Find Out How To Combine Building Blocks Of Knowledge And Come Up With Great Ideas

A great idea or invention is usually a combination of other different ideas or inventions. Things don’t happen in a vacuum and as the old saying goes, you stand upon the shoulders of giants.

One of the greatest skills that you can have is to be able to combine ideas from different sources. And this is something that expert-generalists, or Renaissance Men, excel at. Their greatest assets are their combinatorial and associative skills.

However, how do you develop and cultivate these types of skills?

Step 1: Collect pieces of information

The first thing you need to do is to know the information and have it available. So the first step is the collection phase.

This has been described in different ways, as collecting pieces of a puzzle or different building blocks. If you want to glue together a picture out of a puzzle or build a house, you need to have the pieces ready in order to do that.

Each piece of knowledge is a like a building block, you can use it in different ways and combine it with other building blocks. The combinations are endless and every resulting structure can look different, even if you use the same building blocks (or it can look the same, up to you really).

How do you go about collecting these building blocks? One thing is by reading a lot. That’s why I wrote a short article on the reading habits of guys like Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger. It is kind of obvious, but a lot of people don’t do it.

Another way is to collect different experiences, like Steve Jobs says. Go to different places, expose yourself to different ideas, try different things. All of this will enrich you, and give you some building blocks which you can use later.

Once you have a good selection of building blocks (information) ready, you can go on to creating a few useful mental models to guide you. These are basically representations of real, or imaginary situations or things that you create in your head.

Scottish psychologist Kenneth Craik proposed the idea (although similar ideas were proposed earlier by others as well) that the mind works by constructing small-scale models of reality in order to reason and to offer explanations for events. Modern research so far seems to prove this assertion.

You can actively use these workings of your brain by building a latticework of mental models, something that comes from Charlie Munger, one of the greatest financial investors of all time.

From all the studying he does, Munger selects a handful of big ideas and stores them for later. These can come from things like physics, chemistry, economics, humanities, or any other type of discipline. As long as you think it will be useful later.

To quote Charlie Munger:

You have to learn all the big ideas in the key disciplines in a way that they’re in a mental latticework in your head and you automatically use them for the rest of your life. If you do that, I solemnly promise you that one day you’ll be walking down the street and you’ll look to your right and left and you’ll think “my heavenly days, I’m now one of the few competent people in my whole age cohort.” If you don’t do it, many of the brightest of you will live in the middle ranks or in the shallows.

The sources of mental models can come from anywhere. When you are reading books or collecting experiences, try to summarize some of the big lessons that you get out of them. These can then serve as your own personal mental models.

Step 2: Things start clicking automatically

You might not believe me, but collecting the information is the most important step. By collecting more and more information, things will start clicking automatically. Trust me! 🙂

You might have had the experience of you not understanding a problem, trying to go at it through different ways and failing. Then you forgot about the problem, but were walking one day and suddenly things clicked.

This is often called the “Eureka” moment, just like Archimedes had his “Eureka” moment when he was entering the bathtub.

Maria Popova, in an article for “Smithsonian Magazine” writes:

There is a curious cultural disconnect between our mythology of spontaneous ideation – the Eureka! moment, the stroke of genius, the proverbial light bulb – and how “new” ideas actually take shape, amalgamated into existence by the combinatorial nature of creativity. To create is to combine existing bits of insight, knowledge, ideas, and memories into new material and new interpretations of the world, to connect the seemingly dissociated, to see patterns where others see chaos.

These sudden flashes of the lightbulb are quite common. This doesn’t mean that something appears out of nothing. The building blocks of your idea are already there in the brain. It is that your brain is just playing around with them subconsciously.
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Combinatorial Knowledge Is The Key To Many Innovations – Find Out How To Apply It

In 2007, Steve Jobs got on stage to reveal a device which would go on to revolutionize the way we work in the world today. The device in question is the iPhone and it ushered in the era of the smartphone.

Ever the showman, Jobs gave a riveting speech. There is one part that really stands out and describes the essence of what the iPhone is.

