Jim O’Shaughnessy: How do you talk about the unnamed Tao? – Crazy Wisdom

Key Takeaways

  • A few quotes to ponder:
    • “For the most part, people are unaware of what they would look at as their most profound and deeply held beliefs. They’re probably just preferences that got implanted by society, by your parents, by your grandparents… it’s not a bad thing, it’s a human thing.”
    • “One of the things that’s always helped me in not only my career, but also in life, is the operating assumption that all of my beliefs are wrong”
    • “If you really want to see people get riled, mess with their beliefs”
    • “The way you frame a question is almost more important than the answer”
    • “Right now, we’re at the height of human achievement and yet, everyone’s miserable – how is that possible?”
    • “Action without knowledge is foolish, but knowledge without action is futile”
  • You have biases even if you don’t realize it
  • We are one
    • Not – “I am a sentient being living in sentient universe” 
    • But – “I am a sentient part of a sentient universe” 
  • Human beings are narrative machines
    • “Between stories and statistical information, the story, however badly told, is going to win every time

Books Mentioned

  • Everyone should read the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tzu at least once (this episode discusses much of the book’s teachings)
    • It tends to find you when you’re ready
    • Linked is the Stephen Mitchell translation, widely thought to be the most easily digestible
    • Jim says – “I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching for 40 years and I’m finally beginning to understand what it means”
  • Give The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker a read if you’re interested in human belief systems and where they originate from
  • Jim is a big fan of Jed McKenna‘s writing 
  • Stewart has been reading Behave by Robert Sapolsky which gets into the neurobiology of human behavior
  • Stewart recently read Loonshots in prep for his interview with the author, Safi Bahcall
  • Check out Gödel, Escher, Bach
    • Jim brings up a tidbit from the book – Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has said, “Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be a human being, Bach shows you what it’s like to be the universe”
  • Jim is a fan of The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon
    • Jim’s learning from the book – “I believe that, ultimately, human ingenuity solves a tremendous amount of problems”
  • Jim thought Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was a great book
  • Stoic philosophy has changed Jim’s life

Intro

  • Jim O’Shaungnessy is perhaps best known as the GIF Master of Twitter
    • (You should give him a follow)
  • He’s also the Founder, Chairman, & Co-Chief Investment Officer of O’Shaunghnessy Asset Management

Let’s Kick This Off

  • Jim says he’s always been voraciously curious
    • Dorthy Parker has famously said – “Curiosity the cure for boredom and there is no cure for curiosity”
  • Everything is impermanent
    • If people understood this more holistically, they’d be better able to understand and grasp life’s disappointments
  • Jim calls himself a “pragmatic optimist”
    • It’s someone who thinks things will usually work out, but is also aware of what might possibly lead to things not working out
  • “The way you frame a question is almost more important than the answer”
    • Why? – It determines the answer
  • Jim became a father at age 24
    • To allow his children to better know him on a personal level, Jim started writing them a series of letters by hand which is wife has since typed out into book format

Tao Te Ching and the Nameless Tao

  • Jim discovered early on that being able to control his emotions > not being emotional
    • How did he come to realize this? – Through reading Stoic philosophy and Lao Tzu (specifically the Tao Te Ching)
  • Jim will routinely buy new translations of the Tao Te Ching
    • “I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching for 40 years and I’m finally beginning to understand what it means”
  • The most important question all of us face – “Why am I here on this Earth?”
  • So what’s the origin of the “nameless Tao”
    • The line in Tao Te Ching reads – “The Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. The named Tao is the mother to a million things.”
    • Jim explains – “The nameless Tao is the universe, it’s everything”
      • Essentially – The universe can’t be named.. because it’s everything. It just “is. It’s the experience we all live through and are part of.
      • We create the named Tao – it’s the mother of language, thoughts, and duality
      • “You really have to wrap your mind around the idea of a non-dualistic universe, which I believe we live in”
        • So – it’s not “me” and “the”, it’s “we”
  • One of Jim’s favorite lines from the Tao Te Ching:
    • “Govern a large country like you would cook a small fish… lightly”

Jim Goes Deep

  • “I often say we’re quantum beings living in a Newtonian universe. We are deterministic thinkers living in a probabilistic world.”
  • When you’re born – there are any number of pre-packaged/fabricated belief systems that you can adhere to
    • Ex. – Religions, political ideologies, etc.
    • “For the most part, people are unaware of what they would look at as their most profound and deeply held beliefs. They’re probably just preferences that got implanted by society, by your parents, by your grandparents… it’s not a bad thing, it’s a human thing.”
      • Steven Pinker touched a little on this in his book, The Blank Slate, in which he argues we “come out with the software fully installed”
  • Jim thinks we’re pre-programmed to believe a lot of things that aren’t true
    • “One of the things that’s always helped me in not only my career, but also in life, is the operating assumption that all of my beliefs are wrong”
      • Go back 1,000 years and look at what people believed – they were wrong on almost every level
      • But that’s okay – many of the “wrong” beliefs are in fact useful

The Simplicity of the Tao

  • The Tao Te Ching also teaches pure simplicity
    • This is contrary to the complexity society prefers
    • Stewart recalls a line he once heard – “Things can be simple and complex, but things can never be simple and complicated”
  • Einstein has famously said – “Always make something as simple as you can, but mot simpler”

