Warren Buffett’s Advice on How to Focus on Priorities and Subdue Distractions

If you persistently experience an overpowering sense of being besieged with tasks and responsibilities, perhaps a personal productivity transformation technique suggested by Warren Buffett may help.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania shares a well-known anecdote about Buffett in her bestselling Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance:

The story goes like this: Buffett turns to his faithful pilot and says that he must have dreams greater than flying Buffett around to where he needs to go. The pilot confesses that, yes, he does. And then Buffett takes him through three steps.

First, you write down a list of twenty-five career goals.

Second, you do some soul-searching and circle the five highest-priority goals. Just five.

Third, you take a good hard look at the twenty goals you didn’t circle. These you avoid at all costs. They’re what distract you; they eat away time and energy, taking your eye from the goals that matter more.

As I’ve written before (see the world’s shortest course in time management, and detailed three-step course on time logging, time analysis, time budgeting,) the most effective time management practice involves eliminating the non-essentials—those numerous things you can and want to do—and focusing on the very few things you must do.

Idea for Impact: Success comes at a cost: the most time-effective folks I know are significantly better at dropping their second-rate objectives.

Learning from the World’s Best Learning Organization: Book Summary of ‘The Toyota Way’

Toyota is a Paragon of Operational Excellence

Toyota is the World’s Most Benchmarked Company, and for Good Reason

Toyota’s cars are reputed for their reliability, initial quality, and long-term durability. It is the pioneer of modern, mass-production techniques and a paragon of operational excellence. Even if its reputation has taken a beating in the last few years because of the uncontrolled acceleration crisis and major product recalls, Toyota’s long-term standing as the epitome of quality production is undeniable.

Toyota measures and improves everything—even the noise that doors make when they open and close. As cars roll off assembly lines, they go through a final inspection station staffed by astute visual and tactile inspectors. If they spot even a simple paint defect, they don’t just quietly fix the problem merely by touching up the paint to satisfy the customer or their plant manager. They seek out systemic deficiencies that may have contributed to the problem, and may hint at deeper troubles with their processes.

World-Class Processes, World-Class Quality

'The Toyota Way' by Jeffrey Liker (ISBN 0071392319) As Jeffrey K. Liker explains in his excellent The Toyota Way, the genius of Toyota lies in the Japanese expression ‘jojo‘: it has gradually and steadily institutionalized common-sense principles for waste reduction (‘muda, mura, muri‘) and continuous improvement (‘kaizen.’) Liker, a professor of industrial engineering at the University of Michigan (my alma mater) has studied the Toyota culture for decades and has written six other books about learning from Toyota.

Liker establishes the context of The Toyota Way with a concise history of Toyota Motor (and the original Toyoda Textile Machinery business) and the tone set by Toyota founders Sakichi and Kiichiro Toyoda. Quality pioneers such as Taiichi Ohno, W. Edwards Deming, and Joseph Juran instituted groundbreaking philosophies that shifted Toyota’s organizational attention from managing resource efficiencies in isolation to managing the flow of value generated by the Toyota Production System (TPS.)

“No Problem is the Problem:” How Toyota Continuously Improves the Way it Works

Liker devotes a bulk of his book to the distinct elements of Toyota’s foundational principles: continuous flow, minimal inventory, avoidance of overproduction, balanced workload, standardized tasks, visual control, etc. He drills down to the underlying principles and behaviors of the Toyota culture: respect people, observe problems at the source, decide slowly but implement swiftly, and practice relentless appraisals of the status quo. Liker states, “Toyota’s success derives from balancing the role of people in an organizational culture that expects and values their continuous improvements, with a technical system focused on high-value-added flow.”

Toyota mindset and the organizational discipline

Companies that have tried to emulate Toyota have struggled not with understanding its management tools but with putting into practice the mindset and the organizational discipline that permeates everything Toyota does. “Understanding Toyota’s success and quality improvement systems does not automatically mean you can transform a company with a different culture and circumstances.”

