Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s long time partner at Berkshire Hathaway, is famous for his deep wisdom and multidisciplinary approach to knowledge, which has inspired one of my favourite websites and which has even been collected in a dedicated book, edited by Glenair’s CEO Peter Kaufman.
Munger’s famous sentence quoted in the banner on top is my favourite citation of his.
You can apply this to endless domains. In business, the context it is usually framed within, you’ve got to know your competitors before you are convinced you are offering something valuable, much like you should understand where other people’s opinions come from before sticking with your own.
I claim that this rule has far-reaching implications in the domain of individual self-awareness, for reasons I will articulate in the rest of this introspective article. I will reflect in retrospect on how the rule, as I have come to understand it, has served me during the course of my life. As it turns out, it has done wonders, though I wasn’t aware of the reason, while it was happening.
Had I read and understood Munger when I was younger, I wouldn’t have needed the strikes of luck I enjoyed and which saved my day.
Tomatoes, physics and management
The red thread connecting tomatoes, physics and business management through the course of my life is a simple question I have been often asked: “How do you manage to do that?”
In all three cases, the people asking could not conceive what I was doing at the time: for tomatoes, I was asked this by my elementary school classmates by the time I was 8 and already in love with vegetables; for physics, it happened in my 20s, when I was first studying and then working in academia; and for business management, it happens sometimes now, while I run administration and HR for Dentoni.
At any given time and for many people, doing such things was (or still is) inconceivable to do.
The list of such people has actually included myself for a very long time!
The story of my way out of this list is a story of a problematic relationship with math teachers, my father and the making of two mistakes early on, which luckily happened to cancel each other.
First are tomatoes. This is the easy domain, to my mother’s esclusive credit.
Eating vegetables was never a choice I had to make, it was something which was presented to me as natural and, in particular, not as exceptional or special. I just saw others around me do it consistently without attaching any emotional meaning to it. I therefore started pretty early to do it myself, slowly but surely, simply by imitating them in small steps. Neither there was any anxiety whatsoever from my parents’s side about getting me to eat them, nor it was presented to me as any major accomplishment I had to achieve in order to be praised.
What else does this have to do with math and management, beside the question some of my seemingly shocked peers were asking me back then?
The answer is that, be it eating vegetables or doing physics or running a company, it is always largely a matter of inception attitudes, as I will discuss now.
Math-related hardships are a product of educational methods
So, when I was in school, math homework was the most painful chore of my afternoons: very often, my father persistently sat down next to me for hours to help me figure out what my literature-prone brain was struggling with. I was being constantly held back from math by a mixture of mutually reinforcing laziness and fear of failure. The first two seeds which had originated this loop I stayed stuck into for years were my inclination towards literature -which has never faded away- and my surprisingly strong memory for whatever learning material which was propped up by any story whatsoever; this made me easily score high grades and a lot of cheap adult admiration in any other subject. I craved adult admiration, for I was a very insecure child. The third cause I am aware of was a bad relationship with essentially all teachers since elementary schools and all the way up to my third high school year.
Bumping into multiplication tables to learn by heart with no supporting fiction was quite a trauma.
Neither did the way math is taught in Italian schools help. However, the problem with the school system, as serious as it is, is secondary to the genesis of math anxiety.
The fact that, from time to time, my father got mad with me did not help much: I remember my desire to bask in the wake of his guidance whenever I had anything to solve and I could not figure it out, how it relieved my obnoxious anxiety…while he sat next to me to help me out, even the smell of his cigarettes, which I otherwise hated, felt acceptable. I also distinctly remember my helplessness when a logical effort was required to take the next step forward, especially during classwork time, when my mind simply went into black-out mode; my father’s frustration, seeing me understand his explanations at home but failing to tae the next step with my own legs, is totally understandable in retrospect, but his angry and severe reactions only made my problem worse.
When you seek the quick reward of being acknowledged and you perceive the risk of being quickly and mercilessly blamed, freezing behind the mask of a concocted inability you were born with is the way to go; taking small risks and accepting the mistakes that learning by trial and error requires feels like way too steep a hill to climb. Very soon, your concocted inability starts to feel incredibly real.
