How to get unblocked: see freshly for yourself

Excerpt from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig:

“He’d been innovating extensively. He’d been having trouble with students who had nothing to say. At first he thought it was laziness but later it became apparent that it wasn’t. They just couldn’t think of anything to say.

One of them, a girl with strong-lensed glasses, wanted to write a five-hundred word essay about the United States. He was used to the sinking feeling that comes from statements like this, and suggested without disparagement that she narrow it down to just Bozeman.

When the paper came due she didn’t have it and was quite upset. She had tried and tried but she just couldn’t think of anything to say.

He had already discussed her with her previous instructors and they’d confirmed his impressions of her. She was very serious, disciplined and hardworking, but extremely dull. Not a spark of creativity in her anywhere. Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, were the eyes of a drudge. She wasn’t bluffing him, she really couldn’t think of anything to say, and was upset by her inability to do as she was told.

It just stumped him. Now he couldn’t think of anything to say. A silence occurred, and then a peculiar answer: “Narrow it down to the main street of Bozeman.” It was a stroke of insight.

She nodded dutifully and went out. But just before her next class she came back in real distress, tears this time, distress that had obviously been there for a long time. She still couldn’t think of anything to say, and couldn’t understand why, if she couldn’t think of anything about all of Bozeman, she should be able to think of something about just one street.

He was furious. “You’re not looking!” he said. A memory came back of his own dismissal from the University for having too much to say. For every fact there is an infinity of hypotheses. The more you look the more you see. She really wasn’t looking and yet somehow didn’t understand this.

He told her angrily, “Narrow it down to the front of one building on the main street of Bozeman. The Opera House. Start with the upper left-hand brick.”

Her eyes, behind the thick-lensed glasses, opened wide. She came in the next class with a puzzled look and handed him a five- thousand-word essay on the front of the Opera House on the main street of Bozeman, Montana. “I sat in the hamburger stand across the street,” she said, “and started writing about the first brick, and the second brick, and then by the third brick it all started to come and I couldn’t stop. They thought I was crazy, and they kept kidding me, but here it all is. I don’t understand it.”

Neither did he, but on long walks through the streets of town he thought about it and concluded she was evidently stopped with the same kind of blockage that had paralyzed him on his first day of teaching. She was blocked because she was trying to repeat, in her writing, things she had already heard, just as on the first day he had tried to repeat things he had already decided to say. She couldn’t think of anything to write about Bozeman because she couldn’t recall anything she had heard worth repeating. She was strangely unaware that she could look and see freshly for herself, as she wrote, without primary regard for what had been said before. The narrowing down to one brick destroyed the blockage because it was so obvious she had to do some original and direct seeing.

He experimented further. In one class he had everyone write all hour about the back of his thumb. Everyone gave him funny looks at the beginning of the hour, but everyone did it, and there wasn’t a single complaint about “nothing to say.” In another class he changed the subject from the thumb to a coin, and got a full hour’s writing from every student. In other classes it was the same. Some asked, “Do you have to write about both sides?” Once they got into the idea of seeing directly for themselves they also saw there was no limit to the amount they could say.”

Processing some of Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger

In no particular order, and some of my  free form responses to Charlie Munger’s seminal work.  He’s the right hand man with Warren Buffett.  This publication is sighted by many as a great source of influence and knowledge for business.  Running a business, investing, and in the larger context: some great life lessons on its own.  (outside of business).  His stuff is in bold.  my comments are [between these things].

 1. “Any year that you don’t destroy one of your best-loved ideas is probably a wasted year.”  [Boom! Right off the bat I wholeheartedly disagree with one of his claims.  Why can’t a best loved idea just be that?  Maybe the idea isn’t ready to bring forward yet.  Or maybe we are not ready for the idea yet.  To force oneself to have to move or destroy a best loved idea within a year is an awful way to go.  I gravitate to fellow entrepreneurs because we think openly, free from shackles of time (and other elements).  Why can’t we love our ideas?  Why do we have to destroy them.  We can execute or destroy a best loved idea on our own time.  Yuck!  -1 for Charlie Munger.]

2. “Never fool yourself, and remember that you are the easiest person to fool.” – Richard Feynman.  [Absolutely.  Ego is the Enemy.  We are easily prone to drink too much of our own Kool-Aid.  Travel, being open to meeting and dialoguing with strangers, especially people very different from ourselves.  These things help us to be less prone to fool ourselves.  They help keep us in the real world, vs. an idealistic self absorbed bubble.]

