Marcus Aurelius: How To Have Character

A man’s character is what defines him and what carries him through life. It is character that drives your choices and helps you deal with difficulties. The Stoics believed that virtue was the end-goal of anyone’s conduct and one of the few things that you truly had control over in this world.

A man can rise or fall just due to the virtues or faults of his character and it is often this that leaves a legacy. Marcus Aurelius is one of these men, who even after almost two thousand years is remembered for the strengths of his character and shown as a role model for conduct in times of difficulties.

Cassius Dio, Roman Senator and historian, who lived through the times of Marcus Aurelius, as well as those of his son, Commodus, had this to say about Marcus:

“He didn’t have the luck which he deserved, but was confronted throughout his reign by a multitude of disasters. That is why I admire him more than any other, for it was amidst these extraordinary and unparalleled difficulties that he was able to survive, and to save the Empire.”

Marcus Aurelius was not perfect, and he himself acknowledged it, but instead of falling prey to temptations, he struggled every day to reach perfection and lead the life of a philosopher. With the word “philosopher” we don’t mean someone who delivers hard to understand discourses on the meaning of life, but instead a man who tries to overcome his faults and live life according to reason, always striving to improve himself.

In order to do that, he kept a personal journal, where he noted down his thoughts and daily lessons. This journal was meant to be private, but did not remain so, and instead has been passed down to us as the “Meditations”. It is full of wisdom, which can be applied to your own life.

What types of things can you learn from the way Marcus conducted himself in daily life and which traits should you adopt? The first Book of the “Meditations” describes well the things that he learned from others.

Marcus Aurelius, just like anyone, was a man who learned from others. It was the people around him who shaped him.

You too were most likely shaped by those closest to you. I was lucky to have a good family, and wrote an article on what I learned from my grandfathers.

This is the first thing that you can take away: be thankful for what you have.

“To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good.”

Marcus was always thanking his good fortunes. Many people are not so lucky, but even in the worst of times, they can find things to be thankful for.

More than 250 years after the times of Marcus Aurelius, when the Roman Empire in the West had fallen, Boethius, one of the last true Romans of Antiquity, was sitting in jail having an imaginary discussion with himself. He was condemned to die, but realized that even in such a dire situation, he can find positive things. One of these was that his family was OK.

Once you adopt this wider perspective on your situation, going about adopting other positive traits will be made much easier.

So which were the traits that Marcus Aurelius adopted?

Good morals and not raising your temper:

“From my grandfather Verus I learned good morals and the government of my temper.”

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The Wisdom Of Marcus Aurelius: How To Gather The Strength To Survive In Adversity

In one of his most famous works “The Republic”, Plato presents the notion of philosopher kings. These are wise rulers who live a simple life and rule for the benefits of their own communities.

One of two things needs to happen in order for philosopher kings to rule:

“Philosophers must become kings, or those now called kings must genuinely and adequately philosophize.”

Unfortunately, most people in power are far from wise and often become less wise the longer they are in power.

However, in history, one man stands out as the archetype of a philosopher king. One man truly reflects the image of a wise ruler. That man is Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius was the last of the so-called Five Good Emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. The other four Emperors who preceded him are remembered as the most able administrators and generals that the Empire had ever known and are remembered for ruling wisely and justly.

Marcus Aurelius ruled at a time when the Roman Empire was at the peak of its power, although during his time, you could see the first chinks in the imperial armor begin to develop.

Germanic tribes were starting to stir up trouble north of the border and Marcus Aurelius spent a large portion of his life on campaign across the Limes Romanus.

On one bleak day in his camp located on a river which is now called Hron in today’s Slovakia, he started to keep a personal journal in order to reflect on things and to keep himself rooted. This journal later became what we know as the “Meditations”, a series of thoughts and wise sayings collected into 12 books (or chapters).

These were supposed to be only personal lessons and reflections and were not meant to be shared with the outside world, but soon thereafter ended up being published anyways and distributed far and wide.

