Robert Greene on Dealing With Fools

In the course of your life you will be continually encountering fools. There are simply too many to avoid. We can classify people as fools by the following rubric: when it comes to practical life, what should matter is getting long-term results, and getting the work done in as efficient and creative a manner as possible. That should be the supreme value that guides people’s actions. But fools carry with them a different scale of values. They place more importance on short-term matters – grabbing immediate money, getting attention from the public or media, and looking good. They are ruled by their ego and insecurities. They tend to enjoy drama and political intrigue for their own sake. When they criticize, they always emphasize matters that are irrelevant to the overall picture or argument. They are more interested in their career and position than in the truth. You can distinguish them by how little they get done, or by how hard they make it for others to get results. They lack a certain common sense, getting worked up about things that are not really important while ignoring problems that will spell doom in the long term.

The natural tendency with fools is to lower yourself to their level. They annoy you, get under your skin, and draw you into a battle.  In the process, you feel petty and confused. You lose a sense of what is really important. You can’t win an argument or get them to see your side or change their behavior, because rationality and results don’t matter to them.  You simply waste valuable time and emotional energy.

In dealing with fools you must adopt the following philosophy: they are simply a part of life, like rocks or furniture. All of us have foolish sides, moments in which we lose our heads and think more of our ego or short-term goals. It is human nature. Seeing this foolishness within you, you can then accept it in others. This will allow you to smile at their antics, to tolerate their presence as you would a silly child, and to avoid the madness of trying to change them. It is all part of the human comedy, and it is nothing to get upset or lose sleep over.

Start Your Day as a Producer, Not a Consumer

One of the big obstacles that I faced – and still face, to some degree – when I began working full-time was restructuring my every day routine. See, for about 16 years from kindergarten to the end of college, I would spend the morning and afternoon learning things, and then go home and work at night. I essentially conditioned myself to be in a passive state during the day, soaking up what others talked about or mindlessly taking notes in class. I was generally not one of those people who did much work at school.

In college, I took this model to the extreme. I would rarely wake up before noon, head to class, and would have the most energy around 4-5pm. I did my best studying and work in the evenings.

Unfortunately, this model doesn’t work too well in the real world. I’ve had to retrain myself to do work during the day. This was by no means an easy task, but one change in my daily routine helped me get on the right path.

Most of us have two modes: producer or consumer. The trick is to start your day as a producer, rather than a consumer. What this means is doing productive, beneficial tasks that are meaningful first thing in the morning, as opposed to checking and responding to email/social media. It doesn’t necessarily have to be work, although tackling your to-do list is great. It could be exercising, meditating, writing on your blog, cooking, etc.

The point is it should be an active activity. Passive activities like scrolling your newsfeed and skimming the news should be avoided. It’s about being proactive, rather than reactive. It’s knowing that you’re in control of your life, and are focusing on your needs first.

For me, I’ve found that journaling and writing first thing in the morning has been the most beneficial. For many others, it’s exercise. Whatever it is, once you repeat this routine long enough, it becomes one of those keystone habits that lock all your other productive habits into place.

On the days where I get something big accomplished right away, the rest of the day is that much more productive. The distractions that were once tempting feel like a waste of time. I can actually catch myself browsing Facebook, asking myself What am I doing?, and then closing the tab.

On the off days where I start off as a consumer, I’m trapped in that vortex of endlessly surfing Reddit or Elite Daily (is this you right now?) trying to fill a void, trying desperately to entertain myself but never feeling satisfied.

In fact, I’m convinced now that how you spend your morning is indicative of how you’ll spend the rest of the day, and there may be some science behind this. It’s hard to shift from the shallower, more transactional frontal cortex to the other parts of your brain that govern conceptual, deep thinking. It’s easier to start in the deep recesses of the brain and shift to the shallower parts. What this means is it’s easier to go from producer mode to consumer mode than vice versa.

And by starting your morning off doing something you enjoy, you elevate your mood for the rest of the day, which then positively impacts everything else you do.

All of the most successful people I know and have read about share this philosophy of starting their day off with an important, focused project.

There’s a great story about Charlie Munger that exemplifies this. As a very young lawyer, he was probably getting $20 an hour. He thought to himself, ‘Who’s my most valuable client?’ And he decided it was himself. So he decided to sell himself an hour each day. He did it early in the morning, working on construction projects and real estate deals. Over time, this one hour of self-learning compounded and ultimately allowed him to race past his peers.

OK, you’ve consumed enough of this. Try it for yourself. Start your mornings as a producer. You may be surprised at the difference it makes.

Experts

It’s amazing how much we trust “experts,” given how infallible they are sometimes.

