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Saturday, April 08, 2006

PHILOSOPHY LANDS TO ECONOMY




William James knew that the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. And sometimes it’s the abundance of information and noise around us. Too often we’re swayed by the whims of our peers. Too often we’re swayed by the whims of the crowd.

As I’ve covered before, when people are free to do as they please—they usually imitate each other. In an adjacent space—but more cynical context, Harvard’ Steven Pinker noted the dichotomy of pop musician Sting’s lyrics. On the one hand he sang, “If you love somebody—set them free”—yet in another “Every breath you take, I’ll be watching you.”

British novelist Somerset Maugham noted, “If 40 million people say a foolish thing, it does not become a wise one.”

Opening his own doors of perception, Aldous Huxley said, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” And Warren Buffett mentor Benjamin Graham confidently declared: “You are neither right nor wrong because the crowd disagrees with you. You are right because your data and reasoning are right.”

Speaking of Graham, Warren Buffet actually begged the value guru for an internship when he was just starting out as his student. He told him he’d even work for free, to which Graham replied, “You’re overpriced.”

I do believe the single best predictor of success is blatant display of genuine desire and passion. You’ve gotta want it bad. We’ve got an intern program at my venture firm Lux Capital—and earlier this year one candidate was turned down for another more qualified—but this particular person was relentless. And the sacrifices that one is willing to make in the passionate pursuit of something are the single best indicator of success. The secret of success as Benjamin Disraeli put it—is constancy of purpose. We’re proud to have this personality working with us at Lux.

And speaking of demand for something—the markets and life are after all the tale of supply and demand. Marketers (and many a sly love pursuit) have long known that people want that which they can’t have. As Heidegger said, “We pursue that which retreats from us”. Forbid someone to do something and they want it more. If you’re a parent, you know this first hand. Mark Twain said, “It was not that Adam ate the apple for the apple’s sake, but because it was forbidden. It would have been better for us—oh infinitely better for us—if the serpent had been forbidden.” (More on the serpent next week—especially for the upcoming Passover and Easter holidays).

Wise leaders have actually used this universal psychological phenomenon to great effect. Consider Captain Cook. On the long voyages he took, the biggest threat wasn’t pirates or sea monsters—but scurvy. People didn’t know about Vitamin C back then.

But the 18th century British leader was observant. He saw that Dutch sailors had fewer bouts of scurvy than English ones. He investigated what they did differently. A notable distinction was that they ate a ton of sauerkraut—which happens to have Vitamin C. But he still didn’t know that. So he gets barrels of the stuff and mixes it in with his food. He knew his crotchety English sailors wouldn’t eat the stuff. Especially when they hated "Krauts". And he couldn’t let on about the risks of long voyages and scurvy or they’d mutiny. So how do you get them to eat the stuff?

Remember: tell them they can’t have it. He served himself and the high ranking officers the sauerkraut in plain view of where the sailors were eating. But he would never offer the sailors any of it. Then he “gave in” and said “OK, let ‘em have it once a week” In short order, the entire crew was eating it. And lots of lives were saved.

The force of deprival is a great persuader. If only my mother had tried that earlier with me and my veggies.

BY JOSH WOLFE specialist in nanotech

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