Timeless Takeaways from Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss changed my life. I devoured The Four-Hour Body (2010), as well as his following book, The Four-Hour Chef (2012), and I remember listening to the first episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, laughing as he got drunk with Kevin Rose — #TimTimTalkTalk #GoodGood — and asked him ridiculous questions: “If you could be a breakfast cereal, what breakfast cereal would you choose and why?” I can’t thank Tim enough for all that he’s done. He’s been a role model, helped me through some dark times, and introduced me to countless useful principles.

Without further ado, here are some of my favorite lessons from his latest book, Tools of Titans (2016).

(1) Don’t Be A Donkey — Derek Sivers1 (@sivers) — “Well, I meet a lot of 30-year-olds who are trying to pursue many different directions at once, but not making progress in any, right? They get frustrated that the world wants them to pick one thing, because they want to do them all: ‘Why do I have to choose? I don’t know what to choose!’ But the problem is, if you’re thinking short-term, then [you act as though] if you don’t do them all this week, they won’t happen. The solution is to think long-term. To realize that you can do one of these things for a few years, and then do another one for a few years, and then another. You’ve probably heard the fable, I think it’s ‘Buridan’s ass,’ about a donkey who is standing halfway between a pile of hay and a bucket of water. He just keeps looking left to the hay, and right to the water, trying to decide. Hay or water, hay or water? He’s unable to decide, so he eventually falls over and dies of both hunger and thirst. A donkey can’t think of the future. If he did, he’d realize he could clearly go first to drink the water, then go eat the hay. ‘So, my advice to my 30-year-old self is, don’t be a donkey. You can do everything you want to do. You just need foresight and patience.’”

(2) Don’t Be A Dog [either], Think: “What If?” — Matt Mullenweg2 (ma.tt) — “From the early days of WordPress, we would always think: ‘Okay, if we do X today, what does that result in tomorrow, a year from now, ten years from now?’ The metaphor I think of the most—because it’s simple—is the dog chasing the car. What does the dog do if he catches the car? He doesn’t have a plan for it. So I find it just as often on the entrepreneurial side. People don’t plan for success.”

(3) Discipline Equals Freedom — Jocko Willink3  (@jockowillink) — this is Tim’s take on the concept: “I interpret this to mean, among other things, that you can use positive constraints to increase perceived free will and results. Freeform days might seem idyllic, but they are paralyzing due to continual paradox of choice (e.g.,’What should I do now?’) and decision fatigue (e.g., ‘What should I have for breakfast?’). In contrast, something as simple as pre-scheduled workouts acts as scaffolding around which you can more effectively plan and execute your day. This gives you a greater sense of agency and feeling of freedom. Jocko adds, ‘It also means that if you want freedom in life—be that financial freedom, more free time, or even freedom from sickness and poor health—you can only achieve these things through discipline.’”

(4) Am I Hunting Antelope or Field Mice? — This one’s all Tim — “I lifted this question around 2012 from former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich. I read about it in Buck Up, Suck Up… and Come Back When You Foul Up: 12 Winning Secrets from the War Room, written by James Carville and Paul Begala, the political strategists behind Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign ‘war room.’ Here’s the excerpt that stuck with me:

Newt Gingrich is one of the most successful political leaders of our time. Yes, we disagreed with virtually everything he did, but this is a book about strategy, not ideology. And we’ve got to give Newt his due. His strategic ability—his relentless focus on capturing the House of Representatives for the Republicans—led to one of the biggest political landslides in American history.

Now that he’s in the private sector, Newt uses a brilliant illustration to explain the need to focus on the big things and let the little stuff slide: the analogy of the field mice and the antelope. A lion is fully capable of capturing, killing, and eating a field mouse. But it turns out that the energy required to do so exceeds the caloric content of the mouse itself. So a lion that spent its day hunting and eating field mice would slowly starve to death. A lion can’t live on field mice. A lion needs antelope. Antelope are big animals. They take more speed and strength to capture and kill, and once killed, they provide a feast for the lion and her pride. A lion can live a long and happy life on a diet of antelope. The distinction is important. Are you spending all your time and exhausting all your energy catching field mice? In the short term it might give you a nice, rewarding feeling. But in the long run you’re going to die. So ask yourself at the end of the day, ‘Did I spend today chasing mice or hunting antelope?’

