Peter Bevelin wrote a book entitled, Seeking Wisdom, the subject of which was Charlie Munger. Some years back Warren Buffet needed a partner at Berkshire-Hathaway. To properly understand the Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger fanboy club I must take you back to the days when Buffet had bought the failing men’s shirt manufacturer, Berkshire-Hathaway. For those of us who grew up in the fifties and sixties those shirts were distinctive but on the expensive side. But Buffet knew how to parlay his assets and used that company as an investment company. We need not go through all the details but simply enough he looked for investments based on high earnings, moderate growth, and market share that would be difficult to overcome by others. In some situations you might say that he took unfair advantage once he has a sizable amount of capital. To this investment company he added Charlie Munger, a man of similar appetites and abilities.
Through the years of stock holder meetings and other communications Munger is known for his pithy sayings, most of which are paraphrases of philosophers or other thinkers in other disciplines. The book, Seeking Wisdom, is really a compilation of Munger’s “gems” arranged in some sort of order. And to add insult to injury, there are no attributions to the sources from whom Munger lifted his sayings. Original sources are not listed nor acknowledged by Bevelin although he could have just as easily in this day of database search have discovered the original sources. Apparently the book was written to curry favor with Munger although one wonders what Bevelin could receive as favors. Maybe an invitation to the next stockholders meeting and a glass of cheap American sparkling wine.
Why one should read a book about the sayings of Munger is the better question? Why not engage in reading introductions to the various Greek and Roman philosophers from whom Munger has stolen much of his material? The fact is that there a great many books of far superior quality that give one some real thought rather than vague and banel sayings. Shane Parish, while a fanboy of Buffet and Munger, he writes the blog Farnam Street, at least bothers to read a fair amount of Greek and Roman Stoic philosophy from original sources. But he, too, pushes the idea that rich men are great thinkers and therefore are wealthy from their “wisdom”. But neither of these fanboys ever bothers to define their term. Socrates would have this pair on the ground moaning in pain in five minutes of simple questioning. Wisdom is such a vague term. How do we know that some act or behavior is wise and another not? While most of us would admit that shooting heroin is not a wise act at all, how many of us would view a high protein low carbohydrate diet wise? In the past the “experts” in medicine and nutrition have decreed the balanced diet with appropriate servings from the food pyramid. Yet recent research has shown that diet leads to obesity and diabetes. And it matters which high protein source you ingest. Women, as a whole, do better to eat more fish and chicken, while men do better eating more red meat. Of course let us not forget individual differences as so many experts often do.
The latest talk in business consulting is that of mental models. We, apparently need to construct a number of mental models nd apply them as needed. Are we ever told what these mental models are, what modalities they follow? No, just a few ‘scientific’ catch phrases thrown in to make it all seem valid. Bevelin writes: “we need to understand and use the big ideas from all the important disciplines: Mathematics, physics, chemistry, engineering, biology, psychology, and rank and use them in order of reliability.” Are we ever told what these “Big Ideas” are as in naming them? He does give us autocatalysis but the term is misused. It is not a big idea, it is a discovery of a particular chemical reaction process. One must remember that a great deal of what are called models that are not mathematical are usually metaphoric. Unfortunately metaphors are never exact like a mathematical formula. Hence, business writers tend to describe situations, questions, and answers in terms of metaphors. Human language is never exact in meaning.
What are we really talking about when it comes to mental models? From our birth we spend a great deal of time recognizing speech and visual objects. The occipital lobe is one of the best computers ever designed for pattern recognition. Our auditory system uses several different parts of the brain to recognize the audio patterns of speech and also patterns of mathematics. Then could this idea of using mental models really be a type of pattern recognition? For those of us familiar with algebra we easily recognize A + B = C. That is, two variables that when combined make a third variable. That is the more formal model or formula, as children we learned that same pattern by playing in the sand box with a couple of small buckets. But our brains are not born with the image of a horse already embedded and the meaning stored in memory. When we first see that horse our eyes explore its outline and color. Then we start to notice some of the muscle structure and other features such as eyes. We may notice that there is some movement that brings a colored thing against the sides of the animal. And finally, our mother or some other person tells us what this blob that our eyes constantly define and refine as an image is and its parts and even the names of the color we see. The color is not red-brown but roan. We now have a general model of what a horse looks like and will recognize that animal the next time we see one. And after we have seen many different sizes and shapes of horses do we have a more encyclopedic knowledge of that model.
But our model may grow even larger as we are shown the use for the various types of horses we see. Some are very large and strong, often used to pull heavy loads or farm equipment. Others are specialized to run a mile and a quarter at very fast speeds, racing each other. Others are good when one wants to heard cattle and do other work associated with cattle. Some are good for jumping high fences while others can be taught to perform various circus tricks. We may even learn something about the inner workings of horses. We may learn what is the best in nutrition for them, their gestation periods, and many other points of information. We may even learn enough to be of medical help to them. Most of our learning is pattern recognition and the storing of that information in some useful manner for recall later. Indeed, as we spend time in schools at different levels we spend time learning what are, for the most part, patterns, or organized memory. We make associations with the different memory points so as to make recall easier. This is learning at its very basic level. When we do the research about some problem or need to know, we form patterns that may make it easier to recognize new patterns of what we have learned. In other words, we know the old patterns as independent parts and now we can recognize how, when fitted together in various ways they form new patterns.
As you can see, this idea of models really isn’t that hard to understand once you understand basic pattern recognition. We engage it everyday. We see or hear or feel something new and we start looking in our minds for a pattern. We recognize the parts and seek to put them into a whole, a pattern. Charlie Munger, Peter Bevelins, and Shane Parrish don’t know that of which they talk. Yes, they have some idea of how it all works but they cannot put it into simple language for they have not really analyzed the what a model is. They don’t understand wisdom and I doubt they ever will/