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The Philosophy Behind Farnam Street, Finding Life in Art, Reducing Stress Through Next Actions

Resource: Shane Parrish on Mental Models, Decision Making, Charlie Munger, Farnam Street, And More


Having great insights is no substitute for knowing how to apply them. Sometimes the student is able to get far more out of an idea than the teacher not because of superior knowledge, but because of a greater willingness to invest in the ideas.

Every book is different and we should adapt our reading styles to suit the mode of learning most compatible with the text.

Reading for quality is better than reading for quantity. One dense book that is carefully studied yields greater rewards than hurrying through dozens of books.

Pay special attention to principles, mental models, and fields of study that have stood the test of time.

Multidisciplinary thinking allows you to derive unconventional insights from specific fields.

Mental models are useful, but inherently limited.


Shane Parrish on the surprising growth of the Farnam Street blog:

“So I started the website and it was really just for me, not for anybody else. The original URL of the website was the zipcode for Berkshire Hathaway. I didn’t think anyone would find it. It eventually grew into a community of people interested in continuous learning, applying different models to certain problems, and developing ways to improve our minds in a practical way. The strong reception surprised me at first, but now the community has become very large, stimulating, and encouraging.”

Shane Parrish on his deep appreciation for Munger and Buffett:

“I think what they’ve done is they’ve taken other people’s ideas, stood on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, and applied those ideas in better ways than the people who came up with the ideas…[Ben Graham] provided the bedrock that Warren Buffett built his brain on, but if you really think about it, Buffett was and is a much better investor. And [Munger’s] method of organizing practical psychology is a lot better than the actual residents of that discipline, even the people who “taught” him the ideas through books.”

Shane Parrish on the importance of adapting your reading style to types of content you’re consuming:

“Today we are bombarded constantly with information, and we often read all types of material in the same way. But that’s pretty ineffective. We don’t have to read everything the same way…Adapting your reading style to consider the type of material you are reading and why you are reading it makes you much more effective at skimming, understanding, synthesizing, and connecting ideas. If you take the same approach to reading everything, you will end up overwhelmed and frustrated.”

Parrish on reading for quality rather than quantity:

“It’s not about how many books you read but what you get out of the books you read. One great book, read thoroughly and understood deeply, can have a more profound impact on your life than reading 300 books without really understanding the ideas in depth and having them available for practical problem-solving.”

On reading with attentiveness:

“Have you ever watched TV and somebody comes in on a commercial and says, “What are you watching,” and you’re like, “I have no idea,” but you’ve been sitting there 20 minutes? Well, we can do that with books too. You’ll start reading, and paragraphs will fly by, and then you’ll have no idea what you were reading. It’s fine if you’re reading for entertainment, you might be able to catch up later, but if you’re reading for understanding, that’s something you want to avoid….I think at the heart of it, you want to be an active reader. You want to selectively be an active reader and not a passive reader. These types of activities make sure that you’re reading actively. Writing notes in a book, for example, is really just a way to pound what you’re reading into your brain. You need engagement.”

On the value of second-order thinking:

“One important thing, for example, we can learn from ecology, is second order thinking—“and then what?” I think that a lot of people forget that there’s a next phase to your thinking, and there’s a second and third order effect. I’ve been in a lot of meetings where decisions are made and very few people think to the second level. They get an idea that sounds good and they simply stop thinking. The brain shuts down. For example, we change classification systems or incentive systems in a way that addresses the available problems, but we rarely anticipate the new problems that will arise. It’s not easy. This is hard work.”

On the importance of working/learning out loud:

“In order to have the organization learn and get better, we need to expose our decision making process to others.”

On how taking things away can make your life/company better than adding things:

“So, we copy Google’s twenty percent innovation time. They’re an innovative company; they’re hip; they’re cool; we’re going to copy them. Okay, well, we can do that. It’s a good story. What gets lost is a potentially useful discussion like, “Maybe we should remove the things in our environment that take away from natural innovation, like all these meetings.” That’s a much tougher conversation, but just like taking away sugar works better than adding broccoli to your diet, taking things out of the corporate culture is often a better solution than adding new stuff. Munger has us paying attention to incentives because they really are driving the train. You have to get it right.”

