Ways To Think (Max Planck Edition)

When Steph West Allen sent me a link to Farnam Street, I had no idea what to expect. Stephanie often sends me links without explanation. But I clicked and saw the subtitle:

Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

I want to avoid stupidity, for myself and others. And indeed, the post Steph referred to was fascinating. It began with a quote from Mortimer Adler that struck home.

“The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks.”

More to the point, we employ facile rationalizations to explain our feelings to ourselves and pretend they are well-conceived thoughts. But unless and until tested by explaining our feelings with sound cogent arguments, we’re just enjoying some mental masturbation. In one post, Farnam Street explains two ways of thinking (and this is such a great story, told by Charlie Munger at the 2007 commencement of USC Law School, that I can’t pass it up):

I frequently tell the apocryphal story about how Max Planck, after he won the Nobel Prize, went around Germany giving the same standard lecture on the new quantum mechanics.

Over time, his chauffeur memorized the lecture and said, “Would you mind, Professor Planck, because it’s so boring to stay in our routine, if I gave the lecture in Munich and you just sat in front wearing my chauffeur’s hat?” Planck said, “Why not?” And the chauffeur got up and gave this long lecture on quantum mechanics. After which a physics professor stood up and asked a perfectly ghastly question. The speaker said, “Well I’m surprised that in an advanced city like Munich I get such an elementary question. I’m going to ask my chauffeur to reply.”

Many will take away from this story that we’re living in a world of chauffeurs, people who are capable of repeating other people’s ideas without the capacity to understand what they mean. But upon reflection, this gives us too much credit.

Max Planck’s chauffeur understood that he was merely mouthing Planck’s lecture. Most of us do not realize this about ourselves. Most of us lack the self-insight to realize that the ability to utter brilliant words doesn’t make us brilliant. We should aspire to be as self-aware as the chauffeur.

Shane Parrish, the force behind Farnam Street, is a strong believer in the Feynman Technique, which distinguishes two types of knowledge:

There are two types of knowledge and most of us focus on the wrong one. The first type of knowledge focuses on knowing the name of something. The second focuses on knowing something. These are not the same thing.

The chauffeur is offered as an example of the first type of knowledge, while Planck is obviously the example of the second. But this aspect of the Feynman Technique is merely the starting point. It goes on with a variation of variously attributed, “I don’t know what I think until I see what I write,” which is my exercise here daily.

  1. Choose a Concept
  2. Teach it to a Toddler
  3. Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
  4. Review and Simplify

This is where I find myself failing. Miserably. When we arrive at what appears to be an idea in our heads, we understand what we mean and believe that it’s a rational thought. Until tested by putting it in writing, where every assertion is tested by the crucible of having to stare at the gaps in one’s thought process, the holes we can easily leap over in our minds but that scream back at us on the page that we’ve failed in our attempt to reach our beloved conclusion, we’re just fooling ourselves.

I am just fooling myself. You are subject to the logical fallacies, the gaps, the holes, the red herrings and strawmen. I am too.

My approach tends to involve the tacit embrace of certain ideas of others.  In the past, I used to try explaining my thought process, but over the years, I’ve let it go because it seems too repetitive. In my mind, I’ve already explained how important, say, Herzberg’s motivator-hygiene theory is to my view of things. Every new post can’t repeat every old post, but then, I ought to be smart enough to realize that others can’t see what’s in my head or be expected to have read everything I’ve written.

Shane Parrish is right, that the adoption of Feynman’s Technique would greatly enhance my ability to communicate. I don’t put in the time to simplify, and what it reflects is my failure rather than the reader’s. Even worse, when forced to face this failure by a comment that conclusively demonstrates that my writing has failed to adequately explain things at toddler level, I lose patience and refuse to play with them.

So will I change my evil ways? No. Not here. But these posts at Farnam Street have smacked me upside the head that the failing is mine. If someone fails to grasp what I’ve tried to say, they can’t be blamed for my having failed to explain things so simply and clearly that a toddler can understand.

Then again, even if I did, there is no assurance that everyone will get it. It’s a big internet out there, and there is no sanity or intelligence requirement to buy a keyboard. As much as I hope that nothing I write makes anyone stupider, I’m no Max Planck. Or Bob Dylan, for that matter.

20 thoughts on “Ways To Think (Max Planck Edition)

  1. Dave

    Referencing Max Planck and Richard Feynman in a legal post – I think I am in not-real place with clouds and dead people.

    (This post reminded me of the ultimate guide to explaining things with simple terms: https://xkcd.com/thing-explainer/ – I know, no links generally, but at the very least, you can see it if you haven’t already. Full disclosure: I have this book and think it is awesome.)

    You could even bring this around to a discussion of Plain Language for Lawyers stuff – which I think comes from the same place. Suffice it to say that I try do use the Feynman technique as well, and often fail.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not an adherent of the “plain language” school of legal writing. It’s one of the areas where Bryan Garner and I disagree. Words are clunky. Once a word has been beaten to death to gain a level of precision within a field, it saves a lot of time and effort to use it rather than take a shot in the dark to reinvent the wheel. I would rather not spend time arguing about what “is” is.

  2. Mark

    “The person who says he knows what he thinks but cannot express it usually does not know what he thinks,” I think.

  3. Patrick Maupin

    Most of us lack the self-insight to realize that the ability to utter brilliant words doesn’t make us brilliant.

    It’s worse than that. Many of us don’t come anywhere close to fully grasping the implications of the brilliant words we do parrot.

    Some of us even quote the word of experts without any awareness that those words directly contradict what we have been arguing for the last half hour. It’s OK, though — most of us who do this will eventually work our way around to arguing the other side of the issue. But we don’t have the awareness to understand whether we are doing that because we don’t understand, because we’ve changed our mind, or because we are hell-bent on proving just how annoying a single human being can be in a short time-span.

  4. Jonathan

    “If someone fails to grasp what I’ve tried to say, they can’t be blamed for my having failed”
    The someone you are writing for is presumed to be, if not a lawyer, at least reasonably well educated and open-minded. It’s not necessarily your failure if the someone who reads is close-minded, doesn’t read carefully, or lacks the background to grasp the issues. Also, if you think too long about whether what someone heard is more important than what you meant, you’ll start drifting into crit-land.

    Thanks for the post. It was humbling. We all need a whack upside the head from time to time.

    1. SHG Post author

      We all need a whack upside the head from time to time.

      Me more than most. But then, at least I only do it in the privacy of my own blawg.

    2. kenm

      Define well educated…All I’ve got is a HS diploma…

      I do have a bad habit of reading books. Lots of them….for a while, i read every book I could get my hands on. I no longer have the time to do that.

  5. losingtrader

    ” If someone fails to grasp what I’ve tried to say, they can’t be blamed for my having failed to explain things so simply and clearly that a toddler can understand.”

    Oh, shit, does this mean the end of your insulting commenters? I’d have to stop the list of SHGisms.

  6. Mike

    Even as a layman, I can usually decipher the gist of what you’re trying to say. I think most moderately educated people should.

    As for simplifying legalese, wasn’t it Thomas Jefferson who said that laws should be written simply and succinctly so that the common citizen would be able to understand it?

    1. SHG Post author

      I’m not aware of Jefferson saying anything of the sort. But he did say:

      The man who reads nothing at all is better educated than the man who reads nothing but newspapers.

      So there.

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