3. [Charlie Munger thinks social proof causes humans to think like sheep, so contrary thinking invites new ideas that are possibly more objectively correct.  +1 for Charlie Munger.]

4. “Invert, always invert. Many hard problems are best solved only when they are addressed backwards.”   [I’d like to read more examples on this, and in the context of innovation.  He mentions this one: “If you want to help India, the question you should consider asking is not: “How can I help India?” Instead, you should ask: “How can I hurt India?” You find what will do the worst damage, and then try to avoid it.”]

5. “It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” – Epictetus.  [OK, fine, but why do we have to be so hard on ourselves?  At some point, we have to believe in things that we think we already know.  If not, won’t we be walking around like kindergarteners, questioning everything?  This is a beautiful way to live if we just want to play and look at the world in wonderment, smelling flowers all day.  But successful, happy people I know appear to me to have built a foundation of knowledge and principles as a base line for growth.  They are never afraid to learn.  But they’re not afraid to have a bit of confidence and momentum for figuring out some shit along the way.  -1 for Charlie Munger.]

6. “I could improve your ultimate financial welfare by giving you a ticket with only twenty slots in it so that you had twenty punches— representing all the investments that you get to make in a lifetime. And once you’d punched through the card you couldn’t make any more investments at all. Under those rules, you’d really think carefully about what you did and you’d be forced to load up on what you’d really thought about. So you’d do so much better.” – Warren Buffett.  [Love this.  It summarizes Buffett’s long term investment strategy.  More than this, it reminds me of Cuba for some reason.  In Cuba, they don’t throw away much, because they have to make what they have work.  In the US, cars from the 1950s got crunched for new cars.  In Cuba, no new cars were coming in, so they kept repairing what they have.  It’s great to work with constraints.  Constraints are blessings in disguise.  They get us to think creatively.  +1 for Charlie Munger.]

7. Psychology Mental Models.

Hammer-and-nail bias.

Appealing to person’s self-interest

Consistency principle

Social proof

Sunk cost

Deprival super-reaction

First conclusion bias

Crowd folly


Five Ws – Who, What, Where, When, Why

[Wait a minute.  This seems oddly familiar to Robert Caldini’s 6 Principles of Persuasion.  Whichever came first, it’s ok, because I like and agree with these.]

8. Autocatalysis: “Disney is an amazing example of autocatalysis. They had all those movies in the can. They owned the copyright. And just as Coke could prosper when refrigeration came, when the videoeassette was invented, Disney didn’t have to invent anything or do anything except take the thing out of the can and stick it on the cassette. And every parent and grandparent wanted his descendants to sit around and watch that stuff at home on videocassette. So Disney got this enormous tail wind from life. And it was billions of dollars worth of tail wind. Obviously, that’s a marvelous model if you can find it. You don’t have to invent anything. All you have to do is to sit there while the world carries you forward…”  [Note to brain: remember this word: autocatalysis.  Very good.  Everybody with a smart phone in their pocket is a MASSIVE foundation for autocatalysis.  There’d be no Uber without smart phone.  The list is long.]

9.  Remember: “Only twenty percent of the people can be in the top fifth“.  [Totally.  I saw this when I saw people going into Starbucks for the first time.  All high end fancy car consumer types.  Then, about a year later, I saw a couple construction workers going into the same Starbucks.  That hit home with me.  My friend Tom: “Chicago is a city of 10 million people.  900,000 are poor and destitute.  100,000 are rich and affluent.  The other 9 million are trying to be like the 100,000.”  +1 Charlie Munger (and Tom!)]

10. “I have a clipping from the 1911 Buffalo Evening News that lists the fifty most important stocks then actively traded on the New York Stock Exchange. Today only one, General Electric, remains in business as a large, independent company. That’s how powerful the forces of competitive destruction are. Over the very long term, history shows that the chances of any business surviving in a manner agreeable to a company’s owners are slim at best.  [This is sobering.  But also exciting.  I was looking at investing some coin in these stocks that continue to go up and up and up.  Apple, Amazon, Google.  But in the big scheme of life, maybe the party is already over for these guys (from an investment standpoint).  My nature is such that I’m more into finding the next Apple, Amazon, Google.  I like to think that i’m a forward thinker, but when a company that looks promising goes public, I get scared away: “ah, these guys are overhyped.”  Shame on me, it’s no win thinking.  TY for minimal fee mutual funds. Buy and forget.   But beyond investing, this story above is a great testament to business.  Important companies today can be insignificant or non existent tomorrow.  This is refreshing. The little guy can win, and often does win.  We can create and invent and make something remarkable.  We live in a pretty good world!  +1 Charlie Munger.]