An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator. An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator. An iPod, a phone, an internet mobile communicator. Do you get it? These are not three separated devices. This is one device, and we are calling it iPhone.

He mentioned three things: an iPod, a phone, and an internet mobile communicator. All of these things existed on the market when the iPhone came out. However each one was its own device.

What did Jobs and Apple do? They combined them and put them on one device!

This is what combinatorial knowledge is all about. You take different already existing pieces and combine them together to make something new. This something new can be another piece of knowledge, or a new device or anything else.

It is very, very hard to be truly original and come up with something totally new, something that has never existed before and which truly changes our understanding of the world. For the most part, to do that, you truly need to dedicate a lot of time to your field. This is what Albert Einstein did with his theory of relativity.

However, if you dig deeper, you will notice that even Einstein used some previously discovered knowledge, which served as inputs. He then combined it with his own things. James Hutton, when coming up with his theories on geology, also combined different strands of knowledge that were floating around in his time.

Combinations of knowledge from different sources is the key to new knowledge. It is also the key to new revolutionary devices like the iPhone.

An article in “Wired” magazine describes how Jobs came up with the idea:

In 2002, shortly after the first iPod was released, Jobs started thinking about developing a phone. He saw millions of Americans lugging separate phones, BlackBerrys, and — now — MP3 players; naturally, consumers would prefer just one device. He also saw a future in which cell phones and mobile email devices would amass ever more features, eventually challenging the iPod’s dominance as a music player. To protect his new product line, Jobs knew he would eventually need to venture into the wireless world.

The article goes on to list some of the challenges that such a product would have to overcome:

If the idea was obvious, so were the obstacles. Data networks were sluggish and not ready for a full-blown handheld Internet device. An iPhone would require Apple to create a completely new operating system; the iPod’s OS wasn’t sophisticated enough to manage complicated networking or graphics, and even a scaled-down version of OS X would be too much for a cell phone chip to handle. Apple would be facing strong competition, too: In 2003, consumers had flocked to the Palm Treo 600, which merged a phone, PDA, and BlackBerry into one slick package. That proved there was demand for a so-called convergence device, but it also raised the bar for Apple’s engineers.

These challenges lay in vastly different fields, not only with the technology, but also the way the wireless industry was structured and the business models. In order to make the iPhone a success, all these things would have to be pulled together.

Compare this description of what Steve Jobs (and his Apple team) did, and what Johannes Guttenberg did when coming up with his printing press. A passage in Samuel Arbesman’s “The Half-life of Facts” describes the process:

It turns out that the printing press is far from simple. The technological innovations that Gutenberg developed were much more than the modification of a wine press and the addition of the idea of movable type. Gutenberg combined and extended a whole host of technologies and innovations from an astonishing number of areas, and that is what made his work so powerful.

He used metallurgical developments to create metal type that not only had a consistent look (Gutenberg insisted on this), but type that could be easily cast, allowing whole pages to be printed simply at once. He used chemical innovations to create a better ink than had ever been used before in printing.

Gutenberg even exploited the concept of the division of labor by employing a large team of workers, many of whom were illiterate, to churn out books at a rate never before seen in history. And he even employed elegant error-checking mechanisms to ensure that the type was always set properly: There was a straight line on one side of each piece of type so that the workers could see at a glance whether any letters had been set upside down.

Only by having the combined knowledge of all of these technologies does the printing press become possible and cost-effective.

Just like Steve Jobs had to combine different elements when coming up with the iPhone, Johannes Guttenberg had to do something similar when he came up with the printing press. If you look at other types of inventions that revolutionized our world, you will most likely see a similar process at play.
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What Is The Secret Behind Warren Buffet’s Success? It’s Quite Simple Actually!

Warren Buffett is one of the richest men on the planet and in the investment world he is seen as one of the best investors of all time. His decisions have made him billions many times over.

However what is his secret? What does he do that gives him that mental edge?

It’s actually quite simple. He reads a lot!

