The Thirty Second Mind
Minds capable of deep concentration may soon be extinct.
“Charlie has the best thirty second mind in the world. He goes from A to Z in one move. He sees the essence of everything before you even finish the sentence.”
— Warren Buffett
The problems facing a subsistence farmer in 1500 were not very different compared to the challenges his great-great-grandfather dealt with a century earlier. In a static world that rarely changes, the problems faced by the typical individual will not vary much over a lifetime. Such individuals might still wish to expand their horizons, but doing so mostly boils down to an intellectual exercise rather than a matter of survival.
Over the past two centuries, the world has been in a nearly constant state of change. To successfully navigate such an environment requires some level of flexibility even for ordinary people. But for those who aim to rise to a high level in life, a multi-disciplinary education has become absolutely essential. Narrow specialization is often necessary, but it should always be layered on top of a broad base of knowledge.
Charlie Munger needs no introduction for the vast majority of readers. His lifetime spanned nearly a century, but longevity was not the secret to his wisdom which was already clearly evident in 1959 when he first met Warren Buffett. The two men quickly developed a relationship that can be characterized by a seamless web of deserved trust.
Warren Buffett has been an investor for over eighty years and has accumulated a tremendous understanding of a wide range of topics, but he has always been more intensely focused on business and investing. In contrast, Charlie Munger’s interests had a far wider range. This multi-disciplinary mindset is what gave him the “thirty second mind” that Mr. Buffett could turn to on nearly any topic under the sun.
How can we develop Charlie Munger’s thirty second mind?
The prescription is straight forward but it is not simple or easy. We must actively pursue a liberal multi-disciplinary education throughout life and only layer specialization on top of a sound foundation. Few might have the intellect of Charlie Munger, but we all have access to his roadmap.
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We should all want to cultivate a thirty second mind that can absorb the essence of a problem and come up with insights based on deep fluency with how the world works. However, a different type of “thirty second mind” is far more common today. Nearly thirty years after the internet became mainstream, the majority of people in our society have almost completely lost the ability to concentrate for any length of time.
A typical TikTok video might be thirty seconds long. Since I have no desire to ingest the mental equivalent of crack cocaine laced with fentanyl, I have never installed TikTok on my phone, but I am inundated with these videos on my X/Twitter feed. They are vapid but sometimes entertaining. If you use TikTok, the algorithm quickly discovers your interests and will feed you an endless supply of thirty second videos that you will find interesting, amusing, or both. Before you know it, an hour flies by.
Entertainment of this sort is not benign. Those who indulge in a never-ending stream of such “content” are training their minds to expect regular dopamine hits on a very frequent basis. The feedback loop is instantaneous. The temptation to consume such content is ever-present because we carry our phones with us everywhere. We need never suffer a moment of boredom … or quiet contemplation.
Human beings crave feedback. If I broadcast some random thought on X/Twitter, within a few seconds I will have ample feedback. In contrast, I will not know whether readers found this article interesting until several hours after I hit the publish button. I admit that I will come back many times just to see how many “likes” I have earned. The situation would be even more extreme if I write a book. I would have to wait at least a couple of years between writing the first line and seeing the reviews come in. The truth is that almost no one has a purely inner scorecard.
When it comes to consuming content, worthwhile books yield their dopamine hits slowly over a very long period of time. When I read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov in 2022, it took several days and hundreds of pages before I really gained a sense of the value of what I was consuming. Even today, I know that I did not gain as much from that novel as I would if I choose to read it again. The same is just as true for great works of science, history, and philosophy. What at first looks like a block of stone is eventually revealed to be a beautiful statue, but only if you are able to focus.
I spend a great deal of time reading but I also waste far too much time using screens in unintelligent ways. By no means am I exempt from the “thirty second mind” of vapid consumption of meaningless content. When I indulge in this behavior, I find it much harder to think clearly and it takes a period of time of “detoxification” before I can sit down to read or write anything meaningful.
This was not the case when I was a college student in the early 1990s. We lacked connectivity, but the benefit was that it was not only possible but normal to disappear into a library for hours, completely cut off from the world. As an undergraduate, this was even more true in my case because I usually snuck into the law library where I would not even run into anyone I knew. Much of what I am able to accomplish today is the result of artificially replicating those conditions from three decades ago.
If a grown adult who fully understands the danger of this type of “thirty second mind” still falls prey to its seductions occasionally, how can we possibly expect children to cope with something like TikTok? A child has no understanding of the value of a multi-disciplinary mindset and views the world entirely through experiences he or she is having right now. A typical teenager today has been raised with electronics and has been using screens from the age of two or even younger.
I know that the cure is to disconnect because I have experienced the depth of understanding that can only come from focused, dedicated concentration for hours at a time. Most of today’s young people have never had that experience and, as a result, have no idea why it is important to seek out places for quiet study and contemplation.
The great hopes that society had for the internet in the 1990s have mostly gone unfulfilled. Rather than making society smarter and expanding our horizons in meaningful ways, most people use their devices for vapid consumption of banal “content.” In doing so, they will never develop the focus required to come anywhere close to Charlie Munger’s thirty second mind. Their children will be even worse off.
Those of us who recognize this toxic situation will accumulate an almost unfair advantage over our peers if we retain the ability to focus for long periods of time. This is not an easy process. The first step is that we have to stop deceiving ourselves.
“Above all, do not lie to yourself. A man who lies to himself and listens to his own lie comes to a point where he does not discern any truth either in himself or anywhere around him, and thus falls into disrespect towards himself and others.”
— Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
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