Another way I often approach this is to look at my to-do list and ask: ‘Which one of these, if done, would render all the rest either easier or completely irrelevant?’”

(5) Are You Playing Offense or Defense? — Chris Sacca4 (@sacca) — When he was an up-and-coming venture capitalist, Sacca defied conventional wisdom by moving from San Francisco to Truckee, prime skiing and hiking country near Lake Tahoe. “I wanted to go on offense. I wanted to have the time to focus, to learn the things I wanted to learn, to build the things I wanted to build, and to really invest in relationships that I wanted to grow, rather than just doing a day of coffee after coffee after coffee.”

Tim: “He no longer felt compelled to take meetings he didn’t want. There were no more early-morning coffee dates and late-night social dinners he didn’t want to attend. Rather, Chris invited specific founders to spend weekends at ‘the jam pad’ and ‘the jam tub’ (the hot tub outside). He considers the cabin the best investment he’s ever made.”

Sacca: “Everyone loves coming to the mountains. Over the years, that’s helped me build lasting friendships. Some of those have been the catalysts for my investments in Uber, Twitter, and others…

Generally, what all of this comes down to is whether you are on offense or defense. I think that as you survey the challenges in your lives, it’s just: Which of those did you assign yourself, and which of those are you doing to please someone else? Your inbox is a to-do list to which anyone in the world can add an action item. I needed to get out of my inbox and back to my own to-do list.”

(6) “BUSY” = Out of Control — here’s another one from Sivers that nicely complements Sacca’s point — “Every time people contact me, they say, ‘Look, I know you must be incredibly busy…’ and I always think, ‘No, I’m not.’ Because I’m in control of my time. I’m on top of it. ‘Busy,’ to me, seems to imply ‘out of control.’ Like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so busy. I don’t have any time for this shit!’ To me, that sounds like a person who’s got no control over their life.”

Tim elaborates: “Lack of time is lack of priorities. If I’m ‘busy,’ it is because I’ve made choices that put me in that position, so I’ve forbidden myself to reply to ‘How are you?’ with ‘Busy.’ I have no right to complain. Instead, if I’m too busy, it’s a cue to reexamine my systems and rules.”

(7) Remember the Last Three Turns — Josh Waitzkin5 (joshwaitzkin.com) — “I remember when I went skiing with Billy Kidd, who is one of the great Olympic downhill racers from back in the 1960s. He’s an awesome dude. Now he skis out in Colorado wearing a cowboy hat… and he [asked] me years ago when I first skied with him, ‘Josh, what do you think are the three most important turns of the ski run?’ I’ve asked that question to a lot of people since.

Most people will say ‘the middle because it’s the hardest’ or ‘the beginning because of momentum,’ but he describes the three most important turns of a ski run as the last three before you get on the lift. It’s a very subtle point. For those of you who are skiers, that’s when the slope is leveled off, there’s less challenge. Most people are very sloppy then… they have bad form. The problem is that on the lift ride up, unconsciously, you’re internalizing bad body mechanics.

As Billy points out, if your last three turns are precise, then what you’re internalizing on the lift ride up is precision. So I carry this on to the guys who I train in the finance world, for example: ending the work day with very high quality, which for one thing means you’re internalizing quality overnight.”

(8) Warning: Perfectionism May Lead to Paralysis — James Altucher6 (jamesaltucher.com) and Seth Godin7 (sethgodin.com) — Altucher: “What if [you] just can’t come up with 10 ideas? Here’s the magic trick: If you can’t come up with 10 ideas, come up with 20 ideas… You are putting too much pressure on yourself. Perfectionism is the ENEMY of the idea muscle… it’s your brain trying to protect you from harm, from coming up with an idea that is embarrassing and stupid and could cause you to suffer pain. The way you shut [this] off is by forcing [the brain] to come up with bad ideas.”

