Be A Filter, Not A Sponge

I try very hard to avoid strong ideology; I have, as best I can tell, one core postulate that I have no interest in debating (free will exists), one core universal framework for approaching life (rationality), and everything else is nuanced and up for grabs with only the level of confidence justified by my knowledge base (occasionally moderate to high; usually pretty low).

If I have anything resembling a core credo, though, it’s probably “be a filter, not a sponge.”  This is a line I stole from The Perks Of Being A Wallflower (which I’ve watched… an embarrassing number of times… while consuming an embarrassing amount of ice cream.)  Charlie’s teacher gives him, ironically, The Fountainhead (a great book… in moderation) and advises Charlie, basically, to be open to new ideas, but not to let others do his thinking for him.  He needs to stand between his brain and new information and let the good stuff through while filtering out the chaff.

I’ve talked about this before a little bit (Grit Is Overrated), but the problem with advice, or even ideas more broadly, is that they don’t exist in a vacuum: they exist with certain premises and goals in mind, in a certain environment, and even to the extent that they are valid for those premises and goals in that environment, they will not necessarily stay valid (in whole or in part) when placed into different circumstances.

In other words: it’s important to learn from those who came before you (whether via their writing, or from speaking to them), but you need to be an active listener/learner and calibrate what they’re saying to account for any differences.  Essentially it’s a game of five-whys, dimensionalizing what you learn to find the root/core idea and separate that from its packaging.  For example, that could go something like:

  • entrepreneurs say you have to get up at 5 AM if you want to be successful
  • why? because they need uninterrupted time to work and once the day starts, there are lots of interruptions
  • therefore: there’s nothing magical about getting up at 5 AM, other than it gives you a few hours to work before the distractions start
  • therefore: if 5 AM isn’t your thing and you can find other times of day to do focused work without distractions, that’s perfectly acceptable as well

Altogether too often, both inside and outside of the value investing world, I see people acting as “sponges” – “oh, let me just do what he did/does” – to the extent, sometimes, of cloning investment ideas or strategies (both of which are generally terrible ideas for intuitive reasons).  I suppose to some degree this is marginally better than not being a sponge at all… but it’s certainly not as productive as being a filter.