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Critical Thinking in a World of Noise

critical thinkingI told you last month I was reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s three-book series on the American Revolution. Last month was spent with Valiant Ambition, which tells of the middle years of the war while focusing on Benedict Arnold, his early heroism, his motivations and ultimately, his treason. 

I never knew much about Arnold, other than his name is synonymous with “traitor” in America…and has been for over 200 years, closer to 250 now.

Mr. Philbrick wrote in Valiant Ambition that Arnold’s treason led Americans (well, aspiring Americans at that time) to the understanding that their most fearsome foe was not King George III, nor his army, nor his prodigious navy, but rather “… the greatest danger to America’s future came from self-serving opportunism masquerading as patriotism.”

And there, dear reader, is your thought for the day.

If you feel put upon that your particular ox is being gored, rest easy. This issue is prevalent on both ends of the argument, be it social or political or the next sports contest. Picture an inverted bell curve, if you will, and you will see where the highest number, and I opine the loudest, voices in our society lie. Yes, that last is a bit of wordplay. The joke is never as good when one feels compelled to explain it.

Following that bit of quandary wrestling (Quote out of the blue from the late, great Lewis Grizzard: “Granny thought that wrasslin’ was real and the moon shot was fake.”) I happened across a quote attributed to Garry Kasparov, the Russian Chess Grand Master and political dissident which I hereby offer for your consideration: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate the truth.” 

critical thinkingNot being a big follower of anything Russian (Do I try one more time to read War and Peace? Likely not…) I don’t know a lot about Kasparov other than he is one of the greatest chess players of all time and an opponent of the Putin government; plus marks for both of those in my book. But I did take the time to do a little internet reading about him. Here are three pearls from his book, How Life Imitates Chess, which I found on the website: My Favorite Quotes from Garry Kasparov’s “How Life Imitates Chess” | Premier Chess

“Like the weatherman’s forecasts, the further ahead you look, the more likely it is you will miscalculate.”

“It is still impressive how many poetical blunders derive from “obvious” assumptions.”

“It doesn’t matter how far ahead you see if you don’t understand what you are looking at.”

My understanding of Russia is admittedly shaped by Doctor Zhivago, Fiddler on the Roof (1971 movie version with Topol), and the cold war, so I admit I turn a jaundiced eye toward most things with roots in the Soviet Bear.

Therefore, you are not surprised that I am fully convinced that a free market capitalistic system (no, not without any restraints – I’m not promoting 80-hour child labor weeks here) beats a Marxist, socialist or communist system anytime and anyplace. With that thinking in place, and a few hundred years of historical data, I am a big believer that if life were a lottery, a person born in America is already a winner. No, this is not to say life is easy for everyone in the USA, that all people have equal opportunities, or success is not to but found elsewhere in the world, but rather that America still offers great opportunities to those with skills they are willing to hone and put to work.

And the last seemingly random thought from the last thirty days is this: we had an employee at Allen & Company a number of years ago, and that employee had ambition. They were anxious to have success, and they defined success as making money. They had lots of useful skills plus a significant intellect; they were willing to do almost anything (legal) to make a dollar. Unfortunately, one of the things that person was unwilling to do was to work hard or even consistently. The ultimate end to their employment here was the fault of several folks, one most notably, not being themselves.

So what, pray tell, do all these disparate thoughts have in common?

critical thinkingJust this: In the lives we try to build, we face many foes who are trying to tear down our homes, our families, our relationships, our beliefs, and yes, our wealth. It is exhausting, isn’t it? It wears on our confidence. How do we fight this? With, I suggest, today’s common thread: critical thinking. It’s a lost art and a rare asset in our society today, I say with pain in my heart.  

It’s tough duty to be a critical thinker. You know I am often telling you to “turn off the noise,” but you might reasonably ask if we can turn off the noise without turning off the information we need to hear. You have me there; it’s a challenge.

Unlike my unfortunate employee of so long ago, we have to go to work. I find thinking to be hard work, but I have often said, “I’m better when I think.” 

Well, duh, isn’t everyone?  Alas, for some folks, we’ll never find out.

But my point is that it is hard to find quiet time to think things through.

As I think about the Industrial Revolution and the Information Technology Revolution, it seems to me that we have put so much of our productivity to use as time-absorption devices! So much of what we take in from our cell phones, computers and televisions is as memorable as the entrée from McDonald’s last year; it’s just noise. It reminds me of the character in Catch-22 who did things because they were boring and would therefore, make life seem to last longer.  Fast food is great at times, it’s just not a great cornerstone for your life … or waist.

So I encourage you today to be neither discouraged nor distraught by all the stupidity you hear today.   Throw out the chaff and grind through the wheat. We can do this. Having you out there helps me; I’ll try to help you a little too.

Now at the close, you get an apology and a test: 

The apology is that you got angry Lorin this month and funny Lorin was a rare sighting. We will look for him before next month.

The test is to go back and look at the three Kasparov quotes. One does not seem to fit. It even seems to contradict our investment strategy. How does it, in fact, fit in nicely with what we say and do? Critical thinking exercise #1 is done! Ha!

September 2023

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