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In Towards Greatness


Charlie Munger explains Warren Buffett’s success

The Kunhardt Film Foundation has released on YouTube the full interview that they did with Charlie Munger for the documentary Becoming Warren Buffett.

Right at the beginning of it, Charlie explains the factors that he believes explain Buffett’s success as an investor:

Munger: When I first met Warren, I recognized immediately that he was a very intelligent person.

And, of course, he was interested in the subject that I was also interested in, which was the process of being a successful investor.

And we have a similar sense of humor, we had a high old time probably making ourselves obnoxious to the other people in the room.

We both came from Omaha. We both worked in his grandfather’s grocery store.

So, we had a lot of common experience.

Question: What makes Warren’s mind unique?

Munger: Well, there’s a big correlation between success in life and an early start. And Warren had a passion for doing well competitively, in getting money, as a little tiny child. And he just kept it.

Now, you add [to that] a very high IQ and a lot of energy.

And he got a flying start. He was an old Graham-Newman follower, and he made a lot of money buying thinly-traded securities, that were incredibly cheap, statistically. And with small amounts of money — which is what he [was] working with — he could find enough of those to earn pretty high returns on capital year after year after year.

This ties in nicely with what Charlie has said on the topic of special advantages.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Charlie Munger · Warren Buffett · Career
via Charles Munger Interview - Becoming Warren Buffett 🎥

Charlie Munger on avoiding too much theorization about ethics; better to engage with life practically

In the 2017 DJCO AGM, Charlie Munger was asked (a) about the emphasis that one should put on “helping the world” when picking what to work on:

Question: Question in regards to someone early in their career trying to figure out which of several paths to pursue. Two thoughts that seem helpful for this purpose are: (1) figuring out which work you have the possibility to become the best at, and (2) ascertaining which line of work would most help society. Do you think these ideas are the right ones to focus on, and if so, how would you go about answering them?

Munger: Well, in terms of picking what to do, I want to report to all of you, that in my whole life I’ve never succeeded much in something that I wasn’t interested in. So I don’t think you’re going to succeed if what you’re doing all day doesn’t interest you. You’ve got to find something you’re interested in because it’s just too much to expect of human nature that you’re going to be good at something that you really dislike doing. And so that’s one big issue.

And, of course, you have to play in a game where you’ve got some unusual talents. If you’re 5’1”, you don’t want to play basketball against some guy whose 8’3”. It’s just too hard. So you gotta’ figure out a game where you have an advantage and it has to be something that you’re deeply interested in.

Now, you get into the ethical side of life.

Well, of course, you want to be ethical. On the other hand, you can’t be just dreaming how you think the world should be run and that it’s too dirty for you to get near it. You can get so consumed by some ideological notion particularly in a left-wing university. It’s like you think you’re handling ethics and what you’re doing is not working. And maybe smoking a little pot to boot. This is not the Munger system.

My hero is Maimonides. And all that philosophy and all that writing, he did after working 10 or 12 hours a day as a practicing physician all his life. He believed in the engaged life. And so I recommend the engaged life. You spend all your life thinking about some politician who wants it this way or that way you’re sure you know what’s right, you’re on the wrong track. You want to do something every day where you’re coping with the reality. You want to be more like Maimonides and less like Bernie Sanders.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Charlie Munger · Career
via Charlie Munger: Full Transcript of Daily Journal Annual Meeting 2017 🗯️

Gian-Carlo Rota on the advice we give

Gian-Carlo Rota, mathematician and philosopher, in a 1996 lecture titled “Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught”:

I have been collecting some random bits of advice that I keep repeating to myself, do’s and don’ts of which I have been and will always be guilty.

Some of you have been exposed to one or more of these tidbits. Collecting these items and presenting them in one speech may be one of the less obnoxious among options of equal presumptuousness.

The advice we give others is the advice that we ourselves need. Since it is too late for me to learn these lessons, I will discharge my unfulfilled duty by dishing them out to you.

Rota’s insight is a variation of the famous saying, “x says more about the person saying it than it does about x.” And, as he noticed, this kind of unveiling is more pronounced when we are giving life advice to others.

But why is that? I guess it’s because the advice we give is most often drawn directly from our own life experiences.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Gian-Carlo Rota
via Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught 🗯️

Charlie Munger on prodigies and inanities

In his 1994 speech at the University of Southern California, “The Art of Stock Picking” (pdf), Charlie Munger said the following on the topic of world-class achievement:

If you want to be the best tennis player in the world, you may start out trying and soon find out that it’s hopeless — that other people blow right by you.

