Starting a collection

Some people collect key rings, others baseball cards, some, however, collect things a little more abstract. It is this kind of collection, collections of quotes, stories, oddities, that I want to focus on here. 

Charlie Munger, when asked in an interview how he prefers to learn about the world responds by saying “I collect big calamities in my head and big stupidities”. This seems like an obvious sentiment, I want to understand why people act in stupid ways so I’m going to collect examples of people acting in stupid ways. This leads to two simple questions. Do you want to understand why people act in stupid ways? Do you collect examples of people acting in stupid ways? I expect most will answer yes and then no, after all there is something that seems a bit strange about actually cataloguing the world around you. It often feels like, “hey, I’ll surely just remember this when the time comes”, or, “this is probably not important enough for me to actually write down for later”. 

If you don’t think those last two comments apply to you, you are in good company. Many of the most powerful and influential figures in history kept extensive records of quotes, anecdotes and other interesting examples of human life to which they could refer back to, people like Jefferson, Franklin, Napoleon, Munger and many others. They understood that your memory almost certainly isn’t good enough to remember each applicable quote or example when the time comes and your memory almost certainly isn’t good enough to be able to hold all these examples in place and try to find patterns or relevance in them. 

What kind of concept collections can you have? The obvious first one is quotes and anecdotes, it is unlikely you are going to be wittier than Wilde, wiser than Munger or more reflecting than Seneca. If this is the case then why not steal their best thoughts and sayings for yourself, it almost seems a disservice not to. A good anecdote can make any concept more alive. You want to talk about aligning incentives, few phrases demonstrate this better than Faraday’s response to the Chancellor of the Exchequer when asked about the benefits of electricity, “Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it“. Why risk not having that to hand when you need it because you felt it wasn’t worth recording?

Collections can also make us more engaged with the world around us. If you are looking for cases of people acting in irrational ways then you start to see more of them around you suddenly. James Sommers has a wonderful post about the benefits of writing where he puts forward that writing doesn’t just lead to you putting down more about the world around you it leads to you seeing more of the world around you. If you are planning to write on how cities influence behaviour then every street, every passage, every building becomes a potential source of information, of questions rather than just a feature. Similarly if you are actively looking for examples of people making stupid decisions then this alone will make you more likely to notice the actions of people around you.

Collections can do more than just make you more engaged with the world they can help you to understand it. Munger wouldn’t have been able to develop his framework if he didn’t have a vast collections of examples to fall back on. It is said that the plural of anecdote is statistics, if you want any chance of finding patterns in the world around you it starts with examples of the world around you. 

One area I’ve become more interested in recently is how and why groups can act in ways that seem different from what you would expect by looking at the individuals that make up the groups. I’ve started to become more aware of when this phenomena happens in descriptions of events I come across, but what is more I have five or so buckets that I see if the event fits into as an explanation. Often these buckets do fit some feature of the event and they help me understand the forces behind it better. These buckets though have come through thinking and reading about odd examples and what may cause them. 

So go and start a collection or two today, ones like quotes are applicable for almost everyone but there is almost certainly more niche ones that appeal to you personally or professionally. The main point is to actually write these things down and spend time familiarising yourself with them. If what you write down are quotes then looking over them every now and then will, if nothing else, spark some level of joy as you reread them. If what you write down are examples then spending time going over them can help you form threads that link the different strands together and hopefully help you learn more about the world around you. 

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