Source Criticism – Part 1

Did you notice?

Genius is a will-o’-the-wisp if it lacks a solid foundation of perseverance and fanatical tenacity. This is the most important thing in all of human life.

Thomas Edison

I would like to ask you to take say 30 seconds to think about the above statement. Compare it to your own experiences and convictions, then score it on a 10-point scale according to how strongly you agree with it.


Edison, the quintessential American inventor, is often held up as a paragon of industriousness and perseverance. He supposedly tried about a thousand different light bulb designs before finding one that worked, and allegedly slept only four hours per night. He did not, however, make the above statement. Adolf Hitler did. Try reading it again, imagining a pre-war Hitler as the speaker. Do you think you’d have given the same score if you’d had this visual in mind the first time?

Now, it’s not really surprising that we’re swayed by appearances; the halo effect is a well-documented phenomenon. What’s interesting is whether this mental shift in fact happens before our brains start consciously processing information, and creates a bias that the brain actively rationalizes away. That’s how it feels when I think about my own experiences of this sort, and the implication would be that when making such biased choices, we haven’t the faintest notion that we’re doing so. As we all know from the communications-breakdown of a quarrel, irrationality is a lot worse when we think we’re being rational.

This isn’t really (a lack of) source criticism in the traditional sense, but it is in the sense of basing decisions on “knowledge” without asking where it came from. But so what? Does it actually affect our lives if we occasionally do things without paying attention to what prompted the action?1 When we’re doing something where source criticism matters, like searching for information on the internet, we’re all aware . But then again this discussion isn’t about things we realize, but the things we do without even noticing it…

Try thinking of the last article you read online. Doesn’t matter whether it was about avoiding stress, the value of college educations, financial developments or whatever. Stop for a second, and try remembering as much as you can about it. All done with that? OK, Who wrote it? Not “where did you read it?”, but who actually wrote the article? If you’re like me, you won’t remember. You might argue that it doesn’t matter who wrote it since the site is legitimate, and I’ll address this in part 2. But for now let’s just agree that you don’t know or remember who wrote the article. Now, let me ask you this: do you ever, in casual conversation, say something like “I can’t remember exactly where I read this, but…”? I certainly do. And what happens when we do this is that some information from the article is passed on to our friends, but we replace the unidentified website as the source of it.

So what’s the big deal? Of course not everything we say in casual conversation should be taken as gospel. But we evaluate the statements we hear and accept them based on their merits, right? Right. But this is not about the things we do when we’re paying attention, and attentive listening is not the only what that we ‘learn’ things. I would argue that there’s a body of information, let’s call it the collective consensus, that we regularly draw on largely without realizing it. Anything “they say…” falls into this category, as do things that you “just know”. And the collective consensus does affect how we lead our lives. For example: in California, we know that it’s best to limit your gluten intake, and gluten sensitivity is quite common. In consequence, there are a large number of gluten-free products available. In Berlin it is more difficult to find gluten-free scones, and (in my experience) quite rare to hear anyone talking about such. Whether this means that gluten isn’t a problem or that the Germans aren’t aware of it won’t be discussed here, because the point is merely that the information that comprises the collective consensus does in practice shape (each) society.

How does information enter the collective consensus? I won’t even try to give a full answer to that here, but certainly one way is through our casual conversations. Now, the problem isn’t when overtly biased stuff tries to force it’s way into the collective consensus, since that is pretty effectively filtered out. Not the stuff we notice, in other words. But continuing from the example above, there are mechanisms by which information can get in without us noticing it. Here’s an example of how this might happen: My friend’s dad sends her a book on seafood depletion. She reads it but isn’t quite convinced, so she keeps eating seafood and quickly forgets about it. But then, six weeks later she goes: “I read somewhere that  there’s 26 pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp, and it’s all just thrown away…” Since I trust my friend, this factoid enters my subconscious as ‘semi-true’, and after that happens a couple of times the force of repetition means that I “just know” that every bowl of shrimp means two gallons of dead fish2.

Notice that in the first step my friend doesn’t read the book because of its credentials, but because her mother suggested that she do so. When she tells me she doesn’t remember the source, and thus assumes that position herself. And by the time it’s entered by subconscious, I couldn’t possibly say where it came from. So in each step the requirement and/or possibility for source criticism is removed3. Why is this problematic? The original information wasn’t necessarily wrong, but the fact that it’s possible for it to enter the collective consensus without critical evaluation, and without anyone noticing it’s infiltration, allows useless or destructive information to get in. An example of this causing trouble is the pursuit of alchemy throughout the 17th century; what might those natural philosophers have achieved if they hadn’t been chasing the Philosopher’s Stone?