Godin: “If you generate enough bad ideas, a few good ones tend to show up… So the goal isn’t to get good ideas; the goal is to get bad ideas. Because once you get enough bad ideas, then some good ones have to show up.”

The best writing advice I’ve ever received parallels this point nicely. Here it is8, courtesy of my Journalism professor (Dr. Kimberly Miller, @DrMiller17) at Grove City College:

Write something, anything, even if it’s bad. Get those ideas out of your head and onto paper because if you don’t, then you’re going to drive yourself crazy. I had this friend in college, and, bless her, she wouldn’t write anything down until it was perfect. I remember her sitting there with steam coming out of her ears and a desperate look on her face, and I wanted to tell her: ‘Just write it down, for the love of God, get it out of your head.’ So that’s my advice to you. Give yourself something to work with, and don’t worry if it sucks because you can always make it better.

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An Aside: Some Additional Thoughts on Perfectionism, with Tim and Rick Rubin

Rick Rubin is a legendary music producer. He’s worked with everyone from Johnny Cash to Jay Z, Shakira, the Beastie Boys, Sheryl Crow, Metallica, Neil Diamond, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many more. In 2008, MTV called him “one the most important producers of the last 20 years.” Here’s his thought-provoking response to Tim’s question about advice for his younger self…

RICK: “To be kinder to myself, because I think I’ve beaten myself up a lot. I expect a lot from myself, I’ll be hard on myself, and I don’t know that I’m doing anyone any good by doing that.”

TIM: “Something that I struggle with is—on one hand—I don’t want to beat myself up, but on the other hand, I feel like the perfectionism that I have has enabled me to achieve whatever modicum of success I’ve had. I’ve heard stories about ZZ Top and La Futura, and how they worked on it with you from 2008 to 2012, and they realized the value of your wanting the art to be as perfect as it could be, or the best it could be, and taking whatever time and pains necessary to make that possible. I want to be easier on myself, but I worry that if I do that, I will lose whatever magic, if there is such a thing, that enables me to do what I do.”

RICK: “I think, ultimately, that’s a myth. I think that your take on things is specific to you [and not dependent on perfectionism] — it’s almost like you’ve won the war, and to accept the fact that you’ve won the war: You have an audience. People are willing to hear what you are interested in, what you’re interested in learning about, and what you want to share. You can do that without killing yourself. And killing yourself won’t be of service, neither to you nor your audience.”

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(9) Employ a “Red Team” — Marc Andreessen9 (@pmarca) and General Stanley McChrystal10 (@stanmcchrystal) — Andreessen: “Whenever [Ben Horowitz, my partner] brings in a deal, I just beat the shit out of it. I might think it’s the best idea I’ve ever heard of, but I’ll just trash the crap out of it and try to get everybody else to pile on. And then, at the end of it, if he’s still pounding the table saying, ‘No, no, this is the thing…’ then we say we’re all in. We’re all behind you… It’s a ‘disagree and commit’ kind of culture. By the way, he does the same thing to me. It’s the torture test.”

McChrystal: “The concept of ‘red team’ is designed to test a plan. What happens is, as you develop a plan — you’ve got a problem and you develop a way to solve that problem — you fall in love with it. You start to dismiss the shortcomings of it… Sometimes you’re actually skipping over real challenges to it, or vulnerabilities in it, because you just want it to work. As we describe it, sometimes a plan can end up being a string of miracles, and that’s not a real solid plan. So red teaming is: You take people who aren’t wedded to the plan and [ask them,] ‘How would you disrupt this plan or how would you defeat this plan?’ If you have a very thoughtful red team, you’ll produce stunning results.”

(10) Practice Going First — Gabby Reece11 (@gabbyreece) — “I always say that I’ll go first… That means if I’m checking out at the store, I’ll say hello first. If I’m coming across somebody and make eye contact, I’ll smile first. [I wish] people would experiment with that in their life a little bit: Be first, because — not all times, but most times — it comes in your favor. The response is pretty amazing.”

Tim elaborates: “People are nicer than they look, but you have to go first. This made me think of a line from fictional character Raylan Givens in the TV series Justified: ‘If you run into an asshole in the morning, you ran into an asshole. If you run into assholes all day, you’re the asshole.’ I will often write ‘GO FIRST’ in my morning journal as a daily prompt.”

