The Essential Education: Who, What, How?

Supported by Greenhaven Road Capital, finding value off the beaten path.

Scott Young wrote:

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Young’s plan is this:

  • 3 years living abroad
  • 1 year of philosophy
  • 6 months of religion
  • 6 months on world history
  • 2 years on math and hard sciences (but mostly math)
  • 1 year of art
  • 6 months on music
  • 6 months on meditation
  • 6 months on economics and psychology
  • 6 months on practical skills (e.g. plumbing)

Young admits that this isn’t linear (or practical). Who has enough resources (time, money, ability) and few enough commitments (family, work, bills) to do this? But if we start from an idealized place and work backward we might find something worthwhile, maybe better. Lifelong learning – or as David Salem calls it, “intellectual integrity” – is a common theme around here.

We’ve seen snippets in the XMBA posts. Elizabeth Gilbert‘s story may be the most instructive of the group.

Gilbert wanted to enroll in an MFA program but it was too expensive. “I made a commitment to devote myself to becoming a writer, and for five seconds I considered going to graduate school, but it’s really expensive…and I wasn’t sure that was the best place for me to be.” Gilbert considers the MFA program like Stephen King considers the writing camp:

Screen Shot 2017-06-19 at 7.50.21 AM

In the same way that home cooking can be a better, cheaper, simpler version of a restaurant meal, Gilbert decided to teach herself. “I needed to go roll around in the world…(and)…I created – really intentionally – my own postgraduate MFA program.”

Gibert worked in dinners and talked to the customers. When she ducked back to get a tuna melt she would note what the people said and how they talked. She worked hard and saved up. She would take months off to travel. One time she ended up in Wyoming working as a trail cook. She wrote a piece about it and Esquire published it.

About her DIY MFA, Gilbert said, “I’m not expecting this to work, but I don’t know how to do this without trying.” Gilbert created a win-win situation. Even if the outcome (“I’m not expecting this to work”) was unwelcome, the process wouldn’t be.

Young wrote:

“Think of this as the educational equivalent to the what-would-you-do-with-a-million-dollars speculation we often engage in to think about what are interests would be if we didn’t have to worry about money.”

Rather than a ten-year plan, let’s look at the logistics for any length plan. Specifically; who to meet, what to learn, and how to do it.

Who to meet?  Tyler Cowen noted on his link to Young’s post, “I would put more stress on role models and who you get to meet, not to mention romantic partners.” People matter quite a bit. Listen to the closing questions on Patrick O’Shaugnessy and Barry Ritholtz’s podcasts and you can hear guests glowingly gush about mentors.

Meeting people also creates see-it-to-believe-it moments. Bill Simmons guessed that kids like Steph Curry so much because he’s relatively short. ‘If Steph can do it, I can too’ goes their thinking. See it, believe it.

It happens to adults too. Often the revelation is, ‘Wait! That’s possible?!?!’, Both Ken Grossman and Mohnish Pabrai had moments as kids that changed the direction of their lives.

Meeting people you (may) want to be like can also rule things out. Morgan Housel got a job at an investment bank and realized it wasn’t for him. Royce Yudkoff cautions his students about this too. Just because you like to do something as a hobby, doesn’t mean you’ll still enjoy it as a job.

People are multipliers. A good person in your life improves you by 1.2X. A bad one is worth 0.65.

What to learn? Anything you want! Young tilted toward a classical education (I like this or this overview). He also pointed out something Shane Parrish writes about at Farnam Street. If you’re going to study something deeply, study something that isn’t likely to change. Think of this as a continuum. Starting with ideas that are least likely to change:

  • The cave and the painted porch (philosophy)
  • 2+2 = 4 (mathematics)
  • F =M*A (physics)
  • Ecosystems (biology)
  • Price elasticity and moats (microeconomics)
  • Ann the librarian who buys too much jam (psychology)
  • The wisdom of crowds and madness of mobs (sociology)

Rory Sutherland noted that the fuzzier things are still worth studying. If something only affects 20% of people 35% of the time there can still be a business around it.

In addition to these external subjects, study yourself. What are your limits? What do you enjoy? Investors enjoy the research process, and they’d better! There’s a lot of other things you could do with that time. Jeremy Liew pointed this out in another area.

“I think you really have to know what you’re good at. To be a great operator I think you need to have a singular focus and a level of leadership and management charisma that can make you incredibly successful. I’ve seen what good looks like and I’m okay, but I’m nowhere as good as the best operators and CEOs in the world.”

Liew knows what he’s good at, what he isn’t, and what he can work on. That gives him an advantage. Reed Hastings said he likes running companies. Jim Clark said he likes starting them. What do you like?

How to do it? Start a blog because writing is a form of thinking. “Writing is refined thinking,” wrote Stephen King. “I think clear writing and clear thinking are synonymous,” said David Salem. “By writing the notes and putting them in the podcast and thinking about which direction I’m going to go – I’ve learned it better,” said Jocko Willink.

Writing, teaching, explaining, or podcasting are ways to do the thing you’re learning. Brian Stout put it this way:

“The way that I learned things was deliberate practice. You can’t read about things or hear people talk about them and know how to do them. There’s a large amount of the learning process where you just have to go out there and do it. It’s like riding a bicycle. You can’t watch someone ride a bicycle and ride a bicycle for the first time.”

There is a balance of consumption and production. I read a lot more than what makes it into this blog or the podcast. To produce something requires raw materials. Writers like Anne Lamont and Sebastian Junger both talk about not so much writers’ block as writer’s chasm. One way to learn is to accumulate materials and then share what you learn.


Thanks for reading,

2 thoughts on “The Essential Education: Who, What, How?”

  1. Scott’s question seems ill-posed by assuming a stipend. It seems far more worthwhile to identify good people who are doing interesting work, and then to do what it takes to start working with them. One will likely learn far more by working with others who are energized by the same deeply interesting questions; and one will probably earn more than a stipend.

    That said, Scott’s approach seems ok for the teen-age years. Though it seems better to view it through the lens of a framework. For example, using the OODA loop as a framework, the student should learn history + languages + hard science so as to be able to Observe and Orient quickly, while mathematics + philosophy + economics will help with Deciding, and the remainder will help with Acting.


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