One time he was asked what the secret to success is. This is his reply:

Read 500 pages like this every day. That’s how knowledge works. It builds up, like compound interest. All of you can do it, but I guarantee not many of you will do it.

That’s it. This is what gives him the combinatorial mental powers that he has. The more he reads, the more information he has, the more things he can combine.

It also makes him less impulsive and more rational. To quote him again:

I read and think. So I do more reading and thinking, and make less impulse decisions than most people in business. I do it because I like this kind of life.

His investment partner, Charlie Munger, also reads a lot. From all the information he reads, he creates a select amount of mental models, which he then uses to guide him when making investment decisions, as well as many other decisions in life.

For him, reading a lot (and a variety of books) is fundamental:

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.

If you look at many of the successful people of today, the expert-generalists that have created the iconic enterprises of the past decades, they share this exact same trait with Buffett and Munger. They read a lot.

When he was young and beginning his investing career, Buffett would read between 600 and 1000 pages a day! He still spends about 80% of his day reading.

I already mentioned that Elon Musk also reads like 2 books a day. Bill Gates reads 50 books a year. In the old days, guys like Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin would also spend their days reading a variety of books.

As Benjamin Franklin said:

An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest.

The elite thinkers spend much of their time sucking up as much knowledge as they can.

What does the average person do? This:

There is a book by Tom Corley called “Rich Habits: The Daily Success Habits of Rich Individuals”, where the author mentions some very interesting findings.

There was a study done that surveyed the reading habits of different people. The results were quite telling.

Rich people (those with an annual income of over 160 000 Dollars) read primarily for self-improvement. Poor people (annual income of 35 000 Dollars or less) read for entertainment.

To quote him:

The rich are voracious readers on how to improve themselves. They’re reading self-improvement books, biographies, books about successful people, things like that.

You see what I am getting at? If you want to be successful, you need to start reading a lot. You might not become a multi-billionaire like Warren Buffett, but you will definitely have a leg up on the average dude on the street.
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Return Of The Renaissance Man: The Future Belongs To Expert Generalists

He’s back!

No, I am not talking about the Terminator, although with the recent advances in AI and robotics, he could be here as well. I am talking about the almost forgotten, and nowdays often maligned, jack of all trades, the polymath, the Renaissance Man.

Now he is referred to as an expert-generalist. Just like the 20th century belonged to the specialist, the 21st century seems to belong to the person who can pull on different strands of knowledge from a wide variety of disciplines.

Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, Charlie Munger, all of these guys have one thing in common: their strength comes not in being good at one thing, but in knowing a lot of different things. They are the expert-generalists, the modern Renaissance Men who have gone on to become the icons of our modern age.

The advantage of expert-generalists is that they can bring in new perspectives from a variety of fields, unhindered by the often narrow viewpoint of a specialist.

A specialist can get bogged down in the little nitty-gritty details of their field, forgetting to see the whole picture. A great danger, one that they often fall for, is functional fixedness.

This is because they were taught to do something in a certain way and over the years they have become great at doing things that way. On the negative side this can put blinders on them and result in tunnel vision.

They are great at innovating within their paradigm, but this can also make them a bit stiff when it comes to paradigm change. All kinds of little cognitive biases can prevent them from seeing the forest for the trees.

If you look at the great innovators of our age, most of them were able to combine the knowledge of different fields and come up with something new. They have the ability to not only think in analogies, but also to be great first principles thinkers.

Henry Ford was able to go back to first principles and change the way that cars were manufactured by applying an analogy of conveyor belts from a different discipline.

Tomas Bata was able to revolutionize the way shoes were made and make his company one of the first true global companies, not only because he had a good understanding of making shoes, but also because he had a deep knowledge of other things, such as the psychology of people.

If you go back to Charlie Munger and his investment strategy, you will see that the secret of his success is the fact that he has a wide variety of mental models from different fields that he can call upon when needed.