So what do we do? There isn’t an obvious solution, as far as I can tell. Since all this is about the things we don’t notice happening, any active defense would be useless unless it worked before the infiltration had a chance to happen. One way to do this would be to compulsively demand a source for every piece of information. Well, solution would pretty much preclude the use of the collective consensus, and make a lot of things go a lot slower.Quite possibly this wouldn’t be worth it for you. But then again, if you happen to be doing something where you can’t afford to be wrong, maybe it would.


[1] If nothing else, it certainly affects Israeli prisoners up for parole (And in the spirit of this post, here’s the original paper).

[2] A rather surprising finding from psychological research is that we will apparently believe things that we hear over and over, even when we know the source is not reliable. See here and here. The good news is that this only works when we aren’t really paying close attention. Say, in casual conversation…

[3] If you’re a connoisseur of pickpocketry, you may notice the parallels to a ploy used by groups of thieves: the first lifts the wallet out of your pocket, and let’s it fall to the ground, another picks up the wallet, and passes it to a third who’s walking by. Catching the first in the split-second where he has your wallet is unlikely, and the second isn’t doing anything illegal by picking it up. Nobody’s kept track of it by the time the third person has it, and so the whole group escapes accountability.

The power you wield – Part 2


I have a fairly big ambition, which will probably come up here sooner or later. But what’s relevant is that there’s something I want to happen, and to pursue it directly would without a doubt require effort by a lot of people. And I’ve occasionally caught myself thinking of say Warren Buffett or Eminem, going “Man, if I had that much money/influence, I could really make things happen”.

David Garrick as Richard III

The problem is that I don’t really know what would need to happen to achieve my ambition. You know, in a totally brass tacks, David Allen action-item kind of way: if I had a million dollars for this specific purpose, what exactly would I do with them? And as long as I don’t have an excellent answer for that, I don’t really need to worry about the million dollars.

Of course money would help, in that I could pay other people to think about what to do. But it would be just that, help. Like a carbon road bike lets you go faster, but doesn’t do the biking for you. It’s tempting to go all Stephen Covey and say that the million dollars aren’t within my sphere of influence, but (aside from my being 25 years and eighteen thousand self-improvement books late in making that point) I find the topic is interesting because the million dollars are attainable. As in, if I choose to shift my focus entirely to making money instead of figuring things out, could make a million dollars. Only I probably couldn’t do both at once, and if my ultimate goal was something other than the money itself, I might not be any closer once I had the million dollars. If you don’t know what to do, your resources don’t matter.

A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!“. So cries Richard the Third, who has more resources than most, but not the thing he really wants. I wonder how often that scenario plays out in our lives? Have you ever cursed your commute even though you spend a good deal of your time merely existing? Coveted a promotion without considering whether you would enjoy the daily work of that position? Wished for the next episode of True Blood to be out even though the last one didn’t really blow your mind? If you’re lucky you get what you wanted, only to find out that pure bliss (or whatever it is that you really wanted) wasn’t part of the benefits package.

So I guess in a sense it is all Stephen Covey, about being effective by doing the thing that matters. About not wishing for things that you don’t really need.

This series is about the influence, small or large, that you have over the world. Part 1 talked about invulnerable superheroes, and what we can learn from their limitations.

Lavin Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness

When I’m not doing martial arts regularly I feel like something’s wrong. Why that is might be the subject of a future post, but for now I’m thankful that it isn’t going to happen anytime soon. Or, to put it differently, I love my gym.


The indispensable reason is that John Lavin is really really good. It’s not always obvious how well a teacher knows his stuff, but when he holds the state championship from both the North American Grappling Association and the United Grappling Federation you know he’s legit. And it’s not just him either. SAMBO coach? Trained in Russia, bunch of medals. Muay Thai coach? Trained in Thailand, bunch of medals. And so on.

