Hands-down this is THE BEST article I’ve read in 2019: Peter Kaufman on the multidisciplinary approach to thinking. I would recommend spending 20~30 minutes reading the entire article slowly, word by word.
In the meantime, here is my takeaway on the key ideas and comments. At the end, I share my plan for putting what I learnt into action:
Understand => Know What to Do
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “To understand is to know what to do.” This is the central premise on which Kaufman basis his talk – to truly understand is what prevents us from making mistakes (vice versa: mistakes are caused by a lack of understanding, i.e., not knowing what to do).
Read => Master Big Ideas From Multiple Disciplines
So how can we better understand?
The answer, for Kaufman, is to start by mastering what Charlie Munger calls “the big ideas” from multiple disciplines. He discovered that each issue of the Discover Magazine features an interview with an expert on his domain of expertise – explained in simple layman terms. Kaufman printed out 144 of these interviews, and read every single one of them.
[F]or the next six months I went to the coffee shop for an hour or two every morning and I read these. And I read them index fund style, which means I read them all. I didn’t pick and choose.
This is the universe and I’m going to own the whole universe. I read every single one…Guess what I had at the end of six months? I had inside my head every single big idea from every single domain of science.Peter Kaufman
Model => Develop Multidisciplinary Thinking That Works Across “3 Buckets”
Before we develop a model, we need to have a way to test whether the model is sound. For Kaufman, a sound multidisciplinary model would be applicable to what he calls “the 3 buckets”:
- 13.7 billion years – since the origin of the Universe
- 3.5 billion years – since the birth of biology on Earth
- 20,000 years – since the record of human history
Kaufman believes the following rules are applicable in all 3 buckets:
(A) Everything in the Universe works according to mirrored reciprocation. Everything. Every thing.
In bucket #1, Newton’s Third Law of Motion is universally applicable, i.e., for each action, there is a counter and equal reaction => mirrored reciprocation.
In bucket #2, animals react agreeably to those who treat them well and attack those who treat them badly => mirrored reciprocation.
In bucket #3, “every interaction you have with another human being” is nothing more than mirrored reciprocation.
Kaufman’s model overlaps with the Mimetic Theory of the philosopher Rene Girard. I’ve previously written about it in “Life is the Ultimate Imitation Game”.
(B) The most powerful force across all 3 buckets is “dogged incremental constant progress over a long time frame”, a.k.a. compound interest.
Albert Einstein said “The most powerful force in the universe is compound interest.”
Yet, being consistent is what we do not like to do. As Kaufman says, this is called variance drain in geometric terms: “Whenever you interrupt the constant increase above a certain level of threshold you lose compounding, you’re no longer on the log curve. You fall back onto a linear curve or God forbid a step curve down. You have to be constant.”
(C) Make “Go Positive, Go First” your life motto.
To understand means knowing what to do. Now we heard about mirrored reciprocation and compound interest, what should we do? Kaufman says: “You have to go first. And you’re going to get back whatever you put out there.”
This is similar to what Rhonda Byrne writes about in her bestseller “The Secret” – she argues a fundamental law of the Universe is we attract what we are and what we think we will get.
However, human’s loss aversion means that a 2% probability of failure is enough to deter us from acting at all in the first place. Kaufman challenges us to up the game: “If you’re getting beat(en) in life, chances are it’s because you’re afraid of appearing foolish. So what do I do with my life? I risk the two percent (chance of being foolish or fail).”
Begin the Doing => Join Me For The “Discovery Challenge”
To move beyond preaching to truly “understanding” (knowing what to do), I have launched the “Discovery Challenge“:
Pledge: I have started reading the interviews in Discovery Magazine to get a grasp of the big ideas across disciplines. I am referencing this PDF resource here (special thanks to the author for compiling).
Join Me: I will be summarizing the Big Ideas in future issues of my email newsletter, delivered every 1-2 weeks, with the motto of “Brainy is the New Trendy. Funny is the New Sexy.” Subscribe here to receive the newsletter and curated ideas for free.
Reach Out: If you have other suggestions on how to develop multidisciplinary thinking, feel free to email me at email@example.com or reach me on LinkedIn – I’d love to hear from you!
No road is long with good company.Turkish proverb