The idea of an expert-generalist is as old as humanity, but the term itself was coined by Orit Ganiesh, who is the CEO of Bain Consulting. Her definition of it is:

Someone who has the ability and curiosity to master and collect expertise in many different disciplines, industries, skills, capabilities, countries, and topics. He or she can then, without necessarily even realizing it, but often by design: Draw on that palette of diverse knowledge to recognize patterns and connect the dots across multiple areas. Drill deep to focus and perfect the thinking.

The role of an expert-generalist is not in the trenches, doing the routine work, but instead high on top, doing the strategic thinking and making crucial decisions. This is where their expertise is needed.

Now that I have convinced you of the value of expert-generalists, one question arises: What you need to do to become one?

Well, that’s the whole point of this blog, to give you the tools that you need in order to become an expert-generalist and be able to smash through any obstacle in your way.
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A Short Lesson On First Principles Thinking

A while back, Elon Musk revealed that his success is based on a special way of solving problems called first principles thinking.

In this type of problem-solving method, you don’t rely on old ways of doing thinks (analogies), but instead you rethink the problem from the ground up. You go back to the fundamental assumptions that underpin the problem and try to see what other possible directions could be followed.

However first principles type thinking is not natural to most humans. The human mind evolved in order to promote survival. This favored speed and efficiency in the thinking process and not a slow, thorough evaluation.

Barriers to first principles thinking:

In order to reach quick decisions in a world of uncertainty, the human mind uses heuristics, or shortcut methods to solving problems. In most cases, these result in good enough answers, but there are instances when heuristics fail. These failures are called cognitive biases.

If you want to know more about cognitive biases, check out my series on critical thinking and my cognitive biases framework:

How to be a critical thinker

My Cognitive Biases Framework

There are two main cognitive biases that make it harder for you to solve problems using the first principles method: the Einstellung effect and functional fixedness.

These two effects are not bad things in themselves. They do promote fast thinking and an efficient way of doing things. For most tasks this is the best way to proceed. In most cases, you want to follow best practices and do things using the tried and tested method.

Daily practice of the same moves reinforces them in the brain. More and more synapses between specific neurons are built up, which helps you to pass on the information faster between them and to be able to execute these moves faster and better (and after a significant amount of practice often even without thinking about them, just by instinct).

This is what makes experts so good at what they do. Their heuristics become automatic and since they have been in these situations many times before, they can execute almost effortlessly.

However there is also a problem. Once these neural pathways connecting different neurons are built up, it is hard to pass around them and to do things differently. When one neuron lights up, the other ones connected to it light up too.

That’s why for example functional fixedness is so strong. If you have a hammer and the only thing you have ever done with it is to pound in nails, then you will only see one use for the hammer. You might become really good at pounding in nails with a hammer, but you will fail to see the other potential uses of the hammer.
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A Framework For Cognitive Biases: More Types Of Cognitive Biases

It’s another great day on the savannah. You wake up as the sun is beginning to rise up above the horizon. A cool breeze starts blowing in from the east.

You get all your tools ready as you start preparing for another day of tracking and hunting on the vast grasses of the East African plains.

This probably would have been a typical scene for you, had you been born about 200 thousand years ago.

You would have had to struggle every day in order to survive, by finding food, battling enemies, and generally staying out of harm’s way.

Life wasn’t easy in those days. You were not guaranteed to make it to the next day, so you had to hustle hard and always be on alert.

Luckily, you had inherited a set of internal tools embedded deep in your brain that are the result of millions of years of evolution.

Those are your best bet for surviving and prospering. They drive you to want to achieve more, to struggle on, but also to take in all the different information coming into your brain from your senses and then make a decision.

These decisions need to be made quick and in an efficient manner. They could mean life or death and plus you don’t have too much energy to spare.

The internal tools I am talking about are called heuristics, shortcut ways to coming up with a solution to a problem and then acting upon it.

Psychologists and researchers have started to study them more intensely in the past few decades and have drawn up quite a list.

I had already discussed how I sat down and decided to make sense for myself of all these long lists of heuristics and the cognitive biases coming out of them.

Yes, these heuristics come up with good solutions most of the time, but can fail spectacularly as well some of the time. These failures result in cognitive biases.