Their influence was immense, since many of these sayings and thoughts had very practical applications for anyone, irrespective of their social standing or situation in life.

The power of this work stems from the fact that Marcus Aurelius was a man with tremendous responsibilities and power, yet he managed to keep sane and humble amid all the surrounding chaos.

Most people will never get to be in the same position as him, but can find themselves in very similar situations. “Meditations” give solutions to common everyday problems, and can help you gain a wider perspective on things.

They are based on Stoic teachings, but incorporate a wide variety of other influences as well. One source of inspiration for Marcus Aurelius was Epictetus, who we have already visited in a previous article. The fact that an Emperor drew on the wisdom of a former slave just further demonstrates the fact that these teachings can be taken by anyone and applied in any walk of life.

There are some very powerful lessons to be learned and used:

1) Human nature is the way it is. You need to learn to live with it.

One passage that immediately struck me when reading it, was this:

“Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”

Another translation of the same passage reads:

“Begin the morning by saying to yourself: I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil.”

It is amazing how this passage (irrespective of the way it is translated) reflects one of the most common problems that people face in their lives even today.

There will always be people who will try to bring you down. You might be the nicest, most unselfish, most helpful person ever, but there will still be people who will hate you or try to cause you harm.

“No man can rob us of our free will.”

There are bad people everywhere. This is a fact of life. You should remind yourself of this, but don’t let it bother you.

This is due to the basics of human nature. People are inherently selfish and this is due to inner drives.

Humans, just like any living being, are driven to survive and this means having access to resources in order to be able to do that. This implies behaviors which maximize their own chances.

One of these primal behaviors is status seeking, since being higher in status means having better access to key resources.

These people who are trying to trip you up might see you as a threat to their own ambitions and power.

This survival drive is also probably the reason why status-seeking cognitive biases (as I describe them in my Cognitive Biases Framework) developed and continue to be part of how people behave.

Even if people know they are behaving badly, they often try to rationalize what they do.

“With what are you discontented? Is it with the badness of men? Recall to your mind this conclusion, that rational animals exist for one another, and that to endure is a part of justice, and that men do wrong involuntarily.”

In Book 4, Marcus explores this further. He notes the social nature of people (as well as other animals), and that many of the things that people do are deeply ingrained in the psyche.

I explored this in a bit more detail in the article on my cognitive biases framework, where I have created the categories of ego-based biases, as well as social-animal based biases.

One first principle on which I based my framework is that humans are primarily social animals and the brain developed some internal patterns in order to promote this.

Cognitive biases evolved to be because in many ways they boosted an individual’s chances of survival, and hence are usually involuntary. As Marcus noted, oftentimes men do wrong due to internal processes in their brains and are not really conscious of doing wrong. This is exactly how cognitive biases work.

Another factor that drives a person’s behavior is the internal principles that they have.

In Book 4, Marcus gives this advice:

“Examine men’s ruling principles, even those of the wise, what kind of things they avoid, and what kind they pursue.”

In Book 9, he gives similar advice:

“Penetrate inwards into men’s leading principles, and you will see what judges you are afraid of, and what kind of judges they are of themselves.”

This is very helpful and useful when dealing with other people. Look at people’s principles and you will see what type of a person they are.

When you develop the skill of being able to judge a person’s driving principles, you will be in a better position to be aware of people who are potential threats to you and also to be able to develop a strategy of what to do when they try to bring you down.

In one respect man is the nearest thing to me, so far as I must do good to men and endure them. But so far as some men make themselves obstacles to my proper acts, man becomes to me one of the things which are indifferent, no less than the sun or wind or a wild beast.

Now it is true that these may impede my action, but they are no impediments to my affects and disposition, which have the power of acting conditionally and changing: for the mind converts and changes every hindrance to its activity into an aid; and so that which is a hindrance is made a furtherance to an act; and that which is an obstacle on the road helps us on this road.