When I first looked at Lavin Mixed Martial Arts & Fitness I thought it was pretty expensive ($165/month for full access), but fortunately John lets you train free for the first month. So I started showing up and after less than two weeks I was sure that I’d happily pay that price. In fact, after further consideration I don’t consider it expensive. Why? I could paraphrase Edward Smith-Stanley and say “Those who think they cannot afford bodily exercise will sooner or later have to afford illness”. But that’s not really the reason. Slightly off-topic, saying that you’re in bad shape because you can’t afford the gym is a terrible excuse when there are free exercise opportunities all around. Doing anything demanding every day is the best training program in the world; if you don’t believe me, go arm-wrestle a farmer. And if you really want a planned-out program, make a $12 down payment and pay your installments in willpower.

MMA fit

The real reasons all hinge on what the basis for comparison is. First off, I know that the fees aren’t high so that John can get rich. In addition to paying rent for the really nice facility, he’s paying for gloves, shin guards and helmets, bags and mitts, weights and other workout gear, not to mention salaries. And at the end of the day he still has to pay all his own expenses. So yeah, it costs four times as much as 24 Hour Fitness, but what that place does is rent out treadmills to people who don’t show up much. That’s like comparing fish fingers with sushi: Yes, they’re both food containing fish, but one requires years of training while the other could be done by a monkey with a deep fryer. If we change our perspective a bit, what I’m really paying for is that someone who has spent fifteen years studying something teaches me what he knows. Is it expensive? If I go for four years I’d have paid about $8,000, and would probably have gotten pretty good at mixed martial arts. Did you go to college? If you did, chances are that you (or your parents) paid something like 20k per year, or $80,000 total, for you to get pretty good at something. Sure, you also get a piece of paper that might get you a job, but is that why you did it? If so you might have gotten the same results for free through apprenticeship. But if not, you paid for people with 10-30 years of experience to teach you something you (hopefully) wanted to learn.

Whether grappling is as important to learn as articulation and source criticism is for each of us to decide. But my point is that if we compare gym fees to an equivalent service rather than to other everyday expenses, it’s not expensive. And that’s without the free perks: I was having neck pains for a while, partly from work and partly from wrestling, but on John’s recommendation I bought a buckwheat pillow that helped a ton. When I’m early and catch the tail end of a kid’s class, I’ve noticed that John takes time out to teach the kids life lessons. I randomly picked up a book from his lending library, which ended up making a big impression on me. And you get access to a great guy with an encyclopedic knowledge of Prince logo.svg and a number of almost-but-not-quite ridiculous movie script ideas.

Lavin MMA

Did the Rich Dad learn Seven Habits to Win Friends and Get Things Done?

Magical fairy cave

If you read and apply the books I referenced in the title, you ought to eventually become effective, wealthy and charismatic, even while avoiding stress. Sounds like a pretty grand way to invest $35!

In a magical land of fairies and rainbows (pictured above) I could end my post there, having tremendously improved my readers’ lives in every possible way (except perhaps romantically, but I think there’s a book for that too). But alas, here in reality-land millions of people have bought these books and yet failed to produce a society of superhumans who achieve everything they desire. There are two possible reasons for this: 1) the methods described in the books don’t work, or 2) we are doing it wrong.

To gauge #1 we can start by asking whether the authors have accomplished what they describe? Is Robert Kiyosaki a millionaire? (Yup). Does Tim Ferriss work four hours per week? (Well…). This is a good start, but even if the author ‘made it’ there’s no guarantee that these methods are the cause. Another argument could be convergence of independent, distinguished sources: If Stephen Covey, Theodore Roosevelt and Benjamin Franklin are all telling you to be proactive, there might be something to it (but note that a parade of life coaches echoing Covey is neither distingushed nor independent). But in the end I’m going to settle for gut feeling and assume that many of the lessons you can read in the superior self-improvement books can lead you to the promised result. If you strongly disagree… Well, then you probably aren’t reading this in the first place.

Which leaves the option that we are doing something wrong in our quest for personal transformation. The top level explanation is of course that we’re not doing exactly what the books tell us to, and the top level cause for that must be that we don’t want the outcome badly enough to do so. But it’s probably useful to look in greater detail at what it is that makes us stray from the program. It’s possible that we don’t want anything badly enough for action, which would leave the books quite helpless to help us. But let’s assume that we do want the things mentioned in the first paragraph, or at least some of them. In that case I’ll propose the following hypothesis: We fail to follow the prescribed program for wealth, charisma, organization etc. precisely because we are promised everything (in no humble terms either, they have to sell books after all), but can’t have it all. Most of these guaranteed plans for success (and I don’t mean that sarcastically) say or imply that you have to care so much that you’re willing to make sacrifices. So we nod and go “Yeah sure, I’ll give up stuff”. Imagining maybe Facebook or sleep, not the other fantastic self-improvement idea we read about last month. But the thing is that you have to follow each plan single-mindedly, and you can’t be single-minded about multiple things. Paul Graham wrote an essay about it that rings true. So it isn’t that we don’t want what they promise, but that we want all of them (roughly) equally. There isn’t one thing that we want more than everything else, but pursuing more than one thing kills your chances of getting anything.

