Look for Things that Don’t Make Sense

When the billionaire investor Sam Zell reads the newspaper every morning, he looks for things that don’t make sense.

One time, he saw that a Gucci store had opened in Mongolia. He said, “I had read someplace that they had opened a Gucci store and another high-end retail store in Ulaanbaatar. And he said, “Why would they do that?” He was so curious about the story that he flew to Mongolia to investigate the situation. When he arrived, he saw that Gucci locations had opened next to mines, which hinted at China’s construction boom. By the time he left, Zell had prescient information about the future of the Chinese economy.

Most people run away from complexity. When the world doesn’t make sense, they dismiss their ignorance and think about something else. But Zell does the opposite, which partially explains his success as an investor. 

In similar fashion, hedge fund advisor Adam Robinson once said: “One of the key things to investing is to be aware when you hear a voice in your head that says it doesn’t make sense. That’s where the gold mine is — things that don’t make sense.”

When the world does the opposite of what you think it’s going to do, it’s not the world that’s wrong. It’s you. Things that don’t make sense are your best learning opportunities. The factor causing the world to behave differently than you think is more influential than all the elements you’re thinking about. Your confusion is an invitation to recalibrate your model of the world so it better aligns with reality. So when a TV pundit says it doesn’t make sense why a stock is falling, it’s because of an X-factor they haven’t considered. As Robinson says: “The world always makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is his model.”

If you’re eager for writing ideas, look for things that don’t make sense. Behind them, you’ll find hidden chambers of knowledge that most people aren’t privy to. As a writer, you will derive the most meaning from essays where your final draft contradicts what you thought before you started writing. Since knowledge is social, the things that surprise you will likely surprise your readers. 

Unlike Zell, you don’t need to get on an airplane to learn about things that don’t make sense. You just need to open the Internet, browse your notes, and start writing.

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