However, if you want to become the best plumbing contractor in Bemidji [a small city in Minnesota with a population of 15k people], that is probably doable by two-thirds of you. It takes a will. It takes the intelligence. But after a while, you’d gradually know all about the plumbing business in Bemidji and master the art.

That is an attainable objective, given enough discipline. And people who could never win a chess tournament or stand in center court in a respectable tennis tournament can rise quite high in life by slowly developing a circle of competence — which results partly from what they were born with and partly from what they slowly develop through work.

So some edges can be acquired. And the game of life to some extent for most of us is trying to be something like a good plumbing contractor in Bemidji. Very few of us are chosen to win the world’s chess tournaments.

Being the “best in the world” is the kind of game played by Warren Buffett, Henry Singleton, and Homer Joe Stewart.

For more context on these people, see entries: Charlie Munger on finding one’s special advantages and Charlie Munger explains Warren Buffett’s success.

Almost by definition, most people won’t be playing those games of outliers.

On the other hand, Munger says that everyone — from Roger Federer to a plumber in Bemidji — can benefit from avoiding “standard stupidies.”

In a 2019 interview with the Wall Street Journal (a), he explained that as follows:

Question: But why isn’t Berkshire easier to emulate?

Munger: We’re talking about very simple ideas of just figuring out the standard stupidities and avoiding them. And I actually collect them!

Some people collect stamps. I collect insanities and absurdities. And then I avoid them, and it’s amazing how well it works, because I’ve gone by [the examples of] all these people that are more talented than I am.

If I had set out to invent more quantum mechanics, I would’ve been an also-ran. I just set out to avoid the standard stupidities, and I’ve done a lot better than many people who mastered quantum mechanics.

And it’s a way for mediocre people to get ahead and it’s, it’s not much of a secret either. Just avoid all the standard stupidities. There are so many of them, and so many brilliant people do it.

Being a prodigy is hard. I’m not trying to be a prodigy, I’m just trying to avoid the inanities, including the inanities of the prodigies!

That enables a man of moderate abilities and moderate work habits to get so much more than his logical deserts. Think of the talent it takes to make a lot of money.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Charlie Munger · Career

Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger on friendship

From the 2002 Berkshire Hathaway’s Annual Meeting:

Question: Hello, Mr. Buffett and Mr. Munger. I am 12 years old. […] My question is not about money. It’s about friendship. How do you remain friends and business partners for so long? And what advice do you have for young people like me in selecting true friends and future business partners? Thank you.

Buffett: Well, when Charlie and I met in 1959 we were introduced by the Davis family, and they predicted that within 30 minutes we would either not be able to stand each other or we would get along terrifically.

And that was a fairly insightful analysis, actually, by the Davises, because you had two personalities that both had some tendencies toward dominance in certain situations.

But we hit it off. We have disagreed, but we have never had an argument that I can remember at all in 43 years.

And yet we both have strong opinions and they aren’t the same strong opinions at times.

But the truth is we’ve had an enormous amount of fun together, we continue to have an enormous amount of fun, and nothing will change that, basically.

It may have worked better because he’s in California and I’m in Omaha, I don’t know.

I’ll let Charlie comment on it.

Munger: Well, that’s a wonderful question you’ve asked, because Warren and I both know some very successful businessmen who have not one true friend on earth. And rightly so.

Buffett: That’s true.

Munger: And that is no way to live a life. And if by asking that question, you’re asking: how do I get the right friends? You are really onto the right question.

And when you get with the right friends, if you’ve worked hard at becoming the right sort of fellow, I think you’ll recognize what you have and then all you have to do is hang on.

Buffett: The real question is: what do you like in other people? I mean, what do you want from a friend?

And if you’ll think about it, there are certain qualities that you admire in other people, that you find likeable, and that cause you to want to be around certain people.

And then look at those qualities and say to yourself, “Which of these is it physically or mentally impossible for me to have?” And the answer will be none.

I mean, it’s only reasonable that if certain things that attract you to other people that, if you possess those, they will attract other people to you.

And secondarily, if you find certain things repulsive in other people — whether they brag or they’re dishonest or whatever it may be — if that turns you off, it’s going to turn other people off if you possess those qualities.

