The Art of Thinking Clearly

The Art of Thinking Clearly is a catalog of thinking errors when we make decisions. Here are some of my favorites from this book:

  • Swimmer’s Body Illusion: 
    • Professional swimmers don’t have perfect bodies because they train extensively. Rather, they are good swimmers because of their physiques.
    • Female models advertise cosmetics. But it is not the cosmetics that make these women model-like. The models are born attractive.
  • Sunk Cost Fallacy: When we have invested a lot of time, money, energy or love in something, this investment becomes a reason to carry on, even if we are dealing with a lost cause.
    • Investors frequently fall victim to this when they base their trading decisions on acquisition prices. The acquisition price should play no role, what counts is the stock’s future performance.
  • Reciprocity: Many NGOs and philanthropic organizations first give, then take.
  • Availability Bias:  We systematically overestimate the risk of being the victims of a plane crash, a car accident, or a murder. We attach too much likelihood to flashy or loud outcomes. We think dramatically, not quantitatively.
  • It’ll Get Worse Before It Gets Better Fallacy: If someone says “It’ll get worse before it gets better” you should hear alarm bells ringing. If the problem continues to worsen, the prediction is confirmed. If the situation improves, the expert can attribute it to his prowess. Either way, he wins.
  • Incentives:
    • In ancient Rome, engineers were made to stand underneath the construction at their bridges’ opening ceremonies.
    • Forget hourly rates and always negotiate a fixed price in advance.
    • Never ask a barber if you need a haircut.
  • Regression to Mean: Extreme performances are interspersed with less extreme ones.
    • Suppose your region is experiencing a record period of cold weather. In all probability, the temperature will rise in the next few days – back to the monthly average. The weather fluctuates around a mean.
    • Lowest performing schools were entered into a support program. The following year, the school moved up in the rankings, an improvement that the authorities attributed to the program rather than to natural regression to mean.
  • Liking Bias: There’s nothing more effective in selling anything than getting the customer to believe, really believe, that you like him and care about him. We see people as pleasant, if they are outwardly attractive or they are similar to us in terms of origin, personality or interests and they like us. If the buyer speaks slowly and quietly, do the same.
  • Base-Rate Neglect: Mark is a thin man from Germany with glasses who likes to listen to Mozart. Which is more likely? That Mark is a truck driver or he is a professor of literature in Frankfurt? Germany has ten thousand times more truck drivers than Frankfurt has literature professors. Therefore, it is more likely that Mark is a truck driver.
  • Forecast Illusion: Experts who make predictions enjoy free rein with few negative consequences. If they strike it lucky, they enjoy the publicity, consultancy offers, and publication deals. If they are completely off the mark, they face no penalties – neither in terms of financial compensation nor in loss of reputation. This win-win scenario incentivizes them to churn out as many prophecies as they can muster.
  • Action Bias: In a penalty situation in soccer, goalkeepers rarely stay standing in the middle – even though roughly a third of all balls land there.
  • Effort Justification: When you put a lot of energy into a task, you tend to overvalue the result.
    • Gangs and fraternities initiate new members by forcing them to withstand vicious tests. The harder the “entrance exam” is to pass, the greater the subsequent pride and the value they attach to their membership.
    • MBA schools work their students day and night without respite. Regardless of whether the course work proves useful later on, students deem the qualification essential for their careers simply because it demanded so much.
    • IKEA effect: The furniture we assemble ourselves seems more valuable than any expensive designer piece.
  • Volunteer’s Folly: An NGO is looking for volunteers to help build birdhouses for endangered species. If Jack earns $500 an hour, and a carpenter $50 an hour, then it would be more sensible to work an extra hour and hire a carpenter for six hours to make birdhouses. Doing so, his contribution would go much further than if the grabbed a saw and rolled up his sleeves.
  • Alternative Blindness: We systematically forget to compare an existing offer with the next-best alternative.
    • Suppose you have some money in your savings account. If your financial advisor proposes you a bond that will earn you 5 percent interest and says “That’s much better than the 1 percent you get with your savings account”. Then it’s wrong to consider just these two options. You would have to compare the bond with all other investment options and then select the best.
    • Let’s say your city is planning to build a sports arena on a vacant plot of land. Supporters argue that such an arena would benefit the population much more than an empty lot. We should compare it with all other ideas, for example building a school, hospital, etc.
  • Social Comparison Bias: There’s a tendency to withhold assistance to people who might outdo you. In the short term, other stars can endanger your status, but in the long run, you can only profit from their contributions. Others will overtake you at some stage anyway. Until then, you should get in the up-and-comers’ good books and learn from them.
  • Not-Invented-Here Syndrome: When people collaborate to solve problems and then evaluate these ideas themselves, NIH syndrome will inevitably exert an influence. We tend to rate our own ideas as more successful than other people’s concepts. Thus, it makes sense to split teams into two groups. The first group generates ideas, the second rates them, and vice versa.