In Part 1 of the Cognitive Biases Framework, I discussed the first category of biases that I found, ones I grouped under the “The world is centered around me” problem.

I further divided up this category into two main sub-categories: “I have an ego” and “I am a social animal”.

Yes, you do believe that the world is centered around you, and you do have an ego. And yes, you are a social animal. 🙂

The cognitive biases in these categories are meant to manage your drive for survival and reproduction based on potential risks.

2) I need to make the correct decision based on the information available.

However in order to survive and reproduce, you need to be able to manage all kinds of different information, interpret it, and then make a decision on a future course of action based on this.

Let’s get back to a prehistoric nature scene.

What do you see? What should you be seeing? Where is the danger? Where is the potential food?

Information overload! Too much information!

Wait, do you hear that sound? What could it be? Should you be scared? Is it nothing? Too little information!

You try to search in your memory. Yeah, you heard that sound before. Probably nothing.

What happened? You were bombarded with inputs from your senses and subconsiously a decision needed to be made about which of these inputs are important and which should not be paid attention to.

You focused in on some sounds, but unfortunately you did not have any more information to make any reliable conclusion. So your brain raced to find analogies to that sound in its memory.

Then based on all these things, your brain came to a decision: No danger imminent, continue on.

What made this decision possible? Information!

While the category described in Part 1 was about your relationship with other people, the category described here is about your relationship with information.

The brain uses different types of inputs as information in order to create patterns, and then get meaning out of these patterns. These processes are the source of many cognitive biases.

Why do many of these patterns turn out to be wrong? The answer once again has to do with risk.

Going back to our ancient savannah, imagine walking around in the tall, yellowish-colored grass. You hear a sound, and see the grass in front of you ruffle a bit.

You are missing information. There are two possible courses of action.

Your brain does not form a pattern, does not associate the sound and ruffle with anything and you continue on walking straight. Or, the brain makes a pattern, surmises that it could be a dangerous animal, and you decide to take out your spear and backtrack slowly and carefully.

Choose your own adventure!

What if it turns out that you did not form a link between the ruffle of the grass and anything and continued on walking, but walk straight into the mouth of a hungry lion! Big mistake!

On the other hand, if you formed a pattern and backtracked out of potential danger, you walked out of harm’s way. Even if there was no lion in the grass and the pattern you created was false, you are still alive and this mistake didn’t cost you much.

The risk of not making a pattern and turning into lunch meat is much bigger than making a pattern that turns out to be false.

This is why cognitive biases have a tendency to happen.

There are some basic principles about how you and your brain works in the context of information. These principles have a big effect on how these cognitive biases take place.


Your brain tries to find meaning.

Your brain works by forming associations.

You brain works by drawing analogies.

What you see is all there is.

The emotions you feel at the moment have a huge impact on how you perceive a situation.

The way your brain stores memories is not perfect.

It has been said that humans are storytelling animals. Telling stories is one of the most ancient and most popular ways of conveying information. We are all suckers for a good story.

The reason why stories are so powerful is because they connect the dots smoothly. Things happen in sequence and there is always a cause and an effect.

This type of structure conveys meaning very well, and that’s the most important thing humans are looking for: meaning.

What all the different cognitive biases dealing with information have as a common denominator is that they are giving you some sort of an explanation (a meaning) for all the different things that are happening.

This is the basic principle from which all the other principles derive. Your brain tries to determine this meaning by forming associations between different elements.

These associations can then be stored in your memory, so that it can be used at a later date as well. The way your brain is set up is that synapses form between neurons, which then links them together. When they wire together, they fire together too!

Another principle behind how the brain works is that it likes to form analogies. For example if it has a hard question to answer, it might substitute that by forming an easier question which is similar and answering that.

To put all this in context, you need to understand that the brain usually works only in a limited context and largely devotes itself to the present moment (the now).

For the brain, what you see is all there is, which Daniel Kahneman calls the WYSIATI principle.