Book Recommendation: Read The Toyota Way. As Liker observes, “Toyota is process oriented and consciously and deliberately invests long term in systems of people, technology and processes that work together to achieve high customer value.” The Toyota Way is comprehensive and well organized, if tedious in certain parts. It can impart many practical pointers to help improve the operational efficiency of one’s organization. Peruse it.

Postscript: I’ve taken many tours of Toyota’s Georgetown, Kentucky, factories and a few associated suppliers—once as part of a lean manufacturing study tour organized by Liker’s research group and other times privately. I strongly recommend them for observing Toyota’s matchless culture in action on the production floor. I also recommend the Toyota Commemorative Museum in Nagoya for a history of Toyoda Textile Machinery and Toyota Motor and their management principles.

Moral Disengagement Leads People to Act Immorally and Justify Their Unprincipled Behavior

Temptation of Christ on the First Day of Lent

Rationality Drives Human Behavior Only After Emotion and Impulse Lose Their Hegemony

People adapt moral standards that dissuade them from objectionable behavior. But these moral standards do not serve as a steadfast regulator of their moral actions. Occasionally, circumstances can make people to become selectively disengaged from those moral self-sanctions and end up pursuing unprincipled actions.

Particularly when people feel angry, pressured, or depressed, their mental footing tends to ebb away. Any state of emotional threat can let up their determination to act ethically and resist temptations. They lose discipline, get into a defensive mode, and become susceptible to thinking only about short-term benefits. They are more likely to engage in self-absorbed behaviors that they would otherwise spurn, especially if the payoff for such behavior is high and the odds of getting caught and punished are low.

Circumstances Sometimes Sway People to Engage in Behaviors That Conflict with Their Internalized Moral Standards

Moral disengagement is the psychological phenomenon that describes how people rationalize behavior that is at odds with their own moral principles. For example, suppose a teenager who has a principled framework that forbids theft. If he takes a newspaper without paying for it from a Starbucks store, he may rationalize his actions by telling himself that Starbucks warranted some harm because it overcharges its consumers and, until recently, purchased not all its coffee beans from certified fair trade sources.

'Moral Disengagement' by Albert Bandura (ISBN 1464160058) People engaging in wrongdoing often see that the rules are uncalled-for and unjustifiable. In their judgment, even though they may be breaking the rules and flouting conventions, they’re persuaded that they’re really not doing anything wrong because the rules deserve to be violated.

Moral reasoning usually deprives people when they devalue their prey and malign their victims (“her tattletaling deserved it” or “he brandish a knife, hence I pulled out my gun.”)

Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura, who introduced the concept of moral disengagement, identified eight cognitive mechanisms (book) that disengage a person’s internal moral standards from his/her actions, thereby causing unethical behavior without conspicuous remorse or self-censure.

Idea for Impact: Be Wary of Suspending Your Moral Standards to Reduce Self-Censure

When circumstances or people provoke you to potentially regretful behavior, realize that you are a self-determining agent, and that you have a moral and ethical responsibility to behave with integrity and pursue wholesome actions. Step back and ask yourself, “Normally, would I judge this contemplated action to be wrong? Are my ways of thinking flawed? Am I defending the harm I am causing by blaming others? Am I criticizing the victim to justify my destructive actions?”

When in doubt, use Warren Buffett’s rule of thumb for personal integrity: “I want [people] to ask themselves whether they are willing to have any contemplated act appear the next day on the front page of their local paper—to be read by their spouses, children and friends—with the reporting done by an informed and critical reporter.”

Making Exceptions “Just Once” is a Slippery Slope

Making Exceptions Just Once is a Slippery Slope

Keeping Our Commitments Unwaveringly is Tough

The Harvard business strategy professor Clayton Christensen (of The Innovator’s Dilemma (1997) fame) often tells a story from his college days when he played basketball for his university team. His team worked hard all season and made it to the finals of some big tournament. The championship game was scheduled on a Sunday.