Overall, it was a very enlightening and entertaining read as an overview of cognitive errors, highly recommended.

June 3, 2019

Atomic Habits

Atomic Habits offers practical advice on how to start new habits or get rid of bad habits. Here are some notes:

  • Don’t underestimate marginal gains, if you get 1% better every day, you become 37x better in a year
  • Your outcomes are a lagging measure of your habits: money (financial habits), weight (eating habits), knowledge (learning habits)
  • People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others help you.
  • Instead of setting goals, focus on having systems (goal: losing 10 pounds vs system: learning to eat well)
  • Identity based habits: Focus is on who you wish to become
    • read a book vs become a reader
    • run a marathon vs become a runner
    • learn an instrument vs become a musician
  • The habit loop consists of:
    • cue: signal reward (notice) -> make it obvious
    • craving: acting force (want) -> make it attractive
    • response: action (d0) -> make it easy
    • reward: result (get) -> make it satisfying
  • Be specific with your habits: I will [BEHAVIOR] at [TIME] in [LOCATION]
  • Habit stacking: Start a new habit by doing it before / after an existing habit
  • Environment matters: Drug addict soldiers stop their addiction when they return home from the war
  • Two groups were given different tasks: a) Only take high quality photos b) Only take as many photos as you can. Best photos came out of the quantity group
  • To visualize virtual progress, you can put physical objects things from one jar to another
  • Reframe cues: Exercise as building endurance, saving money as increasing your future means
  • To stop procrastination, scale down habits to their 2 minute version:
    • “Read before bed each night” becomes “Read one page.”
    • “Study for class” becomes “Open my notes.”

Overall, it was one of the most actionable, well written and interesting books I’ve read recently, highly recommended!

May 26, 2019

The Untethered Soul

The Untethered Soul is a book on spirituality. A lot of the ideas in this book are an adaptation of Buddhist philosophy for a Western audience. It gave me a perspective on how to deal with my thoughts and emotions, and helped me understand what purpose meditation serves. I especially enjoyed the parts about happiness and death, they were good reminders. It’s interesting to note that the author, Michael A. Singer, was a software professional in medical industry. Here are some bits from the book that I want to remember:

