Category: Farnam Street

The Best of Farnam Street 2017

Here's a look at the most popular articles we wrote this year, including what really separates amateurs and professionals, a system for remembering what you read, the powerful interviews of Naval Ravikant, Ray Dalio, and Rory Sutherland, how we abuse time, and so much more.

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1. The Difference Between Amateurs and Professionals — There are a host of other differences, but they can effectively be boiled down to two things: fear and reality. Amateurs believe that the world should work the way they want it to. Professionals realize that they have to work with the world as they find it. Amateurs are scared — scared to be vulnerable and honest with themselves. Professionals feel like they are capable of handling almost anything.

2. How to Remember What You Read — Why is it that some people seem to be able to read a book once and remember every detail of it for life, while others struggle to recall even the title a few days after putting down a book? The answer is simple but not easy. It's not what they read. It's how they read.

3. Naval Ravikant on Reading, Happiness, Systems for Decision Making, Habits, Honesty and More — In this wide-ranging interview, we talk about reading, habits, decision-making, mental models, and life. Just a heads up, this is the longest podcast I’ve ever done. While it felt like only thirty minutes, our conversation lasted over two hours!

4. The Difference Between Open-Minded and Closed-Minded People — The rate at which you learn and progress in the world depends on how willing you are to weigh the merit of new ideas, even if you don’t instinctively like them. Perhaps especially if you don’t like them. What’s more, placing your trust and effort in the right mentor can propel you forward, just as placing it in the wrong person can send you back to the starting point.

5. Maker vs. Manager: How Your Schedule Can Make or Break You – If you’re a maker on a manager’s schedule or a manager on a maker’s schedule, you could be spinning your wheels. Find out the ideal way to schedule your day for maximum results.

6. Charlie Munger on Getting Rich, Wisdom, Focus, Fake Knowledge and More — While we can't have his genetics, we can try to steal his approach to rationality. There's almost no limit to the amount one could learn from studying the Munger mind, so let's at least start with a rundown of some of his best ideas.

7. Habits vs. Goals: A Look at the Benefits of a Systematic Approach to Life — The power of habits comes from their automaticity. This is why they are more powerful than goals. Read this article to harness the power of habits.

8. The Code of Hammurabi: The Best Rule To Manage Risk — King Hammurabi of Babylon, created Hammurabi’s Code. The laws were more effective at containing risk than today's laws. Here's why they were effective.

9. Life Lessons from a Self-Made Billionaire: My Conversation with Ray Dalio — In this interview with billionaire investor and entrepreneur Ray Dalio, you’ll learn the principles Ray prescribes for making better decisions, fewer mistakes, and creating meaningful relationships with the people in your life.

10. 29 of the Most Gifted and Highly Recommended Books — It started with a simple question: What book (or books) have you given away to people the most and why? The email was sent to an interesting subset of people I’ve interacted with over the past year — CEOs, entrepreneurs, best-selling authors, hedge fund managers, and more.

11. The Butterfly Effect: Everything You Need to Know About This Powerful Mental Model — The Butterfly Effect shows that we cannot predict the future or control powerful complex systems. Read to learn more about this mental model.

12. The Wrong Side of Right — One big mistake I see people make over and over is focusing on proving themselves right, instead of focusing on achieving the best outcome. People who are working to prove themselves right will work hard finding evidence for why they’re right. They’ll go to the ends of the earth to disagree with someone who has another idea. Everything becomes about their being right. These otherwise well-intentioned people are making the same costly mistake that I did.

13. The Generalized Specialist: How Shakespeare, Da Vinci, and Kepler Excelled – Should we generalize or specialize? This article explores how Shakespeare and Da Vinci excelled by branching out from their core competencies.

14. Seneca on The Shortness of Time — If we see someone throwing money away, we call that person crazy. This bothers us, in part, because money has value. Wasting it seems nuts. And yet we see others—and ourselves—throw away something far more valuable every day: Time.

15. Rory Sutherland on The Psychology of Advertising, Complex Evolved Systems, Reading, Decision Making — In this wide-ranging interview with Rory Sutherland (the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group, which is one of the largest advertising companies in the world), we talk about: how advertising agencies are solving airport security problems, what Silicon Valley misses, how to mess with self-driving cars, reading habits, decision making, the intersection of advertising and psychology, and so much more.

16. How to Live on 24 Hours a Day: Arnold Bennett on Living a Meaningful Life Within the Constraints of Time — Despite having been published in 1910, Arnold Bennett’s book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day remains a valuable resource on living a meaningful life within the constraints of time. In the book, Bennett addresses one of our oldest questions: how can we make the best use of our lives? How can we make the best use of our time?

17. Thought Experiment: How Einstein Solved Difficult Problems — Read this and learn how the mental model of thought experiment, helped people like Albert Einstein, Zeno, and Galileo solve difficult problems.

Go back in time and see the best of 2016.

Farnam Street’s 2017 Annual Letter to Readers

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company on behalf of the shareholders to communicate with the people who own the company. In 2015, I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street.

To a large extent, I consider you the owners of Farnam Street, but you trust me with something far more valuable than money: time. For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above-average return.

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In almost every reader-related metric, 2017 was a record year.

Readership increased over 40%, which was decent. We surpassed 155,000 subscribers to our weekly newsletter, Brain Food. Tempering this excitement is the fact that email open rates dipped slightly. (We’ve reached the limits of our current mail provider and will be transitioning at some point, likely in Q1 or early Q2, to another provider. For readers, the transition should be seamless.)

