Why get smarter at all? Although this is a rhetoric question, let me mentally roam around.
Let’s start with this: the continuous pursuit of producing ever better outcomes is an axiom of life for me. And everything what we do can be simplified, boiled down to decision making and acting on decisions. The better decisions you make, the better your outcomes will be, regardless of what you are doing.
So what are the ways to make decisions? There are a few. Random guessing is for those who don’t believe in determinism. Star Wars fans might use the force, and Lord of The Rings aficionados may opt for magic. Some also like to simply do what others do. That pretty much exhausts all the fun options, leaving only those - such as rational decision making - that are based on real science and incidentally are the only proven ways to significantly increase the chances of producing good outcomes.
Rational decision making is pretty straightforward, as Herbert Simon defines it. You need to select the alternative that results in the preferred set of all possible consequences. And you do that by identifying all the alternatives, determining all consequences resulting from each, and comparing their accuracy and efficiency.
The theory is easy. Where it becomes really, really interesting is the extent to which we can figure out all the alternatives and consequences, and pin down the accuracy and efficiency of the alternatives with precision. And I completely agree with Simon that knowledge of all alternatives, or all consequences, is just impossible in many, not to say most realistic cases.
Not only there is a limit to human cognition in general, every one of us also has our own confines. That is one of the main reasons (there’s also the hard work) that some people are more successful than others. They are better equipped to make better decisions.
There are many things that contribute to our potential for decision making. I, however distill them into two fundamental factors - raw intelligence and the body of knowledge one holds.
For raw intelligence, there’s a good question of nature vs nurture. Are we just born with it, and with a fixed individual limit? Or can we work hard to improve our analytical and synthetical abilities? I personally am of the belief that it’s mainly nurture. Many would not agree, but even that’s fine because there’s something we can all do tomorrow to improve our rational decision making - extend our body of knowledge.
In theory having a great mass of raw intelligence and unlimited time you should be able to build up all the knowledge yourself, always starting from first principles and figuring out all the layers of knowledge until you reach what you are looking for.
But that seems to be a waste of time, which is probably the most essential resource you have in your life. Having a broad and deep body of knowledge is a great shortcut.
Reasoning from first principles is a critical process that we all should strive for. However, I think it should be used for validating all your assumptions and reasoning, rather than for actively “discovering” knowledge that someone else has already proved. Use your brain cycles to synthesise new things :).
So what’s the best way to acquire knowledge? Read. A lot.
To give you a radical but great example, Warren Buffett is said to spend 80% of his time reading. All of us can build up our knowledge, but most of us won’t put in the effort.
So this year I decided to read 25 books. That means one book over two weeks, which probably translates to an hour or reading each day. On one hand, it looks like a lot, but from the broader perspective of how much knowledge there is to be had overall, it seems like too unambitious a start.
Below is my reading list of the 14 most important books for myself for the first half of 2017, arranged by category.
Embracing complexity. Science, design and engineering:
- Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander.
- The Sciences of the Artificial by Herbert A. Simon.
- A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander.
- The Art of Insight In Science And Engineering: Mastering Complexity by Sanjoy Mahajan.
- An Introduction to General Systems Thinking by Gerald M. Weinberg.
- Molecular Biology of the Cell.
- Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.
- Building the Empire State by Carol Willis.
- Administrative Behaviour by Herbert A. Simon.
Context about the world:
- Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari.
- Quantum Mechanics and Experience by David Z Albert.
- Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson.
- The Warren Buffett Way by Robert G. Hagstrom.
- The Intelligent Investor: The Definitive Book on Value Investing by Benjamin Graham.
With that, have a great 2017