(11) The Five Chimps Theory — Naval Ravikant12 (@naval) — “There’s a theory that I call ‘the five chimps theory.’ In zoology, you can predict the mood and behavior patterns of any chimp by which five chimps they hang out with the most. Choose your five chimps carefully.” This idea is also embraced by Tim, I’ve heard him say something along the lines of you are the average of the five people you most associate with about a million times.

Finally, if you’ve read this far, then you should buy Tools of Titans. Seriously. It’s full of useful principles from (and fascinating conversations with) world-class performers, like: Jamie Foxx, Amelia Boone, Peter Diamandis, Tara Brach, Kelly Starrett, Maria Popova, Tony Robbins, Joe De Sena, Scott Adams, Laird Hamilton, the list just goes on and on. Better yet, Tim has a problem — he’s a compulsive experimenter — which means that these lessons have been put to the test.

Everything in these pages has been vetted, explored, and applied to my own life in some fashion. I’ve used dozens of these tactics and philosophies in high-stakes negotiations, high-risk environments, or large business dealings. The lessons have made me millions of dollars and saved me years of wasted effort and frustration. They work when you need them most.

The First Principle: An Introduction to Not Being a Stupid Jackass

 “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning physicist

We all like to think that we are rational actors, but I would like to invite you to consider the possibility that you are not as rational as you think you are. Now, if you are willing to entertain this possibility, to exist (if only for a moment) in this uncertainty, I promise you that this article will dramatically enhance your reasoning abilities, your capacity for impartial observation and experimentation, and your overall critical-thinking skills. So, without further ado, if you are interested in becoming a more reasonable person, open your mind, and read on.

We will begin with the brilliant conclusion of “Unafraid of the Dark” — the 13th and final episode in season one of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey (2014) — wherein Neil deGrasse Tyson lays out five rules for discoverers:

1) Question authority. No idea is true just because someone says so, including me.

2) Think for yourself.

3) Question yourself. Don’t believe anything just because you want to, believing something doesn’t make it so.

4) Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment.If a favorite idea fails a well designed test it’s wrong, get over it. Follow the evidence, wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgment.

5) And perhaps the most important rule of all. Remember, you could be wrong. Even the best scientists have been wrong about some things. Newton, Einstein, and every other great scientist in history. They all made mistakes, of course they did, they’re human. Science is a way to keep from fooling ourselves and each other.

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is an altogether incredible series, well-worth watching in its entirety. It was nominated for 12 Emmys, and is based on Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980). This stellar science documentary was written by Ann Druyan and Steven Soter, directed by Brannon Braga, Bill Pope and Ann Druyan, starring Neil deGrasse Tyson with accompanying music composed by Alan Silvestri. Seth MacFarlane, the beloved creator of Family Guy, was — in addition to being an executive producer — instrumental in bringing Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey to broadcast television.

Logical Fallacies and A Demon Haunted World

“Trial, Error and the God Complex”

In his stellar presentation at TEDGlobal 2011, “Trial, Error and the God Complex”, economist Tim Harford urges listeners to recognize the unfathomable complexity of our world.

Harford starts his talk with a story about Archie Cochrane, a prisoner of war and a doctor in World War II. Cochrane and the men under his care are suffering from a debilitating condition, the likes of which Cochrane has never encountered, that causes a horrible swelling up of fluids under the skin. In spite of dreadful conditions, Cochrane manages to provide a cure by procuring some Marmite (a rich source of vitamin B12), breaking his men into two equal groups and carefully noting the effects of Marmite consumption. Upon presenting his results to their German captors, Cochrane provided the Germans with incontrovertible evidence of malnutrition, and the Germans realized that failing to provide vitamin B12 would be a war crime.