Last year I wrote about how most sites try to hijack your animal responses by using outrage to acquire traffic. We’ve never set out to consciously “acquire” an audience. Our readers tell their friends, family members, and co-workers and we grow slowly. I’m okay with that. I write for the million “me’s” out there.

Visitors continued to spend more time on the site (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content). The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) continued to move in the right direction. In short, we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages. Next year we'll to a better job mixing in some shorter articles.

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Thanks to Grain and Mortar, we completed a significant revamp of the website that has made it cleaner and easier to navigate. Our looks are finally starting to catch up to our content, a happy difference from what happens with people over time.

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Events

In 2017, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops (Innovation and Decision-Making). We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone. We sold out the 2018 version of Re:Think Decision-Making in only two weeks. Join the waiting list to hear about events first.

One of the most surprising things about the events for attendees is that they get to meet people who are curious, kind, and intelligent. In short, people just like them. The quality of the individuals continues to impress me. In 2017, we had attendees from WordPress, Adobe, Amazon, Shopify, Risebar, Red Bull, Satori Capital, United Way, Convexity Capital, and more.

This summer, we also held our first Think Week event in Europe (Paris, to be specific), and it was a hit. We’ll be doing at least two of these events next year: one in the Bahamas (sorry already sold out) in February and one in Europe in the summer. (These events vary in intensity, so read carefully before signing up. The event in the Bahamas will be low key, more of a “read all day and let’s meet at dinner to discuss interesting things” gathering, whereas the Europe one will be way more intimate and intense.) Because these events are so small, I’ve decided that people will have to apply to come. If you’re going to spend 30 hours with someone over three days, cramped in my apartment, you want to know that I’ve curated the audience.

The Knowledge Project

What a difference a year makes. Despite having the most irregular podcast in the world, we had over 1.5 million downloads this year. To put that in perspective, we released only 10 episodes this year. The quality of our guests is amazing, as you can tell from the interviews with Naval Ravikant, Rory Sutherland, Adam Grant, Ray Dalio, Susan Cain, Gary Taubes, and more.

We already have a terrific roster lined up for next year. I’m aiming to release a new episode once every three to four weeks instead of once every six to eight weeks. Given the intensity of the research that goes into The Knowledge Project guests, I have no idea how other shows release episodes with the frequency they do.

Tools and More

About four years ago, we started to purchase online courses to see what was going on. As students, we didn’t like what we saw, which was a lot of entertainment and not a lot of outcome changes. So, we set to work and created three courses over the last three years, testing various ways to improve outcomes. Through various iterations, we’ve landed on a formula that consistently delivers results for people.

Productivity That Gets Results, our popular productivity seminar, has been closed (we’ve stopped selling it). However, members of our Learning Community will have access to it starting in January.

The Art of Reading—I dropped the ball on this one — my team and I worked really hard updating the content and adding new resources for our students…and then I didn’t tell anyone. I am a terrible marketer. This course will show you how to sift through information more quickly, squeeze the best ideas out of any book or article, and absorb what you read so you can access that knowledge for years to come.

The Art of Focus is being offered for sale until early January and then I’m closing it for good. The course was a smashing success, but the accountability element takes considerable time. (Note: If you join the program before it closes, you'll still get all the feedback, support and open access to the course that previous students enjoy. You're grandfathered in forever.)

I’ve started working on a new course. You’re going to love it.

The Learning Community

The quality of our members—from entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 CEOs to professional coaches, athletes, and bestselling authors—remains remarkable. We’ve really hit on something that delivers.

Last year I said that we would use some of the proceeds from the Learning Community to improve the quality of the regular, free content. To that end, we hired our first professional editor in July and the overall quality of our content has gone way up.

In 2017, I started a weekly email to members of the Learning Community. It’s a short bit of content that is more practical than that in our blog posts.

Rest assured, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the Learning Community. Now you can give a membership to your smart friends and loved ones.

Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than me. Behind the scenes is an evolving team and freelancers who make things happen.

This fall Jeff told me that he wanted to pursue another opportunity. Jeff joined Farnam in November of 2015, and his contributions have been many. Jeff has never been one to stand up and brag about what he’s done, but he’s a great friend.

Sponsorships

I want to thank our main 2017 sponsor, Royce Funds. Other supporting sponsors included Greenhaven Road, Tiny, 2CVElysium Health, Ray Dalio and Principles, the Heath brothersAdventur.es, and Syrus Partners.

Royce Funds, Greenhaven Road, Tiny, Syrus and Elysium will be back in 2018. We still have a few open slots for next year, so if you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog, please get in touch with me.

2017 Report Card

Last year I wrote, “In 2017, we will work to better synthesize, connect, and explain timeless ideas that help you make better decisions, avoid stupidity, and kick-ass at life. I’ll try to add more personal stories and anecdotes from my journey.”

I’m pleased but not satisfied with our results.

True to our tagline, we’re focused on mastering the best of what other people have already figured out. I always have a hard time with personal stories, though, because I never view the content as being about me. In fact, any of the ideas that you come across on the site that are useful are not mine. I have started opening up about my experiences a bit in the Learning Community and that has been well received.

I also told you that we’d find great guests for our podcast, The Knowledge Project, increase the value proposition for Learning Community members, and work on some books. Yes, books.

As mentioned earlier, we’ve found amazing guests for the podcast. I’m still the same me, but it turns out that once your audience reaches a certain size, the ratio of “yes” responses to “no” responses inverts. So to all of those people who don’t like the dedicated email about the podcast, remember that it helps us get better guests (and, because it’s sponsored, pays the bills).

