#42 – It’s Elementary, My Dear Knowledge.

Every minute of every day is littered with choices.

What should I wear today? What art project should I put together for my son’s class? Should I call her? Should I help him? Should I buy that bitcoin? Should I partner with that company? What should I make for dinner? Could physics apply to that theory? What can I do to change the world? Does the car that I drive convey the authority that I desire? Am I living in the right house? What did they mean by that?

I’ve written before about my frustrations as a former student in the industrialized educational system, and now as a parent of children in that same system. Like unsavory Snapchat messages, the facts go in, they stay for a short period of time to ensure recollection for testing, only to eventually disappear into the ether.

I’d always thought there had to be a better way to learn.

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people who will be able to pull together the right information at the right time, thinking critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience – The Unity of Knowledge

Important factors in learning:

  1. Maintaining child-like curiosity
  2. Asking great questions
  3. Asking better questions that follow the great questions
  4. Maintaining an unemotional neutrality during the process
  5. Building and accessing useful knowledge
  6. Making timely and informed decisions

There is a condition called decision fatigue that affects our brain and its ability to support decision making. With all of the mental transactions we are pulled into every day, there is a limit to the processing capability locked in our skulls. Each transaction requires full attention or it will share resources with another transaction thereby limiting the effectiveness  and accuracy of the original transaction.

Why do you think Steve Jobs wore the same mock turtle neck and jeans every day?

In #17 – Now is Already Then, I presented a case that we are incapable of multitasking. If multitasking doesn’t really work, and our brains are only capable of a certain amount of productive decisions each day, we have to get better at making decisions.

How can we get better at decision making while keeping our processing power dedicated to the most meaningful initiatives?

You can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try to bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in useable form. You have to have mental models in your head.

– Charlie Munger

Who is Charlie Munger?

Charlie Munger is an investor, philanthropist, author and long-time partner of Warren Buffett. Only at the ripe age of forty, did I run across the transcript of Munger’s game-changing graduation keynote address that would not only validate my original assumption on industrialized education, but also generate a renewed interest in building a framework for knowledge. He refers to this framework as Elementary Worldly Wisdom, which is a system of knowledge and mental models that work together to simplify the world around us. While Munger graduated from Harvard Law School, he had to develop this framework on his own. Think of these mental models as proven shortcuts or rules of thumb based on foundational knowledge within various disciplines including Mathematics, Psychology, Biology, Physics, Philosophy, Finance, Accounting, Systems Thinking and Business.

Interdisciplinary thinking is the core of unified knowledge. Biologist and author, Edward O. Wilson presented a system for unified knowledge called Consilience. One of the most important aspects of using mental models is bringing models from different disciplines together to evaluate a particular question or scenario. By only using a single model to evaluate opportunities and make decisions, we can introduce risk by bending the model to fit our own perception of reality. Multiple models from different disciplines used in concert is the key.

The greatest things are born out of a collision at the center of diversity.

In his book The Medici Effect, author Frans Johansson calls this wonderful place the Intersection, which he personifies through Peter’s Cafe in the port city of Horta in the Azores Islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Peters Cafe

When I saw this place for the first time, I realized that the serene environment of the cafe actually concealed a chaotic universe. The cafe was filled with ideas and viewpoints from all corners of the world, and these ideas were colliding and intermingling with each other. The people here participate in what seems like an almost random combination of ideas … There is another place like Peter’s Cafe, but it’s not in the Azores. It is in our minds. It is a place where different cultures, domains and disciplines string together toward a single point. They connect, allowing for established ideas to clash and combine, ultimately forming a multitude of new, ground-breaking ideas.

Frans Johansson, The Medici Effect

I want to expand my Elementary Worldly Wisdom, find connections through Consilience and live at the Intersection. I thought it would be a fun experiment to teach my kids how to be synthesizers rather than temporary storage devices.

My plan is to weave this goal into a discovery series within 52Musings, where I will explore one mental model at a time. As we tiptoe into this realm, I thought I would start with an easy, but potentially dangerous one. Credit for this model dates back to a 14th century friar, philosopher and theologian named William from a small village in England.

Mental Model #1

Occam’s Razor

Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate

One should not multiply the entities beyond the necessary.

Various versions of this model have permeated throughout our history. It can also be referred to as the Law of Parsimony, which is a problem solving principle used to eliminate improbable options. Einstein’s version of this was paraphrased as any theory should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. Simple is not always correct, but it may prove to be more useful. Science has always promoted simple hypotheses since they are easier to prove or discard.

“Scientists must use the simplest means of arriving at their results and exclude everything not perceived by the senses.” – Ernst Mach

The danger in the use of this model occurs when it is blindly applied as a single tool for decision-making. While it is more likely that given two different theories and limited initial information, the simpler theory is the correct one, major decisions should always be supported by empirical data. So, why do we even bother learning about Occam’s Razor? When applied as a heuristic rather than an ultimate decision-making mechanism, it can be helpful in the initial process of any research.

Consider Rube Goldberg’s self-operating napkin:

If presented with this machine to wipe your mouth, or a napkin on the table, which would you choose?

Occam’s razor is a simplification mechanism to provide guidance when empirical data is initially limited. In #31 – Simplification Through Subtraction, I wrote about my exploration of minimalism, which began to tease out and validate a personal philosophy. The power of timely decision-making propels us with momentum feeding whatever journey we can imagine. Indecision creates anxiety and an unhealthy feedback loop that only serves self-doubt and Resistance (yes, capital R … see Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art).

While this mental model can’t serve as a fundamental rule of physical law, when used properly, it can jolt your brain out of it’s skipping record routine by helping to set the needle in the next groove. When presented with two similar options, consider that the simpler one can be the easiest to validate or disprove. While simple is not always correct, it will usually be the easiest one to navigate. While working through the simpler option, you can take a probability-based approach to analyze the more complex option. Depending on the criticality of the decision, you can determine whether to discard it or dedicate further processing power, energy and time to it.

In future posts in this mental model series, we will explore other models that can be used in tandem with Occam’s Razor to improve the speed and accuracy of your decisions.


Full Transcript – Charlie Munger’s 1994 USC Address

More on Charlie Munger from Farnam Street

Occam’s Razor – UC Riverside Math Department

More On William Of Occam

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