Back in 2008 I read a speech by Charlie Munger called “A Lesson on Elementary, Worldly Wisdom As It Relates To Investment Management & Business.”
Charlie is the business partner to the legendary Warren Buffett and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, a financial services company that under their leadership has become one of the world’s most respected and successful companies.
He spoke of how over the course of his life, he learned a suite of ideas that he called ‘mental models’. They were like a mental toolkit, concepts that he could draw upon at any time to help him understand a situation and make the best possible decisions.
From the start, his toolkit was multidisciplinary. He draws on the most useful and versatile ideas from maths, statistics, psychology, biology, engineering, and economics, to name a few.
“The first rule is that you’ve got to have multiple models — because if you just have one or two that you’re using, the nature of human psychology is such that you’ll torture reality so that it fits your models..
And the models have to come from multiple disciplines because all the wisdom of the world is not to be found in one little academic department.”
I absolutely loved this concept.
It seeded a thought that began a project that I’ve been working on ever since.
Could a mental toolkit be made for all of science, drawing on the most useful and versatile ideas in human knowledge to understand the universe around us in a snap? Could you look at something commonplace like a bug on the ground, and call upon your toolkit to tell you its niche, its evolutionary background, how its body works, and perhaps even its perspective?
Surely there would be too many things to learn, hidden away in too many subjects. Science is vast, containing millions of theories in a seemingly intractable web. But again, Charlie helps us out. He says:
“You may say, ‘My God, this is already getting way too tough.’ But, fortunately, it isn’t that tough — because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carry very heavy freight.”
I settled on learning the five hundred ideas in science that carried the most freight. Any more seemed excessive, and any less seemed too narrow.
I started recording everything that I read, from academic articles, newspapers, books, and podcasts. Everything went into a notetaking app within ever-expanding categories. While it was a pain in the ass to organise, and was pretty subjective, patterns began to take shape and after a while the first ‘big ideas’ began to emerge.
After a few years I started writing about them, telling their stories, and tried to make them as compelling, accessible, and timeless as any Robert Greene book. The first 52 theories were published in 2018, and the Big Ideas Network was born.