Thursday, September 24, 2009

Is Thinking Back in Fashion? – By Lane Wallace

Thinking may be coming back into fashion.

Never mind the fact that we have a President known for his intellectually rigorous abilities and habits. But three times in the past couple of weeks, I've encountered business people discussing Aristotle. Not in an esoteric conversation of culture or literature, either, but as a way to improve every-day life and business decision-making ability.

"We're capable, but not practiced, in the art of thinking," says Phil Terry, CEO of Creative Good, a business consulting company, and the founder of a web-based reading and lecture organization called Reading Odyssey. "We're all endowed with curiosity, but a lot of us, for very good reasons, stop using it after a certain point. After a certain age, we tend to substitute opinions for thinking."

Terry's assessment would resonate with anyone who's spent any amount of time watching cable TV news channels. But even if we recognize the problem, how do we get those dormant curiosity and decision-making skills back in gear?

According to Terry (and Berkshire-Hathaway vice-chairman Charlie Munger, among others), the answer lies in the classics. Why the classics? First, to gather a broad base of knowledge about the "big ideas" across all the major academic disciplines. And second, to develop the ways of thinking and the "habit of wisdom" Aristotle believed were critical to good decision-making.

Munger is apparently well known for his belief that good decision-making--including good investment decision-making--comes from having a "lattice-work of frameworks" with which to approach a subject. If, for example, you can compare how a historian, economist, psychologist and probability theorist would look at a given situation, you can see it more clearly--including angles or weaknesses one discipline alone might miss. And as a result, you're likely to make better decisions about what to do or where to head next.

Of course, "accumulating a broad knowledge base of all the major academic disciplines" isn't exactly a three-hour task you whip out over a long weekend. Fortunately, for anyone so inclined, there's Peter Bevelin. Bevelin, a businessman and investor, wanted to reduce the number of bad decisions he made in his business life. Drawn to Munger's approach, he took a year off just to read and study the big ideas in all the major disciplines. Bevelin's book, Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, is the synthesis of the notes he took over that year.

But one of the other main points Bevelin made was that wisdom isn't just about knowledge. It's about a way of thinking. Darwin, he said, wasn't particularly brilliant. But he had exceptional thinking habits ... of observing, contemplating, reading, conversing with close confidants and, above all, of ceaselessly challenging even his own assumptions and beliefs.

Which brings us to Aristotle. Wisdom, according to Aristotle, isn't an object anyone acquires. It's a habit; something that emerges from a particular way of processing information and engaging with others and the world. And a habit that's essential for us to develop to make better decisions in business and life. That theme is prevalent not only in Bevelin's book, but also in Terry's Reading Odyssey teleconference-based lecture and discussion groups--which he set up to help curious adults explore and debate classics and "big ideas" from thinkers ranging from Homer, Aristotle and Herodotus to Darwin.


Related link:

A Reading Odyssey

Related books:

Poor Charlie’s Almanack

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger

Related previous posts:

Interview with Peter Bevelin, author of Seeking Wisdom - from Darwin to Munger

Second Interview with Peter Bevelin