Return to insights

The Attention Span. "Gurus and Pickleball."

As it’s that time of year, I want to talk about resolutions and an embarrassing character flaw of mine. And also how to add ten years to your life.

Separately, Dan Wang released his 2021 annual letter (below). He discusses the critical relationship between the U.S. and China. Last year’s letter anticipated the Chinese government crackdown, and thus the loss of $1.5 trillion in market cap. As he was right, for the right reasons, at the right time, I think it’s one of the best pieces of work I’ve ever seen. He’s a foundational “hybrid thinker” for our new era, and therefore his 2021 letter is a must-read for me.

“Gurus and Pickleball.”

[7 minute read]

“We shall not cease from exploration. And the end of all our exploring. Will be to arrive where we started. And know the place for the first time.”- T. S. Elliott

Source: Getty Images.

Ken Wilber is a remarkable prodigy best known for something called “Integral Theory.” It’s essentially an insanely ambitious attempt to synthesize the full expanse of human wisdom into a grand, unified “theory of everything.”

One of Wilber’s most interesting insights is that we make progress as individuals and as a culture by transcending and including the best of what has come before. In a superb and balanced critique of Wilber (below), Mark Manson elaborates:

“Rational thought did not eliminate emotion but included it into a greater developmental level of consciousness. Industrial societies did not wipe out agriculture but transcended agriculture into greater levels of efficiency and prosperity.”

The more different perspectives you transcend and include, the more easily you can identify the universal themes and ideas that appear across wisdom traditions. Wilber saw this as a process of ever-greater inclusiveness that has been slowly emerging throughout human history.

Source: Daily Evolver

The problem with our current postmodern age is that we have a tendency to repress everything from the prior stage as we move to the next one. We call for the wholesale destruction of capitalism, without acknowledging the many strengths of market forces. We look at the brutality of some indigenous cultures, and throw out the essential relationships they had with the natural world. We take things apart, but don’t know how to put them back together again afterwards.

When it comes to business and investing, I regularly ask other people who they find most insightful. Relatively new investors typically uncritically adopt heroes and gurus; most commonly Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger. As they gain more experience, their list of idols grows ever-shorter as imperfections appear. They have increasingly long lists of who they dislike. But pointing out faults is trivially easy. I don’t know of a single strategist or investor who hasn’t had at least one incredibly bad call or intellectual blind spot.

This is my own flaw I’m trying to work on in the New Year. As a seeker of wisdom and a synthesizer of ideas, I tend to get very excited whenever I find a new thinker or guru. “This is the person who finally has the answer; the theory of everything!” I worship the guru, not their insights. Then when my heroes inevitably turn out to have feet of clay, I tend to throw out their entire body of work. Not only that, I sometimes smugly judge other people who are really into them as less “advanced.” I transcend, yet fail to include the best parts of their work.

Instead, the most impressive people I’ve asked usually have very long lists of influences. But they can usually precisely articulate what they have integrated and discarded from that person. Wilber’s Integral Theory drew from a vast range of fields in order to find the recurrent themes. Munger himself advocates taking in “the best big ideas from all disciplines.” He believes solutions to big problems are often found “over the fence” in other fields. The answers to important questions, and thus the secrets to superior performance, aren’t usually found in obvious places. Otherwise, everyone else would have found them.

The question of where to look for wisdom, and what to incorporate, is an endlessly fascinating one.

The profound idea that emerged from my recent piece on legendary value investor Arnold van den Berg is that it’s a two-stage process. First you follow your unique interests, then you use a sense of resonance to determine which ideas to incorporate into your style. As both your interests and the resonance are unique to you, the result should be a perpetually unfolding process of personal growth. Matching your investment style to your temperament also helps you to withstand the unavoidable emotional rollercoaster of the markets.

This is consistent with the most interesting idea that I’ve ever encountered: that your “subtle” attention and your interests would drive your personal growth, but via an unpredictable route.

Wilber saw the path to wisdom as an upwards spiral, where dissecting and recombining ideas allows an ever-greater understanding of the whole. We can feel like we’re endlessly circling the same ideas, but with a slightly better understanding each time. It’s a spiral because it’s a roundabout path directed by whatever different idea grabs our attention. And it’s never completed; these are ideas we pursue entirely for their own sake. But implicit motivation tends to have much more powerful benefits than explicit motivation, something that becomes obvious to us all around New Year’s.

A 25-year-long study in Copenhagen (below) found that regular tennis players added 9.7 years to their lifespan relative to sedentary people. Health club workouts added just 1.5 years. I doubt many people approach their social tennis games with the same dutiful resignation that they approach going to the gym in January. Playing tennis for intrinsic enjoyment produces dramatically larger lifespan gains than explicitly targeting physical fitness.

The great comfort that comes from this idea is that we need not feel guilty for doing what we truly enjoy. If the path is a spiral, things we pursue for intrinsic pleasure may end up being far better for our personal growth than overtly “productive” goals.