This passage illustrates Marcus’ thinking on what to do about people who try to bring you down. The first thing was not to give a fuck. Of course, Marcus put it much more eloquently, but essentially, this is what it boils down to.

This is also a good strategy for overcoming obstacles of any kind. You can always spin negative things into something positive. For example you can look at failures as learning opportunities, and this way failures will no longer be obstacles on your road, but instead help you to get to wherever you want to go.

The second part of that above quote is very interesting in terms of what to do when an obstacle comes your way. The translation of this passage by Pierre Hadot in his book “The Inner Citadel” makes this much more clear:

“People can perfectly well prevent me from carrying out such and such an action. Thanks, however, to action “with a reserve clause” and to “turning obstacles upside down,” there can be no obstacle to my intention, nor to my disposition. For my thought can “turn upside down” everything that presents an obstacle to my action, and transform the obstacle into an object toward which my impulse to act ought preferably to tend. That which impeded action thus becomes profitable to action, and that which blocked the road allows me to advance along the road.”

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Diogenes Of Oinoanda: The Ancient Secret To Happiness Discovered On A Philosopher’s Stone – Find Out What It Is

If you walk around the upper valley of the River Xanthus in what is now southern Turkey, you might come across a large hilltop which is littered with ancient ruins. The area seems deserted and there are few signs to point to the fact that millennia ago, this site was home to a large city.

Unlike many of the commercial centers of the Mediterranean, the ancient city of Oinoanda was not situated on the crossroads of any major trade routes. Its economy relied on growing wine and olives, and tight relationships with its surrounding areas. This did not make it a fabulously wealthy city, but did ensure a certain level of prosperity.

Unfortunately, not much is known about the history of the city, but archaeologists have uncovered one very interesting find.

They discovered the remains of a wall which was originally over 80 meters long and covered with old Epicurean writings. It had been erected by Diogenes of Oinoanda in order to:

To help those who come after us.

Epicurean teachings had helped him a lot in his own life and he wanted to give back to his wider community. Another part of the inscription describes the purpose:

The majority of people suffer from a common disease, as in a plague, with their false notions about things, and their number is increasing. I wished to use this stoa to advertise publicly the medicines that bring salvation.

Unfortunately only a part of the inscription remains and even that is broken up into pieces of various sizes, but those parts that have been uncovered so far give us a glimpse into life in those ancient days.

However, more importantly, the writings also preserve ancient wisdom, much of which is still pertinent even today. This wisdom dealt with the eternal question of almost every person: How should you live your life? It gave advice on how to lead a good life and how to achieve something that almost everyone strives for: happiness.

The rise and influence of Epicureanism

In the times of the late Roman Republic and the early Empire, Epicureanism (together with Stoicism) was one of the most important philosophical schools that many Romans adhered to.

Cicero, while arguing against the Epicureans, still corresponded with and counted among his friends many Epicureans, including Atticus, a wealthy Roman who retired to Athens. Many famous Roman poets such as Horace or Lucretius were Epicureans, and even the great Gaius Julius Caesar was a fan.

While Epicureanism was pretty popular in Ancient Rome, it had actually started in Ancient Greece and its founder was Epicurus.

Epicurus was born on the island of Samos in 341 BC, but spent most of his life living in Athens, his father being a citizen of that city. There he founded his own school of philosophy, called the Garden, where he taught until his death in 270 BC.

Once he died, his school was taken over by one of his disciples, Hermarchus, and continued to grow. Its influence grew far and wide and by late Roman Republic times, it was one of the major philosophical schools in the Mediterranean region.

However, it began to decline in the 3rd century AD and died out completely when Christianity took over the Roman Empire. Many of the Christian writers penned extensive treatises against Epicureanism, in the process grossly misinterpreting its message. Epicureanism became a synonym of hedonism, when in fact it preached something totally different.

Epicurean ideals weren’t revived until the Renaissance, and later the Age of Enlightenment. Many famous figures of that era were influenced by them, and their thoughts in turn shaped the way society looks today.