And those are choices. You know, very few of those things are in your DNA. They are choices.

And they are also habits. I mean, if you have habits that attract people early on, you’ll have them later on. And if you have habits that repel people, you’re not going to cure it when you’re 60 or 70.

Buffett: It’s not a complicated equation. And, as I remember, Benjamin Franklin did something like that one time. Didn’t he list the qualities he admired, and then just set out to acquire them?

Munger: Absolutely. He went at it the way you’ve gone after acquiring money.

Buffett: They’re not mutually exclusive.

Munger: No [they are not].

Their advice in a nutshell:

  1. Figure out the qualities that you like in other people. They are the kind of friends you want
  2. Be the person that has the very same qualities that you admire in other people. Why? Because having those qualities will likely attract like-minded and like-behaved people to you — the friends you are looking for!
  3. Once you have them, simply hang on

They also threw in the conversation some other interesting observations about themselves, and human nature in general:


In an interview with CNBC released on June 29th 2021, Warren and Charlie touched on the topic of their own friendship again.

They shared more details on how they first met and why they instantly hit it off:

Buffett: There was a doctor couple, very prominent in Omaha, and his name was Eddie Davis, her name was Dorothy Davis. And it was Mrs. Davis that called me, actually. She did everything. She said, “We’ve heard that you manage money and, and we’d be kind of interested in listening to your story about how you do it, and what we might do with you.”

So I went over and I talked to them. And I was all full of myself and like that’s, you know, I couldn’t talk fast enough about stocks in those days. And Dorothy Davis, very smart, listened to every word. And the doctor was kind of over in the corner, submitting a yoyo or something, and really not paying much attention. And I got all through and the wife looked over at the doctor [who] said, “I’m gonna give him $100,000.” And I was managing about $500,000 at the time, so it was a big deal.

And in a very nice way, I said, “Dr. Davis, you really haven’t been paying much attention to what I’ve been saying and everything. I’d kinda like to know why you’re giving me this $100,000.” And Dr. Davis looked at me and he said, “Well, you remind me of Charlie Munger.” And I said, “Well, I don’t know who Charlie Munger is, but I like him.” And he gave me $100,000.

And then they told me about Charlie. [As a] young kid, how he would be over there asking them questions on medicine, and giving them lectures. I mean, they clearly loved him. And it sorta became their mission that sometime they wanted to get me and Charlie together. So, Charlie, in 1959, his dad died and he came back to Omaha. His mother lived there and the Davises really got us together.

So they arranged the dinner. And about five minutes into it, Charlie was sort of rolling on the floor laughing at his own jokes, which is exactly the same thing I did. So I thought, “This, I’m not gonna find another guy like this.” And we just hit it off.

Buffett: Both of our wives thought, “My god, another one.”

Munger: What I like about Warren is the irreverence. We don’t have automatic reverence for the pompous heads of all civilization.

Buffett: We were kind of always that way. We were a little more extreme. I’ve learned to behave a little bit better. Charlie really hasn’t learned much better. I just knew instantly Charlie was the kinda guy that I was gonna like, and I was gonna learn from. But, you know, it wasn’t anything calculated, a decision or anything like that. It was natural. And, we have had nothing but fun.

Buffett: I knew when I met Charlie, after a few minutes in the restaurant, that, you know, this guy was gonna be in my life forever. I mean, we were gonna have fun together. We were gonna make money together. We were gonna get ideas from each other. We were gonna both behave better than if we didn’t know each other.

On what they admire the most about the other nowadays:

Rebecca Quick: You two have been friends for over 60 years, what’s one thing that you really admire about the other?

Munger: Well, I like the humor, and all that, but dependable is really important.

Rebecca Quick: Warren, what do you admire about Charlie?

Buffett: Really, just the kind of person he’s been. He has contributed to individuals, and also to society. It goes well beyond buying a stock and selling it higher. He’s designed dormitories and helped build them. He’s worked at hospitals and to understand how they can be made better, and serve more people, and do it at less cost. You know, it’s an uphill fight all the time, but Charlie’s worked on big problems, and he doesn’t need to.

And Charlie has never shaded anything he’s told me since we met, in terms of presenting it to me in a different way than reality, or he’s never done anything I’ve seen that’s self-serving, in terms of [not] being a partner, or in any kind of way. He makes me better than I would otherwise be. I don’t wanna disappoint him.

