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.
- Choose a Concept
- Teach it to a Toddler
- Identify Gaps and Go Back to The Source Material
- 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.