11.  “And when these new businesses come in, there are huge advantages for the early birds. And when you’re an early bird, there’s a model that I call “surfing”— when a surfer gets up and catches the wave and just stays there, he can go a long, long time. But if he gets off the wave, he becomes mired in shallows.” o [Hence why Berkshire tends not to invest in technology.] Love this.  +1 Charlie Munger.]

12.  “There’s always been a market for people who pretend to know the future. Listening to today’s forecasters is just as crazy as when the king hired the guy to look at the sheep guts.”  [Forecasters? Agreed, crazy.  But future thinkers?  Different story.  I love being around people who are thinking about the future (but are living in the present moment).  I think it’s great to talk about what’s coming down the road.  It keeps me young and fresh. -1 Charlie Munger]

13.  “febezzlement” —the functional equivalent of embezzlement—to explain how wealth is stripped away by layers of unnecessary investment managers and consultants.

14.  Use math to size the problem: o By 2034, there will be 8 billion consumers. Each consumer must drink 64oz of water per day. If you capture half the market, and each person drinks 16oz of Coca-Cola a day, we can sell 2.92 trillion eight ounce servings in 2034.  Then, if you net 4 cents per serving, you’ll earn $117 billion.  [love the aphorism, but have fault with the assumption.  I think people will be drinking different things than 16oz of Coke a day.  Yuck product. But Coke is in the bottled water business.  I’d like to invest in THE compostable plastic (bottle) solution.  That’s my math. -1 Charlie Munger]

15. Mimicking the herd invites regression to the mean (merely average performance).  [What an interesting guy.  Conservative in so many ways but alternative thinking in others.]

16. The only way to win is to work, work, work, and hope to have a few insights.  Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day  More important than the will to win is the will to prepare  Develop fluency in mental models from the major academic disciplines  If you want to get smart, the question you have to keep asking is “why, why, why?”

17. Remember that reputation and integrity are your most valuable assets – and can be lost in a heartbeat.  [A lot of younger people may not know this yet.]

18.  “Self-pity is always counterproductive. It’s the wrong way to think. And when you avoid it, you get a great advantage over everybody else, or almost everybody else, because self-pity is a standard response.”

19.  “Assiduity. I like that word because to me it means: “Sit down on your ass until you do it.””  [Do it now.  Execution.  I am obsessed with getting the ball out of my court.  A ‘to do’ list is a great thing.  I love to get it done and cross things off my list.  If an email sits in my inbox too long, or something sits on my “to do” list too long, I get irritated.  I love this irritation. It keeps me in check.  It allows me to be productive and clear headed.]

20.  “I think that, every time you see the word EBITDA [earnings before interest, taxes, you should substitute the words “bullshit earnings.”  [amen.]

21.  “I would argue passion is more important than brain power.”  [Grit and passion are two words that will continue to be revered (because they are becoming more scarce.]

22.  There are always people who will be better at something than you. You have to learn to be a follower before you become a leader.”

23. “The ‘silly’ question is the first intimation of some totally new development.” – Alferd Whitehead

24.  “There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go if he doesn’t mind who gets the credit.” – Robert Woodruff

25.  On Buffett’s teachings: “his words are often made more acceptable through use of insightful humor.”  [We always welcome an opportunity for more humor in our lives.  If you can get someone to laugh with you, they are your friend.  If you can get someone to gut wrench laugh with you, they are your friend for life.]

Putting our projects in position for the adjacent possible

If anyone asks “why are you wasting your time on that?” You can attempt to quiet their negativity with the answer:

“Because I am putting myself in the position for the adjacent possible.”

What does the adjacent possible mean ?  It means a lot.  And basically it means that good ideas come from advancing the ball.  Doing.  Prototyping.  Testing.  When we do (instead of just talk or plan) we put our projects in a place for improvement and launch.

In the tech world, they are big on MVP – Minimal Variable Product.  “a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers, and to provide feedback for future product development.”

This is what we do at Rolling Thunder.  We put projects in motion.  When we are in motion we are able to take advantage of the adjacent possible.


Steven Johnson’s book detailing the adjacent possible

A great review of Steven Johnson’s book can be found here.