Creating value for members of our Learning Community is a tricky proposition, summed up in the words of one member: “I get so much value from your free content that I joined the learning community as a means to support what you’re doing. I didn’t realize there was so much more practical value in the learning community. … What I value most is that you respect my time and don’t make anything longer than it needs to be.” In 2017, we started sending weekly emails that are more practical in nature to the Learning Community. We have many more things coming up for the LC in 2018.

As many of you know, we’re huge fans of mental models. The problem is that when I set out to read about mental models years ago, there wasn’t a good source of information in one place. Where could I find timeless ideas to help me learn, think, and decide?

Farnam Street has filled that void for many, but we’ve been inundated with requests to write a book about mental models. The first volume, internally dubbed Thinking Tools, will be released soon. Rather than being a version of the website, it’s a fresh start at intelligently preparing ourselves for the world. Whether readers are high school students or newly retired seniors, this well-designed book will hopefully have a place on their shelves for generations.

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You Are What You Consume

The people you spend time with shape who you are. As Goethe said, “tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.” But Goethe didn’t know about the internet. It’s not just the people you spend your time with in person who shape you; the people you spend time with online shape you as well.

Tell me what you read on a regular basis and I will tell you what you likely think. Creepy? Think again. Facebook already knows more about you than your partner does. They know the words that resonate with you. They know how to frame things to get you to click. And they know the thousands of people who look at the same things online that you do.

When you’re reading something online, you’re spending time with someone. These people determine our standards, our defaults, and often our happiness.

Every year, I make a point of reflecting on how I’ve been spending my time. I ask myself who I’m spending my time with and what I’m reading, online and offline. The thread of these questions comes back to a common core: Is where I’m spending my time consistent with who I want to be?

Am I reading things that challenge me and make me want to be a better person, or am I spending too much time on topical things that are meant to entertain me? If you read indiscriminately, you’re wasting vast amounts of time.

Am I spending my time with people who are consistent with who I want to be as a person? Are they constantly learning? Are they generous and kind? Are they challenging me and calling me out on my bullshit?

These are not easy choices. However, hard decisions about whom you hang around with and what information you consume changes your vector and your velocity. Hard choices make for better decisions, more free time, and a better understanding of reality.

Think about dating. We seem to understand that happy people and unhappy people don’t generally get along. If you’re a happy and ambitious person and you go on a first date with someone who hates their job, complains about past partners, and generally wants to zone out of life, you instantly feel repelled by this person. You know, subconsciously, that this attitude is highly contagious and needs to be removed from your life before it spreads. The longer you’re in contact with people like this, the more likely you’ll become them.

What we don’t understand is that this principle applies to whom, or what, we spend our time with online as well. If you consume shallow content, then before you know it, you’ll have shallow opinions. If you’re not careful, the world will become black and white rather than various shades of grey.

Most of what we spend our time with online doesn’t make us better, but rather shouts at us and distracts us. And most of it is just bullshit click-bait anyway, with no more depth than a book summary on Amazon.

Consider:

  • The article on how to network like a boss offers advice on how to get ahead by thinking of people in terms of what they can do for you. After all, if they can’t do something immediate and gratifying for you, the next person is just a swipe away. Not only does this kind of behavior make you more likely to be selfish, but it also misses the point of networking altogether, which is to spend time with people who think better than you do and connect with them in meaningful ways.
  • The article on how to get a promotion shows you how to position yourself for favorable optics. Not only does this mean that you’re going to spend more of your time demonstrating how much value you deliver and less of your time delivering value, but it’s also going to make you less likely to get along with your co-workers.
  • The article on how to become more productive was written by someone who has no idea of what your life is actually like. And it focuses on how to do email faster instead of on how to do less email, so you only end up getting better at moving widgets. And here’s the thing: when you’re better at moving widgets, your reward is to move more widgets. And if you’re moving more widgets, you never have time to do something better.

Think about it. If the person writing the article churns out an article a day on 200 subjects a year, how much are you really going to learn from them? You have to consider both the content you’re getting and the sources. Are the writers fluent in their subjects? Are they well read? How credible are they?

Not to mention, a vast swath of what we consume makes us miserable. So much of what we are surrounded by is fake happiness. We want people to think we’re happy when we’re not. The louder and more frequently someone says their partner is “just the most amazing person in the whole world,” the more I suspect relationship issues. When we only see other people having happiness — real or fake — our minds trick us into thinking that we’re the only ones who are struggling. So we hide it, and by hiding it, we become more isolated and alone.

Increasingly, the feeds we follow show us an endless array of people having a good time, traveling, partying it up, and more. Individually, our friends might be able to do this once a year, but when you follow a few hundred accounts, you’re virtually assured that on any given day, one of those people is doing something marvelous. This makes us feel like crap: Why can’t I keep the house clean, pick up the kids, and not feel rushed all the time? Why do they have so much free time? Why didn’t they invite me? I want to be there. Why are those people always happy? How did they get so successful? I work just as hard as they do. And so on. We are surrounded by unrealistically positive expectations, which just remind us of what we don’t have: free time, money, an obsessively healthy lifestyle, diamonds, and a soul mate.

Nothing looks the same again. We feel alone. It seems like other people are nothing but successful and we do nothing but struggle. As our misery increases, we hide our struggles more and just show others the good stuff. Only it’s not real; we’ve just become part of the crowd of people pretending there is no struggle.