On learning things that stand the test of time:

“Physics, math, and biology are things that change very, very slowly, if at all. Learning things in those disciplines is good. It’s practical, because that’s how the world works. Those are things that don’t change over time.”

On his fascination with curation and his lack of concern with originality:

“I don’t come up with almost anything that’s original. I aggregate and synthesize other people’s thoughts and put it into context for people. I think that those are things that I like to focus on, I have a passion for doing that. I’m doing it anyway because I get a lot of value out of reading, learning, and exploring the world, and I share that with people.”

On how maps are inherently “wrong”:

“There is a great quote by George Box who said “All models are false but some are useful.” Practically speaking, we have to work with reductions—like maps. A map with a scale of one foot to one foot wouldn’t be useful, would it? Knowing that we’re working with reductions of reality, not reality itself, should give us pause.”

Resource: Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the Dangerous Myth of the Suffering Artist and What Makes Life Worth Living


Elizabeth Barrett Browning experience great suffering in her life. She wrestled with a spinal-related disability that had her bed-ridden for seven years of her life. Additional, she lost two siblings by age 34 and one of them was lost to an accident she blamed herself for. In spite of this, she refused to sulk in the midst of her suffering and she threw herself into her poetry. It was through her writing that she met her eventual lover and husband Robert Browning.

Browing found great meaning and purpose in art. For her, art was like a second life. She was very adamant about not using art as a basis for bemoaning her life. She’s a great example of creating in the absence of ideal conditions or in the presence of adverse conditions.


Maria Popova on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s refusal to sulk in her suffering:

“What made the poet so singularly enthralling, as a writer and as a person, was that throughout trials that would break most people, she refused to romanticize the archetype of the suffering artist and to take it on as her own identity. Instead, she chose to exult rather than sorrow in art, to find in it a life-force of unparalleled vitality.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning on the life she found in art:

“After all, and after all that has been said and mused upon the “natural ills,” the anxiety, and wearing out experienced by the true artist, — is not the good immeasurably greater than the evil? Is it not great good, and great joy? For my part, I wonder sometimes — I surprise myself wondering — how without such an object and purpose of life, people find it worth while to live at all. And, for happiness — why, my only idea of happiness, as far as my personal enjoyment is concerned, (but I have been straightened in some respects and in comparison with the majority of livers!) lies deep in poetry and its associations. And then, the escape from pangs of heart and bodily weakness — when you throw off yourself — what you feel to be yourself — into another atmosphere and into other relations where your life may spread its wings out new, and gather on every separate plume a brightness from the sun of the sun! Is it possible that imaginative writers should be so fond of depreciating and lamenting over their own destiny? Possible, certainly — but reasonable, not at all — and grateful, less than anything!”

Resource: Getting Things Done by David Allen


The smartest and most creative people are usually the ones who get overwhelmed and stressed out the easiest. Because of their active imaginations, they have a great ability to envision negative consequences (increases capacity for worry) and notice details (increased capacity for anxiety).

The best way to relieve anxiety about your work is to break it down into chunks and define next actions.


“I am an old man, and I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.” —Mark Twain

“In my many years of coaching individuals, this pattern has been borne out more times than I can count—usually it’s the brightest and most sophisticated folks who have the most stuck piles in their offices, homes, e-mail, and heads. Most of the executives I work with have at least several big, complex, and amorphous projects stacked either on top of a file cabinet or on a mental shelf. There always seem to be hobgoblin thoughts lurking inside them—“If we don’t look at or think about the projects, maybe they’ll stay quiet!” ”

“No matter how big and tough a problem may be, get rid of confusion by taking one little step toward solution. Do something.” —George F. Nordenholt

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