Biases – You’re Not the Exception

  • If human beings were consciously aware of all the data points they’re faced with on a normal day, they’d go crazy
    • This is the reason our brain develops many of our biases
  • Jim has an interesting theory – perhaps some mental illnesses are the result of our bias brain breaking down and letting in all that data/stimulation
    • (Autistic children have sensory stimulation)
  • “The big problem with human beings is we think we’re the only exception”
    • Ex. – Most people don’t think they have biases (when in reality, everyone does)
    • Similarly – we all think we’re above average

We Are One

  • Not – “I am a sentient being living in sentient universe” 
  • But – “I am a sentient part of a sentient universe” 

Narratives and Beliefs

  • Human beings are narrative machines
    • “Between stories and statistical information, the story, however badly told, is going to win every time
  • Before the invention of writing, all we knew were stories and fables
  • Beliefs are really powerful for people because they aid the formation of narratives
    • Jim adds – “If you really want to see people get riled, mess with their beliefs”

Action!

  • One of Stewart’s past guests brought up this idea:
    • “The world is unknown, I cannot know the world in it’s full complexity, but I have to act. This is what I believe, it may be wrong, but I must act.”
    • Jim adds – “Action without knowledge is foolish, but knowledge without action is futile”
      • Action is a requirement for moving forward in the universe
      • If you don’t take action, you can’t get anywhere in life
      • “You can be the world’s most intelligent human being.. if you don’t take action, it doesn’t matter”

The Internet and Social Media – The Biggest Experiment in Human History

  • “I believe that any human communication, if it’s important, has to be in person”
  • Jim says he’s met some great people on social media, but the relationships were really only cemented after meeting them face to face
  • On social media – “We’re running the greatest experiment in human history without a control group”
  • The internet allows anyone to find their tribe, no matter how crazy or insane the idea/interests
    • The internet has also given a voice and a platform to the formerly voiceless and platformless – these types of people always existed, they just didn’t have a microphone (like the flat earthers)
  • Social media facilitates the comparing of one’s own life with someone’s fictional life – a recipe for depression
  • “Right now, we’re at the height of human achievement and yet, everyone’s miserable – how is that possible?”

Jed McKenna

  • Jim is a huge fan of Jed’s writing
    • “I am of the opinion that Jed McKenna is a fictional character. I believe he is the invention of a very, very, very intelligent person.”
      • (To explain – Jed’s an actual author, but some doubt his existence. He claims enlightenment and judging by his writing, it might possibly be true.)
  • A few of Jed’s teachings
    • Life is a dream state and everything is fiction – our ego just assigns importance to it all
    • The only truth we know is that we exist, but everything else is unprovable and based on false beliefs
  • Jim’s favorite book of Jed’s – Spiritual Enlightenment: The Damnedest Thing
    • Start with this one if you’re just discovering him
  • Jed McKenna talks a lot in his books about the fact that humans are fear-based creatures
    • We fear the unknown, we fear death, and we fear a non-linear world in which things don’t make sense
      • Why is this the case?
        • We descended from the most fearful people because those are the ones who survived – the others got selected out of the gene pool

Wrapping Up

  • “If everything you see is a cloud, you’re going to get rained on a lot. If you direct your feet to the sunny side of the street you’re going to generally feel that way.”

Additional Notes

  • Stewart has been reading Behave by Robert Sapolsky which gets into the neurobiology of human behavior
    • One point in the book – the frontal cortex of the brain grows as you gain a larger social network
  • Jim has kept a journal his whole life
  • “Walt Whitman… today he’d be a rapper. Pink Floyd, they’d all be philosophy professors at Oxford if they weren’t such excellent musicians”
  • Jim was raised Catholic but is now agnostic (or a Taoist):
    • “But that’s not to say I have anything against any of those religions. They all have their belief systems and you know what my opinion on beliefs systems is. But if they help their adherents find meaning… then I think that’s great.”
  • Shakespeare has aid – “Nothing is either good or bad, thinking makes it so”
  • Check out the book – Gödel, Escher, Bach
    • Jim recalls a tidbit from the book – Douglas Adams, who wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has said, “Beethoven tells you what it’s like to be Beethoven, Mozart tells you what it’s like to be a human being, Bach shows you what it’s like to be the universe”
      • Jim adds – ‘If you listen to Bach’s music… it’s true”
  • Wealth can be good or bad – it just depends on whether you control it or it controls you
    • “If you let your attachments control you, that’s a bad place to be”
  • “We have so removed death from the modern experience”
    • We pretend we’re not going to die… but that’s not the case… don’t forget it!
  • Humans are mimetic creatures – we copy the tendencies of those above us in the social hierarchy in order to appear primed to climb the social ladder
    • And then – our brains have a tendency to invent some rational reason for performing those behaviors instead of admitting we’re just copying them from others
  • Jim’s youngest daughter is a stand-up comedian in Chicago
  • Stewart recently read Loonshots in prep for his interview with Safi Bahcall
  • Jim is a fan of The Ultimate Resource by Julian Simon
    • Jim’s learning from the book – “I believe that, ultimately, human ingenuity solves a tremendous amount of problems”
  • Jim thought Siddhartha by Herman Hesse was a great book
  • Stoic philosophy has changed Jim’s life
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