Well, I hate to break it to you, but I’m human. I struggle. A lot. Here’s what you miss with the curated feeds: In the past year alone, I’ve been on my couch crying; I’ve been betrayed by a close friend; I’ve tried and failed to develop a relationship with my biological father; I’ve had days when I think it would be easier to win an Olympic gold medal than to get my kids to school without losing my patience; I’ve been so exhausted that I can barely keep my eyes open; I’ve looked at a sink full of dishes and said “not tonight”; and there is so much more. The point is, you might see the results, but you don’t see the struggle. And when you see only the best in others, without seeing the reality of others, you are nudged toward thinking less of yourself.

So if your Facebook feed is full of happy people doing things that make you feel bad about your life, either change the feed or be conscious of the fact that everyone struggles from time to time but not everyone lets you see it. Be aware of how what you’re seeing affects you. And remember that the people you allow into your life, both in person and online, are the people you will end up becoming.

Curate carefully. Choose people who add value to your life and meaning to your relationships. And stop giving a damn about what other people think.

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As I wrote last year, “Velocity is a vector-dependent concept. Moving in two directions that are not 100% aligned creates drag.”

While I still said yes to too many things in 2017, I’m getting better at saying no. The best thing I did this year was to switch my default to “no” for all meetings. If I can’t say no, I schedule the meeting for the afternoon. If I have to do it in person, I make it close to my office.

What helps me say no to meetings? Some simple tests: Am I willing to have this meeting right now? Would I rearrange my calendar for this meeting? If I’m not willing to sacrifice something, even something small, for the meeting, maybe it’s not worth having.

Thank you for your continued time and trust in me and Farnam Street. I will continue to try to earn it.

—Shane

(See what a difference a year makes. You can find the 2016 letter here.)

The Best of Farnam Street 2016

After the publishing the 16 best books I read this year, it's time to take a look at the best of Farnam Street this year. Of course ‘best' is a editorialized list from what you loved and shared and what I took the most pleasure in writing. Spanning everything from learning and thinking to mental models and history, here's to an amazing year.

1. The Best Way to Learn Anything: The Feynman Technique

2. The Pot Belly of Ignorance

3. The Munger Operating System: How to Live a Life That Really Works

4. Books that Improve Your General Knowledge of the World

5. 20 Rules for a Knight

6. Joseph Tussman: Getting the World to Do the Work for You

7. Second-Level Thinking: What Smart People Use to Outperform

8. Ego is the Enemy: The Legend of Genghis Khan

9. The Four Tools of Discipline

10. At Some Point, You Have to Eat The Broccoli

11. Too Busy to Pay Attention to Life

12. The Value of Grey Thinking

13. A Few Useful Mental Tools from Richard Feynman

14. Stop Crashing Planes: Charlie Munger’s Six-Element System

15. Peter Bevelin on Seeking Wisdom, Mental Models, Learning, and a Lot More

16. Get 5% Better

Still curious? Check out the Best of Farnam Street: 2015, and 2014

Farnam Street’s 2016 Annual Letter to Readers

To the readers of Farnam Street:

Most public companies issue an annual letter to shareholders. These letters present an opportunity for the people entrusted to run the company on behalf of the shareholders to communicate with the people who own the company.

Last year I started a similar tradition at Farnam Street. To a large extent, I consider you the owners of Farnam Street.

Investors, or owners, typically exchange money for shares in a company. I think your investment in Farnam Street is just as important —You trust me with something far more valuable than money: Time.

For all of us, time is finite. Reading Farnam Street means you’re not doing something else. My job is to make sure your investment is getting an above average return.

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2016 was a record year in almost every reader-related metric.

Readership increased approximately 20 percent, which was decent. We surpassed over 100k readers to our weekly newsletter, Brain Food (OK, that’s a pretty awesome milestone. I might have even celebrated with a bottle of champagne … or two.)

Visitors spent more time on the site (a good proxy for how interested people are in the content). The bounce rate (a fancy phrase for the percentage of people who look at one page and then leave the site) continued to move in the right direction. In short we had more people who read longer and looked at more pages.

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I think we all know that readership increased in spite of our website design, rather than because of it. Luckily, we’re tackling that problem next year thanks to the fine folks at Grain and Mortar. I can’t wait for you to see the new site.

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I’m often asked how we grow our audience. My simple answer is met with skepticism: Our readers tell their friends and coworkers. That’s it.

This is usually followed by an endless slew of unsolicited advice on how to “exponentially increase our growth.” A typical example is the “reward” for generating controversy.

A lot of websites create controversy intentionally. They want nothing more than for 50% of their audience to love an article and 50% to hate it. Why? Because both sides will dig in and then they will talk about it. When they talk about it they’ll link back to the original site, thus driving traffic (and, even more perverse, as a byproduct of how most search engines work, these arguments typically increase search engine rankings).

You almost can’t help but admire the cleverness of this strategy, which takes advantage of hard wired defaults both in humans and search to gain an advantage. This strategy is so common these days it’s not even divergent — it’s the norm!

However easy that play is, intentionally creating controversy to get pageviews isn’t a strategy you’ll find us employing to grow quickly. While it is important to account for arguments from all sides, we’ll stick to our knitting.

While we’re open to new ideas and ways to increase the value for readers, we’re not open to gimmicks or short term strategies. We’d rather be a tree that digs its roots deep, grows slowly, and can’t be easily blown over.

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Events

In 2016, we offered two public Re:Think Workshops (Innovation and Decision-Making) and private versions too. We continue to limit attendance at these events to ensure a good experience for everyone.

One of the most surprising things about the public events is that people get to meet people who are curious, kind, and intelligent. In short, people just like them.

The quality of individuals who attend these events continues to blow my mind. This year we had attendees from Github, Tuft and Needle, AJO, Glimmer of Hope, Warburg Pincus, Rackspace, Inspire Environmental, and two difference branches of U.S. Special Forces, to name a few.

