dozen. It’s then that his father tells him he must get rid of the pigs due to complaints, even though James would have to take a loss on the sale.

It was a long time after the event that I was able to look back upon the experience as one might look back upon a mountain range where he has been tramping and see its skyline. Let it suffice for me to say that what I leaned out of that business experience and the three parties concerned, namely, myself, my father, and the neighbors, proved to be a treasure worthy to possess.

My father knew that if I was compelled to clothe myself it would make me think and search and find ways of earning the money to do it. And furthermore he knew that I would learn this important fact:

We do not meet the demands of life with money. But with the imagination, forethought, plans and energy that earn the money.

Through life we learn many principles of business operation. But this one is of high rating among them all. Then, one thing further, my father took pains to make me understand:

–That I would not exercise my ingenuity to get money if by so doing I caused distress to other people.

–That any effort is worth only what can be gotten out of it by the action of a fair deal.

[…]

My father said to me one day: “We would resent it if a neighbor distressed and discomforted us in any way. Therefore, you see that a neighbor will resent distress and discomfort if we cause it. This means,” he said, “we must do to everyone as we wish to be done by.”

And so there emerged into my youthful experience the Golden Rule.

On Holding Fast to Ethics When You’re Riding High

Penney spends some time discussing his relationship with employees and his hope to develop them to their highest purpose. His basic idea is that “…to hire a man and literally leave him as is, is the beginning of a degree of human dissatisfaction that can go to any length.”

And then he returns to the Golden Rule:

So I come back again to the condition that the Golden Rule, if one adopts it, is a difficult master to serve. The ship’s captain will not throw the compass overboard because the wind blows fair and the day is funny. For he knows, from the experiences of the ocean’s instability, that the danger days of storm are always “just ahead.” So the compass must always be handy and obedience to it must always be loyal. And so with the Golden Rulle—the compass must be ever at hand through life’s journey. It will see us through trying times. And perhaps the most trying of all times comes when success is riding high and we may be tempted to “throw the compass overboard.” It is then we must remember that all good days in human life come from the mastery of the days of trouble that are forever recurrent.

On Advice to Young Men in Finding Their Purpose and Career

Penney closes with an admonition that the purpose of life is to find the calling to which you can devote your time and energy and feel fulfilled. As he makes clear, devoting your energy to something which you care about and feel fulfilled by is the highest purpose you can achieve:

To young men my advice is as simple and distinct as my own experience. It runs like this:

Take time to discover what you would prefer above all else to make your life work. You may have to do a lot of temporary jobs before you reach the one your ambition places above all others. But if your idea is clear and your determination firm, you will surely reach it.

Remember that it is often necessary in life to learn to work hard at many things before you arrive at the very great privilege of working hard at the one thing you prize the most.

Think persistently into great principles. That many have persisted for thousands of years simply because their truth is unassailable, applies to all of us in all situations and problems. Hence the great Proverbs, the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, and, along with these, the testimony of men who have sought their way to the rare privilege of doing what they most wanted to do.

Remember that all this effort to reach your preference in life work and your further effort to perfect it within the scope of your ability is for just one purpose. And the purpose is to give service to the utmost of your ability.

Still Interested? You can find the book here, but it’s out of print and a bit pricey for such a short volume. Another one to learn more about J.C. Penney is a book about his life and career, Main Street Merchant. If you want more on ethics and wisdom, try some of our posts on Seneca.

Recognizing Our Flaws is The Beginning of Wisdom

A short post today that packs a punch.

The liberating power of humility is one we’ve covered before. In fact, it’s a concept that is core to understanding your Circle of Competence. Now Russ Roberts adds to our collection of wisdom with this excerpt from How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness:

As I have gotten older, I have become less confident and maybe more honest. The economy is too complex; we can’t measure the interactions of all its various pieces with any precision. We don’t have enough data, and we don’t understand how things fit together. We are drunks looking for our lost keys under a lamppost not because that’s where we lost our keys but because that’s where the light is. We should be humbler and more honest. Our empirical studies are very imperfect. We often hold the views we do because of ideology and principle. Then we find some evidence that supports those views. We ignore the rest … An awareness of reason’s limits is a caution sign to remind us that we’re not as smart as we think; we’re not perfect truth seekers. We’re flawed. Recognizing our flaws is the beginning of wisdom. Many things look like nails that do not benefit from being pounded. That should induce caution and humility for those with hammers … Humility is an acquired taste. Once you come to like it, it’s a dish best served hot. It’s amazing how liberating it can be to say “I don’t know.”