Munger: But you’ve had the same thing, in reverse.

Buffett: Yeah, well, it works. It does work that way. I mean, it’s better to associate with people who are better than you are.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Warren Buffett · Charlie Munger · Moral & Ethics · Human Interactions
via Buffett and Munger on friendship 🎥

Charlie Munger on finding one’s special advantages

In a Caltech event in December 2020, the 96-year-old sage Charlie Munger talked about career decisions — including the circumstances around his own decisions, and the lessons that he has learned from life.

If I were forced to summarize his wisdom on the topic into a few sentences, it’d be something like:


On how competitive professional life is (if you are looking to get far ahead):

Munger: Just think of how hard it is to get far ahead in life. Suppose you want to get ahead at Caltech [because] you like the academic life. If you want it, Caltech is very good at getting people tenure. If you’re very brilliant and work 80-90 hours a week for 9-10 years, you get tenure. That is not what I call an easy life. And competing with [people like] Homer Joe Stewart!

I chose to avoid it because I knew I wouldn’t win big at it. [Of course I could have been] a perfectly successful professor by ordinary standards, but I would not have been a star.


On what it means to have special advantages on something:

Munger: When I was at Caltech I took this course of Thermodynamics from Homer Joe Stewart — by the way, a lovely human being and gifted beyond compare. And one thing I learned from him was that no matter how hard I would try, I could never be as good at Thermodynamics as Homer Joe Stewart.

I think that is a very useful lesson, I knew what I could do and I couldn’t. I never even considered trying to compete with the Homer Joe Stewarts of the world in Thermodynamics.

On how hard it is to teach special advantages in poker or chess or investing for everyone. The very best seem to “embody” their special advantages, as if they were made for a given activity. Things seem to “click” and come “naturally”:

Munger: If you asked, “How could Caltech teach people how to win chess tournaments or poker tournaments?” You would find that some people at Caltech are very good at that, and others aren’t. And if you want to win at those things, you better bet on the people that are really very good at it, and not everybody is.

I don’t think Caltech can make great investors out of most people. I think great investors to some extent are like great chess players. They’re almost born to be investors.

Moderator: Because of the tolerance for risk? The patience? What are the traits?

Munger: Obviously you have to know a lot.

But partly it’s temperament, partly it’s deferred gratification. You got to be willing to wait. Good investing requires a weird combination of patience and aggression, and not many people have it.

It [also] requires a big amount of self-awareness — how much you know and how much you don’t know. You have to know the edge of your own competency, and a lot of brilliant people are no good at knowing the edge of their own competency. They think they’re way smarter than they are. Of course that’s dangerous and causes trouble.

So I think Caltech would have a hard time teaching everybody to be a great investor.

Moderator: Could it help people discover that they have that temperament? Or is this something that you mostly should try on your own?

Munger: I think you find out whether you got the qualities to win at poker by playing poker.

Moderator: That’s a very empirical approach, Charlie.

Munger: Yes, but I think it’s right.

Obviously it helps to know the basic math of Fermat and Pascal but everybody [in a sense] knows that stuff.

But having the temperament, where Fermat and Pascal is the most part of you, where it is your ear and nose, that’s a different kind of a person. And I think it’s hard to teach that.

Warren and I have talked about this. In the early days, we talked about our way of doing things, which [was] working so well. We found [that] some people got it, and that they instantly converted our way, and did very well. And some people, no matter how carefully we explained it, and no matter how successful they were, they could never adapt it. [People] either got it fast or they didn’t get it at all. That’s my experience.

So how are we supposed to find the special advantages that one might have? Charlie wasn’t asked this question, but he did offer a comment that sort of touches on that:

Munger: If you pursue any career with enough fanaticism, that’s very likely to work better than not having the fanaticism. So, if you look at Warren Buffett, he had this fanatic interest in investments from an early age. And he kept making small investments, even with his [tiny little] savings [at the time], and he finally learned how to be pretty good at it. And so if you want to succeed in investments, start early, try hard, and keep doing it. All success comes that way by and large.

My own understanding is that there are activities where feedback is faster and easier to get than others. Munger himself needed 13 years figure out that investing was the thing that he liked and was good at. To be fair, there have been hardships in his family life that have certainly delayed him. Nevertheless, if he were not born in the same town as Buffett, it could had taken him longer.


