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Circle of Competence Issue #108


"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt."

- attributed to ABRAHAM LINCOLN


Personal Update

On April 25th at 4:00 AM, we welcomed Merin Kate Moss into the world, and boy is she a bundle of joy. For the next couple of weeks, I'll be MIA, but if you have any advice for first time parents, we're all ears.

Modesty of a Mind

"For he was not one of those talkative people--from whom I had endured so much--who undertook to teach me what I wanted to know, and then said nothing... For this I liked him all the more. For the modesty of an ingenious mind is a finer thing than the acquisition of that knowledge I desired;" - St. Augustine, Confessions

This weekend, as most people know, is Berkshire Hathaway's annual meeting. For years, he's weighed in on business, the economy, and life from his vantage point as Chairman. Despite his breadth of knowledge, his intellectual humility is, to me, one of his best qualities.

Simply put, the ability to admit 'I don't know' is an uncommon one in our world today.

As one of the most successful investors of all time, you'd think many people would copy his approach and admit when something belongs in 'the too-hard pile'. But in everyday experience, we tend to see the opposite occur. People have a penchant for making the simple seem complex, as well as taking a little knowledge, and pretending to be an expert (The Dunning-Kruger Effect).

Put a different way, how often do you notice in others the urge to look knowledgeable about a topic, only to press into them with a question and watch the thin veneer of expertise fade to ignorance?

An even better question would be - how many times have you experienced this yourself?

I read the quote above during my early morning reflection and personal time, and it resonated deeply because to me, intellectual humility is one of the most attractive qualities a person can have. It is what attracted me to Warren Buffett in the first place. Think about it - doesn't it make you feel like trusting someone who is successful and still able approach life with a healthy dose of humility?

On the otherhand, isn't it offputting when someone doesn't seem to possess a single ounce of intellectual humility, and feel as if they have prescriptions for everything from solving our country's problems to which way the oil markets will run to scientific progress?

And at times, if we're honest with ourselves, we've all fallen into this last camp at some point or another.

The benefit of being intellectually modest is that, counterintuitively, it attracts people more to you. Intellectual humility connotes a certain type of genuine quality in a person, while on the contrary, intellectual pomposity has the exact opposite effect. When you oversell your expertise in an area, you run the risk of being shown for what you really are - a fraud. Admitting you know little or nothing about a subject is as easy as saying those three words - 'I don't know' - and yet our egos fight it so hard.

Why is this?

We want to have the answers, and to be known as the person with all the answers. But ironically, we'll have more influence, we'll learn more, and we'll develop deeper trust with others over the longrun through being genuine, honest, and transparent instead of attempting to feign expertise in areas outside of our circle of competence.

P.S. - The last thing to note, this is a note to myself first and foremost, but I hope you will consider reflecting around how this applies to you as well.

"The funny thing about telling the truth is that you never have to remember anything."


"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."



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