Joseph Tussman: Getting the World to Do the Work for You

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

— Joseph Tussman

Nothing better sums up the ethos of Farnam Street than the quote above by Joseph Tussman.

How’s that for a guiding principle?

Tussman was a philosophy professor at Cal Berkley and an educational reformer. We got this beautiful quote from a friend of ours in California. Isn’t it brilliant?

The world will do a lot of the work for us if we only align with how it works and stop fighting it. Most of the time we want the world to work differently so we work against it. What Tussman really does is identify a leverage point.

Leverage amplifies an input to provide greater output. There are leverage points in all systems. To know the leverage point is to know where to apply your effort. Focusing on the leverage point will yield non-linear results. Doesn’t that sound like something we want to look for?

Working hard and being busy is not enough. Most people are taking two steps forward and one step back. They’re busy, but they haven’t moved anywhere.

We need to work smarter not harder.

What Tussman has done is identify a leverage point in life. One that will increase what you can accomplish (through tailwinds) and reduced friction. When we work smart rather than hard, we apply energy in the same direction.

The person who needs a new mental tool and doesn’t have it is already paying for it. This is how we should be thinking about the acquisition of worldly wisdom. We’re like plumbers who show up with a lot of wrenches but no blowtorches, and our results largely reflect that. We get the job half done in twice the time.

A better approach is the one Tussman suggests. Learn from the world. The best way to identify how the world works is to find the general principles that line up with historically significant sample sizes — those that apply, in the words of Peter Kaufman, “across the geological time scale of human, organic, and inorganic history.”

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Still Curious? Pair with Andy Benoit’s wisdom and make some time to think about them.

Daniel Kahneman in Conversation with Michael Mauboussin on Intuition, Causality, Loss Aversion and More

Ever want to be the fly on the wall for a fascinating conversation. Well, here’s your chance. Santa Fe Institute Board of Trustees Chair Michael Mauboussin interviews Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman.

The wide-ranging conversation talks about disciplined intuition, causality, base rates, loss aversion and so much more. You don’t want to miss this.

Here’s an excerpt from Kahneman I think you’ll enjoy. You can read the entire transcript here.

The Sources of Power is a very eloquent book on expert intuition with magnificent examples, and so he is really quite hostile to my point of view, basically.

We spent years working on that, on the question of when can intuitions be trusted? What’s the boundary between trustworthy and untrustworthy intuitions?

I would summarize the answer as saying there is one thing you should not do. People’s confidence in their intuition is not a good guide to their validity. Confidence is something else entirely, and maybe we can talk about confidence separately later, but confidence is not it.

What there is, if you want to know whether you can trust intuition, it really is like deciding on a painting, whether it’s genuine or not. You can look at the painting all you want, but asking about the provenance is usually the best guide about whether a painting is genuine or not.

Similarly for expertise and intuition, you have to ask not how happy the individual is with his or her own intuitions, but first of all, you have to ask about the domain. Is the domain one where there is enough regularity to support intuitions? That’s true in some medical domains, it certainly is true in chess, it is probably not true in stock picking, and so there are domains in which intuition can develop and others in which it cannot. Then you have to ask whether, if it’s a good domain, one in which there are regularities that can be picked up by the limited human learning machine. If there are regularities, did the individual have an opportunity to learn those regularities? That primarily has to do with the quality of the feedback.

Those are the questions that I think should be asked, so there is a wide domain where intuitions can be trusted, and they should be trusted, and in a way, we have no option but to trust them because most of the time, we have to rely on intuition because it takes too long to do anything else.

Then there is a wide domain where people have equal confidence but are not to be trusted, and that may be another essential point about expertise. People typically do not know the limits of their expertise, and that certainly is true in the domain of finances, of financial analysis and financial knowledge. There is no question that people who advise others about finances have expertise about finance that their advisees do not have. They know how to look at balance sheets, they understand what happens in conversations with analysts.

There is a great deal that they know, but they do not really know what is going to happen to a particular stock next year. They don’t know that, that is one of the typical things about expert intuition in that we know domains where we have it, there are domains where we don’t, but we feel the same confidence and we do not know the limits of our expertise, and that sometimes is quite dangerous.

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Still curious? See our interview with Kahneman here.