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Towering Mediocrity

Posted by: Brian Dennehy
Membership level: Free
Charles Darwin
After last week’s article (“How to get rich”) you might have felt either excited or deflated.  This is for those who might have felt a bit deflated.
Last week I highlighted that if you wish to succeed in any field (beyond luck) you need a certain state of mind – you need to be prepared to read a lot, critically learn, and act decisively.  This is the approach of Warren Buffett (he of a USD66 billion fortune and a towering IQ).
Yet his wealth and intellect are intimidating, and might just put you off learning from him.
Would you be less intimidated learning from someone who was middling?
How about Charles Darwin.
His fresh thinking shocked the world, and still shapes our thinking today.
But he was middling.  He was not a Buffett, or an Einstein or Newton.
We know this because he said so!  He puzzled over this in his autobiography in a way which, perhaps, only Darwin would.  By his own admission he did not have a quick intellect or an ability to follow long, complex, or mathematical reasoning:
"I have no great quickness of apprehension or wit which is so remarkable in some clever men...  My power to follow a long and purely abstract train of thought is very limited; and therefore I could never have succeeded with metaphysics or mathematics…  So poor in one sense is my memory, that I have never been able to remember for more than a few days a single date or a line of poetry."
He only worked a few hours a day, yet his "thinking work" outclassed almost everyone.
Why?  Because he was slow and methodical, and an incredibly effective collector and organiser of information.  And where he came across ideas which conflicted with his he took note of them instantly.  
He had a passionate interest in understanding reality and “putting it in useful order”.  
I can’t imagine he would have had any sympathy with the daft idea that investment markets are efficient, nor that elegant maths could describe the world of investment in any useful way – at least in any useful way that won’t eventually get you into big trouble – do watch The Big Short!
In his favour he said:
"On the favourable side of the balance, I think I am superior to the common run of men in noticing things which easily escape attention...I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved, as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it...”
And more significantly:

“most important have been - the love of science - unbounded patience in long reflecting over any subject - industry in observing and collecting facts - and a fair share of invention as well as of common sense."
In short:  passion – patience – observation – learning – imagination - common sense.  Surely we could all give that a go?
As the guys at Farnam Street put it:
“Most inspirational to us of average intellect, Darwin outperformed his own mental aptitude with these good habits, surprising even himself with the results.”

“For those who haven't read it the Origin of Species is extremely readable and clear, even now, 150 years later”.
Last word goes to Darwin:
"With such moderate abilities as I possess, it is truly surprising that I should have influenced to a considerable extent the belief of scientific men on some important points".
  • Be prepared to think differently (or just to think!)
Topic: Market commentary


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