The future is unpredictable, and in order to get there you still need to deal with everything that is happening now! 🙂

The WYSIATI principle states that the brain deals with its immediate surroundings and what it can get out of them, with things it knows. It doesn’t concern itself with things it doesn’t know.

If it doesn’t know something, it just makes it up. Basically, your brain fills in the blanks with its best guesses.

To make decisions quickly, your brain relies on emotions. So the emotions you are perceiving at the moment have a huge impact on how you react to the situation.

Of course, another important element for any type of decision is the ability to store memories and then recall them as needed. The way this happens in the brain can be quite messy and is another source of cognitive biases.
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A Framework For Cognitive Biases: What Types Of Cognitive Biases Are Out There?

The internet has changed our lives in many ways, sometimes for the better, and sometimes for the worse. What the events of last year, such as Brexit and the US Presidential campaign, have exposed is the way that the structural flaws of the human brain can be taken advantage of using the internet.

What is encouraging is that these problems have gotten wider play and people are starting to take measures to combat them. Luckily, we can already build upon a wide range of research and solutions in this area, many of them developed because of similar large-scale failures of human rationality.

One of the most basic principles of traditional economics is the assumption that humans are rational actors always striving to maximize their own benefits.

I remember sitting in Econ 101 class and sort of scratching my head at this. In my experience, most humans were very far from rational actors. Actually, I have seen people literally shoot themselves in the foot more times than I can count.

Then the economic crisis of 2008 arrived and all these theories came crashing down. Most economists realized that humans are not so rational after all, and behavioral economics suddenly exploded onto the scene.

However, behavioral economics is nothing new and had been around for a while, but it was not really the prominent paradigm for most economists.

Already in the 1950s, Herbert A. Simon, an economist and psychologist (a polymath really), proposed the idea of “bounded rationality”. In this model, humans are only partially rational, and this rationality is limited by difficulties in formulating complex problems and in processing different types of information.

Many of the basic concepts in behavioral economics are based on the work of two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. They noticed that there are specific patterns inherent in human decision-making.

The two big terms that they came up with are “heuristics” and “cognitive biases“. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that humans take in order to solve problems and then take action based on these solutions.

Most of the time, these mental shortcuts come up with a good solution. This then allows you to go about your daily life and navigate the world.

However, things are not perfect and sometimes these mental shortcuts come up with the wrong solution. This is called a cognitive bias.

Why do you behave in this way? All of this can be explained using evolutionary psychology.

Humans, just like any organism, are the product of millions of years of evolution. Their bodies and minds adapted due to pressures coming from their environment.

Not in a direct way, but indirectly. Due to random mutations, certain ways of behavior would arise. If these behaviors allowed the organism in question to survive long enough to reproduce, then they would propagate to their descendants.

This is the basis of evolutionary theory. An individual doesn’t have to be perfect. It just needs to be good enough to survive.

There are two main goals hardwired deep down into your brain: survival and reproduction. These two things are what drives your existence.

Imagine the everyday environment of your ancient ancestors, living somewhere on the vast savannas.

There are many dangers present. At any time of the day or night, a saber-toothed tiger could jump out of the bush and want to eat you, or a little snake could bite you and poison you.

In order to survive in such an environment, you need to be able to take in vast amounts of information through your senses, determine what is significant and what isn’t, and then make quick decisions based on this.

Is that noise you are hearing just wind beating against the sand or something more sinister? Is that shadow just a figment of your imagination or a lion heading your way?

These were the main things that your brain developed to analyze. However there are some constraints to this entire process.

The two basic principles behind the way your brain works are speed and efficiency:

1) You need to make quick decisions based on outside stimuli. So speed is important.

2) You should not expend too many resources, and so you need to do things in the most efficient manner possible. You never know when and from where your next dinner will come from, so saving energy is a priority.

In order to make decisions quickly and efficiently, your brain developed mental shortcuts. That’s where heuristics come from.

However, if your brain developed to make decisions to ensure your survival, why does it fall for cognitive biases? The answer here is costs.

By saying costs, I mean the potential pay-out of making the right and wrong decision.