If you are an American, you have “the pursuit of happiness” enshrined in your founding documents as an inalienable right. Have you ever wondered why that is?

The reason is that Thomas Jefferson was a big fan of Epicurus and Epicureanism. In one of his letters he wrote:

I too am an Epicurean.

Since he was one of the principal drafters of the American Declaration of Independence, some of these ancient ideas found their way into it. That pursuit of happiness comes from this.

Thomas Jefferson was greatly influenced by the works of Epicurus and they formed a foundation for his worldview and the way he lived. In fact, Epicurus had such a huge impact on his life that he sometimes called him his Master.

While the traditional teachings of Epicurus taught to “live unknown”, that is to try to steer away from politics, public life and all the chaos associated with them, Thomas Jefferson (just like many other famous people influenced by this philosophy) put his own distinct spin on Epicureanism and combined it with a life in the public spotlight.

Many hardcore Epicureans preach dettachment from society and tending your own little garden somewhere in the corner as the epitomy of life. However, you can get the benefits of these teachings even without withdrawing from public life completely.

How to do this? Thomas Jefferson is a good example. He was an Epicurean at heart, yet he still managed to become one of the principal figures of the American Revolution and the 3rd US President.

So Epicureanism has many paths which you can take. You can either take the road of Epicurus himself and some of his followers and withdraw from the hustle and bustle of society to tend your own Garden, or take the example of people influenced by Epicureanism like Thomas Jefferson, and tend your own Garden, while still trying to influence the society you live in.

The main tenets of Epicureanism
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How To Think About Cognitive Biases: A Short Summary Of My Cognitive Biases Framework

You have probably argued with someone whose position did not make sense. Instead of backing it up with facts, this person ended up just spouting the same slogans over and over again in a never ending circle.

We were always at war with Eurasia.

It’s a matter of facts, you would say to yourself. Maybe if they knew the facts, they wouldn’t be saying what they are saying.

After this quiet self-talk, you would then go back, research the shit out of the subject and send a summary of this research to them.

However, contrary to what you expected, they would not buckle down under a barrage of facts. Being exposed to facts just made their weakly argued conviction even stronger. Your strategy backfired.

A few days later they would come back and start saying the same thing you told them, albeit with their own spin, without even acknowledging that it was you who told them this in the first place.

We were always at war with Eastasia.

Or they might come back and start shouting their original slogans even louder, thinking it is how loud you shout and not the strength of your arguments that determines who is right.

On the other hand, it is not always others who are the problem. Sometimes you just have to look in the mirror. Maybe it is you who behaves this way. 🙂

What is at work here are cognitive biases. We all fall for them, but some people fall for them in a stronger way than others.

The first step of a recovering addict is to acknowledge that you have a problem. 🙂

Only after you are honest with yourself and face your weaknesses, can the journey towards recovery begin. Without this step, any attempt at a cure will be met with failure.

Once you have faced up to your problem, the next step is to start learning about what it actually is.

What are cognitive biases and why do humans fall for them?

There are different challenges that humans have to get through daily. So different mechanisms evolved in order to make this easier.

One of the ways to solve many of these problems is using heuristics. These are mental shortcuts that humans take in order to solve problems and then take action based on these solutions.

Most of the time, the solutions that these heuristics come up with are correct and you can rely on them.

However, there are times when these heuristics fail and come up with a bad answer, a cognitive bias.

My Framework for Cognitive Biases

I have been reading about cognitive biases for a while now. Ever since Daniel Kahneman’s book “Thinking Fast and Slow” came out, this concept seems to be popping up everywhere and many more popular works have appeared discussing it.

However, being a perfectionist and a guy who likes to put things in boxes, I was missing a more systematic categorization of the different types of biases out there. For me, this type of categorization would help in keeping the discussion relevant for the common folk and extremely helpful if you want to apply lessons in real life.

Not finding anything to satisfy me, I decided to come up with my own framework for cognitive biases. I thought back and tried to reduce all the different biases to their first principles and work up from there.