How do we pick which goal to make sacrifices for? I don’t know. It probably comes back to what we desire, but whether that’s something we could and/or should try to direct is not obvious. Instead let’s focus on the lesson at hand: A book can give you the blueprint for achieving most things in life, but any notable achievement requires persistent, single-minded effort. Following the blueprint will not be quick, nor easy, and the sacrifices you’ll need to make probably won’t be what you imagined. You can have anything, but not everything.


Not long ago I noted with some satisfaction that I didn’t have many needs. (Although it would have been more accurate to say that I didn’t appreciate many common desires). I had just read Siddharta and no doubt relished the apparent affinity with its main character. In any case, I reasoned that fewer needs means more freedom, that if I didn’t need to pay for apartments or vacations I’d be able to spend my time on whatever I most wanted to do.

And yet…

Have you ever had a day where your alarm went off, but you decided to snooze a bit since there wasn’t anything in particular to get done that day? Where you get to work and proceed to spend hours checking out what’s new on the internet, thinking of things that would be nice to get done (Boy, those pencils sure need sharpening… No wait, better check if there’s a guide for that)? I’m going to assume that the answer is yes. Now, did such a day ever occur during the early stages of a relationship, or even a new hobby?

It’s hard to waste time when there are things we want badly. We hustle. Desire is like a carrot dangled in front of our souls, a $100 tip for a taxi driver to make it in fifteen minutes. All kinds of bullshit melts away, our existence becomes plain and focused. In some cases it feels like we stop existing and start living. In other words, desire answers one of the most fundamental human questions: what to do with freedom? But of course it does so at the cost of just that freedom. We now have to care about consequences, and get upset when we can’t have things our way. If we let our desire-glands run rampant we are guaranteed to end up frustrated about one or another unfulfilled desire.

That was probably slightly more rhetoric than I should be allowed in a single post, so let’s get a bit more practical: if the rhetoric is in fact true, then it’s safe to say that in terms of personal happiness desire can be both advantageous and problematic. We avoid a dreary existence, but end up disappointed. Reward, and risk. I think it can be useful to keep this inevitable trade-off in mind, but as far as happiness is concerned I’m going to leave it at that. On the subject of achievement, however, I’m willing to postulate that desire is a prerequisite for really making it (at anything). 

To explain why, let’s start with a question: How can I say that I don’t really care about clothes when my wardrobe includes dress socks in different shades of green? In this case “I don’t care about clothes” really means: “Right now there are things I care about to such a degree that if my wardrobe consisted of a pair of jeans and two tees I wouldn’t be worried about it”. It’s not that I’m totally indifferent to sartorial matters, but they’re overshadowed by other interests (for the moment at least). Naturally your life contains various things that you care about to different degrees, and these change over time. Graphically this scenario could be represented like so:

You allocate your attention to whatever you care about the most. So when nothing falls into the ‘desire’ range you have a pack of subjects, let’s call them ‘everyday life’, that vie for your attention. Almost as soon as you address one of them the noise of the system brings another one to the top of the pack, and you end often up flitting between things. Ever picked up a book and four pages in remembered that you wanted to mow the lawn? Yeah… The problem with this, in terms of achievement, is that you’re constantly doing (and thinking about) a bunch of different things. Which, speaking generally and admitting exceptions, means that you’re not going to do anything that’s really big and outstanding. “Desire”, in the context of the graph, means something that you care so much about that it stays above even the noisy fluctuations of the other things you care about. And this completely reverses the scenario I just described: on any given day the price of gas may be more or less important than what (you think) your boss thinks of you, but neither one enters your mind because you’re thinking about a book you’re writing on bonsai care. And such will be the case tomorrow, and the day after. Some of the things you’re ignoring may end up affecting your life while others don’t, but that book is going to get written regardless. There’s no guarantee of your desire bringing you any kind of success: what you create might be awful, and/or you might never have wanted success out of it. But the desire has to be there in order to keep you on track long enough to do something significant. I think most of us know this intuitively, so this isn’t really a new idea. And if you have one (or more) of what I call desires, you may not even care about this. But if there’s any truth to the graphical model I presented, it may help understand what’s happening on the days where we are merely existing.