In the 2021 Daily Journal AGM, Charlie was asked a follow-up question about greatness in chess and investing. To Munger, best-in-the-world greatness is both born and practiced from young ages:

Question: I enjoyed your Caltech interview and wanted you to elaborate and provide more insights on your point of great investors and great chess players. How are they similar or different? Have you seen the television show Queen’s Gambit on Netflix?

Munger: I have seen an episode or two of the Queen’s Gambit.

What I think is interesting about chess is, to some extent, you can’t learn it unless you have a certain natural gift. And even if you have a natural gift, you can’t be good at it unless you start playing at a very young age and get huge experience. So, it’s a very interesting competitive field.

I think people have the theory that any intelligent hardworking person can get to be a great investor. I think any intelligent person can get to be pretty good as an investor and avoid certain obvious traps. But I don’t think everybody can be a great investor or a great chess player.

I knew a man once, Henry Singleton, who was not a chess champion. But he could play chess blindfolded at just below the Grandmaster level. Henry was a genius. And there aren’t many people that can do that. And if you can’t do that, you’re not gonna win the great chess championships of the world, and you’re not gonna do as well in business as Henry Singleton did.

I think some of these things are very difficult and I think, by and large, it’s a mistake to hire investment management — [that is,] to hire armies of people to make conclusions [about investments]. You’re better off concentrating your decision power on one person the way the Li Lu partnership does and then choosing the right person [of course].

I don’t think it’s easy for ordinary people to become great investors.


On how tailwinds help everyone — it doesn’t matter your special advantage (in fact, one may have none to count on), nor does it matter if you are trying to win big. The wind blows for everyone:

Munger: If you go into a career that’s very tough, you’re not going to do very well. And if you go into one where you have special advantages and you like the work, you’re going to do pretty well.

Moderator: So finding your own path is something you really recommend to everyone?

Munger: No! What I recommend to everyone — what helps everyone — is to get into something that’s going up and it just carries you along without much talent or work. If you pick a really strong place like, say, Costco, and you go to work at it, and you really are reliable and nice, you’re going to do fine in life. You’ve got a big tailwind.

But in elite education nobody wants to go to work for Costco from Harvard or MIT or Stanford. And, of course, it’s the one place where it would where be the easiest to get ahead.


On starting a career in law — it seems like he started as lawyer because, at the time, he haven’t realized what he was particularly good at:

Munger: My father had gone to the Harvard Law School, and my grandfather was a distinguished judge in Nebraska. So that was a natural course of activity for me.

I went into law because I didn’t want to be a surgeon, I didn’t want to be a doctor, I didn’t want to be a college professor. I finally got through them, there was only one, I just went down the family path. And it wasn’t the wisest decision I ever ran.

On switching from law to full-time investing — his major career change happened after he invested on the side for a decade or so:

Munger: There were things I didn’t like about law practice, but I had an army of children to support, and no family money or anything to start with. So I had to make my way in life for this army of children.

What happened was: my pitifully small earnings as a young man I kept underspending them, and I kept investing fairly boldly and fairly smartly. And at the end of my first 13 years of law practice I had more liquid investments than I made in all those years of law practice pre-tax.

I’d done that [my liquid investments] in my spare time with these little tiny sums. So it was natural for me, partly prompted by Warren Buffett’s success, to think I should just start working for myself instead of for other people. [If I had done that] in my spare time, I thought, “Well, what will happen if I do it full time?”


I would say that being a great generalist is Charlie’s “superpower.”

In the 2017 DCJO Annual Meeting (a), he warned about others trying to copy him mindlessly. Like most things, there’s no easy-to-copy recipe that works for everyone:

Questioner: As an 18 years old interested in many disciplines, I was wondering how you can thrive as a polymath in a world that celebrates specialization?

Munger: Well that’s a good question. I don’t think operating over many disciplines as I do is a good idea for most people. I think it’s fun, that’s why I’ve done it. I’m better at it than most people would be. And I don’t think I’m good at being the very best for handling differential equations. So it’s in a wonderful path for me, but I think the correct path for everybody else is to specialize and get very good at something that society rewards and get very efficient at doing it.

But even if you do that, I think you should spend 10 or 20% of your time into trying to know all the big ideas in all the other disciplines. Otherwise — I use the same phrase over and over again — otherwise you’re like a one legged man in an ass-kicking contest. It’s just not going to work very well. You have to know the big ideas in all the disciplines to be safe if you have a life lived outside a cave.