All this played a big role in my choice of classical lyceum, when I was 14: I wanted to stay away from math as much as I could, ready to incessantly toil at Latin and Greek translations as much as others asked from me in exchange. It was, by far, the best school I could choose. I just chose it for the worst possible reason. And then I got extremely lucky later.
This sort of luck is a dangerous double-edged sword, when you try to assess yourself with hindsight. I shall just mention that it is appalling and frightening how much biased we are in judging our choices: we could hope to be objective only if we could assess out decision mechanisms in place of the outcomes of our decisions.
Judging decisions by their outcome is the best way to idolize suckers casually turned superstars and to despise very clever and capable people who happened to be very unlucky. Such an awareness would be a hell of an incentive to humility and shrewdness at the same time…
Be as it may, my choice worked well until my final year, when I started to face the next choice of a university faculty: philosophy made my day back then, for I was naturally attracted by far-reaching problems and I was already fond of Kant and Spinoza. However, much of the subject outside of a handful of authors seemed pointlessly bombastic to me: if I was ever going to stick with philosophy, I knew I would be forced to confine my interest for the thinkers who had written something truly resonating with my mind to a limited chunk of my university time, mostly so until my graduation thesis. Also, future working perspective did not entice me: teaching in high school was not inspiring at all and thinking of becoming a university professor was out of the esteem range I used to hold myself in.
So I desperately needed a backup plan: something solid about the fundamental problems of the universe, possibly connected to philosophy (so as to come up for air from time to time, if needed), possibly made of inextricably connected pieces of knowledge, so as to challenge laziness and cherry-picking tendencies. Incidentally, I am saying that I had such a precise list of musts, back at the time, but each aspect was competing for my attention, now and again, in turns.
The last item of my list was to find, after university, solid working perspectives, which would keep me away from managing our family business. And this was the second mistake: disparaging business. This eventually led me to pick the best faculty I could have chosen, but again for the wrong reason. Put simply, discarding business pushed me right into the arms of the science I had so far despised.
Business aside: flow states and an uncomfortable father
I had spent all of my summers, since I was 11, working side by side with my father at Dentoni, at times enjoying the state of flow which comes to everyone working at high speed with repetitive tasks performed in sequence, requiring small adaptations at the very same time.
Such states are typical for the hospitality worker: each bill you issue requires the same procedure but in slightly different combination of products, depending on the customer, which forces you to keep your attention sufficiently awake; each coffee you brew requires the same sequence of actions, but when the venue is full you have to pay attention to the multiple combinations of products making each single order orders…so for each order you serve to a table, if you are a waiter…and so on. This creates the intertwining of repetition and novelty that strikes the nice balance that Mihaly Robert Csikszentmihalyi has become famous for researching and which, when work gets challenging enough, makes the state of flow so often accessible to workers in this field.
I am persuaded that this is the thing keeping most of them going, for circumstances do not even ask from them to intentionally look for this state. Such a state of flow is what every man looks for and, in hospitality, it just comes to you during the rush hour, if you are good enough to be able to handle the challenge and not to panic.
The root fear about business management and business ownership, for me, was that the said state of flow was the only corner where I had ever felt at ease, otherwise knowing that, as you go up the responsibility ladder all the way to the top, this state is less and less your business; second, I could not stand the idea for precisely the same matter of perception that had held me back for so long from math: the perceived lack of connection between management and my way of being created a feeling of total lack of agency for my prospective future self, which felt then completely doomed to wasting away in an ocean of desperation, in the event of a future in that role.
And why was I perceiving lack of agency? Let’s just say that a strong, authoritative and so capable businessman, as my father was, does not work as a way-opening bulldozer to an introverted child attracted by theoretical problems.
When the nature of such problems, detached from practical matters by a curtain of fear and inadequacy, feels more like a refuge than a challenge, it means that the subject’s personality is very likely to conflate the least evil with his/her most natural inclination.
