“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every month, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Super Thinking by Gabriel Weinberg and Lauren McCann.
I’ve mentioned before that I choose books to read using a simple system that rotates through several genres like marketing/persuasion, business/work/leadership, health and fitness, and others.
Super Thinking was the latest book I read for my “be smarter/better” genre, and I loved it because it contains a thorough but accessible inventory of many powerful mental models that can help us think and act more effectively in many ways.
By “mental model,” I mean “how you think things work in a particular domain,” and as the quality of our reasoning and decisions depends hugely on the accuracy of our mental models (how closely they reflect reality), expanding and honing our collection of valuable mental models is a high-leverage activity that can pay dividends in all areas of our life.
For instance, mental models discussed in the book include availability bias, fundamental attribution error, and optimistic probability bias can help us avoid common thinking errors that warp feelings and intuition; Goodhart’s law can help us create better incentives for your children and employees or direct reports; and short-termism, technical debt, and path dependence can help us avoid decisions and behaviors you’ll later regret.
There’s a reason why people like Jeff Bezos, Charlie Munger, and Elon Musk have spoken about the importance of understanding and using mental models. Fundamentally, successful thinking and planning involve predicting likely outcomes based on known and hypothetical data and scenarios. Time-proven mental models enhance our ability to predict and plan by allowing us to spot otherwise invisible patterns and dynamics that hold true and behave consistently across a variety of situations.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
My 5 Key Takeaways from Super Thinking
“As Charlie Munger says, ‘I never allow myself to have an opinion on anything that I don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.’”
One of the easiest ways to stump even an educated and intelligent person with strong opinions on controversial matters—climate change, gun violence, systemic racism, you name it—is to simply ask them to explain the three most common counterarguments to their positions and why they’re unconvincing.
Seriously, try it sometime, and watch how quickly the person changes the subject because they’ve simply never sought out the counterpoints and likely never will.
Instead, this person has succumbed to three thorny human tendencies:
- To gather and interpret information that confirms our preexisting beliefs, a phenomenon called confirmation bias.
- To impose a higher burden of proof on ideas we don’t want to believe, which is known as disconfirmation bias.
- To harden our opinions when faced with facts and evidence that suggests otherwise, something scientists refer to as the backfire effect.
We’ve all been guilty of these faulty behaviors, and if we want to be as rational and thoughtful as possible, we have to consciously resist the allure of these habits by actively seeking out and considering opposing viewpoints, maintaining equal standards of proof, and resisting the refuge of a bunker mentality. Or, if we’re not willing to do those things, we at least have to acknowledge that we’re more interested in indulging our feelings than discovering the truth—more interested in feeling right than being right.
“Nobel Prize–winning physicist Max Planck explained it like this in his Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers: ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it,’ or, more succinctly, ‘Science progresses one funeral at a time.’”
Many people don’t realize how messy scientific progress is. They imagine the scientific community as a monolithic battalion of unbiased and upright men and women selflessly and harmoniously searching for new and better ways to understand and exploit reality for the betterment of all of humankind.
Scientific theories usually evolve like this: problems with existing paradigms and contradictory evidence are ignored or rationalized away until eventually the defects become so numerous and obvious that the discipline is thrown into crisis and new explanations are then adopted as the accepted norms.
For instance, in 1912, Alfred Wegener proposed the now-accepted theory of continental drift, in which the continents wander across the oceans. Initially, however, his idea was roundly rejected by experts on the grounds that he was a meteorologist and not a geologist and he couldn’t explain how such a drift occurred, only that it appears to be the case. And so his hypothesis languished for nearly forty years until a new scientific discipline, paleomagnetism, started producing data in support of it.
Another example of this phenomenon is the work of Ignaz Semmelweis, a nineteenth-century Hungarian doctor who, after much careful observation, was convinced that if doctors handling cadavers washed their hands before delivering babies, fewer mothers would die after giving birth. This theory was completely rejected by the medical community at large for several reasons, including the offensive implication that doctors were inadvertently killing their patients and the academic deficiencies in Semmelweis’ explanations for why handwashing seemed to improve mortality.
Semmelweis went crazy trying to prove his beliefs and was admitted to a mental institution against his will, where he was beaten, straight-jacketed, and abused. He died two weeks later, at the age of forty-seven, from a gangrenous wound on his right hand. It then took twenty years for medicos to realize they were wrong about antiseptics, following Louis Pasteur’s confirmation of germ theory.
