On Good Judgment and Decision-Making: The Science and Practice

Imagine you’ve made two decisions. One has resulted in a loss of 10 thousand dollars, while the other resulted in a gain of 10 thousand dollars. Would you say that the former was a bad decision, and the latter was a good one?

The first response that usually comes to everyone’s mind is “of course, the second decision was better”. But this is not necessarily the case. Can you think of a scenario where your response would be the opposite?

I’ve been thinking and reading about decision-making for many years while trying to put everything I learned into practice. Below, I summarize the strategies and mental models that I personally found most useful.

The Process vs. The Outcome

We all have a natural tendency to judge decisions based on their outcomes. This is not the worst heuristic, as there is a correlation between the quality of decisions and outcomes. But this heuristic has a major flaw — it doesn’t account for luck and incomplete information.

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On Meditation

I’ve been experimenting with and thinking about meditation in recent years and thought I’d share some of my thoughts with you. 

What this post is not: it’s not another “you should meditate” article. Even though I’ve seen quite a few valuable benefits, my practice is still semi-regular. And l debate how much time I’m willing to spend on meditation, given the opportunity cost. 

Instead, I’d like to share a few observations and invite you to share yours. If you have never meditated, some of these ideas might intrigue you and spark an interest in trying. And if you have experience with meditation, I’d love to compare notes!

Here are some realizations I had over time:

1. Our thoughts and emotions largely determine our destiny. And unlike other factors, they are not entirely outside of our control. Of course, they also define our subjective experience.

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Book Notes: Waking Up by Sam Harris

I just wanted to share some excerpts from Waking Up by Sam Harris that I listened to a couple of months ago. It is a great book that covers so many topics: mindfulness, meditation, neuroscience, cognition, emotions and others. It is worth reading in its entirety and I am personally planning to re-read it. So here are some notes:

“Our conventional sense of self is an illusion; positive emotions, such as compassion and patience, are teachable skills; and the way we think directly influences our experience of the world.”

“There is now little question that how one uses one’s attention, moment to moment, largely determines what kind of person one becomes. Our minds—and lives—are largely shaped by how we use them.”

“My mind begins to seem like a video game: I can either play it intelligently, learning more in each round, or I can be killed in the same spot by the same monster, again and again.”

“How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives. Mystics and contemplatives have made this claim for ages—but a growing body of scientific research now bears it out.”

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Stanford Class: How to Start a Startup by YC

Free, open to everyone and highly educational Stanford class “How to Start a Startup” has just ended. But all the materials, including talks by star speakers, such as Paul Graham, Peter Thiel, Ben Horowitz, Sam Altman, Brian Chesky and others are going to be available online. For quick reference, here is the complete collection of all course materials:

Lectures

Date Speaker Topic
9/23/14 Sam Altman, President, Y Combinator
Dustin Moskovitz, Cofounder, Facebook, Cofounder, Asana, Cofounder, Good Ventures
Welcome, and Ideas, Products, Teams and Execution Part I
Why to Start a Startup
9/25/14 Sam Altman, President, Y Combinator Ideas, Products, Teams and Execution Part II
9/30/14 Paul Graham, Founder, Y Combinator Before the Startup
10/2/14 Adora Cheung, Founder, Homejoy Building Product, Talking to Users, and Growing
10/7/14 Peter Thiel, Founder, Paypal, Founder, Palantir, and Founder, Founders Fund Competition is For Losers

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Memrise: learning languages mnemonically using spaced repetition

You might remember my recent post about “Moonwalking with Einstein” book about memory and mnemonics.

What you probably did not know though is that one of the characters, winner of multiple memory championships, Ed Cooke, launched his own web startup Memrise.com

I first read about it in The Guardian article “How I learned a language in 22 hours” by the book author, Joshua Foer. Although, the title is somewhat misleading, the approach is very interesting. So, what is so special about Memrise? They have an interesting learning model. Primarily, the focus is on languages, but there is a whole range of secondary courses, ranging from “How to say I love you in 100 languages” to HTML5.

memrise

The first principle: spaced repetition. The words you are asked to remember are spaced in time in a precise manner with intervals calculated based on your past performance. By the way, the same principle is employed by simple app Anki which I once briefly mentioned in my post about GMAT.