I looked at some of the basic similarities and differences between the different types of biases and came up with some initial categories.

Why and how did these biases evolve in the first place? Here, evolutionary psychology can shed a light.

Evolution does not come up with perfect solutions, only with solutions that are viable enough to survive.

The drivers for every living thing are survival and reproduction. This happens in a very complex outside world where many dangers (but also opportunities) are present.

So heuristics (and cognitive biases) evolved in order to promote survival. Due to the fact that your environment is so complex, you need to have the ability to analyze it and then make a decision on what to do next.

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.

Imagine yourself walking along a path with bushes all around you. You hear a sound. It could be anything really.

However you search back and it reminds you of the sound a lion makes. You decide to start running away from the place as fast as possible.

Turns out it was a false alarm. Your brain connected the dots, but in fact it was a false pattern.

No harm done. You are a bit sweaty and tired, but you are still alive.

Now imagine yourself walking again along the same path. You hear a sound.

This time you decide not to run and just stay there. Then suddenly a lion jumps out of the bushes and kills you. You are dead meat!

You failed to connect the dots and ended up as lunch.
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The Vision Of Genius: Nikola Tesla’s Guide To Coming Up With Truly Innovative Ideas

For many people, if you are told to think of a wacky scientist, the name of Nikola Tesla usually comes up at the top of the list.

Anyone remember his Tesla coil in “Command and Conquer: Red Alert”? I always loved that thing when playing the game on my computer. Unfortunately this was one of his ideas that did not see mass production.

He was a veritable genius who came up with very creative ideas, and his propensity for first principles thinking can serve as an inspiration for any budding inventor in training.

Tesla was a very original thinker and one technique that he used to come up with ideas is visualization. He would literally picture his inventions in his head.

This is something that he learned to do through experience and it can be learned by you as well.

As a boy, his head was full of things that annoyed him and so he started using the visualization technique to get rid of these thoughts:

By that faculty of visualizing, which I learned in my boyish efforts to rid myself of annoying images, I have evolved what is, I believe, a new method of materializing inventive ideas and conceptions. It is a method which may be of great usefulness to any imaginative man, whether he is an inventor, businessman or artist.

The first step of the visualization method is the incubation period. You gather building blocks of knowledge and let your mind ruminate on them in the background:

Here in brief, is my own method: after experiencing a desire to invent a particular thing, I may go on for months or years with the idea in the back of my head. Whenever I feel like it, I roam around in my imagination and think about the problem without any deliberate concentration. This is a period of incubation.

In the second step, there is a period of direct effort, or thinking of the specifics:

Then follows a period of direct effort. I choose carefully the possible solutions of the problem I am considering, and gradually center my mind on a narrowed field of investigation. Now, when I am deliberately thinking of the problem in its specific features, I may begin to feel that I am going to get the solution. And the wonderful thing is, that if I do feel this way, then I know I have really solved the problem and shall get what I am after.

The mind starts playing around with all the different building blocks and then connects them subconsciously.

The feeling is as convincing to me as though I already had solved it. I have come to the conclusion that at this stage the actual solution is in my mind subconsciously though it may be a long time before I am aware of it consciously.

The key is to think of everything in your mind first, to examine different features and make improvements to this mental model before you put anything on paper:

Before I put a sketch on paper, the whole idea is worked out mentally. In my mind I change the construction, make improvements, and even operate the device. Without ever having drawn a sketch I can give the measurements of all parts to workmen, and when completed all these parts will fit, just as certainly as though I had made the actual drawings. It is immaterial to me whether I run my machine in my mind or test it in my shop.

An important thing to remember is to always keep the big picture in mind and start with a holistic view before you start working on the details:

Some people, the moment they have a device to construct or any piece of work to perform, rush at it without adequate preparation, and immediately become engrossed in details, instead of the central idea. They may get results, but they sacrifice quality.

