But What For Newsletter - No. 006

Facing Adversity, Integrity, Finding Zero, Bad Decisions, Worm at the Core

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(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

“In 1953, Charlie was 29 years old when he and his wife divorced. He had been married since he was 21. Charlie lost everything in the divorce, his wife keeping the family home in South Pasadena. Munger moved into “dreadful” conditions at the University Club…

Shortly after the divorce, Charlie learned that his son, Teddy, had leukemia. In those days, there was no health insurance, you just paid everything out of pocket and the death rate was near 100% since there was nothing doctors could do. Rick Guerin, Charlie’s friend, said Munger would go into the hospital, holding his young son, and then walk the streets of Pasadena crying.

One year after the diagnosis, in 1955, Teddy Munger died. Charlie was 31 years old, divorced, broke, and burying his 9-year-old son.”

“What is elementary, worldly wisdom?

Well, the first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ’em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.”


(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

  • Takeaway: There are many things in life you can’t change about yourself, but you can elect to have integrity

“All of you in this room have the brains to do extremely well in life. You all have the energy to do extremely well in life. But the question is how to apply it.

Now there are two things that can hold you back. One of those is a lack of education… But the second most important thing, and it is equally important, are the habits that you developed and what you do with yourself

When we hire people, we look for three qualities. We look for integrity, we look for intelligence and we look for energy. But if they don’t have the first one, integrity, the other two will kill you. If you are hiring someone without integrity, you want them to be dumb and lazy. The last thing you want in the world is for them to be smart and energetic…

You can’t change your IQ, or how far you throw a football or jump - but you can elect to have integrity.”

  • Takeaway: If you look at zero you see nothing, but look through it and you will see the world

“For zero brings into focus the great, organic sprawl of mathematics, and mathematics, in turn, the complex nature of things. From counting to calculating, from estimating the odds to knowing exactly when the tides in our affairs will crest, the shining tools of mathematics let us follow the tacking course everything takes through everything else – and all of their parts swing on the smallest of pivots, zero.

With these mental devices, we make visible the hidden laws controlling the objects around us in their cycles and swerves. Even the mind itself is mirrored in mathematics, its endless reflections now confusing, now clarifying insight.

As we follow the meanderings of zero’s symbols and meanings we’ll see along with it the making and doing of mathematics — by humans, for humans. No god gave it to us. Its muse speaks only to those who ardently pursue her.”

  • Takeaway: Your decisions aren’t necessarily your own decisions

Incentives can tempt good people to push the boundaries farther than they’d ever imagine. Financial boundaries, moral boundaries, all of them. It’s hard to know what you’ll consider doing until someone dangles a huge reward in your face, and underestimating how adjustable the boundaries can become when rewards rise is a leading cause of terrible decisions.

Tribal instincts reduce the ability to challenge bad ideas because no one wants to get kicked out of the tribe. Tribes are everywhere – countries, states, parties, companies, industries, departments, investment styles, economic philosophies, religions, families, schools, majors, credentials. Everyone loves their tribe because there’s comfort in knowing other people who understand your background and share your goals. But tribes have their own rules, beliefs, and ideas. Some of them are terrible. But they remain supported because no one wants to argue with a tribe that’s become part of their identity. So people either willingly nod along with bad ideas, or become blinded by tribal loyalty to how bad the ideas are to begin with.”

  • Takeaway: You don’t have to like that which you believe is true

“From our perspective, the uniquely human perspective of the awareness of death and our unwillingness to accept that fact is the primary motivational impetus for everything that people do - whether they are aware of it or not…

What garnered my attention when I was a young punk was a single line in an essay by a Scottish guy, Alexander Smith, in a book called Dreamthorp. He says, just in the middle of an easy, ‘It is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us human.’

I remember reading that, and feeling in my gut, ‘I don’t like that, but I think you’re on to something.’”

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.5, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: Don’t close your mind to new ideas; don’t spend time with those who have

“If someone, says Epictetus, refuses to accept what is patently obvious, it is not easy to find arguments to use against him that could cause him to change his mind. And the reason for this lies neither in his own strength, nor in the weakness of the one who is trying to instruct him; but the fact is that when someone who has been driven into a corner turns to stone, how can one hope to deal with him any further through argument?

How can I argue with this man any further? What fire, what steel, can I apply to him to make him realize he has become deadened?

If he does realize but pretends not to, he is even worse than a corpse. Another man doesn’t see the contradiction; he is in a bad state. This man, by contrast, sees it, but isn’t moved and doesn’t improve; he is in an even worse state.”

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