The power you wield – Part 1


For as long as I can remember, my favorite superhero has been The Incredible Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk

I guess any control freak would have a repressed desire for ‘hulking out’. But more significantly, I’m captivated by his special kind of invulnerability: the more punishment he takes, the angrier he gets. And the angrier he gets, the stronger he gets. Nothing really hurts him, every kind of adversity is a temporary inconvenience until he gets powered up enough to… totally hulk out.

So if you get in the Hulk’s way, it doesn’t really matter how strong you are. You can beat him down, which will piss him off and make him stronger. Then he’ll get back up, and you’ll have to do it again. And again, until eventually he gets up and smacks you around. So he always wins, right? Like, he really can’t lose, because he doesn’t have an Achilles’ heel the way Superman (or, well, Achilles) does. Say you trap him in a force field or under a glacier: now he’s helpless, which will really piss him off. And eventually he’ll flip out and explode the glacier all over the place. So he always wins, right?

No, he doesn’t. You don’t have to know a lot about comic books to realize that the Marvel universe does not revolve around the Hulk. In fact, only rarely do ‘invulnerable’ type superheroes (e.g. Colossus or the Juggernaut) have a huge impact on what’s going on. Why? Because even though their powers mean that they can never really lose, that doesn’t mean that they always win (something that my adolescent self failed to realize). And this explains why comic book writers get away with handing out something that at first glance seems rather imbalanced, even in the realm of superpowers. Sure, if the invulnerable hero is content to merely exist within himself there’s nothing anyone can do about it. But as soon as he wants to exert his influence on the world (and what hero doesn’t?) he might find that his powers fall short. He’s invincible, but other heroes are more effective.

What lessons can we learn from the limitations of invulnerable superheroes? The most obvious is: No matter how much you persevere, you might not get results if you’re not doing things the right way. An extension of this, which we may recognize in slightly different real-life scenarios, would be: When something isn’t going your way, doing whatever you are already doing harder may not get you anywhere. Finally, on occasion we may need to offer the following to someone who seems invulnerable: It is possible to make no mistakes, and still lose.

This series is about the influence, small or large, that you have over the world. Part 2 talks about whether you need additional resources to reach your goals, or just greater clarity.

Overlooked wisdom

When (and where) my parents were young, the concept of money was pretty uncool. Changing the world was cool, doing interesting things was cool, and (most of all, I suspect) being cool was cool. So that’s what they internalized, and of course it rubbed off. Although I somehow ended up quite frugal, making money never ranked high amongst my goals. And since all I knew about Warren Buffett was that he was one of the world’s richest men, I never paid any attention to him (or Charlie Munger).

Munger & Buffett

From experience, I would say that this kind of dismissal is not too uncommon. Maybe you want to know about success, but since you care more about your art than about money you instead go read what Baryshnikov has to say on the matter. Or maybe in your artistic circles the name Buffett just never came up (at least in that context).

But this post is not about Warren Buffett being overlooked. Rather, it’s the idea that there’s a lot of overlooked wisdom in the world, a lot of insight that goes unnoticed by most people because it’s normally associated with a specific area of interest. But the thing is that the wisdom can often be useful outside of that area. The understanding that made Buffett and Munger billionaires through investing can easily find application in other parts of life. Here is a quote from each of them, by way of illustration.


It’s not given to human beings to have such talent that they can just know everything about everything all the time. But it is given to human beings who work hard at it — who look and sift the world for a mispriced bet — that they can occasionally find one. And the wise ones bet heavily when the world offers them that opportunity. They bet big when they have the odds. And the rest of the time, they don’t. It’s just that simple.


No matter how great the talent or efforts, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.


If we looked at the people who are most successful in various fields, we might find that they have more in common with each other than with the average person in their field. So is it very incredible that we could learn from the leader of a drastically different field? To reverse the artist example above, an avid investor might well have gorged himself on anything written by or on Warren Buffett. But after he has exhausted the shrewdest works of his field, wouldn’t you expect him to receive diminishing returns? At what point would he gain more (even strictly in terms of investing) from reading Seneca or science fiction than another second-hand analysis of Warren Buffett?