Let’s go back to the prehistoric savanna in order to illustrate. You are walking on your way home from a successful hunt, your kill strapped to your back. You are walking alone, since you got held up and your companions went on ahead of you.

Then suddenly you hear a noise coming from behind a rock nearby. Quickly, your brain goes into overdrive. What could it be?

If it judges it to be nothing of concern and you pay no attention to the noise, but suddenly a lion jumps on you, you are dead meat. You have become a source of protein and essential fats (and maybe some carbohydrates too) for an entire lion family.

Hopefully, you die quick and don’t get to experience the joys of getting dismembered by a pride of lions, the alpha male and his harem of females, together with their baby cubs.

However, if you judge it to be danger and take out your spear while running away from the place, but then realize that it was nothing, there is no mortal cost to you. Sure, you got a bit sweaty, but you are still alive to hunt another day.

You see what I am getting at? It is much more costly if you judge something to be of no importance, when it is in fact significant, than it is if you judge something significant and there is nothing there.

In the first instance, you die, while in the second one, you continue on living and potentially pass on your genes. Your brain is wired to err on the side of caution.

This is where cognitive biases come from. Your brain evaluates thousands of stimuli from the outside every second, and sometimes it makes mistakes.

However that mistake doesn’t matter if it doesn’t kill you. What matters is that that specific way of solving problems and making decisions keeps you alive the rest of the time.

The brain looks at these different pieces of information and tries to make patterns out of them. If a wrong pattern emerges, it is called a cognitive bias.

One thing that I have noticed is that since now the study of cognitive biases is very popular, psychologists keep on coming out with newer and newer types of these almost every day. Sometimes many of these are very similar.

It’s hard to keep track of all of them. So I decided to sit my ass down and simplify things for myself. At the end, I came out with a small framework to help me make sense of cognitive biases.

I have based this framework on some of the things discussed above. Survival and reproduction are the two main goals that drive human existence.

Heuristics or mental shortcuts developed in order to help humans survive long enough to reproduce. These mental shortcuts need to be fast and efficient.

The inputs they work with are different types of information. This information comes from outside stimuli gathered by your senses or from storage (memories) in your brain.

The problem is that you need to construct all this information into some sort of meaningful patterns. Only once you have this meaning, can you make decisions.

I have broken down all these different cognitive biases into two basic categories arising from two fundamental ideas:

1) The world is centered around me.

2) I need to make the correct decision based on the information available.

The first fundamental idea is that you think that the world is centered around you. No matter how altruistic you are, there is still at least a bit of solipsism inside of you.

This idea shapes your inner thought patterns and your relationships with the people around you.

The second fundamental idea comes from the fact that you need information as inputs in order to make a decision.

Sometimes there is a lot of information around you and you need to determine which of it is significant. Sometimes, there is not enough of it and you need to determine what to do in the face of uncertainty.

Oftentimes, the relevant information may not be present at that moment in your environment, and you might need to pull it out of your memory.

Almost all of the main cognitive biases work within these two categories.

However, you also need to keep in mind that you cannot put all the biases into neat little boxes (otherwise you would be committing a cognitive bias ☺ ). Some biases belong in several categories and combine elements of each.

Here is the framework broken down and explained:
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Epictetus – The Wisdom Of A Stoic Master: The Secrets To Living A Good Life Revealed

One of the most important questions we ask ourselves is about the way we should live our lives. What is really important and how should we act?

Luckily, there is guidance available and some of the most profound thoughts on this were formed already two thousand years ago.

These words of wisdom were uttered by a man named Epictetus, who went on to influence the lives of some of the most powerful men of his era, all the way up to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Yet this man was born a slave and supposedly had one of his legs maimed by a former cruel master, so that he always walked with a limp. This did not detter him from living a good life and achieving happiness.

Epictetus was not a theoretical philosopher living in his own world, but instead tried to make his philosophy down-to-earth and practical. This advice can be taken and applied in the real world as a guide for your day-to-day life.

His powerful words served as inspiration for many people undergoing hard times. Picture this: a man sitting in a prison with no knowledge whether he will ever get out.