Last year, if you recall, I was worried that we were spreading ourselves too thin with respect to the variety of topics we took on. Reducing the number of offerings in 2016 was the right thing to do as it allowed us time to relaunch the website ReThinkWorkshops.com as well as make significant improvements to the content of both Re:Think Innovation and Re:Think Decision-Making.

Our next event is Re:Think Decision-Making in Seattle this March. I hope to see you there.

Podcast

The Knowledge Project, our podcast, reached over 350,000 downloads. Which doesn’t sound like a lot until you consider that we release about one episode a month. Things on this front will largely stay the same for the time being. We already have some exceptional guests lined up for early in the new year.

Tools and More

Productivity That Gets Results, our popular productivity seminar, continues to help people avoid the traps that get in the way of being productive. We want to help you spend more time doing what you want to be doing.

The Art of Reading launched to some great feedback and success at helping people improve their information consumption. Yes, we made a course about reading.

We spend so much of our time reading these days — whether it’s email, articles, blogs, books, or reports. The dividends to getting even 5% more effective at remembering, knowing when to skim, and connecting ideas becomes a non-linear outcome.

To my knowledge, our course on reading is the only significantly student-tested course that has worked for executives, teachers, students, NFL Coaches, best-selling authors and more. But we’re making it even better.

We undertook a significant effort over the past few months to materially improve The Art of Reading, which will relaunch in as soon as the video editing is done. (There is no reason to wait to purchase it if you’re interested, existing customers will have access to all the new content for free.)

I don’t want to spoil the other things we’re working on in this space but we’ve made progress on two addition products. The first one is seminar based and should be out soon. The second is larger in ambition and scope and I’ve never seen anything like it. My hope is that we can launch this in the fall as we’ve already delayed a year to make sure we’re getting it right.

Learning Community

Online media properties are continuing to look for ways that create and capture value. The problem here is that most of these organizations want to capture more value than they create — they focus on the wrong side of the equation. This leads to a short-term engagement between creator and audience, as the latter realizes they’ve been had and moves on. Farnam Street tries to take the opposite approach: Add so much value that people want to support it.

Recently, we’ve started to incorporate some of the lessons we’ve learned running a membership program for a year back into the offering. The most apparent is that we’ve moved away from calling it the membership program and are now call it a learning community. This phrase (and our subsequent activities) bring the program much closer in line with what we are trying to create for our readers.

Last year I said that we would use some of the proceeds from the learning community to improve the quality of the regular, free, content. I think we delivered on that this year and I look forward to pushing even more next year. (And every year.)

Rest assured, the majority of FS content will always be free. If you find value in Farnam Street, we hope you’ll consider joining the learning community.

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Team Farnam

Perceptive readers know there is more to Farnam Street than me. Last year we reached the point where I couldn’t do everything I wanted to do myself so Jeff Annello (@mungerisms) came on board. Jeff and I have worked together in the past, and I value both our friendship and the quality of thought he brings to the table. There are a lot of ideas I want to try and lots of great things to come, and we'll continue to work with exceptional people as we go along.

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Sponsorships

I want to thank our lead sponsor for 2016: Slack. I’ll also welcome our incoming sponsors Royce Funds, Greenhaven Road Capital, SparkBox, adventur.es, and Grain and Mortar (who are currently in the process of redesigning the site). We still have one open spot, so if you’d like to inquire about sponsoring the blog please get in touch with me.

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2016 Report Card

Last year I offered a way to judge our progress. Let’s quickly review what I wrote so I can hold myself accountable.

Here is what you can expect and hold us accountable for in 2016:

The quality of all content will be much higher. We will do better at adding context, presenting ideas in compelling ways, adding tools to your mental tool box, making things practical, and exposing you to mental models that will help you be better at what you do. We’ll further our exploration of what it means to live a meaningful life and deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world.

The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience. While everyone has described their experiences so far as off the charts, I see so much room for improvement that it’s hard to fathom how we’re exceeding expectations. Everything from onboarding and hotel options to the overall experience while at the event will be improved. We have an amazing team in place for the events. They consistently sell out.

The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved. I’ve already taken care of this to a large extent. Where possible, I’ll do more in-person interviews as these offer more meaningful and deeper conversations.

The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers. For a large part of the year there was an annoying little pop-up that appeared on the screen asking for your email address. This was a mistake. While it helped us grow at about 2500 readers a month, it’s annoying to some and degrades the reading experience for all. You deserve better. I fumbled here and hopefully recovered. I was aware of how annoying it was and failed to act. The allure of 100,000 readers is a strong pull — especially when my mother reminds me that her “small town” (my words, not hers) has more people than I have readers. Anyway, the pop-up is off now.

The site will function better. We will be seeking to engage a web designer in 2016 or 2017 to redesign the site to improve navigation, organization, and the overall reading experience. This is more about finding the right person or team to work with us and less about the year in which it happens.

Products will exceed your expectations. We have two new things slated to roll out in 2016 — a mini-course in January on How to Read A Book and a project I’ll reveal when the time is right. To help ensure we’re delivering at the quality and caliber you deserve, we’ve invested in hiring the right people to help design, develop, and deliver these courses. I hope you’ll offer your honest feedback.

Here is my view on how we did in 2016.

“The quality of content will be much higher.” We made much progress on this front. We still need to work on better synthesizing and connecting ideas. We need to get better at varying the length of content as we perhaps trended a little verbose toward the end of this year.

“The Re:Think workshops will offer a better experience.” While there is room for improvement. We improved the content, added some nice personal touches, and really sought to deepen our connection with readers. These events provide a way for us to do things that don’t scale but add enormous value to everyone.