The second principle: mnemonic. You are usually shown a picture or an idea that helps you remember a given word using associations. These so-called mems are added by members of community in the best crowd-sourcing traditions. The most voted-up are displayed.

And of course, they also use gamification, who does not?

Overall, it appears to be an interesting tool. However, it remains to be seen whether it is really a good idea to invest one’s time in it without a firm intention to actually learn a language. But learning to read a Chinese menu sounds like a fun thing to try anyway, all serious goals aside.

By the way, Memrise is also discussed on Quora which I recently wrote about.

Venture Lab: free Stanford University online courses

I devoted some of my time to self-education in September-December using the opportunity provided by Stanford University Venture Lab‘s online courses. In this post I would like to briefly describe my impressions and share some useful materials from the courses. Venture Lab courses are somewhat different from other online courses in that they take place during a specific time with specific deadlines, and you need to enroll in order to participate.

I’ve tried three courses: Technology Entrepreneurship, Crash Course on Creativity, and Finance. As they are very different, I’ll talk about each one separately.

Technology Entrepreneurship

This is probably the best one. Although, there are multiple opinions on whether entrepreneurship can be taught, there are a lot of useful materials.

Lectures certainly vary in content. Some are quite theoretic and contain, for instance, large charts showing, how probability of team’s success depends on the number of members or on their background. Others are more about anecdotal. There was, for example, a story about history of skateboarding culture. I didn’t know that it originated from dry Californian summer during which many Californian pools were empty and people started using them to ride inside instead of swimming.
Aside from theory, there is also a team work that is highly encouraged and is in fact an integral part of learning process. Working in teams you are supposed to do market research, create and test the business model. Participants are very diverse. There are people from Pakistan, Belarus, Serbia, Russia, Canada and many other countries. You can pick any of already existing teams (hundreds of them) or create your own and invite other students to join.

If it is too late for you to participate, you might still benefit from these materials:

I think it takes about an hour a week or so to keep up with the lectures. But if you want to do more, for example communicate on forum, read recommended books, and actually try to apply ideas to some project, it will take longer, of course.

By the way, if you are interested in this topic, I highly recommend you these recent notes from Peter Thiel’s lectures. They also happen to be in Stanford. Computer Science dep. It will save another hundred thousand dollars. 😉

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How I (did not?) beat the GMAT

Disclaimer

In this post I want to share my experience of preparation to GMAT test and advice on some “DOs and DON’Ts”. It will only be interesting for those who want to pass it and already know what GMAT is, what it is for, and how it is generally structured. Others will probably derive no benefit from reading this article.

So, as we assumed that you have a basic understanding of how test works (if you do not, I would recommend that you read the Wiki article about it), let us skip all the introductory information about the test and dive right into the preparation, my experience, and advice.

gmat test

 

Full disclosure

I think, it would be fair to start with my own result to manage everybody’s expectations. Who knows, maybe some of you will leave after this part…

I took the test twice and scored exactly the same, 710. Q49 and V38 — first time and Q48 and V39 — second time. It is the 92th percentile. In other words, 92% of those who took the test did worse while 8% of them did better . Ironically, I received 6.0 out of maximum 6.0 for Analytical Writing Assessment, GMAT section I almost did not prepare for.

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Moonwalking With Einstein Book Review: Memory and Mnemonics

I’ve just finished listening to an interesting audiobook about memory and mnemonic techniques: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer. Author is a young journalist who decided to try all the memory improvement techniques himself but remain sceptical and objective while doing so. He talks about memory itself and the way it was influenced by spread of written language and by technology. Than, he tells us stories about people with extraordinarily good memory and amnesiacs, about people who had an ordinary memory but became memory champion and about mnemonic techniques they used.

moonwalking ith-einstein the art and science of remembering everything by joshua foer

 

Joshua begins his quest with a totaly ordinary, if not mediocre, memory. Bus after long preparation and work with best so-called “mental athletes” wins one of US memory champtionships. Although he himself acknoledges the fact that most of techniques he learned are useless in day-to-day life, I actually extracted a lot of intersting and useful ideas from the book. And this is what I would like to share with you.