Christensen is a pious Mormon. Playing on the Sabbath (the “seventh day” is holy occasion and has a particular purpose, i.e. rest and spiritual renewal) was against his religious beliefs. The basketball team’s coach asked Christensen to break the rule for that big game, “I don’t know what you believe, but I believe that God will understand.” His teammates prodded him, “You’ve got to play. Can’t you break the rule, just this one time?”

Christensen prayed to God for guidance. After some reflection, he concluded that he would not play in the finals because he did not want to violate the Mormon way of life and break his personal rules: “Because life is just one unending stream of extenuating circumstances. Had I crossed the line that one time, I would have done it over and over and over in the years that followed.”

Willpower is Character in Action

Christensen’s team, however, played without him and won the basketball championship.

'How Will You Measure Your Life' by Clayton M. Christensen (ISBN 0062102419) Discussing this experience in writings such as How Will You Measure Your Life? (2012,) Christensen says,

Many of us have convinced ourselves that we are able to break our own personal rules “just this once.” In our minds, we can justify these small choices. None of those things, when they first happen, feels like a life-changing decision. The marginal costs are almost always low. But each of those decisions can roll up into a much bigger picture, turning you into the kind of person you never wanted to be.

If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal-cost analysis, you’ll regret where you end up. That’s the lesson I learned: it’s easier to hold to your principles 100 percent of the time than it is to hold to them 98 percent of the time. The boundary—your personal moral line—is powerful because you don’t cross it; if you have justified doing it once, there’s nothing to stop you doing it again.

For Christenson, the opportunity cost of missing the championship game was large. Therefore, the marginal cost of breaking his rules “just this once” was comparatively trivial. However, the bigger damage of yielding to demands of the circumstances was larger yet, given his religious devotion.

Idea for Impact: Life becomes so much simpler if you decide what you stand for, stick with your values 100% the time, and make no exceptions.

It’s easy to lose your emotional footing and resist temptations, especially when you feel pressured or depressed, or face some other persuasive incentive.

It’s easy to unearth some justification to infringe a little upon your principles or break commitments you’ve made to yourself.

However, conceding “just once” is a slippery slope—the proverbial thin end of a wedge. If you allow yourself to compromise just the once, you can wind up doing it frequently.

In contrast, if you make up your mind to follow 100% on some standard, all of your prospective decisions are made.

Life becomes so much easier when you no longer need to expend your willpower on internal moral deliberations or justify/ regret your poor choices.

How to Guard Against Anything You May Inadvertently Overlook

The World is More Inundated with Uncertainties and Errors Than Ever Before

Checklists can help you learn about prospective oversights and mistakes, recognize them in context, and sharpen your decisions.

I am a big fan of Harvard surgeon and columnist Atul Gawande‘s The Checklist Manifesto (2009.) His bestseller is an engaging reminder of how the world has become so complex.

The use of the humble checklist can help you manage the myriad of complexities that underlie most contemporary professional (and personal) undertakings—where what you must do is too complex to carry out reliably from memory alone. Checklists “provide a kind of a cognitive net. They catch mental flaws inherent in all of us—flaws of memory and attention and thoroughness.”

'The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right' by Atul Gawande (ISBN 0312430000) Gawande begins The Checklist Manifesto with an examination of the characteristics of errors from ignorance (mistakes you make because you don’t know enough—“much of the world and universe is—and will remain—outside our understanding and control”), and errors of ineptitude (mistakes you make because you don’t apply correctly what you know.) Most human and organizational failures involve the latter.

The philosophy is that you push the power of decision making out to the periphery and away from the center. You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility. That is what works.

The surgery room, Gawande’s own profession, is the principal setting for many of the book’s illustrative examples of how the introduction of checklists dramatically reduced the rate of complications from surgery. He also provides handy stories from other realms of human endeavor—aviation, structural engineering, and Wall Street-investing.

Getting Things Right, Every Time

Checklists are particularly valuable in situations where the stakes are high enough, but your impulsive thought process could lead to suboptimal decisions.

'Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition' by Michael J. Mauboussin (ISBN 1422187381) The benefits of checklists also feature prominently in the thought-provoking Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition (2012.) The author, Credit Suisse Investment analyst and polymath Michael J. Mauboussin, argues that checklists are more effective in certain domains than in others:

A checklist’s applicability is largely a function of a domain’s stability. In stable environments, where cause and effect is pretty clear and things don’t change much, checklists are great. But in rapidly changing environments that are heavily circumstantial, creating a checklist is a lot more difficult. In those environments, checklists can help with certain aspects of the decision. For instance, an investor evaluating a stock may use a checklist to make sure that she builds her financial model properly.

A good checklist balances two opposing objectives. It should be general enough to allow for varying conditions, yet specific enough to guide action. Finding this balance means a checklist should not be too long; ideally, you should be able to fit it on one or two pages.

If you have yet to create a checklist, try it and see which issues surface. Concentrate on steps or procedures, and ask where decisions have gone off track before. And recognize that errors are often the result of neglecting a step, not from executing the other steps poorly.

In addition to creating checklists that are specific enough to guide action but general enough to handle changing circumstances, Mauboussin recommends keeping a journal to gather feedback from past decisions and performing “premortems” by envisioning that a imminent decision has already been proven wrong, and then identifying probable reasons for the failure.

No Matter How Proficient You May Be, Well-designed Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes

Checklists Can Immeasurably Improve the Outcomes The notion of making and using checklists is so plainly obvious that it seems impracticable that they could have so vast an effect.

Investor Charlie Munger, the well-respected beacon of wisdom and multi-disciplinary thinking, has said, “No wise pilot, no matter how great his talent and experience, fails to use his checklist.” And, “I’m a great believer in solving hard problems by using a checklist. You need to get all the likely and unlikely answers before you; otherwise it’s easy to miss something important.”

Idea for Impact: Checklists can prevent many things that could go wrong in the hands of human beings, given our many well-documented biases and foibles. Well-designed checklists not only make sure that all the can-be-relied upon elements are in place in complex decision-making, but also provide for flexibility and room for ad hoc judgment.

Realize the Truth Yourself

So much of what you’ll hear and what you’re taught may turn out to be incorrect on closer scrutiny.

Whether it’s advice from the experts, what you hear in the media, or what your mother told you, if it is of any consequence, take the time to work out for yourself whether it is factual.

Swami Vivekananda on Realizing the Truth Yourself The great Hindu spiritual leader Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) once instructed, “Do not believe in a thing because you have read about it in a book. Do not believe in a thing because another man has said it was true. Do not believe in words because they are hallowed by tradition. Find out the truth for yourself. Reason it out. That is realization.”

Idea for Impact: It’s not sensible to believe any assertion unless you have good reason for doing so. If you care whether your beliefs about the world are reliable, you must establish them on the sound, relevant evidence. Until you can organize that evidence and determine whether a belief is true or isn’t, you must suspend your judgment. The celebrated British mathematician, logician, and political activist Bertrand Russell (1872–1970) wrote in Why Men Fight: A Method of Abolishing the International Duel (1917,)

Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth—more than ruin, more even than death. Thought is subversive and revolutionary, destructive and terrible; thought is merciless to privilege, established institutions, and comfortable habits; thought is anarchic and lawless, indifferent to authority, careless of the well-tried wisdom of the ages. Thought looks into the pit of hell and is not afraid.

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking

Many High-IQ People Tend to Be Overthinkers: They Incessantly Overanalyze Everything

Smart Folks are Most Susceptible to Overanalyzing and Overthinking There’s this old Zen parable that relates how over-analysis is a common attribute of intelligent people.

A Zen master was resting with his quick-witted disciple. At one point, the master took a melon out of his bag and cut it in half for the two of them to eat.

In the middle of the meal, the enthusiastic disciple said, “My wise teacher, I know everything you do has a meaning. Sharing this melon with me may be a sign that you have something to teach me.”

The master continued eating in silence.

“I understand the mysterious question in your silence,” insisted the student. “I think it is this: the excellent taste of this melon that I am experiencing … is the taste on the melon or on my tongue …”

The master still said nothing. The disciple got a bit frustrated at his master’s apparent indifference.

The disciple continued, ” … and like everything in life, this too has meaning. I think I’m closer to the answer; the pleasure of the taste is an act of love and interdependence between the two, because without the melon there wouldn’t be an object of pleasure and without pleasure …”

“Enough!” exclaimed the master. “The biggest fools are those who consider themselves the most intelligent and seek an interpretation for everything! The melon is good; please let this be enough. Let me eat it in peace!”

Intelligence Can Sometimes Be a Curse

The tendency to reason and analyze is a part of human nature. It is a useful trait for discerning the many complexities of life. It’s only natural that you could go overboard some times and over-analyze a point or an issue to such a degree that the objective becomes all but moot.

Don’t get me wrong. Intelligence is indeed a gift. But intelligence can trick you into thinking you should be overthinking and calculating everything you do. The more intelligent you are, the more investigative you will be. The more your brain analyzes people and events, the more time it will spend on finding flaws in everything.

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn’t Matter

Intelligent People Overanalyze Everything, Even When it Doesn't Matter Many intelligent people tend to be perfectionists. Their overanalysis often cripples their productivity, especially by leading them to undesirable, frustrating, and low-probability conclusions that can limit their ability to understand reality and take meaningful risks.

Intelligent people are too hard on themselves and others—family, friends, and co-workers. They can’t settle for anything less than perfect. They tend to be less satisfied with their achievements, their relationships, and practically everything that has a place in their life. What is more, many people with speculative minds hold idealistic views of the world and lack a sound acumen about coping with the practical world.

Idea for Impact: Don’t Make Everything Seem Worse Than it Actually is!

Thinking too much about things isn’t just a nuisance for you and others around you; it can take a toll on your well-being and on your relationships.

Check your tendency to overthink and overanalyze everything. Don’t twist and turn every issue in your head until you’ve envisaged the issue from all perspectives.

Sometimes it does help to overthink and be cautious about potential risks and downfalls. But most times, it’s unnecessary to ruminate excessively. Don’t make everything seem worse than it actually is. Set limits and prioritize. Learn to let go and manage your expectations.

To avoid overthinking, use my 5-5-5 technique. Ask yourself if your decision will matter 5 weeks, 5 months, and 5 years in the future. If your answer is ‘no,’stop stressing yourself out!

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

What’s the size of the market for razors in China? How many golf balls does it take to fill a Boeing 747 aircraft? How many piano tuners are there in the world?

Non-standard problems such as these are called “Fermi problems” after the distinguished Italian-American nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi (1901–54.) Fermi delighted not only in creating and solving them, but also in challenging his fellow scientists with similar problems.

The Fermi Rule: Better be Approximately Right than Precisely Wrong

Physicist Enrico Fermi Was a Master of Guesstimation

Fermi was celebrated for his ability to make fast, excellent approximate calculations with little or no concrete data. In one well-known example, when the first atomic bomb was detonated during the Manhattan Project, Fermi dropped a few scraps of paper as the shock wave from the detonation passed. After some coarse calculation, Fermi estimated the power of the blast from the motion of the scraps as they fell. Fermi’s guesstimate of 10 kilotons of TNT was remarkably close to the now-established value of 20 kilotons. Even though Fermi’s estimate appears 50% off, it was a reasonable order-of-magnitude estimate.

Fermi believed that the ability to guesstimate was an essential skill for physicists. A good way to solve physics problems—and complex problems in any line of work—is by coming up with simple shortcuts to make approximate, but meaningful, calculations.

Teaching Physics Students the Fermi Way of Contemplating Open, Non-Standard Problems

Based on Fermi’s technique, at the beginning of many physics courses, professors pose problems such as “how many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Such questions require students to employ quick reasoning and unsophisticated numerical methods to attack problems without the knowledge of any core physics concepts.

The historical emphasis on the order-of-magnitude calculation was propelled by the lack of computing power available to solve complex problems. Such approximate calculations were considered necessary to decide if an onerous and lengthy full-blown calculation was required.

Classic Fermi Problem: Number of Piano Tuners in the City of Chicago

'Guesstimation' by Lawrence Weinstein (ISBN 069115080X) Fermi problems are typically restructured by breaking them up into smaller problems that are easier for the students to approach than the original problem.

The challenge of estimating the number of piano tuners in the city of Chicago is the classical example of a Fermi Problem. A problem-solver guesstimates the total population of Chicago, then the fraction of families in Chicago that may own a piano, and the frequency of piano-tuning, the time it takes to tune a piano, and so on. This sequence of thinking, accompanied by a few conversion factors, can lead to an adequate assessment of the number of piano tuners in Chicago.

Back-of-Envelope Calculations for Fermi Problems

The Fermi technique is so popular that math buffs organize competitions in Fermi’s honor. Contestants are asked to estimate unusual assessments (the fraction of the surface area of the United States that’s covered by automobiles, the number of cells in the human body, the number of pizzas ordered this year in the state of California, for example) as closely as they can.

One distinctive feature of Fermi problems is that precision is impossible to achieve quickly, but it’s easier to arrive at a fast estimate of the range for the right answer. Before investing a big effort to measure something with precision, problem-solvers can estimate the answer approximately—and only then determine if it’s sensible to do the extra steps to calculate the accurate answers.

The Ability to Guesstimate: A Key Problem-Solving Aptitude

The ability to reach first-order estimations is an important skill in daily life. In a world where we are continuously bombarded with qualitative and quantitative information (and disinformation,) acquiring a solid grounding in numeric literacy has almost become an important intellectual obligation.

'Street-Fighting Mathematics' by Sanjoy Mahajan (ISBN 026251429X) Many problems are too complicated for you to come up with an accurate answer immediate. In analyzing such problems, precision may be impossible, but you can quickly estimate a range for the right answer. Guesstimation enables anyone with basic math and science skills to estimate virtually anything quickly using realistic assumptions and elementary mathematics.

Microsoft, McKinsey Consulting, Google, Goldman Sachs, and many leading businesses use guesstimate questions in job interviews to judge the ability of the applicants’ intelligence, their flexibility to think on their feet, and to apply their numerical skills to real-world problems.

Idea for Impact: Use Effective Guesstimation Techniques Before Undertaking a More Complete and Formal Investigation

Learn to do a first approximation of value and then, if the problem merits, refine your estimate further for much nuanced decision-making. Before putting much effort into calculating anything with precision, make a rough estimate of the answer, then decide whether it’s worth investigating further.

In my line of work as an investor, for example, I use fund manager Eddy Elfenbein‘s “simple stock valuation measure”:

Growth Rate/2 + 8 = PE Ratio

Let me emphasize that this is simply a quick-and-dirty valuation tool and it shouldn’t be used as a precise measure of a stock’s value. But when I’m first looking at a stock and want to see roughly how it’s priced, this is what I’ll use.

For example, let’s look at Pfizer ($PFE). Wall Street expects the company to earn $2.34 per share next year. They also see the company’s 5-year growth rate at 2.79%. If we take half the growth rate and add 8, that gives us a fair value P/E Ratio of 9.40. Multiplying that by the $2.34 estimate gives us a fair price for Pfizer of $21.98. The current price for Pfizer is $22.98, so it’s about fairly priced.