It takes a lot of compassionate encouragement towards trial and error to foster accepting and relishing mistakes, from which room is made for the potential interest in intimidating subjects. There is no chance the latter peeks through anything else but the slow development of a higher self-esteem and a sense of increased agency. Such a result is the product of lucky circumstances and, therefore, is also rarely the case. Notice: I am saying increased agency for a specific reason. After elementary school I had not been bad in math basics at all any longer, but I was just too used to the state of things where I was doing the bare minimum, our of my previous conditioning, to understand that my agency was enough to pave the way to enjoying the subject, had I taken a chance. As a rule, we are never aware of the value of things as they are usually, we are accustomed to only take notice of gradients.
A right choice is not necessarily the daughter of a right reason
Back to the main thread: when I was 19 and faced with choosing a university faculty, I had met two years before the first math teacher in my life who was able to present math with straightforwardness, clarity and the attitude which inspired anything but anxiety to me. I remember the first question round when she asked all my class about our relationship with math.
I was last and, when my turn came, to her question I elusively replied “I prefer novels.” She seemed unabashed and, one month later, I was having fun solving trigonometric identities.
What made this possible for the first time?
Looking back, this was again a combination of several factors: on one hand, I had stayed almost completely away from math for three years, forgetting much of how frustrating it used to be to me; I was then persuaded I would never have to care too much about it for the rest of my life; on the other hand, this woman had some specific charisma, which I can try to descrive as the kind of easy-going attitude and self-centering which allows people like her to convey their knowledge with clarity and no unprepossessing seriousness; the latter was, otherwise, the attitude I had always found in math teachers and in my father, notwithstanding his redeeming role in my early education.
That was the seed I needed to witness the shy blooming of a different conviction inside myself which, boosted by my doubts about a career in philosophy and my fear of becoming a business manager (my second mistake), led me to jump into physics.
Back then, I did not even know how to derive the formula for the roots of a quadratic equation. And, indeed, there was no sort of miracle afterwards: I had to struggle very hard for very long years to reprogram my mind to think logically and clearly, ditching the default analogical mode of my brain, but it was worth the effort! In the first year and a half I broke out in tears of frustration at least a couple of times. But exactly five years later I graduated and chose to pursue a PhD.
If my father were still alive, I would probably still be doing research.
Neither regret nor remorse: just growth!
Which brings me to the next biggest choice of my life: in August 2018, when my dad was already terminally sick and a few months away from departing, I had just got an offer to join the technical University of Cracow for a tenure track. That was the city of my dreams and I had been looking forward to such an opportunity for a long time, almost since I had started my first postdoc there, in September 2014.
So I had to face another hard choice between something I had grown accustomed to do with pleasure and something I did not think I could enjoy but I was subconsciously attracted to anyway, I must admit. I still could not see it 100% clearly 4 years ago, but I could see it 50% more clearly that when I was nineteen: the personal growth perspective implied by the path I was unaccustomed to was calling me with a louder voice. Be it physics or business management, the lesson was becoming clearer: I was being led to the path meant for me to shatter my self-imposed mental limits.
They say that, between a regret and a remorse, you should always choose remorse. That would imply I have made a mistake, in this sense. But this is not really the case, I believe: I did not choose to sacrifice a scientific career for my family, I rather chose to take the next step in my personal progression through and beyond my fears. I could not articulate it this way yet 4 years ago, but I could recognize it instinctively.
I claim that the remorse rule in the regret-remorse choice is a particular case of a more general rule: you should try to choose, the key variable being not fooling yourself, the path taking your personal growth to the next level. Admittedly, that happens to be the path initially feeling like remorse for most people. It could have been so for me as well: I can imagine another life where I would have experimented business responsibilities from an earlier age, proving to be good, but then I would have fallen in deeper love with science. In that kind of life, where business could have felt like eating tomatoes felt like when I was a little boy, the way starting with remorse would have likely been the way of growth, if I had been faced with an analogous choice. But in this life, business felt like math used to feel like before it. And so, I believe that I had to face it.
The ’80-20′ Pareto rule
My interest in ventures riskier than a university career (read: worrying about losing money rather than of missing citations) had actually started to creep up earlier on, while I was a physics postdoc in Cracow, in 2014-2017. Elsewhere I have already recounted how I fell in love with Nassim Taleb’s ideas about luck, uncertainty and risk through his Incerto books and how this led me to attend his and Raphael Douady’s Real-world Risk program in New York, back in June 2017.
