Here’s another old joke:
Two friends, John and Mark, are camping when a bear pops out of the bushes.
John starts to put on his tennis shoes.
Mark says, “What are you doing? You can’t outrun a bear!”
John says, “I don’t have to outrun a bear — I just have to outrun you!”
This joke has two important lessons: (1) you really can’t outrun a bear, and (2) skill is relative. The latter point is something Charlie Munger often emphasizes in a different way:
“You don’t have to be brilliant, only a little bit wiser than the other guys, on average, for a long, long time.”
I like this sentiment. Just like John outrunning Mark, you just need to be a bit — even a tiny bit — better than the other guys with the big caveat that it’s for a long time (on average). So less of a sprint and more of a marathon kind of idea. It just takes a little discipline and an hour a day.
In any case, if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my short time here it’s this: always wear running shoes when camping.
Sometimes it pays to keep things simple (even though people insist on making things complex). Take for example this old joke about NASA:
In the early days of the space program, NASA discovered that using ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. NASA scientists — some of the best and brightest people at the time — spent a decade and a billion dollars developing a pen that wrote not only in zero gravity but on almost any surface, at very low temperatures, and in any position the astronaut happened to be in.
The Russians, not to be bested, did something a lot smarter: they used a pencil.
This story illustrates a couple of things: (a) keep it simple and (b) solve the right problem! It’s also a good story because it’s a memorable way to learn vicariously through the mistakes of others. Two quick thoughts:
- People naturally like to make things more complex than they need to be. Maybe it’s an ego thing, complexity is sometimes related to importance, and who doesn’t like to work on important stuff? This is especially true of intelligent people (or at least people who think they are intelligent). The truly wise ones are the ones who can see how to make things simple, not complex.
- Engineers and technical people usually get carried away in their craft. Architecting an elegant solution, digging deep into the details, and handling all the corner cases is second nature (and fun!) to them. This, however, does not lend itself well to an on-time and on-budget project. The most creative solutions are usually time and budget constrained (not the opposite!).
I think it’s fun learning vicariously through others (less so when it’s my own mistake). One of my favourite people, Charlie Munger, has one liner about that:
“If people weren’t wrong so often, we wouldn’t be so rich.”
Some wisdom from Charlie in time for the holiday season:
“Do the best that you can do. Never tell a lie. If you say you’re going to get it done, get it done. Nobody gives a shit about an excuse. Leave early for the meeting. Don’t be late, but if you are late, don’t bother giving people excuses. Just apologize… Return your calls quickly. The other thing is the five-second no. You’ve got to make up your mind. You don’t leave people hanging.”
— Charlie Munger
Some additional commentary from me:
- “Do the best that you can do.”
What could be more obvious? But sometimes I get the feeling that many people don’t follow the same set of values that I do. Instead they eschew this virtue and instead “do the least to get by”. Obviously not something we should be striving for.
- “Never tell a lie.”
I’ve always found lying difficult, too many “versions” of the truth to keep straight. Chalk it up to my like for keeping things simple.
- “If you say you’re going to get it done, get it done. Nobody gives a shit about an excuse.”
This is another obvious one but somehow not everyone has internalized it. There’s something to be said about someone with a lot of assiduity (as Charlie puts it, “Sitting on your ass until it gets done”).
- “Leave early for the meeting. Don’t be late, but if you are late, don’t bother giving people excuses. Just apologize…”
Punctuality is just another form of respect, definitely a virtue to strive for.
- “The other thing is the five-second no. You’ve got to make up your mind. You don’t leave people hanging.”
This is another great one. If someone asks you to go out, just make up your mind. Don’t wait and see if something better comes along, just decide. Don’t be “that” guy.
What do you do with the best hour of the day? Is it wasted time watching TV or browsing Reddit? Sold to the highest bidder? Here’s a (not so novel) idea: give it to yourself. Let’s listen to some advice from Charlie:
“I said I would sell the best hour of the day to myself in order to improve myself. Only then would I sell the rest of my time to my clients… To make a man of yourself intellectually, you need to work at it. I don’t think even Johnny von Neumann did it naturally… if you’re a person of good cognition, you can learn a lot more if you put your mind to it. I don’t think there’s any substitute for just sitting and thinking.”
— Charlie Munger
Much of the extraordinary results we get come from consistent incremental progress but it takes work. You have to build habits to make it happen. Just like most people don’t spontaneously get into the habit of exercising and eating right, most people don’t suddenly take an hour each day to improve themselves or their craft. But if you do (and live long enough), you’ll inevitably get some extraordinary results. So instead of giving the best hour of each day to Netflix, or YouTube, or even your job, give it to someone that matters: yourself.
Passion is one of those interesting human phenomena where we too often confuse cause for effect. The usual story about passion goes something like this:
- You have a passion. Either you have had it all your life (presumably since you were in the womb), or perhaps you had a life changing experience where you all of a sudden developed a passion.
- Your passion leads to motivation, which allows you work and think about your passion night and day.
- Over time, you naturally learn more, become better than all the other soulless individuals without passion.
- You now reap the rewards of following your passion.
Sounds like quite the motivational story, even if it’s not true. The real flaw in this line of thinking is that it’s linear — it’s not. The process is not so simple that after step 1 is nicely wrapped up, you go onto step 2. Once step 2 is finished, proceed to step 3. With step 4 being the culmination of this grand process that you started when you decided to follow your passion. The only thing missing is to pass Go and collect $200 (maybe that’s step 4 though?).
Like most things dealing with humans, things are rarely so linear. Scott Adams has a great presentation on this idea titled Passion is Overrated and Goals are for Losers, quite the title. One of his main points is that:
“Just maybe [success] causes passion.”
— Scott Adams
Of course it’s a bit harder to think about how this might play out because steps 1-4 are no longer sequential. They’re mixed up, twisted and intertwined. If we look at passion as a scale from 0 to 100, the process probably goes something like this:
- Start doing an activity (passion = 0)
- Have fun doing the activity (passion = 5)
- Keep doing the activity (passion = 6)
- Get praised for being good at the activity (passion = 10)
- Take a class on the activity (passion = 12)
- Figure out how much better other people are than you at activity (passion = 7)
- Work damn hard to improve your skills at activity (passion = 10)
- Get praised for how much progress you made from hard work (passion = 15)
- Repeat steps 5-8 until it becomes a full-fledged passion.
Notice that step 1 is not suddenly knowing your passion. That’s more like the last step. The first few steps take you from apathy to liking, then with some work (and success), perhaps from liking to liking a lot. Repeat that over many years. At some point along the way, if you’ve worked hard enough and you’ve had enough successes, you’ve might end up with something most people call a passion. One of the most important points is that it’s not all rainbows and unicorns. You can see in step 6 passion actually drops. This is probably more realistic. The people who actually develop passion have the discipline to persevere through the lulls and down moments. This is why you need both discipline and a system.
Pretty words and Hollywood movies have a way of making you believe that the world is a simple place. Passion is one of those nice simple ideas that is the panacea to all your woes. Unfortunately, things rarely are so clear-cut, they’re usually much messier. That’s why it’s important to not get fooled into such simplistic thinking by thinking at the next level.
Having said that, I’m going to go watch the latest romantic comedy. It’s supposed to be good because of the great acting and realistic portrayal of love…