But What For Newsletter - No. 018

The Missing Piece Meets the Big O, About Face, Superforecasting, Following Your Passions, and Confirmation Bias

Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Sunday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material that I think is worth reading. Occasionally, I share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ writings, on Tuesdays. If you enjoy our newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues or follow me on Twitter.

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

For her first Christmas, my parents got my niece Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends (apparently expectations are high for the six-month mark). I grew up reading its collection of poems, over and over. I even – to the horror of some of my readers, I am sure – used colored pencils (because I didn’t yet appreciate the waxy beauty of crayons) to color in some of Silverstein’s famous illustrations.

The gift sent me down memory lane. Re-reading a selection of those poems from all those years ago, I was struck by just how much more there is to much of Silverstein’s writing than his characteristic style and funny words…

But then I came across one of Silverstein’s works that I had not read before – thanks to the power of Google and the endless curiosity of Maria Popova. Flipping through the pages of The Missing Pieces Meets the Big O, I landed on a little bit of a different takeaway than Maria did.

She is probably closer to correct, but I thought I would share the story and my own thoughts anyway – which is related to Charlie Munger’s ideas on dealing with adversity: “If you just take the attitude that, however bad it is in any way, it’s always your fault and you just fix it as best you can – the so-called ‘iron prescription’ – I think that really works.


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

About Face: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, by David Hackworth & Julie Sherman [Book]

  • Takeaway: Discipline equals freedom

Recommendation from @jockowillink

…The second problem with war stories is they have their genesis in the fog of war. In battle, your perception is often only as wide as your battle sights. Five participants in the same action, fighting side by side, will often tell entirely different stories of what happened, even within hours of the fight. The story each man tells might be virtually unrecognizable to the others. But that does not make it any less true.

A professional soldier’s life does not fit easily into a memoir unless the soldier is a senior commander, and then the memoir centers on grand strategy and not the coarse details of the battlefield… A common soldier’s life is better suited to fiction, where the author can calibrate the distance between the protagonist and the material…

The soldier’s memory is a crowded place. More can “happen” in a minute of a soldier’s wartime than a novelist’s lifetime - and happen again and again, moments of such excruciating incoherence that to shape it and balance it is to counterfeit it.

This is a world so remote from the common civilian experience that the reader must remind himself that this is not some ill-conceived movie but a man’s life

Superforcasting, by Philip Tetlock & Dan Gardner [Book]

  • Takeaway: Success is not always a sign of insight, so be careful seeking learnings where they might not exist

A variant of this fallacy is to single out an extraordinarily successful person, show that it was extremely unlikely that the person could do what he or she did, and conclude that luck could not be the explanation. This often happens in news coverage of Wall Street. Someone beats the market six or seven years in a row, journalists profile the great investor, calculate how unlikely it is to get such results by luck alone, and triumphantly announce that it's proof of skill. The mistake? They ignore how many other people were trying to do what the great man did. If it's many thousands, the odds of someone getting that lucky shoot up. Think of a lottery winner. It is fantastically unlikely that one particular ticket will win a major lottery, often one in many millions, but we don't conclude that lottery winners are highly skilled ticket-pickers—because we know there are millions of tickets sold, which makes it highly likely that someone, somewhere, will win.

A similar mistake can be found by rummaging through remaindered business books: a corporation or executive is on a roll, going from success to success, piling up money and fawning profiles in magazines. What comes next? Inevitably, it's a book.

But writing his judgment down is also a way of distancing himself from it, so he can step back and scrutinize it… “Do I agree with this? Are there holes in this? Should I be looking for something else to fill this in? Would I be convinced by this if I were somebody else?”

Why is a decline [in risk] from 5% to 0% so much more valuable than a decline from 10% to 5%? Because it delivers more than a 5% reduction in risk. It delivers certainty. Both 0% and 100% weigh far more heavily in our minds than the mathematical models of economists say they should.

  • Takeaway: Use what you learn to remember what you learn

In his 1962 book about study methods, Edgar Wright makes the distinction between “note-taking” from “note-making.” Note-taking often happens while listening; the goal is to quickly capture content so we can refer back to it later. Note-making is more common while reading; it consists of deliberately crafting our own version so we can learn and create better

The generation effect is the underlying process that supports note-making. It’s the phenomenon where information is better remembered if it is actively created from your own mind rather than simply read in a passive way. By taking the time and making the effort to rephrase the content you are consuming, you are more likely to commit the information to your long-term memory.

Galloway on Following Your Passion [Video]

  • Takeaway: Be good at something

We invite two types of people to universities to speak, or business schools, 1) super interesting and successful people or 2) billionaires. For some reason, we've decided that billionaires just have insight around life - and they oftentimes finish their conversation with what I think is some of the worst advice given to young people.

Does anyone want to guess what it is? —— Follow your passion.

If someone tells you to follow your passion it means they're already rich - and typically the guy on stage telling you to follow your passion made his billions on iron ore smelting.

This is your job. Your job is to find something that you are good at and then spend the thousands of hours, and apply the grit, and perseverance, and sacrifice, and the willingness to break through hard things to become great at it.

Darwin on His Strategy for Overcoming Confirmation Bias [Twitter]

  • Takeaway: The most important things to focus on are those that are both credible and at-odds with your current understanding

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

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