With the benefit of hindsight (some may say with the illusion of my personal narrative), I can now tell that3 I was trying to get in touch with the potential to deal more closely with reality, somehow. Overcoming my fear of math had been a first step in the right direction, but my inner self was demanding the next one. Tragically, the call to action finally came with my father’s cancerous death sentence.
So much for my motivational twists.
The rest of this paragraph is a scientific demystification of the reason why I apparently succeeded at both things. In other words, its an answer to the quoted question, “How do you manage to do that?”
Easy spoiler: in success, talent has almost no role whatsoever. I have absolutely no talent at all. All I have is a kink for knowledge and the will to learn and become better. Period.
The tool I will turn to to validate my demystification effort is known as Pareto law, from the homonymous Italian mathematician and sociologist, Vilfredo Pareto. There will be no mathematical argument, but the idea behind Pareto’s law will be made crystal clear by dint of examples.
If you are really scared to death by math, just read the bold text until the picture, to get the gist.
First, the qualitative version of the law.
For some specific variables in complex systems, there is a bunch of overwhelmingly impactful results which come from a tiny minority of the population.
Historically, the first field where the rule was discovered was the study of wealth distribution in Italy by Pareto himself, who found that roughly 20% of the Italian population owned roughly 80% of the wealth. But it does not have to be 80-20.
Now, first an idealized example to explain intuitively where the Pareto rule applies and where it does not.
Suppose we take 1000 people and make them stretch to the ground in line, one after the other, for 1,75 kilometers. Of course, their average height must be 1.75 meters. Sure enough, there are variations in height among them. Some will be taller, some shorter. How much shorter I can hope to make the line, if I remove the tallest of them, without knowing them individually a priori? And the answer would be that, in very exceptional cases, I could hope to cut 2.7 meters, i.e. 0,1% of the total length. The average height of. the remaining 999 people will be (1750-2.7)/999 mt, namely 1,749 metres. The mean has changed by 1 part over 1000, i.e. it is practically the same.
Next, suppose the very same people put all of their money into one single bank account and that the total wealth is 1 billion €. Sounds like 1 million € is the average wealth, so pretty high. How much lower can I hope to make the bank account balance, if I remove the money of just one randomly chosen person? It shouldn’t feel unreasonable that one single individual could own a capital of 0.9 billions, with the remaining 100 millions € split among the other 999 people, which would then be worth ~ 100k € each, on average. The average of the sample has changed dramatically, after removing the richest individual! After all, not may people are so rich as to own 1 bn in our society, but they are certainly not as rare as 2.7 meters tall men!
Notice that this is true for wealth distribution wether such a rich man is part or not of our particular sample: it is a property of wealth distribution across the whole society, not of the specific sample. In fact, if I extend the example above to the more complex case of an entire nation, it is pretty reasonable to expect what Pareto found, roughly: a minority of people will be found to possess most of the wealth.
Wealth is an example of a Pareto variable, as it tends to pile up in the hands of a few people. What makes it special? Well, a man’s height does not depend almost at all from other people’s. But wealth does, because it is a function of social interactions, structure and power relationships. This is typical of variables arising from intricate, multiple interactions happening in complex systems. That’s as much as you need to understand in order to get the gist of Pareto’s law.
What about other kinds of variables where this applies to? Indeed, just think about any interesting field of human life…
- How many movies or books written each year make it to become timeless classics?
- How many of the women (or men) you meet in one life end up becoming significant love stories?
- How many plants and animals play the biggest role in our diets, out of all the edible ones out there (think wheat, barley, pork and poultry)?
- How big a percentage of all the active soccer, basketball, or baseball players make up for most of the revenue of dedicated advertising companies (think Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo in soccer, compared to all the others, if you want to convince yourself that 80% and 20% are historical accidents…)
To conclude my inferences, I will add the following item to the list:
- How much of people’s success is ascribable to talent and how much to sacrifice?
