Rich Representations of Things

Making Connections From Rich Representations of Things

On August 12th, Tyler Cowen released a podcast interview with Stanford Economics Professor Nicholas Bloom on his podcast Conversations with Tyler. In response to a question from Cowen about making adjustments in his life, Bloom said the following:

 

“For me, I really like to read broadly rather than deeply — sounds an odd thing to say. Every Monday, for example, or Sunday night, the National Bureau of Economic Research has this vast email of all the recent papers. I tend to try and scan every title and abstract. I read the papers. I like the Economist magazine. It’s good. It’s often been a source of ideas, actually.
We were talking before the call — I listen to your podcast. I actually listen to a lot of podcasts because I try and go out for a walk or a run for about an hour every day. I mostly listen to podcasts. [laughs] If I’m getting too tired, I have to switch to music. For me, that’s been helpful for coming up with new research ideas.” 

 

The quote from Bloom came back to mind this morning as I looked over a quote I highlighted in Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow. Kahneman’s quote is about connections in the mind, and how having a rich set of connections can help us have better representations of the world. When people are asked questions about Michigan, research in Kahneman’s book shows, they have different responses depending on whether they remember that Detroit is in Michigan. People with more knowledge of the state think differently of it compared to people with minimal knowledge of Michigan. Kahneman writes,

 

“More intelligent individuals are more likely than others to have rich representations of most things. Intelligence is not only the ability to reason; it is also the ability to find relevant material in memory and to deploy attention when needed.” 

 

This idea relates to what Bloom said in the interview with Cowen. Bloom was asked about his productivity, and how he is able to keep up a high level of publications with co-authors across a wide range of academic institutions, geographic locations, and subjects. Bloom responded that he is developing rich representations of most things through broad, but not necessarily deep, investigations of a wide range of topics.

 

By taking in a wide range of information, Bloom is able to pick out the important connections between disparate topics. This gives him an ability to deploy attention where there is a lack of study on certain topics. By reading across many fields, he is able to look at current developments in economics, news, and society to find relevant material that can generate useful knowledge for the world of economics.

 

Not all of us are ever going to be economists, and not all of us will be in a place where we can publish academic articles on lots of topics. But all of us are asked by social media every day to offer our opinion on something. If we have a narrow and limited knowledge base, then our opinions and ideas are going to also be narrow and limited. If, however, we can work to broaden our horizons and work to focus our memory and attention on relevant material, then we can start to offer better opinions about the world, and we can start to move discussions forward in a better direction.

Confidence and Self Awareness

Colin Wright’s book Act Accordingly is in some ways a collection of essays and ideas written by Wright that all focus around the idea of living a full life with the limited time we have on this planet.  The fifth chapter of his book centers on confidence, and he starts the chapter with the following quote, “Confidence means knowing the value of your knowledge, while maintaining awareness of how much you have left to learn.” What I love about this quote is the focus on continued learning and an ever growing knowledge base combined with a self awareness to focus on areas where our mind can still grow.

 

Wright continues to explain that knowledge will allow us to get to where we want to go by giving us the opportunity to participate in more areas and have greater input in the world.  One way in which greater knowledge translates into a more connected and engaged life is through confidence.  When we are confident we are able to more freely participate in discussions, activities, groups, and events because we have knowledge related to what it is we are participating in. We can better connect with others and provide more value to the world.  This confidence is brought on exclusively by knowledge and familiarity in the world, but it can lead to a downfall of hubris,

 

What Wright also advocates for is a strong sense of self awareness to be able to reflect on what we know well, and what we do not know.  For me I find myself discussing various topics, and often times the discussion will move in directions I am not familiar with. I will catch myself spreading information that I never truly understood, or even making up information based on assumptions and conclusions that I have drawn from other things that I have been told.  In this situation Wright would argue that it is best to move into a purely listening mode and avoid interjections made with a lack of confidence.  By recognizing these areas I can see where I can read and study to become more well rounded in my knowledge. This also helps prepare me for future conversations, building my confidence.

Developing a Personal Philosophy

Two key aspects of Colin Wright’s writing and philosophy are personal flexibility in our growth and seeking out multiple perspectives for how one interprets any aspect of life.  Wright has an incredible ability to see more than what is in front of him, and to adopt the perspectives of others.  He tries to live a very flexible and free life by determining his own path and searching for meaning and reason in his own way.  Many of his decisions center around the idea of how much freedom, time, and options his choices provide him.  In his book Act Accordingly the author ties this idea in with philosophy, “All else being equal, a job that would give you greater flexibility in terms of promotion would be better than the alternative, and the same goes for a philosophy.  A set of beliefs and personal rules that allow for a great deal of evolution and growth are superior to ones that do not.”

 

What I love about this quote is that Wright breaks down his definition of philosophy for us in a simple and clear way.  According to Wright, a philosophy is not something contained in a dusty book on a shelf, and philosophy is not limited to politics or religion. Instead, a philosophy is a set of ideas, rules, guidelines, beliefs, and emotions related to any area of life.  We can have personal philosophies about driving, keeping our house clean, developing a work ethic, or even a philosophy about cat videos.  What is being advocated for in Act Accordingly is the development of personal philosophies that accept multiple perspectives.  Wright spends much of his time reading, and he has come to understand that as we read we learn and see things from new perspectives. For him, it is crazy to develop personal philosophies in any area that limit our possibilities and ability to change.  As we grow and learn throughout life our ideas and positions will shift, and it is important that we have a personal philosophy that will allow those belief systems to change with us.

 

The author is also advocating that we search out as many new perspectives as possible.  In our work lives we will constantly be looking for new opportunities, promotions, and ways to expand what we do, but we don’t always think to do this with our personal philosophies.  It is difficult to encounter ideas and perspectives that seem to run against the philosophies that we have developed, but if we never explore the perspectives and ideas of others we never grow. I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine who is studying at a private christian university. He and I have very different religious views, but we both value that we can have discussions regarding our views that present our ideas and backgrounds without becoming argumentative and explosive.  At one point during his discussion he said to me that he was disappointed that many of his classmates never explored ideas of people from other religious backgrounds or those who lived without a religious belief system.  In his mind, by not exploring difficult and often scary ideas that do not align with those that we already have, we miss out on a chance to understand our ideas better. This is at the heart of Colin Wright’s philosophy, and it is only by pushing ourselves to expand our thoughts and perspectives that we grow and better understand others.