But no, I think you don’t want to neglect your business as a dentist to think great thoughts about Proust.

Questioner: My perception is that the (oil and gas) industry itself has continuously gotten more complex and technical, and as the economy expands and you have more division of labor and specialization, it seems to me that it can be very hard for investors unless there’s more specialization. (Charlie interjects)

Munger: Of course.

Questioner: Do you think that capital allocators are going to need to become more specialized going forward?

Munger: Well, you, petroleum people, of course, have to get more specialized because the oil is harder to get and you have to learn new tricks to get it. And so you’re totally right. Generally, specialization is just the way to go for those people. It’s just I have an example of something different. It’s awkward for me because I don’t want to encourage people to do it the way I did, [and] because I don’t think it will work for most people.

I [do] think the basic ideas of being rational and disciplined and deferring gratification, those will work [for everyone]. But if you want to get rich the way I did, by learning a little bit about a hell of a lot, I don’t recommend it to others.

Now I’ve get a story there that I tell. A young man comes to see Mozart, and says, “I want to compose symphonies.” And Mozart says, “You’re too young to compose symphonies.” He’s 20 years old and the man says, “But you were composing symphonies when you were 10 years old.” And Mozart says, “Yeah, but I wasn’t running around asking other people how to do it.”

I don’t think I’m a good example to the young. I don’t want to encourage people to follow my particular path. If you’re a proctologist, I do not want a proctologist who knows Schopenhauer, or astrophysics. I want a man whose specialized. That’s the way the market is. And you should never forget that. On the other hand, I don’t think you’d have much of a life if all you did was proctology.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Charlie Munger · Career

Nima Arkani-Hamed on the important skill of turning big ideas into sharp questions

Physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed delivered a series of lectures on “Research Skills” in 2009 as part of the Perimeter Scholars International (PSI) program at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics.

Here is Nima talking about the most important research skill of all:

It is a remarkable thing that some of the questions that people started thinking about 2000 years ago— The intervening 2000 years have brought us to a place where we can actually work on them. And it is a meaningful thing to work on them.

They have been sharpen to the point where you can work on them. This is one of the—

If I had to say: What is the real, overarching skill of research? [What is] the thing that you cannot be taught, but that has to be experienced. And that has to be gone through a number of times. [It is] this process of taking very big ideas and turning them into sharp questions that you can actually work on. That is the greatest skill of all.

And that’s something that I will try to get you some flavor of towards the latter part of the lectures.

The original videos, C09028 - 09/10 PSI - Research Skills, are hosted at PIRSA. Their parts have been uploaded to YouTube as well.

The full curriculum from 2009-2010 PSI is here. In fact, all lectures from every single year have been recorded and made available online for free. Isn’t it awesome?

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Research · Physics · Nima Arkani-Hamed
via Research Skills and Theoretical Physics – Nima Arkani-Hamed @ 7:00 🎥

Daniel Gross on the creative process of Swedish House Mafia

Daniel Gross on twitter:

Video of Swedish House Mafia making one of the most successful songs of the last decade reminds me of how Apple designs —

A torrent of ideas plus very fast editorial decisions.

To which Luke Rocksalt responded:

You should watch their documentary “Leave the World Behind”. It shows them renting a super expensive house on the Gold Coast for a weekend to come up with their greatest hit, “Don’t You Worry Child”

And Cory Jarrel added:

Thanks for sharing this. Here’s the full video featuring 2010’s Ultra performance

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Creative Process · Swedish House Mafia · Daniel Gross
via @danielgross 🐦

Harj Taggar on the human motives in conversations

Harj Taggar writes about our motives while having “idea” conversations. Read his essay here.

My summary —

We may think that the goal of a conversation is getting closer to the truth. But in reality, human nature often “gets in the way”.

With family you may avoid going for the truth in order to protect the relationship. Something similar happens with a meek person — who agrees with everyone so they’ll be liked. Politicians also need to be liked, but they may be more skilled in adding some truism to the conversation (to try to sound profound).

Then there is the chronic debater, who tries to win the argument at all costs. “They care what you think about them, but their identity is wrapped up in seeming smart rather than being liked.”

Finally, there are people “who care only about figuring out if you believe the same things they do”. The worst variation of this is people who act as “You’re either with us, or against us”. But it could just be people who (strongly) prefer to be around others who think like them.