One of Carl Jung’s crucial insights was that if we set our goals based only on what we knew today, we’ll just constantly recreate the present. We will reject any unexpected opportunities that intrude into that linear vision and close off the unfolding spiral of our lives. If we can see the paid laid out clearly before us, it may not be our path, but someone else’s we have substituted for our own.

Personally, my 2022 resolutions are to find the best in everyone’s work and read more books simply for pleasure. One of my most insightful friends said to me recently; “when are you going to realize your gurus are in fiction?” Reading books that make me happy, rather than reading books about how to be happy. My long-suffering wife will presumably be quite relieved. Another friend, Jax, recently sent me a book by my favourite poet, David Whyte. It’s still lying next to my bed in a plastic wrapper (sorry Jax). Maybe it’s time I opened it.

There is no path that goes all the way
Not that it stops us looking for the full continuation
-David Whyte

Related Reading.

  • Read. The Rise and Fall of Ken Wilber by Mark Manson (14 minute read).
  • Why read. This article not only explains the most interesting parts of Wilber’s philosophy, but it also insightfully diagnoses why the movement failed. Consistent with the entire point of this piece, Manson finds a way to transcend and include Wilber’s thinking.
  • Read. Sports that increase life expectancy in Well and Good.
  • Why Read. More detail on that Copenhagen study. Multivariable-adjusted life expectancy gains compared with the sedentary group for different sports were as follows:
  • Tennis: 9.7 years
  • Badminton: 6.2 years
  • Soccer: 4.7 years
  • Cycling: 3.7 years
  • Swimming: 3.4 years
  • Jogging: 3.2 years
  • Calisthenics: 3.1 years
  • Health club activities: 1.5 years.
    • "In general, though, racket sports appear to be particularly great at increasing life expectancy, due in part to their social aspect, but also perhaps because they are physically challenging and require balance and mental strategy, along with certain visual and spatial elements. A study of Korean women aged 60 and older found that playing table tennis (aka Ping-Pong) improved their cognitive function more than walking, dancing, or resistance training.”
    • “And a study of inactive older adults in rural Utah found that pickleball improved their vertical jump (a marker of mobility) and cognitive performance, and there was a decrease in self-reported pain. Participants in the study also reported a desire to keep playing pickleball even after the study was over.
  • Read. Dan Wang’s 2022 Annual Letter (69 minute read, until the second half on culture and opera)
  • Why Read. Dan’s letters are long, but very high-quality. Dan’s 2021 letter anticipated the generational regulatory crackdown, as he’d spent much of the pandemic focused on turgid Chinese government propaganda. Dan is one of the key “hybrid thinkers” I’ve integrated into my own understanding of the world. Here were some of my highlights from the letter:
  • "The modal piece of commentary on China focuses mostly on the country’s mistakes and weaknesses. In my view, much of this type of opinion is both useless and dangerous. It’s useless because it doesn’t make a serious attempt to engage with the country’s strengths; and dangerous because it implies that the west can do nothing since China will fail on its own. It’s possible, perhaps even likely, that China will fail. But it’s a mistake to assume that it will happen as a matter of course. Instead we should expect that it will become a major competitor to the U.S., which should not only do better itself but also make better assessments. That means producing more disinterested analysis. A lot of my work today involves benchmarking China’s capabilities to the U.S., in fields that include semiconductors, renewables, and manufacturing. Every time I get together with peers to exchange notes, we remark on how small our circle remains. People who do tracking exercises tend to care about China because it’s important in their professions, in say nuclear power deployment or space exploration. I think there should be more systematic efforts.
  • An important factor in China’s reform program includes not only a willingness to reshape the strategic landscape—like promoting manufacturing over the internet—but also a discernment of which foreign trends to resist. These include excessive globalization and financialization. Beijing diagnosed the problems with financialization earlier than the U.S., where the problem is now endemic. The leadership is targeting a high level of manufacturing output, rejecting the notion of comparative advantage.
  • We have to avoid the triptych that outside observers perfected through the course of the pandemic. “There’s no way that China can control this problem at the start of the crisis; “These numbers aren’t real” during the crisis; and “It wasn’t that big of an accomplishment, and anyway authoritarian systems are perfectly suited to managing these situations” by the end of the crisis. China has strong entrepreneurs as well as a strong state, and these two sometimes reinforce each other.
  • The rule of thumb for U.S. businesses is that China makes up half of global demand for most products, from wind turbines to structural steel; and China will account for a third to a half of expected growth over the next decade. These aren’t the figures of the Chinese government, but company projections. Of course these projections might be wrong, but U.S. businesses feel that it’s mathematically impossible to lead the future without being active in the Chinese market.
  • To figure out how far decoupling will go, as well as a hundred other important questions, we’ll need a better understanding of what’s going on in China. I believe that an essential analytical prior is to recognize that things are getting better and things are getting worse. As Chinese businesses and the government are growing more capable, the leadership is becoming more brutal towards many of its own citizens as well as foreign critics. China is, in other words, a place that both moves fast and breaks things and moves fast and breaks people."

Have a great weekend!

Sign up for updates