To understand something, write about it

Peter Bevelin is one of my favorite authors. If measured in the scale of page-for-page wisdom, then his books will feature among the best of the best. I like his writings because he organizes the contents around key themes. The technique of organizing based on themes is called as common placing. This is a powerful way to understand and learn things deeply.

His new book – All I Want To Know Is Where I’m Going To Die So I’ll Never Go There – contains 1827 excerpts from Buffett, Munger, and several other luminaries, which is organized around 62 key themes. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book and it’s a must read for everyone. On of my favorites in the book is a section on the importance of writing. I firmly believe that — If you want to understand something, write about it. Buffett agrees with my belief.

Librarian “Another ‘trick’ is to write – writing is a kind of thinking. Writing helps you to clarify your thoughts – because to write clearly you must first think clearly”

Buffett “If you understand an idea, you can express it so to others can understand it. I find that every year when I write the report, I hit these blocks. The block isn’t because I’ve run out of words in the dictionary. The block is because I haven’t got it straight in my mind yet. There’s nothing like writing to force you to think and to get your thoughts straight”

Librarian “Lee Iacocca said, “In conversation you can get away with all kinds of vagueness and nonsense, often without even realizing it. But there’s something about putting your thoughts on paper that forces you to get down to specifics. That way, it’s harder to deceive yourself – or anybody else.”

Buffett “I learn while I think when I write it out. Some of the things, I think I think, I find don’t make any sense when I start trying to write them down and explain them to people … And if it can’t stand applying pencil to paper, you’d better think it through some more.”

If writing is not your cup of tea then Munger has a solution for you. It’s called as Orangutan theory — If a smart person goes into a room with an orangutan and explains whatever his or her idea is, the orangutan just sits there eating his banana, and at the end of the conversation, the person explaining comes out smarter. If you can’t write then assume that you are explaining the concept to an orangutan. This will definitely improve your understanding.

13 thoughts on “To understand something, write about it

  1. Superb.

    On Sat, May 21, 2016 at 11:30 PM, Seeking Wisdom wrote:

    > Jana Vembunarayanan posted: “Peter Bevelin is one of my favorite > authors. If measured in the scale of page-for-page wisdom, then his books > will feature among the best of the best. I like his writings because he > organizes the contents around key themes. The technique of organizing bas” >

    • Thanks Srini. Denys and I have done it countless times and it has always worked out for both of us.


  2. Outstanding,simple and profound…..Jana how can I get this book in India.I dont think its available?

    Learning about value investing seems to be more about wisdom which is applicable on every walk of life.Isnt it?

    • Don’t know how to get the book in India. You are absolutely right. To me it’s not about money, but it’s about learning and it’s a way of living.


  3. Jana I want to know how do you do commonplacing after learning from various sources such as books,blogs,videos etc.

    • I take notes on the book while reading. The problem with this approach is that it’s not searchable. While blogging I try to connect multiple things. For that I use Kindle and documents that I have in my laptop. I am considering augmenting my current methods with DevonThink or


      • Jana I was reading your article Thinking in Images.Can you please tell how to associate images with all the mental models so that they can be retrieved easily whenever we need them?

  4. Hi Sir

    I have a query on owners earnings.

    Why should we subtract only maintenance capex to reach OE or FCFF and not growth capex. I am not very clear.

    Capex has to be value accretive so we can do one more test like ROICon the incremental capital (like John Huber suggested) But why should we subtract only maintenance caoex and not full capex?


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