Let’s look at IBM ($IBM) which has a higher growth rate. Wall Street sees IBM earning $16.61 next year. They peg the five-year growth rate at 10.58%. Our formula gives us a fair value multiple of 13.29, and that multiplied by $16.61 works out to a value of $220.75. IBM is currently at $201.71.

Recommended Resources for Guesstimation

If you’re interviewing with one of those companies that use guesstimate questions in job interviews, or if you’re interested in developing your ability to make rough, common-sense estimates starting from just a few basic facts, I recommend the following learning resources:

This is Yoga for the Brain: Multidisciplinary Learning

In Praise of Multidisciplinary Frameworks for Better Thinking You need a broad-based understanding to succeed in today’s increasingly complex world.

Modern scientific and technological advances are increasingly born at the frontiers of more than one science disciplines.

It’s impossible to know everything. However, if you work to understand the basics of the biggest, most important paradigms in the fields of science, humanities, and social sciences, you can progressively expand your decision-making process.

A multidisciplinary methodology entails drawing suitably from multiple disciplines to examine problems outside of their normal boundaries and reach solutions based on an understanding of complex situations.

Multidisciplinarity Leads to Better Internalization of Knowledge

Multidisciplinarity allows you can transform a perspective in one discipline to expand your thought-frameworks in other disciplines. The renowned venture capitalist Paul Graham, author of the bestselling Hackers & Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age, said this best when he once wrote,

Studying things from unrelated subjects (multidisciplinary learning) is a lot like yoga for brain. You don’t actually get anywhere when you do yoga. You stand in one place and bend yourself in various shapes. But it makes you more flexible, so when you go out and do walk around, you can walk better.

“Cross-Training for the Mind” à la Charlie Munger

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) The great investor Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, is a big proponent of multidisciplinary thinking. This distinguished beacon of rationality and wisdom coined the term “latticework of mental models” to enable the “cross-training for the mind.” Rather than silo your mind just in the narrow areas you tend to concentrate on at college and work, Munger advocates developing a broad, functional set of interdisciplinary knowledge about the world, which can serve you in all parts of life. According to the anthology Poor Charlie’s Almanack, Munger said at a 1998 talk at the Harvard Law School,

If A is a narrow professional, B consists of the big, extra-useful concepts from other disciplines, then, clearly, the professional possessing A plus B will usually be better off than the poor possessor of A alone. How could it be otherwise? And thus, the only rational excuse for not acquiring B is that it is not practical to do so, given the man’s need to A and the other urgent demands in his life. I will later try to demonstrate that this excuse for unidisciplinarity, at least for our most gifted people, is usually unsound.

Many of the world’s leading companies in science and technology are employing multidisciplinary people for managerial positions. These people understand a range of science principles and methods and can synthesize the works of domain-specific experts to invent creative solutions to problems.

Idea for Impact: Pursue Multidisciplinary Thinking

People who think very broadly and comprehend many different models from many different disciplines make better decisions.

Pursue multidisciplinary thinking. Open your mind to new ideas and new experiences. Make new friends, travel afar, read more, and discover new stories.

Interact with people who work in different disciplines and dabble with the arts and the media. Let the new sights, sounds, smells, languages, tastes, sensations, stories, and perspectives spark your creativity.

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

“Opportunity cost is a huge filter in life. If you’ve got two suitors who are really eager to have you and one is way the hell better than the other, you do not have to spend much time with the other. And that’s the way we filter out buying opportunities.”
Charlie Munger, Investor

Everything in Life Has an Opportunity Cost

Doing One Thing Makes You Sacrifice the Opportunity to Do Something Else of Value

In economics, opportunity cost is the cost of not choosing the next best alternative for your money, time, or some other resource.

One of the foundational principles in economics is affirmed by the popular American aphorism, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Resources are scarce. When resources (time, money, mindshare, autonomy, and all that) are scarce, selecting one opportunity necessitates forgoing other opportunities.

