Friday, November 16, 2012

Greene, Mastery

In my post of October 17 on The Logician and the Engineer, in which I described how George Boole and Claude Shannon came to be such remarkable thinkers, I mentioned Robert Greene’s Mastery (Viking, 2012). Even though Mastery won’t officially be published until November 22 (I read pre-publication digital galleys) and I normally wait for a book’s release date before reviewing it, Amazon already has a dozen reader reviews. So I will join them in jumping the gun.

The book mixes mini-biographies of “masters” (a few of whom are not household names) with how-to advice for the not so masterful, which begins with an exhortation to “discover your calling.” It’s impossible to be a master of anything if it doesn’t fit your talents and personality and if you’re not passionately immersed in it.

The first stage, Greene argues, in acquiring mastery is apprenticeship under the tutelage of a mentor where “your goal is always to surpass your mentors in mastery and brilliance.” Social intelligence makes everything go more smoothly, especially as you become more creative-active (the second level). Finally, in mastery, you fuse the intuitive with the rational.

Okay, so you’ve probably read this sort of thing before. If you haven’t, Greene’s book is a great place to start. But even if you have, Greene’s inspirational bios are worth a read, and some of his advice may actually prove useful on the road to mastery.

In this review, rather than blather on about the book as a whole, I’m going to focus on the section entitled “Alter Your Perspective.”

Conventional minds, he writes, rely on mental shorthand; “our thoughts fall into the same narrow grooves and the same categorizing shorthand.” By contrast, “creative people are those who have the capacity to resist this shorthand. They can look at a phenomenon from several different angles, noticing something we miss because we only look straight on. Sometimes, after one of their discoveries or inventions is made public, we are surprised at how obvious it seems and wonder why no one else had thought of it before. This is because creative people are actually looking at what is hidden in plain sight, and not rushing to generalize and label.” (p. 191)

Greene offers four examples of the most common shorthands, with tips on how to subvert them.

First, “looking at the ‘what’ instead of the ‘how’,” or (very roughly) thinking in terms of nouns rather than verbs. Greene argues that we should pay greater attention to the relationships among things, to structure, rather than to things in isolation. He might have added that we should focus more on process than on a time slice.

Second, “rushing to generalities and ignoring details.” Wrong. “Immersing yourself in details will combat the generalizing tendencies of the brain and bring you closer to reality,” as long as you don’t become lost in the details.

Third, “confirming paradigms and ignoring anomalies.” Paradigms are necessary to make sense of the world, but they shouldn’t dominate our way of thinking. “We routinely look for patterns in the world that confirm the paradigms we already believe in. The things that do not fit the paradigm—the anomalies—tend to be ignored or explained away. In truth, anomalies themselves contain the richest information. They often reveal to us the flaws in our paradigms and open up new ways of looking at the world.” (p. 193) Google came to dominate the world of search because Larry Page and Sergey Brin focused on the “seemingly trivial flaws in systems such as AltaVista, the anomalies.”

Finally, “fixating on what is present, ignoring what is absent” (the dog that didn’t bark). We should pay attention to negative cues, “what should have happened but did not.”

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to subvert at least one of your less than stellar investing or trading shorthands. I’m sure you’re creative enough to figure out something constructive.

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