In December 2000, the majority of investment banks forecasted that by the end of 2001 the dollar and the euro would be about equal in value. This list included Credit Suisse, Bank of Tokyo, RBC, UBS, and Deutsche Bank. The real exchange rate at the end of 2001 was only $0.88. Every bank overestimated.

In compensation for their overestimates the year before, the banks uniformly corrected their predictions downward. But the euro went up; the true exchange rate was 1.05, higher than any of the banks had foreseen. Surprised by the upward trend, the banks corrected their forecasts upward for 2003. Once again, the actual exchange rate was outside the range of estimates.

This continued on until 2010. Almost every year, the actual rate was outside the predicted rate.

Why do banks pay large amounts to entire departments for these meaningless predictions? For one, there’s an element of defensive decision making, where senior managers can point and say, “Well, this is what our mathematical models said would happen. It’s not our fault.” But two, there continues to be a large enough demand for these predictions that they’re supplied. Humans place an inordinate amount of trust in experts, and even desperately seek them out, so banks maintain the illusion.

The truth is anyone can become a market guru. Roger Babson is credited with correctly predicting the stock market crash of 1929, but what is less known is that he had been predicting the crash for years. Of course, no one remembered those misses after he was right once. Elaine Garzarelli predicted the stock market collapse in 1987, and four days later it really did crash. She became known as the Guru of Black Monday, but thereafter, her predictions about the market were right less often than a coin toss.

Warren Buffett often gives the following example: Consider 10,000 investment managers whose advice is equal to flipping a coin. After a year, 5,000 of them will have made a profit. The next year, 2500, and so on. After ten years, about ten managers will have gotten it right every single year. We would classify these ten people as gurus, attributing such a feat to their unique, deep insights of the market and some innate talent.

In my undergrad businesses school, we took a lot of complex finance classes teaching us the intricacies of portfolio optimization, where you have a chunk of money and want to invest it in a diversified portfolio. In the academic world, this involves fairly complex formulas and a host of assumptions to deal with. The professors promised us it would all come in handy on the job.

Well, it turns out there’s a one-line sentence that trumps all of these strategies, even beating a Nobel Prize-winning portfolio strategy. It’s this: Allocate your money equally to each of N funds. 

In a study, this rule of thumb was compared to a dozen complex investment methods. Seven situations were analyzed. In six of the seven tests, 1/N scored better than the others, and none of the other twelve were consistently better at predicting the future value of stocks.

The Nobel Prize-winning method isn’t a sham, it’s just that we live in a world of unknowns and uncertainties that can’t possibly be quantified in assumptions. Experts will tell you otherwise, but really, what is an expert?

Whose Fault Is It?

You’re 6 years old, playing with the class teddy bear. Your friend, who is also 6, comes up to you and asks to play with you. You don’t want to share your toy, so you say no. He grabs Teddy and begins tugging. You do the same. As the laws of physics would have it, Teddy rips.

The teacher comes running in and yells, “Whose fault is this?” and you and your friend both point at each other. Both of you concoct stories of the event, and the teacher spends an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out whose story is more true.

Whose fault is it? It’s a classic question parents and teachers ask children whenever something bad happens.

What purpose does this question serve – and could it even be a hazardous thing to say to a child? Seemingly, it trains children to find faults in anywhere but themselves, assigning blame to others and external factors. As these kids grow up, they continue along this path, blaming others for their own shortcomings. Personal responsibility is shunned.

Asking whose fault something is is almost like unnecessarily dwelling in the past. In the example above, it makes no difference who actually broke the class teddy bear. Both parties were probably responsible to a degree. It’s much more effective to consider the options going forward. What can you do to prevent this from happening in the future? What lessons can be taken away from the incident? Why did the mistake occur?

Thinking along these lines can save you a lot of energy trying to frivolously figure out who was right or wrong or good or bad. You also begin to stop looking for the victim in every situation, instead assigning everyone some degree of responsibility.

Taking personal responsibility for things gone awry, owning up to your mistakes, and being vulnerable are rare traits in people, precisely why those that exhibit these traits actually garner respect.

Just imagine these scenarios. If the CEO of your company took responsibility for the company’s problems instead of blaming others, wouldn’t you like him more? If your doctor told you she had screwed up a procedure, instead of trying to cover it up, wouldn’t you appreciate her honesty? If a politician revealed that their policy proposals had failed, wouldn’t you be more likely to trust him?

Objectively examining our own mistakes isn’t easy. Because we see the world from our own perspective, even our mistakes make sense from our perspective. When we screw up, it’s because of XYZ reasons. When others screw up, it’s because they’re stupid.

Instead of looking for faults and trying to blame the government, society, or your parents, look within yourself. Try to take the outside view. Embrace your failings. It’s much better to accept you’re bigoted and try to improve than sleepwalk through life ignorant to the fact. Failure to take responsibility for your own life almost guarantees your staganation in life.