The man could feel no hope, but instead his thoughts are turned inwards and draw inspiration from Epictetus.

There is a great similarity to the tale of Boethius and his reflections on life that I already wrote about. However the year is 1967 and the man is James Stockdale, an American pilot captured by the Vietnamese and put in a prisoner of war camp.

Stockdale credited the works of Epictetus for showing him the way on how to survive this ordeal. If these words could guide a man in such desperate times, just imagine what they could do for you.

We know the philosophy of Epictetus primarily through the works of his pupil, Arrian. Arrian noted down the teachings of Epictetus in two surviving works: “The Discourses” and “Enchiridion”, which is the Greek word for handbook.

It is the “Enchiridion” which is the most easily accessible work, as it is short and contains many practical lessons for your own life. It doesn’t take long to read, but can really change the way you view life in a very fundamental way.

All people search for happiness, but they usually go about it in the wrong way. They don’t realize that happiness can only come from within, from things that you have control over.

What are the things that you have control over? Your thoughts and your actions.

The main idea of the Stoics was that you should live a simple life, where you don’t concern yourself with things that you cannot control, and instead focus on the things that you can.

The world is what it is, random things will happen, and they might block your progress. Learn to accept it.

Living a simple life, where you act in a disciplined way, and where you act in accordance with your moral principles (virtue), will lead you to happiness.

For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus

Below are some of the main lessons from the “Enchiridion”:
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Don’t Argue About The Tactics, If You Don’t Have A Strategy In Place

Sometimes people argue about the little things, while missing the big picture.

Many people will be familiar with this situation. At work, frequently the time is spent in endless meetings, arguing over things which at the end don’t really matter.

People like to argue over tactics, without actually having an overall strategy in place.

Strategy vs. Tactics

Do you know what you want to achieve in this life and how you will do it? Does the place you work for have a clear vision of what it wants to do and how it wants to achieve it?

Most people don’t. And amazingly neither do most places of work.

Sure, you might spend countless hours arguing with your boss on whether you should do Action A, but no time is spent reflecting how doing Action A is supposed to contribute to whatever the ultimate goal is.

It’s amazing that people or places of work don’t have a clear strategy in place.

Strategy is something that is often misunderstood and rarely spelled out. Yet, having a clearly defined strategy is often the difference between success and muddling along in chaos.

If you were building a house, would you first define what it will look like and how you would build it, or would you first try to decide whether you need shovels and what length they should be?

If you want to build a house, you first need to determine what it will look like and how you will build it. Only then can you decide what types of tools you will build it with.

This is the essence of the strategy vs. tactics debate.

To help you better understand what each of the two terms means, you need to keep in mind that both words originally come from the military sphere.

In every military campaign, the goal is to win the war. However there are different strategies that you can adopt to do that.

You can rely on tanks and the blitzkrieg like the Nazi Germans did at the beginning of WW2 or on guerrilla warfare as many of the resistance groups did under occupation.

This is what falls under the term strategy. Each strategy then implies some tactics.

For example, if you are a guerrilla fighter, your tactics would consist of sabotage and small skirmishes. While if you are a tank commander who is tasked with implementing the blitzkrieg strategy, your tactics would consist of grouping tightly together large numbers of tanks and quickly overwhelming the enemies with them using speed and surprise maneuveurs.

If you are an MMA fighter, and you decide to implement the ground and pound strategy, then your tactics would consist of setting up your opponent with punches and kicks, and then in a surprise moment, bringing them down in order to control them and hit them with a barrage of punches as you sit on top of them.

Military is not the only sphere where the terms strategy and tactics are used.  Today these two concepts are used for example in business. The meaning stays the same, just the domain changes.

In terms of running a business, Alfred Chandler, a management researcher, defined strategy like this:

Strategy is the determination of the basic long-term goals of an enterprise, and the adoption of courses of action and the allocation of resources necessary for carrying out these goals.

Resources are limited and you need focus in order to achieve your goals. Strategy gives you that focus.
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