Harford goes on to say:

I’m telling you this story because Archie Cochrane, all his life, fought against a terrible affliction, and he realized it was debilitating to individuals and it was corrosive to societies. And he had a name for it. He called it the God complex. Now I can describe the symptoms of the God complex very, very easily. So the symptoms of the complex are, no matter how complicated the problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution…

I see the God complex around me all the time in my fellow economists. I see it in our business leaders. I see it in the politicians we vote for — people who, in the face of an incredibly complicated world, are nevertheless absolutely convinced that they understand the way that the world works.

Harford then turns to the creation of Unilever’s high-pressure, factory, liquid detergent nozzles. When Unilever first attempted to design one of these working nozzles they found themselves a “little God”, a mathematician/physicist who understood fluid dynamics. Unfortunately, the problem was too complicated, and Unilever’s “little God” failed to create a working nozzle.

So, Harford explains, calling upon the work of geneticist Professor Steve Jones, Unilever employed a systematic trial, error, variation and selection method. The method worked brilliantly, and “after 45 generations” Unilever managed to create an incredible working nozzle. “The moment you step back from the God complex — let’s just try to have a bunch of stuff; let’s have a systematic way of determining what’s working and what’s not — you can solve your problem.”

Next Harford confesses that, for as long as he has been giving this talk, “People sometimes say to me… ‘Obviously trial and error is very important. Obviously experimentation is very important. Now why are you just wandering around saying this obvious thing?’”

In response, Harford explains:

You think it’s obvious? I will admit it’s obvious when schools start teaching children that there are some problems that don’t have a correct answer… And if you can’t find the answers, you must be lazy or stupid… When a politician stands up campaigning for elected office and says, ‘I want to fix our health system. I want to fix our education system. I have no idea how to do it. I have half a dozen ideas. We’re going to test them out. They’ll probably all fail. Then we’ll test some other ideas out. We’ll find some that work. We’ll build on those. We’ll get rid of the ones that don’t.’ — When a politician campaigns on that platform, and more importantly, when voters like you and me are willing to vote for that kind of politician, then I will admit that it is obvious that trial and error works…

Until then, I’m going to keep banging on about trial and error and why we should abandon the God complex. Because it’s so hard to admit our own fallibility. It’s so uncomfortable.

In conclusion, Harford talks about being “haunted by something a Japanese mathematician said on the subject [of trial, error and the God complex].” He briefly relates the story of Yutaka Taniyama, a young mathematician living in post-WWII Japan, who developed the Taniyama-Shimura Conjecture (in association with Goro Shimura). This conjecture turned out to be instrumental in proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. “In fact… it’s equivalent to proving Fermat’s Last Theorem. You prove one, you prove the other.”

Sadly, in Taniyama’s lifetime, it remained conjecture, and, despite his best efforts, he could never prove it was true. Then, shortly before his 30th birthday in 1958, Taniyama killed himself. Decades later, Shimura, Taniyama’s friend and colleague, reflected on Taniyama’s life. “He was not a very careful person as a mathematician. He made a lot of mistakes. But he made mistakes in a good direction. I tried to emulate him, but I realized it is very difficult to make good mistakes.”

Harford’s talk is brilliant in its entirety, and well worth your time. Check it out here:

Spotting Bad Science 101

“Nothing is more irredeemably irrelevant than bad science.” — John Polanyi, the Hungarian-Canadian chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1986 for his research in chemical kinetics

This section consists primarily of passages and concepts from “Spotting Bad Science 101: How Not to Trick Yourself” — an appendix in The 4-Hour Body: An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex, and Becoming Superhuman by Timothy Ferriss. In its entirety, The 4-Hour Body is an excellent, unconventional guide to radical self-transformation; I would wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone trying to become a healthier, more well-rounded person.

Ferriss begins by assuring us that, “science isn’t arbitrary… You just need to learn a few simple concepts to separate truth (or probable truth) from complete fiction.” Next he emphasizes the importance of self-reliance — a common theme throughout The 4-Hour Body — and reminds us that it is dangerous to rely too heavily on doctors to solve our problems for us.1 “After reading the next eight pages, you will know more about research studies than the average MD.”

After his brief introduction, Ferriss gets into the five “tools most often used [by media or propagandists with agendas] to exaggerate and brainwash.” He refers to these as, “The Big Five.” Each one of “The Big Five” tools is phrased, “as a question you should ask yourself when looking at diet advice or the ‘latest research.’”