Another recent example of this came when I picked up an autobiography from UFC champion Georges St. Pierre. To be honest I wasn’t expecting much: some ghostwritten recap of his awesomeness, designed to extract dollars from existing fans. But I was then quite absorbed by mixed martial arts, and grabbed it on a whim.

Georges St. PierreWhich is fortunate, because it turned out to be a very insightful description of the story behind success. Of the mentality required not just to to undergo ridiculous training regimens, but to do so with complete focus and vision to ensure constant growth. Of psychological pitfalls, and why cockroaches are more impressive than a Tyrannosaurus Rex. And, most notably, of the sacrifices that any wholehearted pursuit of greatness entails.

Some biographies make it seem that champions (in whatever field) lead an essentially normal life but just happen to be magically better than everyone else. Which, to me, is total bullshit. You can be good at many things, but if you want to be better than everyone else in the world you have to step beyond the normal. And at that point something has to give, be that personal relationships or other interests. I had never before read so forthright an account of this, and although the book’s other lessons were not quite as edifying, I did feel that almost all of them could be directly applied to a career in science. A few example quotes:

On innovation, the most important trait for a would-be champion:

Very often, we see leaders lose sight of how they got to where they are: by being and thinking differently from the competition. They make it to first place, and then their thinking changes from seeking innovation to seeking the status quo. They think, I made it to first place, so now I must not change a thing. But change is what got them to the top in the first place! This is because they’re focused on the positive result rather than on the process of success.

On discipline, and self-honesty:

The real test is this one: When you’re alone in a room, when you’re in a private place and nobody else can see you, what do you choose to do? Eat well, or eat poorly? Exercise, or watch television?

On (necessary) sacrifices:

There is no such thing as a normal friendship in my life … I look at the people who are close to me, the ones I refer to as friends, and I wonder: Will I ever have a relationship like his? Will I ever achieve marriage, children, family? Will I ever own a barbecue or have dishes in my cupboards or live life according to the rules that govern masses of individuals?..

If any of this rings true, I heartily recommend reading The Way of the Fight.

Commonly perceived goods

Last Christmas a coworker asked me if I was going home for the holidays. I wasn’t, and moreover I was pretty happy with that: I preferred to get things rolling in my new occupation before taking a vacation. But saying so felt a bit weird (for both of us): I would rather work than celebrate Christmas with my family? Am I a mentally warped career-slave?

Christmas in LA

As a counterpoint, I feel that I have a very positive relationship with my parents. I talk to them once or twice a week, and they are the first people I go to when something significant (positive or negative) happens in my life. I didn’t move out upon turning eighteen because I was happy being close to them. I’m thrilled at the upbringing they’ve provided and one of the items on my last ‘5-year goals’ was “make sure parents feel fully appreciated”. So it’s not ‘home’ that fails to out-compete labwork, which immediately suggests that it is ‘Christmas’.

Christmas hasn’t been a huge deal in my immediate family, at least not since most of my grandparents died. For several years now we haven’t even had a tree. Nonetheless, (more or less) disregarding Christmas is a bit of a step, even for me. But in trying to figure out why, I realized something about the things that I unexpectedly enjoy (or don’t enjoy) doing.

It all boils down to whether Christmas with family isn’t what I will dub a ‘commonly perceived good’. A prime example of this concept would be sipping a cocktail on a paradisaical beach somewhere. If you posted this on Facebook, many people would likely express feelings of jealousy. In fact, much of what we post on Facebook are things that will be generally accepted as ‘good’, so as to boost perception of our online persona (and, by extension, our self-esteem). It is less common to post pictures of yourself playing a role-playing game, or of a whiteboard filled with ideas you have for knitting a scarf. Even though these things might be more rewarding to you than sitting on the beach. And while the ‘commonly perceived goods’ certainly are nice, they’re not necessarily how you would MOST like to spend your time. Therein lies their insidiousness: they’re not bad per se, so it’s hard to argue for why you would willingly avoid them.