“The audio quality on the podcast will be much improved.” I won’t say it’s “much improved,” but I didn’t make as many bone headed mistakes this year.

“The experience of existing readers will not be compromised to add new readers.” We held off from doing a pop up and instead offered original content to high-quality publications, such as Medium, Quartz, etc. (If you run a publication with a big audience you think would be a fit, fire off an email to [email protected]).

“The site will function better.” Grain and Mortar is in the process of redesigning it now. If you have comments or suggestions, please reach out to [email protected]

“Products will exceed your expectations.” We’re getting better at this. The content quality is great and getting better but we still needed some help with the packaging and functionality. Sparkbox helped us redesign fscourses.com to help create a platform that pairs great infrastructure, design, and content.

Overall, I’m pleased but not satisfied.

What to expect for 2017

I won’t offer as detailed of a roadmap for next year. This year we worked on a lot of low-hanging fruit. Improvements are likely to be more incremental this year. Don’t let this unsexy statement fool you, there is significant value in the trenches.

In 2017, we will work to better synthesize, connect, and explain timeless ideas that help you make better decisions, avoid stupidity, and kick-ass at life. I’ll try to add more personal stories and anecdotes from my journey.

The learning community will continue towards an exclusive vibrant hub of learning that fosters deep connections between participants and value you can't get anywhere else.

We’ll have a new slate of guests on the Knowledge Project, start exploring longer content such as books, and continue to offer you mental tools and tactics that deliver value and live a meaningful life.

We work hard to be the website you want to read. The website you want to immerse yourself in. The one where after 20 minutes of looking around you look up and say “I’ve found my tribe.”

2017 is also the year I start working on a few book projects. Stay tuned.

***

Where I’ve made the biggest personal mistake over the past year is thinking I can do two or more things at once successfully. Velocity is a vector dependent concept. Moving in two directions that are not 100% aligned creates drag.

There is a lot of work ahead of us.

Having no idea what tomorrow might bring, I try to prepare for an uncertain future. I show up to the office every day looking for opportunities to move forward in the best way I can. That’s usually putting one foot in front of the other and trying to make incremental progress without regressing.

Thank you for your continued time and trust in me and Farnam Street.
—Shane

Go back in time and read the 2015 letter here.

Ask Farnam Street #1

Welcome to the first incarnation of Ask Farnam Streetwhere we'll be taking and answering questions on anything you're curious about that we feel we can answer competently and honestly. This first batch of questions comes straight from our Members.

If you'd like to submit a question for our next Q&A, please send it to us at [email protected] with the title “Ask Farnam Street.” We will choose a group of the most thoughtful questions and answer them right here on the site. 

***

How do we cultivate a good balance between thinking for ourselves and building our own systems to suit our unique personalities, and learning from what other people have already discovered about the world and the systems they’ve built and shared?

This is a pretty common question in a lot of fields. Almost anyone who goes deep on trying to study the success and advice of others eventually wonders if they’ll just become a clone of someone else. But the truth of the matter is that most do eventually “find their way” – where everything you’ve learned coalesces into a system of your own. Purely aping someone else doesn't work very well and is harder than it sounds anyway.

Here’s an exercise for anyone who likes music: Pick a musical artist you like and find out who influenced them. Then listen to those influences. Does your favorite really sound like those influences? Like, really? Almost never.

You might hear an “echo” of Robert Johnson in the Rolling Stones, but the differences between the two are night and day – the difference between country blues and rock ‘n roll!

Yet if you were to ask Keith Richards, he’d tell you the Stones started out basically doing a poor imitation of old American blues artists. But what they really did was take the soul of that music (and, I might add, early rock and rollers like Elvis and Chuck Berry), added their own spice and reality, and created something entirely new. That’s how creativity works. You don’t just create new things out of the clear blue sky – you have to start with something. Making new connections and associations is creativity.

Even Sam Walton used to say that he basically stole all of the ideas that became Wal-Mart. But what other company was really anything like Wal-Mart? It was completely unique. And why should anyone else have been like Wal-Mart – they were missing the key ingredient…Walton himself!

In these stories lies your answer. Cultivating that balance will happen naturally if you simply break down what you learn to its essence and take what is useful from it. You don’t need to outright copy anyone else, and contrary to popular belief, success isn’t simple imitation. It’s learning the principles behind what made others successful, the underlying reality being demonstrated by that success, and incorporating that reality into your worldview.

Farnam Street is about pursuing an understanding of “the way the world works.” As long as you use those systems you learn from others as a way of getting at the underlying reality – going beyond pure imitation — you will have the opportunity to “make them your own.”

Two quotes sum this up:

Take what is useful, discard what is not, add what is specifically your own.
Bruce Lee

Any truth, I maintain, is my own property.
Seneca

When Charlie [Munger] talks about knowledge across a wide range of disciplines, what are those disciplines, and which does he appear to favor?

Charlie address this a little bit in a speech called “A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business”.

He's talking about the basic disciplines that would make up a really good broad undergraduate curriculum: Math/Statistics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, Complex Systems, Psychology, Business/Economics, Law, with the more fundamental ones being generally most reliable. (1+1 always seems to come out to 2.)

Charlie seems to have made use of models across all disciplines. He probably uses psychology and biology more than most, which is a great lesson. And clearly he and Buffett have made wise use of probabilistic thinking.

But remember, in his own words, “80 or 90 models carry most of the freight” – in other words, you’re looking for the Big Ideas. Something like compound interest from mathematics or incentives from psychology explain a large fraction of what you see around you. And you always have the ability to generate new models that you think are explanatory, accurate, and memorable — that's part of the fun.

