Mind Macros 55: Exploring human exceptionalism, encouraging imitation, and avoiding foolishness
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened." — Friedrich Nietzsche
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. Human exceptionalism
“Eric Barcia had carefully calculated the height of the railroad trestle at Lake Accotink Park in Springfield, Virginia. It was seventy feet from the trestle’s edge to the concrete spillway below. An amateur bungee enthusiast who had been described by his grandmother as ‘very smart in school,’ Barcia taped together a bunch of bungee cords until he had created a single cord that was about 70 feet long. In the early morning of July 12, 1997, Barcia fastened the makeshift cord to his ankles, tied the other end to the trestle, and leapt off the bridge. His body was found by a jogger soon after. Since bungee cords stretch when pulled (a fact that Barcia had overlooked), he had overestimated the length of cord by some sixty feet.
“The temptation here is to snicker at Barcia’s stupidity. But this is not a story of stupidity. Barcia’s cord-length miscalculation was but a sad footnote to a much larger tale of human cognitive prowess. To stand on the edge of that trellis and devise such an elaborate plan is a testament to everything amazing about the human mind. His death was the result of a simple mathematical error.
“Now imagine that Santino—the rock-throwing chimpanzee we met in Chapter 3—was standing next to Barcia on the trestle’s edge. What is the difference between Santino’s and Barcia’s thought processes in that moment? Since chimpanzees are our closest evolutionary relative, comparing how Santino and Barcia would approach this scenario will give us important clues about human exceptionalism and our minds compared to other animals.
“Santino would need to come up with a plan involving the assembly of materials to create a bungee cord that would take days to execute—involving mental time travel skills that he does not likely possess. He would also need a sophisticated grasp of cause and effect—an understanding of what happens to a falling object that is secured to another object via an elastic material. He would then need to assemble this sophisticated kind of tool and find a way to secure it to himself and the bridge; skills that are seemingly well above his pay grade. This is a kind of why specialism that chimpanzees lack. Even if Santino had bungee-jumping aspirations, he is just not intelligent enough to bungee jump.
But that’s a good thing. Barcia’s bungee plan was a case of complex human cognition gone wrong. His intelligence, not his stupidity, was directly responsible for his death. Santino, the less intelligent of the two on paper, behaved more intelligently precisely because he was less intelligent. In other words, intelligence sometimes results in very stupid behavior.” — From If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal by Justin Gregg (view my three takeaways).
Warren Buffett is well-known amongst many, the legendary investor behind Berkshire Hathaway, whose annual return has been nearly double that of the S&P 500 for six decades. A less spoken-of individual is Charlie Munger, Buffett's business partner and Vice Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway. In addition to investing, Munger is distinguished for his latticework of mental models, professing that:
“What you need is a latticework of mental models in your head. And, with that system, things gradually get to fit together in a way that enhances cognition.”
Mental models are principles for comprehending the world; they provide a structure for recognizing sequences, forecasting results, and interpreting information. In issue 52, we delved into the realm of cognitive razors - a subdivision of mental models - to explore how they can be used to formulate conclusions, make decisions, and solve problems. The most famous example of a mental model is Occam's Razor which states that simpler explanations are more likely to be true than complex ones.
Munger is responsible for popularizing mental models, one of his most renowned advocates for avoiding stupidity rather than pursuing intelligence. He believes it preferable to make decisions that lack foolishness rather than striving for wisdom.
“People are trying to be smart—all I am trying to do is not to be idiotic, but it’s harder than most people think.”
“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
Shane Parrish, the writer of FS.blog, is responsible for propagating Munger’s principles through his essays; one such example is ‘Avoiding Stupidity is Easier than Seeking Brilliance.’ In the article, Parrish includes a passage from the book, Extraordinary Tennis Ordinary Players by Simon Ramo to illustrate how professional tennis players don't strive for perfection but rather avoid mistakes.
“In expert tennis, about 80 per cent of the points are won; in amateur tennis, about 80 per cent of the points are lost. In other words, professional tennis is a Winner’s Game – the final outcome is determined by the activities of the winner – and amateur tennis is a Loser’s Game – the final outcome is determined by the activities of the loser. The two games are, in their fundamental characteristic, not at all the same. They are opposites.”
“… if you choose to win at tennis – as opposed to having a good time – the strategy for winning is to avoid mistakes. The way to avoid mistakes is to be conservative and keep the ball in play, letting the other fellow have plenty of room in which to blunder his way to defeat, because he, being an amateur will play a losing game and not know it.”
An everyday application of this method can be demonstrated in another mental model known as the principle of inversion:
"The way complex adaptive systems work, and the way mental constructs work, problems frequently become easier to solve through 'inversion.' If you turn problems around into reverse, you often think better.