In a nutshell — besides seeking the truth, one should also accounts for the urge of being liked, sounding smart, winning, and good old tribalism.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Human Interactions · Human Nature · Harj Taggar
via Conversation and Ideas 🌐

Nabeel Qureshi on traits to cultivate

Nabeel Qureshi makes some interesting observations on what it takes to be “intelligent”:

I concluded that what we call ‘intelligence’ is as much about virtues such as honesty, integrity, and bravery, as it is about ‘raw intellect’.

Intelligent people simply aren’t willing to accept answers that they don’t understand — no matter how many other people try to convince them of it, or how many other people believe it, if they aren’t able to convince themselves of it, they won’t accept it.

Importantly, this is a ‘software’ trait & is independent of more ‘hardware’ traits such as processing speed, working memory, and other such things.

Moreover, I have noticed that these ‘hardware’ traits vary greatly in the smartest people I know – some are remarkably quick thinkers, calculators, readers, whereas others are ‘slow’. The software traits, though, they all have in common – and can, with effort, be learned.

This quality of “not stopping at an unsatisfactory answer” deserves some examination.

One component of it is energy: thinking hard takes effort, and it’s much easier to just stop at an answer that seems to make sense, than to pursue everything that you don’t quite get down an endless, and rapidly proliferating, series of rabbit holes.

It’s also so easy to think that you understand something, when you actually don’t. So even figuring out whether you understand something or not requires you to attack the thing from multiple angles and test your own understanding.

This requires a lot of intrinsic motivation, because it’s so hard; so most people simply don’t do it.

But it’s not just energy. You have to be able to motivate yourself to spend large quantities of energy on a problem, which means on some level that not understanding something — or having a bug in your thinking — bothers you a lot. You have the drive, the will to know.

Related to this is honesty, or integrity: a sort of compulsive unwillingness, or inability, to lie to yourself. Feynman said that the first rule of science is that you do not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool. It is uniquely easy to lie to yourself because there is no external force keeping you honest; only you can run the constant loop of asking “do I really understand this?”.

(This is why writing is important. It’s harder to fool yourself that you understand something when you sit down to write about it and it comes out all disjointed and confused. Writing forces clarity.)

Another quality I have noticed in very intelligent people is being unafraid to look stupid.

Most people are not willing to do this – looking stupid takes courage, and sometimes it’s easier to just let things slide. It is striking how many situations I am in where I start asking basic questions, feel guilty for slowing the group down, and it turns out that nobody understood what was going on to begin with (often people message me privately saying that they’re relieved I asked), but I was the only one who actually spoke up and asked about it.

This is a habit. It’s easy to pick up. And it makes you smarter.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Thinking · Nabeel Qureshi
via How To Understand Things 🌐

Michael Faraday was used to recreate “everything” from scratch

Nabeel Qureshi writes:

The physicist Michael Faraday believed nothing without being able to experimentally demonstrate it himself, no matter how tedious the demonstation.

Understanding something really deeply is connected to our physical intuition. A simple “words based” understanding can only go so far. Visualizing something, in three dimensions, can help you with a concrete “hook” that your brain can grasp onto and use as a model; understanding then has a physical context that it can “take place in”.

Faraday, again, had this quality in spades – the book makes it clear that this is partly because he was bad at mathematics and thus understood everything through the medium of experiments, and contrasts this with the French scientists (such as Ampere) who understood everything in a highly abstract way.

But Faraday’s physical intuition led him to some of the most crucial discoveries in all of science […]

Nabeel quotes the book “Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics”:

Simply hearing or reading of such things was never enough for Faraday. When assessing the work of others, he always had to repeat, and perhaps extend, their experiments. It became a lifelong habit—his way of establishing ownership over an idea.

Just as he did countless times later in other settings, he set out to demonstrate this new phenomenon to his own satisfaction. When he had saved enough money to buy the materials, he made a battery from seven copper halfpennies and seven discs cut from a sheet of zinc, interleaved with pieces of paper soaked in salt water. He fixed a copper wire to each end plate, dipped the other ends of the wires in a solution of Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), and watched.

In Towards Greatness
Tagged with Nabeel Qureshi · Learning · Michael Faraday
via Faraday, Maxwell, and the Electromagnetic Field: How Two Men Revolutionized Physics 📚