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Mental Models and Multidisciplinary Growth

One of the things I struggled with while in graduate school was the idea that academic disciplines were mutually exclusively, wholly incompatible frameworks for understanding the world. This concerned me deeply. Some of the world’s greatest discoveries have come about due to people taking things that, at first glance, have nothing in common and smashing them together. For example, chocolate and peanut butter. Or heck, peanut butter and jelly. That’s pure comedy right there, until you taste the result.

In today’s world, things are changing with such rapidity and force that the jobs of today likely won’t exist in ten years. If you limit your study to a single discipline you risk siloing your knowledge and becoming an ossified, outdated unit of human capital. I understand the need for disciplines within academia. It helps define intellectual borders, it keeps everyone on the “same page” so to speak, and gives a sense of orderliness and predictability to academic debate. The problem is, outside the exclusive realm of theory there’s this thing called the real world, and it tends to intervene in a damningly unforgiving way.

I think a better approach is something along the lines of what Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway suggests. There’s an element of the Pareto principle in his philosophy. He advocates the broad acquisition of knowledge across numerous domains that can then be applied to any number of situations. This is similar to what Bruce Lee espoused while developing his self-defense system of Jeet Kune Do, the whole “absorb what is useful and discard the rest” approach to education. In Munger’s words:

[T]he first rule is that you can’t really know anything if you just remember isolated facts and try and bang ‘em back. If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form.

You’ve got to have models in your head. And you’ve got to array your experience—both vicarious and direct—on this latticework of models. You may have noticed students who just try to remember and pound back what is remembered. Well, they fail in school and in life. You’ve got to hang experience on a latticework of models in your head.

What are the models? Well, the first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models—because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models, or at least you’ll think it does. You become the equivalent of a chiropractor who, of course, is the great boob in medicine.

It’s like the old saying, “To the man with only a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” And of course, that’s the way the chiropractor goes about practicing medicine. But that’s a perfectly disastrous way to think and a perfectly disastrous way to operate in the world. So you’ve got to have multiple models.

And the models have to come from multiple disciplines—because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department. That’s why poetry professors, by and large, are so unwise in a worldly sense. They don’t have enough models in their heads. So you’ve got to have models across a fair array of disciplines.

You may say, “My God, this is already getting way too tough.” But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough—because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.

I hadn’t been able to articulate specifically why academia bothered me until I came across Munger’s work. It seemed ridiculous to me how disciplines would ignore each other and posit frameworks that tried to answer everything when, in reality, they could only answer some things. Going back to finance and investing, anyone who believes you can predict human behavior with physics-like precision is deluding themselves. Compartmentalization doesn’t work if your system of understanding is being tested outside the realm of theory by the selection tests of the real world. Learning should be an exercise in understanding, not an exercise in hubris or ego.

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