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.

Munger:

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.

Buffett:

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.

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

Opinions

We all feel entitled to certain things: Nobody would pay to breathe. We generally feel that we can do whatever we want in the privacy of our home, and sometimes when we’re on vacation. Depending on where and how we grow up, we gradually add new things to the list. Some would say that we’re all entitled to a job, or even to medical care. And there’s definitely a few people who, whether they admit it or not, feel entitled to a life of beaches, cocktails and sleeping in. If nothing else, in many parts of the world we are constitutionally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

But are we entitled to hold an opinion?

Most of us would say yes. Charlie Munger would say no, although we can earn the right:

“I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.”

Munger has an impressive intellect, which is probably why he’d venture to make a statement with such strong implications. But it also means that it’s worth taking a minute to consider what he is saying. Is it possible that holding opinions indiscriminately is bad for you?

A discussion of what we’re entitled to could become rather philosophical, but let’s examine what practical implications it can have to hold an opinion on something. In other words, what do our opinions do for us?

To my eyes the main effect seems to be simplifying cognitive processing: If you’ve already filed electronic dance music in your brain’s “bad” folder, you can very quickly deal with anything that falls into that category. If you know that you prefer fish over beef, you save a lot of time in restaurants and supermarkets. So your suite of opinions acts as a paradigm for going through life, giving you a set of assumptions that save time and mental effort.

How does it work out in practice? I don’t smoke because I consider it expensive and dangerous. I don’t know if this opinion would quite stand up to Munger’s criterion. But if someone told me that $7 for a pack of cigarettes isn’t a big deal, I could rely on my understanding of opportunity cost and compound interest to realize that by not smoking I could buy, not one but, two rather nice cars over a ten-year period, or a rather nice house if I wait 40 years1. And if that person told me that their uncle smoked for 40 years and didn’t get cancer, I would know that anecdotal evidence is meaningless for events that are at least partially random and that all we can effectively do in life is skew the averages. So I think it works out in this case. Another example: with no limit on holding opinions, I would probably have said that if you are intelligent you will end up being successful in some field or other. Why do I think so? For one thing I admire intelligent people. And society in general often equates success with intelligence. But if I’m being honest this opinion is not very well-founded at all. I’ve never looked at proportions of intelligent vs. random people being successful in a large dataset, and it’s clear that there are many successful people who are not the most intelligent (even within scientific research). I’m not saying that intelligence doesn’t correlate with success, but if I’m not sure about it what do I gain from holding the opinion? I can’t think of anything offhand, whereas living by this opinion would risk ignoring other factors that contribute to success. Going back to Munger, I would probably be better off by not allowing myself to hold this opinion.

So opinions can help speed up our cognitive processing, but when they aren’t based on serious thinking and research they can lead us to the wrong conclusions. Worse, because of confirmation bias we will invariably pay more attention to things that seem consistent with our opinions (even when the opinion was originally based on nothing) and can thus end up quite irrational. Whereas not holding any opinion that we didn’t develop scrupulously will prompt us to analyze things with a bit less bias.

Why do we love our opinions so much? For one thing, our brains appear to be unexpectedly fond of minimizing effort (for a fascinating treatise on this I heartily recommend Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman). But perhaps another reason is that opinions help define our sense of self. When we demarcate our likes and dislikes we are effectively constructing our self-image, whether we intend to or not. This may explain why, in addition to holding them, we feel compelled to express our opinions whenever they appear (even remotely) relevant. To repeat our previous analysis, what does this do for us? Is it beneficial to establish and reinforce your self-image? I wouldn’t venture to say, but it does seem to directly stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain. On the other hand, I’m probably not the only one who has offered an opinion during conversation and quickly realized that what I said was for my own benefit rather than a real attempt to understand and relate to the other person. With a bit of misfortune this turns the conversation into ‘parallel monologues’, and frankly I would be reproachable for making this happen. And though we may not be doing ourselves any immediate disservice when we thrust our opinions out into the world wide web, we are still subjecting the world to them. Though it is given to anyone to ignore them, we seem to have a natural inclination to trust what we read. Even Marcus Aurelius had to remind himself that “everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact”. If what we merely express as opinion can become rooted as fact, perhaps it behooves us to give our opinions greater scrutiny?

This is not meant to admonish anyone. After all, I have little legitimate basis on which to judge the opinions of people I do not know. Rather I would present a hypothesis that changed my thinking a bit, and which I find to have some value. At the same time, this ought to set a standard that I wish to hold each of my posts to; if at any point I post something that hasn’t been considered carefully, I sincerely hope that someone will be able to call me out on it.


Thanks to Shane Parrish at Farnam Street (and by extension to Charlie Munger) for reminding me to speak only after much thought, and extending this concept even to holding an opinion.


[1] Average smoker in California goes through a pack per day, so 7 packs/week ~$49, or $25,480 over ten years, with an additional opportunity cost of $13,510 compared to investing the same amount at the historical S&P500 rate of returns of 8%. Total gains after 40 years would be about $750,000.

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