  • The voice inside your head: You have a mental dialogue going on inside your head that never stops. You’re not the voice of the mind – you’re the one who hears it. You are the one inside that notices the voice talking.
  • Removing your inner thorn: Let’s say you have a deep sense of inner loneliness. Loneliness is just like a thorn. If you’re lonely, you must avoid going to places where couples tend to be. The loneliness will run your entire life. You’ll marry the person who makes you feel less lonely. Should someone die or leave you, the loneliness would again disturb you. You will then start worrying about keeping your relationship with this person. Now you have the burden of worrying about the relationship. It all gets very complicated. You can simply remove the thorn and not focus your life around it. You are not the pain you feel, nor are you the part that periodically stresses out. You are the one who notices these things. Once you learn that it’s okay to feel inner disturbances, and that they can no longer disturb your seat of consciousness, you will be free.
  • Stealing freedom for your soul: The prerequisite to true freedom is to decide that you do not want to suffer anymore. You must decide that you want to enjoy your life and that there is no reason for stress, inner pain or fear. Your psyche is communicating through universal language: fear. Self-consciousness, jealousy, insecurity, anxiety – they are all fear. Most people try to fix their inner problems by getting better at the same external games they have always played. “If I could get thar promotion, I will be fine.” If you feel loneliness and insufficiency within your heart, it’s not because you haven’t found a special relationship. That didn’t cause the problem. The relationship is your attempt to solve the problem. The fact is, external changes are not going to solve your problem because they don’t address the root of your problem. The root problem is that you don’t feel whole and complete within yourself. You began with a problem inside yourself, and you tried to solve it by getting involved with somebody else. The relationship will have problems because your problems are what caused the relationship.
  • Pain, the price of freedom: If you are afraid of being rejected by someone and you approach that person with the intention of winning their acceptance, you are skating on thin ice. All they have to do is look at you sideways or say the wrong thing, and you will feel the pain of rejection. Your attempt to avoid pain has created layer upon layer of sensitivities that are all linked to the hidden pain. In order to avoid the pain of rejection, you work hard to maintain friendships. To succeed, you have to be sure everything you do is acceptable by others. This determines how you dress and how you act. At the core, there is the pain. In order to avoid the pain, you try to stay busy with friends and hide in their acceptance. This is the first layer out. Then, in order to assure your acceptance, you try to present yourself a certain way so that you can win friends and influence people. This is another layer. You first need to get some perspective. You are sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere. One choice is the leave the pain inside and continue to struggle with the outside. The other choice is to decide you don’t want to spend your entire life avoiding the inner pain, you’d rather get rid of it. You must not be afraid of rejection. You must look inside yourself and determine that from now on pain is not a problem. It is just a thing in the universe. If you feel insecurity, it’s just a feeling. You can handle a feeling. If you feel embarrassed, it’s just a feeling. It’s just a part of creation. If you feel jealousy, just look at it objectively, it’s a thing in the universe that is passing through your system.
  • The path of unconditional happiness: 
    • You have to realize that you really only have one choice in this life, and it’s not about your career, whom you want to marry, or whether you want to seek God. In the end, you can throw it all away and just make one basic, underlying decision: Do you want to be happy, or do you not want to be happy? It’s really that simple.
    • Let’s say you’ve been lost and without food for days, and you finally find your way to a house. You really don’t care what they give you. It no longer has anything to do with your mental preferences. The same goes for question about happiness. The question is simply “Do you want to be happy?” If the answer is really yes, then say it without qualifying it. After all, what the question really means is “Do you want to be happy from this point forward for the rest of your life, regardless of what happens?” Now if you say yes, it might happen that your wife leaves you, or your husband dies, or the stock market crashes, or your car breaks down on an open highway at night. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s not a question of whether your happiness is under your control. Of course it’s under your control. Any condition you create will limit your happiness. You have to give an unconditional answer. You just have to really mean it when you say that you choose to be happy. And you have to mean it regardless of what happens. This is truly a spiritual path, and it is as direct and sure a path to awakening as could possibly exist.
    • The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on Earth to suffer. You’re not helping anybody by being miserable. Regardless of your beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. You can be happy just to be alive. In the end, enjoying life’s experiences is the only rational thing to do. You’re sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere. You’re floating in empty space in a universe that goes on forever. If you have to be here, at least be happy and enjoy the experience. You gain nothing by being bothered by life’s events. It doesn’t change the world, you just suffer.
  • Contemplating death: Any time you’re having trouble with something, think of death.
    • Imagine if you knew you were going to die within a week or a month. How would you change things? You should be asking yourself why you aren’t living that way.
    • You’ve walked outside thousands of times, but how many times have you really appreciated it? Learn to live as though you are facing death at all times. Look how precious life becomes when you imagine you only have a week left. Death actually gives meaning to life. If you are living every experience fully, then death doesn’t take anything from you.
May 25, 2019

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sarp centel

Sarp is a software developer. He writes about technology, books and software.
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