Life is all about values and priorities. You face trade-offs. Life requires of you to make choices among mutually exclusive alternatives. Every time you select something, you forfeit other alternatives and the concomitant benefits. The cost of something is what you will give up to get it. This is opportunity cost.

You Can Do Anything but Not Everything … What Will You Sacrifice When You Choose One Option Over the Others?

When mulling over multiple choices, the quality of any option cannot be assessed in isolation from its alternatives. The price you pay (or the sacrifice you make, or the benefits you give up) for doing what you’ve chosen to do instead of doing something else is the opportunity cost.

In sum, an opportunity cost is the cost of passing up the opportunities that a different option would have afforded.

Many costs are calculated in terms of money. However, just because you don’t have to spend money to do something does not imply that the options you face are without their costs. For example, you don’t have to spend money to go for a hike or watch a sunset, but there is an opportunity cost there too. You could have used that time to do something else you value—visiting a friend or reading a book, perhaps.

  • If you decide to invest two years and some $100,000 getting an MBA at a brand-name business school, there’s an opportunity cost; it costs you lost wages and all the things you could have pursued during that time and with that money. But you anticipate that getting your MBA will pay off by way of a better job in a better company with a better salary.
  • If you spend your weeklong vacation taking your parents to a beach destination in Florida, there’s the opportunity cost of not going to Paris with your spouse.
  • Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices If you decide to wake up twenty minutes earlier in the mornings to leave home sooner to work and beat the horrendous traffic, there’s the opportunity cost of twenty minutes of extra snoozing.
  • When the refrigerator at home breaks down and needs replacement, you will have to give up buying that latest big-screen TV you’ve been coveting.
  • There’s an opportunity cost to even reading this article at this moment. You could have been watching TV, taking a nap, calling up a friend, or moving on to another article in the time you’re devoting to reading this article.

In a nutshell, even decisions that appear to be no-brainers carry the hidden costs of the options you will decline. Thinking about opportunity costs may not change the decision you make, but it will give you a more rational assessment of the full implications of your decision.

Opportunity Costs Apply to All Your Choices—Big and Small

Opportunity cost is a concept of great magnitude. It is one of those apparently simple concepts in social sciences that are difficult to master and tough to put into consistent practice. Tim Harford, the British author of The Undercover Economist offers a particularly instructive example of appreciating opportunity costs in his Financial Times column:

Consider the following puzzle, a variant of which was set by Paul J Ferraro and Laura O Taylor to economists at a major academic conference back in 2005. Imagine that you have a free ticket (which you cannot resell) to see Radiohead performing. But, by a staggering coincidence, you could also go to see Lady Gaga—there are tickets on sale for £40. You’d be willing to pay £50 to see Lady Gaga on any given night, and her concert is the best alternative to seeing Radiohead. Assume there are no other costs of seeing either gig. What is the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead? (a) £0, (b) £10, (c) £40 or (d) £50.

Answer: Going to see Lady Gaga would cost £40 but you’re willing to pay £50 any time to see her; therefore the net benefit of seeing Gaga is £10. If you use your free Radiohead ticket instead, you’re giving up that benefit, so the opportunity cost of seeing Radiohead is £10.

Learn to Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs—The Stakes Become Clearer

Evaluate Life Choices Via the Lens of Opportunity Costs You live in a world of scarcity and must therefore make choices. You cannot avoid regret since there are opportunity costs for every choice you will make.

Everything in life is about opportunity costs. Every time you say “yes” to a choice, you are also saying “no” to everything else you may have accomplished with your time, money, and resources.

Opportunity cost is a commanding tool that you should be wise to apply to all decision-making. If you integrate this concept into your thought process, you will not only make judicious choices, but also better understand the world in which you live.

Idea for Impact: Whether you’re choosing graduate school, mulling over switching careers, starting a business, investing your money, buying a car, or frittering away your evening watching TV, considering the value of forgone alternatives will help you make better choices. Make the lens of opportunity costs the underpinning of your decision-making processes.