Tesla came up with many great inventions using this method:

The inventions I have conceived in this way have always worked. In thirty years there has not been a single exception. My first electric motor, the vacuum tube wireless light, my turbine engine and many other devices have all been developed in exactly this way.

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Doing Hard Things Is The Cure For What Ails You

I have recently started climbing mountains and through this came to a few life-changing realizations. My successful summit of Mt. Blanc gave me a new perspective on things, which really improved my mindset.

It was a long and dangerous climb, and the hardest thing I have ever done physically. However, after two days of pushing myself, for a brief moment I was the highest located man for thousands of kilometers around me.

I had accomplished something that I had thought was impossible and beyond my limits just a few years ago.

Doing something like this really gives you a great feeling and a boost to your self-confidence. A sense of accomplishment that results from this is priceless and can really help you in other areas of your life.

Cure for what ails you

Unfortunately, in our lives we are often confronted with stupid shit, which we have no control over. Stupid people, stupid rules, and other retarded stuff that just don’t make sense.

You can’t really control it, but it ends up bothering you. You stress over it and it makes you miserable. You need to realize that this stuff doesn’t matter. It is just stupid shit done by stupid people, people who have lost touch with reality.

If you really want to find meaning, happiness and balance in your life, you need to concentrate on doing things that you have control over.

You are the judge of the worth of all things. Only you can determine that you are the man.

And no, you won’t do it by standing in front of the mirror all day and chanting affirmations, but by going out, working hard and challenging yourself.

Mt. Blanc is the perfect test of that. And even if you fail to reach the top the first time, you will feel good about giving it your best. You will then know what to work on and come a second time better prepared.

When you do reach the top, you will have achieved something that the vast majority of people will never achieve in their life. Best of all, you will have done it through your own willpower and perseverance.

You will have tested yourself and you will have succeeded. This will be an enormous boost to your self-esteem.

You can take that back to your little office life and use it to get through all those confrontations that often happen in the modern workplace. When an overweight, sweaty slob starts shouting at you over some minor BS, you can just sit back and smile at him.

He will never accomplish what you have done. This is just his way of compensating for his own failures. Keep that in mind, and you will be able to rise above the BS. You don’t even know what an amazing feeling that is.
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Every Hero Overcomes Things That Seem Impossible – What Is Your Impossible Challenge?

Every Hero overcomes things that seem impossible – What is your impossible challenge?

Ever since the beginning of history, the story of the hero has played an important part in society. Back thousands of years ago, people would sit around a campfire and listen to the tales of ancient heroes, whether real or imagined, and how they overcame impossible challenges to do incredible things.

Hero stories have always served an important role in the development of young guys growing up. They would set the examples to be emulated. They were meant to inspire so that these youngsters could aspire to something greater.

Every hero has an origin story

Some of the most popular stories proved to be the stories we now call origin stories. Heroes were known to possess incredible powers, do impossible things and overcome powerful forces. To most listeners, they seemed out of this world.

Yet, all these heroes had to start somewhere. Most of them started off as ordinary men, living in an ordinary world, doing ordinary things. This is what made them relevant to all the people sitting around the campfire and gasping at every feat of strength, every logical problem solved with brain power and every enemy defeated. The heroes were all once like them.

Whatever your endeavor, it all starts with a first step

The origin story covers the first few steps in a hero’s journey, the parts where they go from the ordinary world and cross over the threshold into a world of adventures, and also the first few challenges that they need to overcome.

Successfully completing these first few steps sets them on a path dependency towards their superhero status.

The good news is that you can use the same type of framework to guide you on your path to greatness. You too can create your origin story. However, you need to take action. It all starts with a first step.

That first step and the successful completion of your first challenge is what defines your origin story and sets you on your hero’s journey. At this point you will know that things that seemed impossible just a short while before, are in fact quite possible and achievable.

You can create your origin story for any type of goal that you want, whether it is an adventure you want to undertake, a mental challenge that you want to tackle or a physical challenge that you want to overcome.

Create your own adventure
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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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