An accurate and fluent understanding of the big models of the world should be your “first principles” — the large trunk and branches on which all of the “leaves” of your knowledge will hang. Without a big solid trunk with big solid branches, what kind of tree do you expect to have?

From there, it’s about synthesizing across the disciplines — understanding where they overlap, conflict, and combine. What do the models in biology and business have in common? What does the concept of entropy have to do with practical life? Well, a great deal. But you have to reach a bit to figure it all out. And as we talk a lot about here, you eventually find that everything seems to be connected to everything else.

Remember, all models are abstractions of reality. George Box put it that “All models are false. Some are useful.”

Reality itself is simply one continuous, flowing entity, but we as humans have to work with our natural apparatus to understand it. Dividing things into little sub-disciplines is one of the ways we go about doing that. Just remember that your end-goal is to understand reality as best as possible; unfiltered and unadulterated. Any way you decide to organize your search for reality must take into account the way humans learn, but always remember that you're abstracting reality.

How do you choose what next to read? Do you randomly pick a book off the shelf or do you let what you just read pull you towards something that it referenced so you can go deeper into a topic? Do you just wake up in the morning and say I feel like learning about.. this! and go for it? 

It’s a combination of a lot of things, but basically the underlying principle is always to follow what interests you, right now. We discuss this a few times in our course on reading.

The thing about curiosity, in the words of Nassim Taleb, is that it’s “Antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it.” When you go down the curious path on a particular topic, you have to keep letting it pull you down. Don't just stop because you feel like you should — if you want to keep going, keep going! Learn! Go deep! Trust us on this one: Ride the wave when it's taking you. It may be a while before you get back up there.

When you decide to get off the path is really going to be an individual judgment, based on how curious you are, how competent you feel you are, and what you plan to do with that information. If you’re going to be a doctor, you have to go “all the way down the path” on the current and most up-to-date understanding of how the human body works, in great detail. Lives depend on it.

But if you’re a lawyer, you might be (rightfully) content to simply try to understand at a high-level how all the main bodily systems work and interact, without being able to do a detailed dissection of the heart. The doctor and the lawyer need not pursue their understanding of human anatomy in anywhere near the same level of detail, but they should both know the Big Ideas. Make sense?

So, long story short, what we're reading at any given time is simply what currently grabs our curiosity; and there are innumerable ways to get it grabbed. Sometimes we will see a book on the shelf and pull it down, but more frequently it’s connected to something else we’ve read recently and decided to pursue further. Recently we recommended a biography of Will Rogers in Brain Food. Why that one, and why now? Because someone I respect recommended studying his life, and when the book came in, the time “felt right” almost right then and there. (Which is actually unusual — most of our books sit for a while before we read them.)

Did we know much about memory before starting the four-part series? No. But we had studied human personality and social psychology quite a bit, and memory is a logical extension of that. In this case, the book we discussed came straight from the bibliography of another one.

Once your anti-library is sufficiently stocked, finding the next book to read will always be the last of your worries. We always have many “on deck” and recommend you do too.

For the mailbag, this isn't really a question maybe more of a post request, but I'd love to see a follow up or update on how your media consumption habits have evolved/changed. The post from Shane a few years back is a personal favorite, and something I've found myself revisiting often: 

I'm going to go in a slightly different direction than the question you asked, but hang with me.

We've been thinking a lot on this recently, with increasing concern that we're filling our heads with junk. This, we believe, is not only a poor use of our time and causes more mistakes than are necessary but it also reduces our capacity to find the relevant variables in any given situation.

If you think of your mind as a library, three things should concern you.

  1. The information you store in there — its accuracy and relevance;
  2. Your ability to find/retrieve that information on demand; and
  3. Finally your ability to put that information to use when you need it – that is, you want to apply it.

There is no point having a repository of knowledge in your mind if you can't find and apply its contents (see multiplicative systems).

Let's talk about the first part today, which is the information you put into your mind.

We feel this is massively misunderstood, resulting in people failing to filter things from entering the “library of the mind.”

If your library is full of crap and falsehoods, you're going to struggle and spend a lot of time correcting mistakes. You won't be very productive and you'll generally muddle through things.

Our minds are like any tool, and needs to be optimized in building this library. Clickbait media is not the stuff we want to put into our mind library. However, this crap is like cocaine — it causes our brains to light up and feel good. The more of it we consume, the more of it we want. It's a vicious flywheel, like eating sugar.

Our brain isn't stupid. It doesn't want this crap, so while it's giving you a mild dopamine rush, it's also working very hard to make sure this junk doesn't make it into your library. This is one reason that people re-read an article and don't remember having read it. Their brains determined it was trash and subsequently got rid of it rather than storing it.  Sounds good right?

Well, sort of. As hard as our brains work to ensure this crap doesn't make it into our library, if we keep feeding it junk, we will overwhelm that natural filter. Over days and weeks this isn't a big problem, but over years and decades it becomes a huge one.

Junk in the library messes with accuracy, relevance, and gets in the way of effective and efficient use our of brains – it causes issues with retrieving and applying. (Which is most often done by our subconscious. Ever had a great idea in the shower, as you were falling asleep, or while driving? Exactly.)

And while we probably agree that the quality of what enters our head matters, it's easier said than done.

Consider the CEO with 6 layers of management below him. Something that happens “on the ground floor” of the business, say an interaction between a salesperson and a customer, usually goes through six filters. There is almost no way that information is as accurate as it should be for a good decision after all that filtering.