"For instance, if you want to help India, the question you should consider asking is not: 'How can I help India?' Instead, you should ask: 'How can I hurt India?’ You find what will do the worst damage, and then try to avoid it. Perhaps the two approaches seem logically the same thing. But those who have mastered algebra know that inversion will often and easily solve problems that otherwise resist solution. And in life, just as in algebra, inversion will help you solve problems that you can't otherwise handle." — From Poor Charlie's Almanack by Peter D. Kaufman.
Munger has utilized the inversion principle to construct a framework for his beliefs:
"I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don't know the other side's argument better than they do."
When forming an opinion, there is always a viewpoint we feel an innate inclination towards. But before embracing this sentiment, we must first become experts on the opposing perspectives. Examining all facets thoroughly guards against potential cognitive errors, thus preventing any irrational choices.
Another method of applying inversion is to decision-making:
“Intelligent people make decisions based on opportunity costs-in other words, it's your alternatives that matter. That's how we make all of our decisions.”
Consider the costs of missing out on other, perhaps concealed, opportunities before focusing on the immediate rewards of a decision.
Munger's advice runs parallel with a Nassim Nicholas Taleb dictum from his book, The Black Swan:
"Be confident about what is wrong, not about what you believe is right."
II. Originality stands beyond the edge of imitation
“The Finnish American photographer Arno Minkkinen dramatizes this deep truth about the power of patience with a parable about Helsinki’s main bus station. There are two dozen platforms there, he explains, with several different bus lines departing from each one—and for the first part of its journey, each bus leaving from any given platform takes the same route through the city as all the others, making identical stops. Think of each stop as representing one year of your career, Minkkinen advises photography students.
“You pick an artistic direction—perhaps you start working on platinum studies of nudes—and you begin to accumulate a portfolio of work. Three years (or bus stops) later, you proudly present it to the owner of a gallery. But you’re dismayed to be told that your pictures aren’t as original as you thought, because they look like knockoffs of the work of the photographer Irving Penn; Penn’s bus, it turns out, had been on the same route as yours. Annoyed at yourself for having wasted three years following somebody else’s path, you jump off that bus, hail a taxi, and return to where you started at the bus station. This time, you board a different bus, choosing a different genre of photography in which to specialize. But a few stops later, the same thing happens: you’re informed that your new body of work seems derivative, too. Back you go to the bus station. But the pattern keeps on repeating: nothing you produce ever gets recognized as being truly your own.
“What’s the solution? ‘It’s simple,’ Minkkinen says. ‘Stay on the bus. Stay on the fucking bus.’ A little farther out on their journeys through the city, Helsinki’s bus routes diverge, plunging off to unique destinations as they head through the suburbs and into the countryside beyond. That’s where the distinctive work begins. But it begins at all only for those who can muster the patience to immerse themselves in the earlier stage—the trial-and-error phase of copying others, learning new skills, and accumulating experience.
“The implications of this insight aren’t confined to creative work. In many areas of life, there’s strong cultural pressure to strike out in a unique direction—to spurn the conventional options of getting married, or having kids, or remaining in your hometown, or taking an office job, in favor of something apparently more exciting and original. Yet if you always pursue the unconventional in this way, you deny yourself the possibility of experiencing those other, richer forms of uniqueness that are reserved for those with the patience to travel the well-trodden path first.” — From Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (view my three takeaways).
William Ralph Inge once said: “What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”
The drive for originality leads humans along a path of delusion and, ultimately, to madness. Most don't escape this route; instead, they remain stuck at the station, endlessly striving for something original, paralyzed by procrastination, and consumed by excellence.
By assembling the pieces of the past, one can construct new realities through the crafting and combining of ideas, forming visions of what could be from what is. Creativity is collating the familiar with the novel, expanding upon the memory of those who came before. We carry our predecessor's work forward by paying homage to the many hands shaping our ideas. By incorporating our influences, we honor them.
Mark Twain once said all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously, derived from a plethora of external sources. Historian Will Durant insisted that only the arrangement was original. W. H Auden claimed some writers confuse authenticity, which they should aspire toward, with originality, which they should never bother about. The musician David Bowie once said the only art he'll ever study is stuff he can steal. Writer Jonathan Lethem noted that when a piece of work is hailed as unique, its roots are not recognized. Perhaps my favorite point comes from Wilson Mizner, who said that if you steal from one author, it's plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it's research.
The discussion of copying, thieving, and plagiarism rightly raises alarm bells in the minds of many. However, the overarching point is that to arrive at anything remotely authentic; we must progress through years of imitation. This period teaches us what we desire, detest, and wish to edit, adapt, and refine. The journey of discovery marks the dawning of our distinctiveness, placing us on the path to creating with authenticity.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Henry George on cultivating adaptability in our opinions:
“We should be ready to change our views at any time, and slough off prejudices, and live with an open and receptive mind. A sailor who sets the same sails all the time, without making changes when the wind changes, will never reach his harbor.”
II. Friedrich Nietzsche on being autonomous:
“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Thank you for reading,