The Thinker, by Rodin
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Ideas
June 1, 2015 7:00 AM EDT

I wrote a response on quora recently to the question ‘how do I become a better thinker’ that generated a lot of attention and feedback so I thought I’d build on that a little and post it here too.

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Thinking is not IQ. When people talk about thinking they make the mistake of thinking that people with high IQs think better. That’s not what I’m talking about. I hate to break it to you but unless you’re trying to get into Mensa, IQ tests don’t matter as much as we think they do. After a certain point, that’s not the type of knowledge or brainpower that makes you better at life, happier, or more successful. It’s a measure sure, but a relatively useless one.

If you want to outsmart people who are smarter than you, temperament and life-long learning are more important than IQ.

Two of the guiding principles that I follow on my path towards seeking wisdom are: (1) Go to bed smarter than when you woke up; and (2) I’m not smart enough to figure everything out myself, so I want to ‘master the best of what other people have already figured out.’

Acquiring wisdom, is hard. Learning how to think is hard. It means sifting through information, filtering the bunk, and connecting it to a framework that you can use. A lot of people want to get their opinions from someone else. I know this because whenever anyone blurts out an opinion and I ask why, I get some hastily re-phrased sound-byte that doesn’t contextualize the problem, identify the forces at play, demonstrate differences or similarities with previous situations, consider base rates, or … anything else that would demonstrate some level of thinking. (One of my favorite questions to probe thinking is to ask what information would cause someone to change their mind. Immediately stop listening and leave if they say ‘I can’t think of anything.’)

Thinking is hard work. I get it. You don’t have time to think but that doesn’t mean you get a pass from me. I want to think for myself, thank you.

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So one effective thing you can do if you want to think better is to become better at probing other people’s thinking. Ask questions. Simple ones are better. “Why” is the best. If you ask that three or four times you get to a place where you’re going to understand more and you’ll be able to tell who really knows what they are talking about. Shortcuts in thinking are easy, and this is how you tease them out. Not to make the other person look bad – don’t do this maliciously – but to avoid mistakes, air assumptions, and discuss conclusions.

Another thing you can do is to slow down. Make sure you give yourself time to think. I know, it’s a fast-paced internet world where we get some cultural machoism points for answering on the spot but unless it has to be decided at that very moment, simply say “let me think about that for a bit and get back to you.” The world will not end while you think about it.

You should also probe yourself. Try and understand if you’re talking about something you really know something about or if you’re just regurgitating some talking head you heard on the news last night. Your life will become instantly better and your mind clearer if you simply stop the latter. You’re only fooling yourself and if you don’t understand the limits of what you know, you’re going to get in trouble.

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Learning how to think really means continuously learning.

How can we do that?

First we need a framework to put things on so we can remember, integrate, and make them available for use.

A Latticework of Mental Models, if you will.

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Let’s make every attempt not to be the man with only a hammer.

Charlie Munger further elaborates:

When our mental models line up with reality they help us avoid problems. However, they also cause problems when they don’t line up with reality as we think something that isn’t true. So Beware.

In Peter Bevelin’s masterful book Seeking Wisdom, he highlights Munger talking about autocatalysis:

But knowing is not enough. You need to know how to apply this to other problems outside of the domain in which you learned it.

Munger continues:

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What models do we need?

I keep a running list that I’m filling in over time, but really how we store and sort these are individual preferences. The framework is not a one-stop-shop, it’s how it fits into your brain.

How can we acquire these models?

There are several ways to acquire the models, the first and probably best source is reading. Even Warren Buffett says reading is one of the best ways to get wiser.

But sadly if your goal is wisdom acquisition, you can’t just pick up a book and read it. You need to Learn How To Read A Book all over again. Most people look at my reading habits (What I’m Reading) and think that I speed read. I don’t. I think that’s a bunch of hot air. If you think you can pick up a book on a subject you’re unfamiliar with and in 30 minutes become an expert … well, good luck to you. Please go back to getting your opinions from twitter.

Focus on the big, simple ideas.

Focus on deeply understanding the simple ideas (see Five Elements of Effective Thinking). These simple ideas, not the cutting-edge ones are the ones you want to hang on your latticework. The latticework is important because it makes the knowledge useable – you not only recall but you internalize.

But the world is always changing … what should we learn first?

One of the biggest mistakes I see people making is to try and learn the cutting-edge research first. The way we prioritize learning has huge implications beyond the day-to-day. When we chase the latest thing, we’re really jumping into an arms race (see: The Red Queen Effect). We have to spend more and more of our time and energy to stay in the same place.

Despite our intentions, learning in this way fails to take advantage of cumulative knowledge. We’re not adding, we’re only maintaining.

If we are to prioritize learning, we should focus on ideas that change slowly – these tend to be the ones from the hard sciences. (see Adding Mental Models to Your Toolbox)

To help further prioritize learning

From : What Should I Read?

Integrating Knowledge

(Source: Adding Mental Models to Your Toolbox)

No one discipline has all the answers, only by looking at them all can we come to grow worldly wisdom.

Charles Munger illustrates the importance of this:

As for how we can use different ideas, Munger again shows the way …

When you combine things you get lollapalooza effects — the integration of more than one effect to create a non-linear response.

A two-step process for making effective decisions

There is no point in being wiser unless you use it for good. You know, as Aunt May put it to Peter Parker, “with great power comes great responsibility.”

(Source: A Two-step Process for Making Effective Decisions)

This is the path, the rest is up to you.

This piece originally appeared on Farnam Street.

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