Now, the CEO might recognize this, but then they have to do something psychologically hard, which is basically say to their direct reports, “I'm not sure I got the right information from you.” They have to go out of their way to seek out more detailed, relevant, independent information from the people close to the problem. (A good assistant will do this for you, but in a political organization they will also be hung out to dry by all parties, CEO included.)

So not only do we need to filter, but we need to be aware of what filters our information has already been through.

Let's hit on one more related thought.

In our search for wisdom and high quality information to put into our library, we often turn to knowledge nuggets called sound-bytes. These deceptive fellows, also called surface knowledge, make us sound clever and feel good about ourselves. They are also easy to add to our “mind library.”

The problem is surface knowledge is blown away easily, like topsoil. However, we reason, most other people are operating on the same level of surface knowledge! So, in a twisted bout of game theory, we are rarely if ever called out on our bullshit.

The result is that this surface, illusory, knowledge is later retrieved and applied when we're making decisions (again, often driven by the subconscious) in a variety of contexts, with terrible results. As the saying goes, “Garbage-in equals garbage-out.”

If you're looking for a quick heuristic you can use for information you're putting into your library, try the two-pronged approach of:

A. Time
B. Detail.

Time meaning – how relevant is this historically? How long will it be accurate — what will it look like in ten minutes, ten months, ten years? If it's going to change that soon, you can probably filter it out right here.

One way to determine if the information will stand the test of time is by gauging its accuracy by examining the details. Details are so important that Elon Musk uses them to tell if people are lying during interviews. You want to learn from people with a deepaccurate fluency in their area of expertise: One of the ways you can assess that is through the details they provide. Surface skimming articles are sometimes meant to be readable by the lay public, but more frequently it indicates simply that the author only has surface knowledge! 

So be careful. We'd guess that 99.9% of click-bait articles fail both these filters. They're neither detailed nor lasting in importance.

The good thing is that you can raise your standards over time. One major reason to read documents by people like Richard Feynman or Charlie Munger is that it gets you used to what really clear thought looks like. If you're reading shallow, quickly irrelevant media all the time, when will you read Feynman?

For now let's leave it at that – we'll have more to say on this in the future. It's important.

So many people always ask what's the best book for word-for-word wisdom, or spend hours working out the most efficient means of doing something, which is all great, but in the spirit of a Munger-like avoiding of mistakes, I'd like to hear you and Shane answer what you've done in the sphere of learning about the world that's been the biggest waste of time: the least bang for your mental-investment buck?

Interesting question. It’s hard to answer because everything seems to have some value or another – often it’s in the “what not to do” or “what doesn’t work” sphere, but that is still a useful sphere, so it’s not really a waste.

One thing that does come to mind is speed reading. That is a waste of time and totally counter-productive when you get down to it. If anything, we’ve tried to slow down our reading so we can savor and recall more of what we read. Speed reading is a snare and a delusion, and not worth the time.

Woody Allen had it right: “I took a course on speed reading…and was able to read War and Peace in 20 minutes. It’s about Russia.”

***

If you'd like to submit a question for our next Q&A, please send it to us at [email protected] with the title “Ask Farnam Street.” We will choose a group of the most thoughtful questions and answer them right here on the site. Enjoy!

The Best of Farnam Street 2015

As the year heads toward an end, what better way to reflect than to look back on the pieces that moved you.

Find below the 15 most read and shared articles published on Farnam Street in 2015, spanning everything from philosophy and psychology to mental models and understanding. (The curious can also catch up on last year's best reads here.)

Thank you for joining me for another year on our intellectual and philosophical journey of discovery.

Best of Farnam Street 2015

1. Carol Dweck: The Two Mindsets And The Power of Believing That You Can Improve
Looks at the role of mindset in motivation, learning, and self-regulation.

2. The Reasons We Work
It's more complicated than money.

3. The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask
“This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular.”

4. Albert Einstein on the Secret to Learning
“That is the way to learn the most, that when you are doing something with such enjoyment that you don’t notice that the time passes.”

5. How To Think
This is the path, the rest is up to you.

6. Richard Feynman: The Difference Between Knowing the Name of Something and Knowing Something
Feynman articulates the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it.

7. The Two Types of Knowledge
“In this world we have two kinds of knowledge. One is Planck knowledge, the people who really know. They’ve paid the dues, they have the aptitude. And then we’ve got chauffeur knowledge. They have learned the talk. They may have a big head of hair, they may have fine temper in the voice, they’ll make a hell of an impression.”

8. William Deresiewicz: How To Learn How To Think
An argument to spend more time thinking.

9. How Successful People Increase Productivity
“One thing that successful people do to increase productivity is they avoid to-do lists. These lists are rarely as effective as scheduling time.”

10. Academic Economics — Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs
This is the full text of Charlie Munger’s Herb Kay Memorial Lecture, ‘Academic Economics: Strengths and Weaknesses, after Considering Interdisciplinary Needs,’ at the University of California at Santa Barbara, 2003.

11. The Peter Principle and the Law of Crappy People
If you’ve ever worked in an organization, you’ve no doubt come across someone in senior management and asked yourself how they ever got promoted.

12. In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed
The modern storm of bits and stimulation, relents only when we sleep.

13. The Nine Primary Tactics Used to Influence Others
The number one thing to understand about influence is that people make decisions for their reasons, not yours.

14. Summer Reads for the Curious Mind
Out of the 44 books I read from January to June, here are the 7 that resonated with me the most

15. The Power of Full Engagement — Managing Energy, Not Time, is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal
Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr argue that energy, not time, is the key to managing performance.

Time travel to the 2014 list here.

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