Let’s look at some of the most blatant cases: Mozart, Bach, Messi, Ronaldo, Van Gogh, Euler, Gauss, Phelps, Michael Jordan, Newton, Einstein, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Dante Alighieri and all geniuses I could name in any field that I know anything about are widely known for having spent countless hours of their lives toiling at their own craft.
What about all the successful people the world is full of, who were not indisputable geniuses while still babes in arms, that everyone of us knows but are never or seldom featured in news or history books? We all know the righteous refrain we all share about those with the real deal: they worked so hard and, often, luck helped!
And so here we go, in scanty mathematical form:
Empirical axiom 1, i.e. Pareto’s law of human success.
Success is due, at worst, for 80% to your will to make sacrifices and stick to the discipline required to learn from inevitable mistakes, plus a dose of luck; at most 20% of it is ascribable to your talent.
Empirical Axiom 2, i.e. Munger’s law of human self-knowledge.
In order to establish what you really like or not, you should never pronounce yourself before you have done the work to give a try to what constitutes your fears, for there lies your biggest chance of growth. Self-knowledge is seldom for free.
Empirical proposition, i.e. The likely nature of genius
Because of law 1 and law 2, few people really know their true inclinations since early on in life. Most likely, most of those we call geniuses are people who neither meet any resistance in discovering their most natural inclination nor in cultivating it freely, i.e. without emotional hindrance from guilt, feelings of inadequacy and the like. This allows them to develop a genuinely personal way to get great at their craft and to accrue an advantage over their peers.
I am aware that there are nuances and I am not saying you should agree with me because I have dressed this up as a theorem of sorts. I am saying I have found the essence of the matter this to be so simple as to be formulated as a theorem.
Sacrifice and discipline, coupled with curiosity and a good dose of luck, have made up for my helpless lack of anything you could deem a natural talent. That’s the answer: there is no big secret, at all!
Franco Battiato and evolution
As the late and majestic Franco Battiato once said (I quote by heart): “Spiritual evolution is the only realm I know where meritocracy is all.” He was certainly right in the sense he meant it. I would, indeed, argue that evolution per se, agreeing on this with Ray Dalio’s memoir, is the single most powerful force in the universe; indeed, it is the real purpose for such self-conscious beings as humans to be alive in this world.
Here by “evolution” we do not mean any sort of social progress, be it technological, economical, political and whatever else. We just mean the growth of the individual’s awareness of his potential and its actualization in the world.
When Battiato was making the quoted statement, he meant that, in the realm of spiritual work, you do not confront human-made, flawed judgement metrics, be them power, prestige or your peers’ opinions. You simply are naked in front of yourself. You cannot make progress up because you cannot fake honesty.
All spiritual traditions are repleted with stories of saints and enlightened beings who reached desperation, after exhausting all the efforts they could make to reach the higher states of consciousness they craved. Only afterwards grace comes. And this is the mystery. Such stories deliver one clear message: in front of the divine, everyone is equal and called to an equally honest effort. Some may be more talented and prone to spirituality, but nobody is exempted from doing the real work; beside, the help that luck concedes in the world here is conceded by God, but it’s never man’ discretion anyway.
Similarly, if you engage in the endeavour to develop a skill you thought you could never acquire, it will not be long before you confront the harsh truth that talent has little to do with success, except for cases of extreme success: Michael Jordan was an exceptional talent, but he had to work as hard as any other player at the fundamentals, relentlessly; nay, say more than others, as a very nice recent Netflix series (The Last Dance) recounts. Just as a spiritual seeker, who daily engages in his discipline.
We cannot take anything material with us into the grave. The question remains open whether the inner outcome of the true forward steps past our perceived limits, that we take in the course of our inner lives, are of such a subtle nature as to survive the death of the physical body. This is a problem I would be fool to claim to have an answer to. But if faith is of any help to squeeze meaning out of life, this is what I deem most valuable to have faith into.
The feelings arising when an inner barrier is shattered and new possibilities are open are and stay the truest Signs of Life I have been fortunate to experience. So I shall stop here and leave the last say to to Maestro Battiato.
Mirko Serino and Francesco Panarese