 

Interesting facts and ideas

  • Memory becomes highly underestimated nowadays because of all the various ways to store information “externally”. But in fact, the better we remember our life, the more connections we can make. Memory is also necessary to understand and appreciate many things in life. For example, a person who never read or heard anything about China would not get as much culturally from the trip there as somebody who studied history and architecture of this country for a couple of months.
  • One of the people Joshua interviewed for the book tried to increase “subjective” (perceived) life expectancy by improving his memory. The idea is that the more events you remember the longer life seems to be.
  • Best chess-players don’t really evaluate all the possible moves logically. Instead, they recognize familiar patterns from other games.
  • Cab drivers in London pass obligatory and very demanding exam called “The Knowledge”. It has been found that those who passed it after months of preparation have larger brain region that is responsible for orientation in space. Interestinlgy, brains of “memory champions” are actually quite typical.
  • Odyssey and Iliad were initially created the way that made it easier to remember it and paraphrase verbally instead of writing down.
  • We can remember almost unlimited number of pictures. At least the fact whether we’ve seen one or not. That is why many memory techniques revolve around transforming other types of information into visual images.
  • Also, Joshua acquaints us with several interesting, although ambigous personalities, such as Daniel Tammet, Ed Cooke, Tony Buzan and others.

Mnemonic techniques:

  • Some savants naturally use synesthesia (mixing visual, audiotory and other types of perceptions) to enchance remembering and learning through associations.
  • “Chunking” is a technique of breaking information into smaller pieces. For example, it is easier to remember a phone number when it is presented as 12-34-56 than when it is presented as 123456.
  • Major system. To use this technique, one should use the same consonants for certain numbers. Then, to remember a number, one uses these consonants to form words, which are supposedly easier to remember, by inserting vowels.
  • Memory palace. Images are placed in a certain space (appartment, city route or real imagined palace). The more absurd, shiny, sexual and animate the images the better.
  • Speech preparation. Try to remember key topics to cover in your speech by visualizing them.
  • Remembering texts. Try to feel empathy with an author, to resonate emotionally with a text.
  • Deliberate practice: here Joshua gives just another interpretation of the same old study, which almost everybody mentioned recently. The basic conclusion is that people who are best at something did not necessarily spent more time practicing it. But they practised differently.
  • In essense, deliberate practise is  an effort to consciously improve one’s level of mastery instead of stopping at the minimum acceptable level (“ok zone”). For example, one might try to type faster than he or she would normally do in order to progress.
  •  Deliberate practice also comprises of constant adjustment to feedback and focusing on the most difficult aspects. For example, top violinists practiced most difficult pieces instead of just playing what they already know. Top chess-players re-played best chess games in their heads trying to understand the reasons behind each move. Similarly, Benjamin Franklin learned to write essays by first attempting to cover a certain topic by himself and then comparing the texts to those of best writers.
  • Person – action – object system. According to this mnemonic system, one should come up with a person, action and object for each of 100 digits: from 00 to 99. Then, these “PAOs” are used to form sentences in order to remember long lists of numbers.
  • Remembering names. Try to come up with a meaningful association. For example, nobody of people studied could remember name “Baker” (no associations) but majority remembered profession “baker” (a lot of associations).
  • The reason why people sometimes get an impression that times flies faster might be related to the fact that our life becomes more boring and we get fewer new experiences. In other words, we have less interesting things to remember. So, make your life more memorable!
  • Practical advice to remember things in day-to-day life: pay attention. For example, focus on remembering that name instead of just waiting for your time to introduce yourself.
However, it is less clear how to apply it all to learning things that might actually be useful, such as grammar rules, math formulas or just life experiences. Any ideas?
Overall, there are not so many practically applicable things in the book but it is still very interesting to read.
Here is the short interview with an author that covers many of the topics from the book: