Is Thinking Back in Fashion?

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-chariman 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. Ddrawn 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. It's not easy or quick reading (and copies are a bit hard to find), but it's a far shorter path than doing all the original research yourself. 

Some of the gems Bevelin has to offer? In a talk on the book I heard him give two weeks ago, he gave one example of how probability theory applies to a company trying to expand its operations. If you have a tool with one part, and that part is 99% reliable, the chance of something going wrong is only 1%. But if you have a Space Shuttle with 2,000 parts, each of which has a reliability factor of 99%, the probability that any one part will fail jumps to 14%. How does that work? That's the point. You have to understand probability theory to know. But understanding how risk expands exponentially with size might influence a company's dicision to expand or how fast it wanted to expand. 

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.

Then, just a week after hearing Bevelin speak, I heard Aristotle's name and that same theme again--this time at an international conference sponsored by the Boston-based Design Management Institute. Tony Golsby-Smith, a business consultant and educator from Australia, argued that while Arisstotle's Posterior Analytics laid the groundwork for quantitative analysis and the modern scientific method, his Rhetoric laid the groundwork for exceptional decision-making and creative innovation. And that business executives therefore ignored Aristotle's "second road" to knowledge at their peril.

What accounts for this new visibility for the classics, wisdom, and learning how to think? I'm not sure. The ideas themselves aren't new. But perhaps, after years of hubris born of steadily rising stock markets, we're suddenly, post-crash, a bit more open to the idea that we might not know all there is to know--and that we might even need to develop new ways of learning what there is to know. The Greeks knew something about that, too. After all, they're the ones who coined the term "hubris." And anyone who paid attention in history and literature class knows that it was almost always followed by a fall. 

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Lane Wallace is a pilot and adventure writer. She is the author of Surviving Uncertainty: Taking a Hero's Journey.

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