1) “Is a relative change (like percentages) being used to convince?”

To illustrate this concept, Ferriss lays out two potential news headlines. First, “Studies Show People Who Avoid Saturated Fat Live Longer.” He then explains that you should “find out exactly what ‘longer’ means” before making the decision to start avoiding saturated fat.

Based on available data, it turns out that reducing your saturated fat intake to 10% of daily calories for your entire adult life would add only 3–30 days to your lifespan.

The second potential headline is, “People Who Drink Coffee Lose 20% More Fat Than Those Who Don’t.” Ferriss explains that, “Relative [in this case, the 20% more] isn’t enough. It’s critical to ask what the absolute increase or decrease was — in this case, how many pounds of fat did both groups actually lose?”

If it were 0.25 pounds lost for the control group and 0.30 pounds (20% more) for the coffee group over eight weeks at three cups per day, is picking up the coffee habit worth the side effects of high-dose caffeine? Nope… Distrust percentages in isolation.

2) “Is this an observational study claiming to show cause and effect?”

Ferriss places special emphasis on this concept: “This is the mother lode. If you learn just one concept in this chapter, learn this one.” At this point you might be asking yourself, “What the hell is an observational study?”

Observational studies, also referred to as uncontrolled experiments, look at different groups or populations outside the lab and compare the occurrence of specific phenomena, usually diseases. One example is the often misinterpreted ‘China study.’

He goes on to deliver, “the most important paragraph in this chapter:”

Observational studies cannot control or even document all of the variables involved. Observational studies can only show correlation: A and B both exist at the same time in one group. They cannot show cause and effect.

“In contrast,” Ferriss explains that, “randomized and controlled experiments control variables and can therefore show cause and effect (causation): A causes B to happen.”

In an effort to further illustrate the importance of understanding the difference between correlation and causation, Ferriss calls on Pastafarianism — the satirical religion whose deity is the Flying Spaghetti Monster — to purposely confuse correlation and causation:

With a decrease in the number of pirates, there has been an increase in global warming over the same period. Therefore, global warming is caused by pirates… [And, even more compelling.] Somalia has the highest number of Pirates AND the lowest Carbon emissions of any country. Coincidence?

Drawing unwarranted cause-and-effect conclusions from observational studies is the bread-and-butter of media and cause- or financially-driven scientists blind to their own lack of ethics… Don’t fall for Pastafarianism in science.

Wrapping up this concept, Ferriss writes:

Observational studies are valuable for developing hypotheses (educated guesses that can then be tested in controlled settings) but they cannot and should not be used to show cause and effect. To do so is both irresponsible and potentially dangerous.

3) “Does this study depend on self-reporting or surveys?”

To the greatest extent possible, avoid studies that depend on after-the-fact self-reporting. Trust your own data. Just record it when things happen.

4) “Is this diet study claiming a control group?”

Desirable as it may be, it is almost impossible to change just one macronutrient variable (protein, carbohydrate, fat) in a diet study. It is therefore almost impossible to create a control group.

If a researcher makes such a claim and vilifies a single macronutrient, your skeptical spider sense should tingle.

Ferriss explains the advantages offered by self-experimentation in terms of establishing a “control”.

The control is everything you’ve tried up to a certain point that hasn’t produced a desired effect. Isolating one variable is often less important than the sum impact of a group of changes. In other words, has your bodyfat percentage gone up or down in the last two weeks of replacing diet A with diet B? If you weren’t losing fat on A and now you are, A was your control.

In an ideal (but unattractive) test, you would go back to A and see if bodyfat then moves in the other direction. Then repeat the switch again. This would minimize the possibility that the first change in bodyfat just happened to coincide with the change in diet to B.

Alas, this switching would also maximize your likelihood of going insane. If something seems to be working, just stick with it.

5) “Do the funders of the study have a vested interest in a certain outcome?”

Beware of unholy unions between scientists and funding sources.

