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.

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