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Thermodynamic thinking – Learnings from Musk, Munger and Boyd…

Musk Munger

Most of the smart people I’ve come across have one thing in common.

It’s not when they get up, what they eat for breakfast or how little time they spend on social media.

It’s that they read widely. They devour books, articles, journals and anything they can get their hands on.

But it’s not just that they read a lot.

It’s the type of reading too.

From Musk to Munger, the smartest people seek obscure ways of thinking, outside knowledge and dissenting opinions. They try to learn widely from other areas and they look for inspiration from outside their immediate circle. This is the easiest way to avoid the dogma of specialisation.

It also lends itself to ‘thermodynamic thinking’.


John Boyd is described by some as the greatest military strategist in history that no one knows. He began his military career as a fighter pilot in the Korean War, but he slowly transformed himself into one of the greatest philosopher-warriors to ever live.

Boyd came up with an approach that revolutionised the military, and has been applied to numerous other areas (including most notably to business) since – the OODA Loop.

It’s a learning system, a method for dealing with uncertainty, and a strategy for winning head-to-head contests and competitions and a guide to thriving in a volatile and highly competitive economy.

Underpinning the whole theory is a fairly simple line of thinking – since we all live in a world of ambiguity and fluidity, any logical model of reality that we hold is incomplete (and possibly incorrect) so must be continuously refined/adapted in the face of new observations. Basically, the world is fluid, so our strongly held opinions and positions need to be fluid too.

Boyd used the second law of thermodynamics to explain why.

According to the law…

The total entropy of an isolated system can only increase over time.

How does that apply to how we think and learn? It’s simple really – if our mind is a closed, isolated system, if we’re not open and constantly seeking out new information, dissenting ideas and new approaches from other areas of knowledge, our knowledge doesn’t expand.

We become stuck.

We entropy.

Think of an isolated Amazonian tribe. They have their way of life. And if they never contact the outside world, thus never learn about other ways to hunt, new things to eat or how to create fire or harness electricity, they’ll continue to do what they’ve always done.

Or think of an entrenched company like Kodak, whose blindspots to attack from outside its immediate realm of interest and lack of lateral thinking ensured that it almost imploded.

According to Boyd…

“By observing and taking into account new information about our changing environment, our minds become an open system rather than a closed one, and we are able to gain the knowledge and understanding that’s crucial in forming new mental models”.

There’s some overlap here with Carol Dweck’s ‘growth mindset’ approach. The worst thing we can do is become dogmatic and entrenched in our views.

Open mindedness is vital to growth.

The hammer/nail problem

Charlie Munger agrees. According of the best known and richest investors in history, narrow-mindedness is holding us back.

“Someone who is really smart but has devoted all of their time to being an expert in a narrow area may be dangerous to themselves and others. Examples of this include macroeconomists who study the economy but are disastrous when investing their own portfolios and marketing experts who may think that most all business problems can be solved through marketing.”

As the saying goes, to the man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Of course, this is all becoming more difficult in the era of social media. Confirmation bias, or the habit of collecting information that conforms to your existing opinion, is built into social networks. We surround ourselves with a cozy filter bubble of our own creation.

But, as Ryan Holiday says, there’s opportunity in reading and learning outside your comfort zone. If you read the same things and think like everyone else in your industry, then you should expect the same average results as everyone else.

However, if you’re always looking for obscure new models, lateral approaches and different ways to solve problems, then that creates an unfair advantage.

Learnings transfer refers to taking what we learn in one context and applying it to another. It means taking previously unconnected ideas and connecting them to create unique thoughts and insights.

Sounds like like a great basis for creativity, innovation and smart business ideas right?

Musk and combinational intelligence

Opportunities abound for those who can develop connections across disciplines. Elon Musk is an excellent example. According to the man himself, he spent his youth reading widely and learning the foundational principles of a variety of areas like war, science and business.

Musk is a master at combinational intelligence. He’s an expert-generalist who studies widely in many different fields, understands the deeper principles that connect those fields, and then applies the principles to his core specialty.

HIs successes with PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX are a result of this incredibly unique mind.

It makes sense doesn’t it?

The more people and fields you can pull from, the greater the likelihood you’ll come up with a new approach to an old problem. People like Faris Yakob, Adam Grant and Mark Earls have made the strong case that good ideas are merely new combinations of old ideas, existing ways of thinking twisted and shaped in different ways.

So the more old ideas you know about, the more unique the combinations will be.

As we build our reservoir of knowledge by learning across disciplines instead of staying within our own silos, we leave ourselves open to thermodynamic thinking.

And in a modern world full of specialisation, that’s very powerful.


Further Reading:
OODA Loop – The Tao of Boyd
Munger and the pursuit of worldly wisdom
How Elon Musk learns faster and better than anyone else…
The rise of the expert generalist