Dr. Ben Goldacre

Dr. Ben Goldacre unpicks dodgy scientific claims made by scaremongering journalists, dubious government reports, pharmaceutical corporations, PR companies and quacks. He was trained in medicine at Oxford and London, and is the author of Bad Science (2009), Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients (2013), and I Think You’ll Find it’s a Bit More Complicated Than That (2014).

Dr. Goldacre takes the stage at TEDGlobal 2011, delivering this brilliant talk wherein he shows us (at high speed) the ways evidence can be distorted, from blindingly obvious nutrition claims to subtle tricks of the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Goldacre makes an appearance at TEDMED 2012, delivering another brilliant talk wherein he explains potential dangerous and misleading consequences of unpublished trials. When new drugs are tested, the results of the trials should be published for the rest of the medical world — except, much of the time, negative and inconclusive findings go unreported, leaving doctors and researchers in the dark.

Dr. Goldacre also teamed up with Collins, to create some resources for teachers: Teaching Science with Bad Science: Resources for Teachers.

Here Be Dragons and Cognitive Biases

Most people fully accept paranormal and pseudo-scientific claims without critique as they are promoted by the mass media. Here Be Dragons offers a toolbox for recognizing and understanding the dangers of pseudoscience, and appreciation for the reality-based benefits offered by real science.

Here Be Dragons is written and presented by Brian Dunning, host and producer of the Skeptoid podcast, author of Skeptoid: Critical Analysis of Pop Phenomena, and Executive Producer of The Skeptologists and Truth Hurts.

Wikipedia's List of Cognitive Biases

Nassim Taleb’s 4-Volume Incerto Series

The ethical imperative driving Taleb’s Incerto series is: “If you see fraud and don’t shout fraud, you are a fraud.”

The Incerto series is:

[An] investigation of opacity, luck, uncertainty, probability, human error, risk, and decision making when we don’t understand the world, expressed in the form of a personal essay with autobiographical sections, stories, parables, and philosophical, historical, and scientific discussions in non-overlapping volumes that can be accessed in any order.

Additional Resources

The Work of David McRaney

Additional-additional Resources

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” — Dancer in the Dark (2000)

Navigating Oceans of Information, Pt. 1: The Set-up

“Understanding how to act under conditions of incomplete information is the highest and most urgent human pursuit.” – Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan

Recently my little brother asked me for some TEDxTalk and book recommendations, and, despite years of education (including a degree from a prestigious college), I was at something of a loss. Indeed, I was quickly overwhelmed by a profound feeling of inadequacy. Of the roughly 2,000 TEDxTalks and 130+ million books in the world, I had only seen or read a mere fraction of a fraction of that immense body of work. Suddenly, The Circle of Life, featured in Disney’s The Lion King, began running through my mind:

From the day we arrive on the planet

And blinking, step into the sun

There’s more to see than can ever be seen

More to do than can ever be done

There’s far too much to take in here

More to find than can ever be found…

What are us mere mortals to do? Are we, like Goethe’s Faust, to give up our souls in pursuit of knowledge? Regardless, we mustn’t forget Christ’s admonition, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?”  Are we doomed to an existence wherein the words of Daisy Buchanan ring truest of all? “I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

I find Daisy’s sentiment, immortalized by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, heartbreaking. Ignorance may be bliss, but I cannot recommend it. Life is not meant to be lived in Plato’s Cave.

As far as we know, life is merely a spark of light between eternities of darkness. And, although we have been afforded the opportunity to rise from our eternal slumber, we are destined to return to the darkness from whence we came.

This contemplation of our (less than enviable) human condition brings to mind a conversation between Frodo Baggins and Gandalf in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring. Here Frodo is beginning to realize the dreadful implications of his role as the ring-bearer:

‘I wish it need not have happened in my time,’ said Frodo.

‘So do I,’ said Gandalf, ‘and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.’

Time. What are we to do with the time that is given us? I believe that we must choose to learn, to venture into the ocean of information in pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and meaning. There, if we are lucky, we might just discover who we are meant to be.

