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The orangutan effect
On Warren Buffett's latest letter, the Mayo Clinic, and Volodymyr Zelenskyy
The finest line in Warren Buffett's annual letter to the shareholders of Berkshire Hathaway, released on February 26th, belongs not to Buffett but to his vice-chairman, Charlie Munger. Buffett writes, "Teaching, like writing, has helped me develop and clarify my own thoughts. Charlie calls this phenomenon the orangutan effect: If you sit down with an orangutan and carefully explain to it one of your cherished ideas, you may leave behind a puzzled primate, but will yourself exit thinking more clearly."
■ The "orangutan effect" could stand to get a lot more use in the wider world. Nothing about life in 2022 is less complex than it was in 2012, and certainly not than it was in 1922. It will be more complex in 2032, and much more so in 2122. Within virtually every field of inquiry and endeavor, people will continue to specialize and advance the state of the art. (The rare exception that proves the rule: We probably won't see new innovations in harpsichord performance.)
■ Increasing specialization has wide-ranging and often robust effects: Extremely skilled specialists are what gives a place like the Mayo Clinic a sterling reputation. But general knowledge remains important, too: Being able to synthesize information across conventional subject-matter boundaries matters enormously, particularly as complex new problems emerge with irregular borders.
■ Is Covid-19 a problem for epidemiologists? Public-health experts? Macroeconomists? Child psychologists? Human-resources departments? Politicians? Network security consultants? Yes. Yes, to all of the above, and to many more. And being able to absorb information from all of those fields and convert it into actionable thought requires the ability to understand what's coming in.
■ That's why the orangutan effect matters so much. It's not just enough that each of us in our own fields be capable of explaining the basic outlines of our own most important contributions (though that is surely more important than ever). It's also essential that we obtain the clearest possible thinking about what we know, what we don't, and what will change those boundaries.
■ One of the reasons people have been so attracted to Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is his ability to speak (even through translation) as though to the unwitting orangutan. War is brutal and complex, but "I need ammunition, not a ride" is unambiguous. "We have a desire to see our children alive. I think it's a fair one." cuts cleanly through the fog of war.
■ It's easy to come up with empty-headed or pandering nonsense that sounds good; the history of advertising is enough to prove that. (Why, yes, I sure think I do deserve a break today!) But clear words, delivered authentically about meaningful matters, can only emerge from clear thinking, and clear thinking takes practice. And if civilization is to follow a course that leads in a happy direction, we'll need that clear thinking from every direction. Round up the orangutans: There's work to do.