A commonly perceived good

Social dogma kind of hints that they are the best thing that could possibly happen to us. Certainly isn’t for me. Admittedly I’m a hyperactive productivity addict, but that’s not a good counter-argument: I am who I am (and my parents largely made me that), and why shouldn’t I do what is most rewarding? By doing the alternative I am letting external forces govern my life, at the cost of my happiness. And not the undeniable kind of external forces that will really mess you up if you ignore them (like war or hunger), but an illusory kind that only has whatever power you (and those around you) grant them. I’m not trying to make the commonly perceived goods out to be loathsome; the reason they are ‘commonly perceived’ is that a lot of people find value in them. All I’m saying is that when you get a memo from that most honest part of your gut, saying that you’d really rather be doing something else, just ignore that what you’re currently doing is ‘supposed to be’ great.

So yeah, I kind of skipped Christmas. On reflection this let me work on all the things I was working on, and thus made me happy. And maybe more successful. If Christmas was a huge deal to my parents I would certainly have factored that into the considerations; but instead they visited here for Easter, and we had a great time. Being pragmatic is not necessarily the best choice in every situation, as there can certainly be value in traditions. But it doesn’t have to be the same traditions as everyone else has.

Thanks to Joana Neves for the innocuous question that spawned this post.

Charlie Munger

Today: a recommendation.

Charlie Munger

I’ve already referenced Charlie Munger several times. This in part because he’s done an exceeding amount of quality thinking, and in part because he is (for me) a rather recently discovered source of insight.

His wisdom usually takes the form of expertly applied common sense, and frankly my recommendation is for paying attention to Charlie Munger in general. But as a more concrete anchoring point, I’ll propose a speech from 1994 that has a fairly comprehensive yet somewhat concise selection of Mungerisms. It’s a pretty long transcript, so save it for when you have a bit of time and want to read something interesting. For the same reason, I’ve put it on its own page rather than cramming it into this post:

Charlie Munger’s Wordly Wisdom

Energy barriers

Why don’t we do the things that are good for us?

OK, that’s way too broad. How about: why do we end up on Facebook instead of, say, reading the best book in the world? On that note, why don’t we bias our reading towards time-honored classics? Why do we spend so little time simply sitting and thinking, with no outside stimuli?

Before going any further I suppose I ought to question my assumptions: Is it in fact better for us to read a book than to check on Facebook? By extension, do we feel better when we engage in activities with more… depth?

Personally I do. Not necessarily more enjoyment, but a sort of elation that lasts beyond the activity itself. That feeling you have after forcing yourself through a good workout. Perhaps because we’re wired to feel satisfaction when we tackle more demanding activities (at least when we aren’t overwhelmed). There’s some really interesting work by Mihály Csikszentmihályi that supports this idea: he repeatedly found that people who take on well-defined challenges appropriate to their level of skill can enter a state of “flow”, which they describe as supremely blissful.

That’s not so say that I always end up doing these rewarding things though. Far from it. But I am writing this, so the answer to our original question must be that there’s a barrier somewhere in our brain that keeps us away from these demanding-yet-rewarding activities. The way I envision it is like the activation energy of a chemical reaction: where you end up is preferable to where you started, but you need a bunch of energy to go through the intermediary state. It’s hard to get yourself going, but once you’re into the activity (which isn’t as soon as you start doing it) you wouldn’t want to go back.

Different activities have different energy barriers, and these appear at least somewhat proportional to how much you ultimately get out of it. A book needs more impetus than a movie, which is harder than watching whatever happens to be on TV. Doing nothing in particular is generally easier than working on something (oddly, doing something you care deeply about seems harder than equivalent work on something you’re blasé about). Our habits play into it too, in that familiarity lowers the energy barrier of an activity a fair bit.

Multiple energy barriers

My impression is that the highest energy barrier of all applies to simply thinking. Sitting down and figuring something out, with no input from reading or talking to other people. This belief was corroborated a couple of weeks ago, by a scientific study showing that people preferred giving themselves weak electric shocks to this kind of solitary thinking. Apparently we’ll do mind-numbingly boring things so long as they relate to the world around us, which may be a clue to why these barriers are present in our brains: throughout evolution, you’d have done well to deal almost exclusively with the world around you.

The problem is that if you happen to be a privileged member of modern day humanity, dealing with yourself becomes highly relevant. Focused thinking can be hugely beneficial both for your self-perception and your role in society, but we still have this barrier to doing it. And I don’t really have an answer to this, no enzyme to drastically reduce the activation energy. The only thing I have is an awareness that lets me remind myself that the things I least feel like doing are often the ones I most want to do.