“90% of Everything is Crap”

Theodore Sturgeon (1918-1985) was an American science fiction author and critic who said, “90% of everything is crap.” In an effort to provide some context, and a greater understanding of this quote, here is a passage (written by Sturgeon) found in the March 1958 issue of the Venture Science Fiction publication:

I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of SF is crud.

Using the same standards that categorize 90% of science fiction as trash, crud, or crap, it can be argued that 90% of film, literature, consumer goods, etc. is crap. In other words, the claim (or fact) that 90% of science fiction is crap is ultimately uninformative, because science fiction conforms to the same trends of quality as all other artforms.

The fate we must strive to avoid is that of the fool rushing madly into the ocean of information. For this ocean is relentless, infinite, and unforgiving. Without proper guidance and exceptional navigational skill, even the cleverest among us will find themselves drowning in the unbearable 90%.

“Material Beats Method”

One of the most important passages in The 4-Hour Chef: The Simple Path to Cooking Like a Pro, Learning Anything, and Living the Good Life by Timothy Ferriss is:

What you study is more important than how you study. Students are subordinate to materials, much like novice cooks are subordinate to recipes. If you select the wrong material, the wrong textbook, the wrong group of words, it doesn’t matter how much (or how well) you study. It doesn’t matter how good your teacher is. One must find the highest-frequency material. Material beats method.

Keep in mind, Ferriss was specifically referring to language-learning in this passage. That ought to clarify the “highest-frequency” bit. Nevertheless, I believe that the emphasis on carefully selecting the proper material is vital.

Prescriptions for Guaranteed Misery

Listeners were offered prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life by Charlie Munger, Vice-Chairman of the Berkshire Hathaway Corporation, in a commencement speech at the Harvard-Westlake prep school in 1986. Munger was inspired by Johnny Carson, the 30-year host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, who had previously given a speech offering his own prescriptions for guaranteed misery in life.

The following section of Munger’s speech provides insight into the role of information in our lives:

My second prescription for misery is to learn everything you possibly can from your own personal experience, minimizing what you learn vicariously from the good and bad experience of others, living and dead. This prescription is a sure-shot producer of misery and second-rate achievement…

The other aspect of avoiding vicarious wisdom is the rule for not learning from the best work done before yours. The prescription is to become as non-educated as you reasonably can.

Munger’s emphasis on “learning from the best work done before yours” is especially relevant today because, in our present age of information, the best work in any given field is more accessible than ever.

The Grand Finale

Thus far I hope that I have taken you rather into the darkness; exploring the overwhelming mass of information at our fingertips, the tragic human condition, and pointing out that, “90% of everything is crap.” More importantly, I hope that I have taken steps towards the light; emphasizing the importance of choosing your material wisely and learning from the best work of others. This is not only about our proverbial mandate to “stand upon the shoulders of giants.” It is about choosing your giants. For “giants” come in all shapes and sizes.

Moving forward, I would like you to consider the following letter written by a 20-year-old Hunter S. Thompson (who, among other things, is the author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream). The full text of the letter may be found in Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience, but for our momentary purposes you can simply follow this link: 20-Year-Old Hunter S. Thompson’s Superb Advice on How to Find Your Purpose and Live a Meaningful Life (by Maria Popova). At any rate, the passage upon which I would like to place special emphasis is the following:

To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal – to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

The thing is, when my brother asked me for TEDxTalk and book recommendations, I became an adviser. Now, surely, you might say, my advice is not so important. I am, after all, not explicitly answering grand questions about what someone ought to do with their life. Furthermore, my advice might be ignored or not taken seriously. Nevertheless, regardless of all the scenarios in which I don’t need to give my recommendations a second thought, there is always the possibility that my advice will be taken. The off-chance that I will recommend a book to someone that will change their life forever. And it is just that possibility, that off-chance, that drives me.

So, without further ado, here is an eclectic collection of quality work. I hope that you find it inspiring, educational, and entertaining.

Postscript

The brilliant Maria Popova, of Brain Pickings, on information, knowledge, and wisdom, for the Future of Storytelling (2014).

This is not the end…

“They say it’s the last song. They don’t know us, you see. It’s only the last song if we let it be.” – Dancer in the Dark (2000)