My point with all of this is beware the growing cults of scientism and credentialism, which by the way, aren’t synonyms for “science” and “credentials.” Scientism is defined as “excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques” and credentialism “belief in or reliance on academic or other formal qualifications as the best measure of a person’s intelligence or ability to do a particular job.”
In other words, swallowing anything purporting to be scientific or from the mouth of “experts.”
In this brave new clown world, the proclamation that cutting off your head is unhealthy is quickly met by a chorus of skeptical midwits who demand peer-reviewed studies as proof. These aren’t smart people. These are people who can’t think for themselves and desperately rely on authorities to tell them what to believe.
To paraphrase Carl Sagan, you have every right to mistrust arguments from authority and demand that experts prove their contentions like everybody else because too many of such arguments have proved too agonizingly wrong.
Additionally, if you’ve retained your senses, you also have the power to come to many sound conclusions through your faculties of observation and reasoning alone. You don’t have to instinctively reject your senses, deductions, and intuitions until they’re blessed by a high priest of officialdom.
“Practically, whenever you are presented with a decision with two options, try to think of more.”
This is a simple but powerful piece of advice that can immediately improve your decision making in any area of your life because when faced with a problem or opportunity, there are almost always more paths to victory than we initially perceive and we can always do better than whatever first comes to mind. This is why Hemingway said first drafts are shit and Spielberg said all good ideas start out as bad ideas.
Ideation is difficult, though, which is probably why so many people avoid it. It’s much easier to just take whatever’s presented to us or top of mind. What most people don’t realize, however, is like anything else, brainstorming is simply a skill you can learn. Whether you consider yourself an inherently “creative” person is irrelevant—you can become an “idea person” by regularly acting like one (practicing).
An easy way to do this is with lateral thinking exercises, which you can find many of online. You can also find many great creative prompts and tools in the book Thinkertoys.
“If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late.”
This is a concept I share with many people who ask me for business advice. In startup land, there’s an idea called the minimum viable product, or MVP, and it’s a product with just enough features to be productively tested. This is how you start a business—by getting something to market as quickly as you can because your first plan is probably wrong, and you want real-world feedback from customers and users to help steer you in the right direction.
Then, you can use that feedback to revise your product or service, get additional feedback, amend further, etc., until you achieve the primary driver of long-term business success: product/market fit, which is defined as being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.
As product/market fit is unlikely to occur in your first foray into a market—it’ll likely require considerable iteration—initially, you want to do as little work as possible to begin that iterative process.
“The most important questions of life are indeed, for the most part, really only problems of probability.”
Pierre-Simon Laplace was a French scholar and polymath who made significant contributions to many disciplines, including engineering, mathematics, statistics, physics, astronomy, and philosophy.
He also had a unique way of looking at living:
“The most important questions of life are indeed, for the most part, really only problems of probability.”
What did Laplace mean by this? The Law of Large Numbers lends insight.
It’s a theorem that states that the average value of a variable over a large number of trials should be close to the expected value.
In other words, in the long run, random events tend to average out at the expected results.
For instance, if we flipped a coin ten times, we wouldn’t be surprised to see seven heads. If we flipped it ten thousand times, however, it’d be nearly impossible to get seven thousand heads—the results would likely be close to five thousand (the expected result given the 50 percent probability of heads and tails).
This mathematical maxim also explains why casinos do just about anything to keep people in the pits, hooting and hollering, and why insurance companies are so lucrative. Thanks to the lopsided nature of gambling games and the accuracy of actuarial analysis, the law of large numbers guarantees the house a profit over time.
In this way, the casino mathematically makes money with every spin of the roulette wheel, regardless of individual outcomes, and an insurance company adds to their bottom line with every premium payment, regardless of subsequent claims.
This also happens to be the “secret” to success in many other arenas, not luck, ingenuity, or nepotism. So long as you have a plan that provides a path to victory, even a narrow one, persistence is the ticket.
Put differently, once you have an edge, you just have to keep the wheel spinning.
This a lesson I’ve learned well in my life and business travels.
I don’t put much stock in the immediate success or failure of each individual “bet” I make. Instead, I focus on consistently making as many favorable bets as I can, and thanks to the law of large numbers, my wins have exceeded my losses.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes, too, and often, they didn’t feel like progress. Here’s what I knew, though:
Those spins counted.
They were simply part of processes that, over time, were expected to produce desirable results. And so I didn’t count my lucky stars or act surprised when this happened. It had nothing to do with fate or any other unknowns or uncontrollables. It was just the natural course of things.
So, in closing, I want to leave with two questions to meditate on:
Where are you overfocusing on short-term results and overlooking long-term expectations?
What can you start doing right away to reverse this?