Saturday, October 25, 2008

Success Master Skills: Adding "Productive Entropy"

This is my fifth post on Entropy in Human Achievement The others are :

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

I have suggested in earlier posts that achievement is related to the reduction of entropy, or disorder, in our lives, so that our energies can be focused and re-focused on the important “leverage points” that can potentially bring about the best outcome in our lives.

But there are also times and situations when we need to “shake things up” a bit. We need to add entropy, not remove it. We need to widen the view. We need to search for gold in different lands.

In today’s world, where new business models and new business concepts can spring up overnight, where technology can change in an instant, we can only find new entrepreneurial niches by casting the widest possible net, so that, later, we can reduce entropy, and mine the “gold”. Here are a few ways to add Productive Entropy.

Study a wide range of topics, especially early in life.
Some people call this ”priming the pump”. You never know where a good solution will come from. Innovation expert Phil McKinney subscribes to huge numbers of magazines. Thomas Schweich , in his book Staying Power : 30 Secrets Invincible Executives Use for Getting to the Top - and Staying There, recounts the careers of many successful people who kept their options open early in their careers, which, he says, allowed them to gain a wide variety of connections and experience.

One great example is Warren Buffett, now a multi-billionaire specializing in what he terms a small “circle of competence”. While his current entropy content is reduced, allowing him to focus on his unsurpassed investment style, it was not always so. In her remarkable book The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life, author Alice Schroeder uncovers the fact that Buffett was involved in innumerable business activities before turning to stock investments: he owned a tenant farm, owned a gas station, sold used golf balls, and managed newspaper circulation, all the while devouring mountains of business information at a breakneck pace and with incredible focus on detail. Furthermore, although somewhat socially awkward in his youth, Schroeder’s biography makes it clear that he made friends wherever he went, often with people a generation or more older than him. Again, adding variety, and “disorder” (entropy) into his life.

The point is, he first had the drive and opportunity to “add productive entropy” by taking in both practical and theoretical knowledge, for at least a full decade in his early life prior to settling on stocks and investments as a career.

Acquire and Use Multiple Mental Models
This is a “blind man and the elephant” idea, very much understood and taught by Warren Buffett’s longtime associate (and fellow billionaire) Charlie Munger. Munger excels at viewing human events through a multitude of conceptual lenses: mathematics, probabilistic, psychological, biological, evolutionary, and others. Another method Munger uses is “inversion”: viewing a problem in reverse, to get a different perspective. Again, this adds “Productive Entropy”, i.e. disruption, or “creative destruction", into the problem-solving arena.

Read, Read, Read
Alice Schroeder (again in “the Snowball”) quotes a description of the young Charlie Munger as “a book with legs”. This refers to his lifelong addiction to reading. If there is one characteristic that seems to be the most highly correlated with success of all that I have studied (except, perhaps, for the concept of entropy reduction itself), it is the “productive entropy” of reading. The “entropy” of reading adds new facts, new procedures, and, with any luck, new overarching principles by which you can better understand and effect the events in your life. Then, again, after the exposure to the “entropy” of the new material, you remove the entropy by fitting the best ideas into your own goals and plans.

Music and Art
Music , Visual Art, Theatre, Poetry often deliberately disrupt in order to then re-order reality. The poems of John Donne, with their startling metaphors “short-circuit” the brain, allowing it to view an object on a wholly different light. I have listened to Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” all of my adult life, and often feel hat there is an “order behind the order” of the brilliant counterpoint. Multiple channels of information creating a new information stream (if God talked, would it be in multi-part music?). My point is, the jaw-dropping experience of great art makes us “normal” people have to use different “mental muscles” to convert the data into a stream we can comprehend and appreciate, very much like the task of slowly removing the “entropy” surrounding a task. Even scientific research seems to indicate that music , specially, can add to IQ and productivity.

Go Where the Action Is
The brightest minds in business know to go where the business is. Wherever the best and the brightest in a particular field congregate, that is the "casino" where a “roll of the dice” has the greatest probability of landing on “7”. There is maximum “entropy, in the sense of a lot of ideas brewing and bubbling in busy, populous area. Silicon Valley is a good example of “productive entropy”. A million projects, a billion ideas, a million people, disorder waiting to become order.

Go to conferences and seminars, watch webinars
You add “disorder” by coming into contact with unknown people, companies, and concepts. This effect is multiplied exponentially by the increasing number of conferences that archive their videos. From the Singularity Summit to Stanford University, to the Cato Institute, new ideas by brilliant minds pour onto the web every day. If we take the time to sample these new inputs, our own brains will re-integrate the information, removing entropy, and fashioning new tools for productive pursuits.

Browse forums in (and out of) your field
Scroll through the forums in your area of business. As a trader, I have found innumerable trading ideas online, as well as new friends, books to study, and other unexpected gems.

Lists, Brainstorming, Idea-Generation, ”Capture Mechanisms”
The mind can continuously improve its idea-generating capacity with practice. Productive Entropy in this case is the free-flowing generation of ideas: Hurson’s “Divergent Thinking” (Think Better: An Innovator's Guide to Productive Thinking). Many successful businessmen, artists, writers, keep an “idea capture” device (voice recorder, notebook, etc) with them at all times. The external world (people, signs, events) and the internal world (internal dialogue, dreams, flashes of inspiration) are often sending us solutions, new directions, new inputs, in an ”entropic” fashion. We need to ‘love” the “disorder” of recording any remotely relevant input, for later entropy-removal, (i.e. the transformation into “useful” inputs to a process). Currently, anything useful that comes in to my field of view usually ends up in my personal wiki: websites, ongoing transactions, GTD categories, article links, etc. That way I can find it later, tag it, link it, etc.

I feel it is urgent to take in new ideas (“Productive Entropy”). Others don’t. I run into people constantly who drown out new directions, alternatives, solutions, etc in the din of their own (internal or external) monologue. “Not Invented Here” is alive and well. But , without new inputs (“Productive Entropy”), we are simply a self-justificatory entity: we have the “order” of living in a changeless mental landscape, comfortable, predictable, but frozen and inflexible.

We, as human beings, are privileged to be the only known creatures on Earth who can consciously and rationally adapt to the changes we ourselves make in the Universe. These changes will, whether we like it or not, inject entropy into our lives: our jobs, relationships, procedures, and relevance/irrelevance of our state of knowledge. We need to get out ahead of that tidal wave as much as possible by welcoming the entropy, and incorporating it into our goals, plans and achievements

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