Man with a hammer


For centuries, martial artists debated over which style was most effective. Cases were made for karate, judo, jujitsu, muay thai, wrestling, and a number of others. However, whenever these arguments were put to the test, they were often more reflective of the individual combatant’s abilities rather than their chosen martial art’s effectiveness. In an attempt to finally settle the debate, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) was born, gathering the world’s best martial artists from each major discipline.

The first few tournaments in the early ’90s were surprisingly won by one of the smallest competitors, Royce Gracie, a jujitsu practitioner. Gracie easily dominated bigger and stronger men who knew little of jujitsu’s use of seemingly inferior positions to “submit” their opponents.

But, tired of losing to jujitsu fighters, martial artists began studying aspects of jujitsu in order to defend against its submissions, shifting the power away from the art form. Not to be caught out, jujitsu practitioners studied aspects of other arts to ensure they remained competitive.

Fast-forward to the current era, and the question of which martial art is superior is no longer entertained. Virtually all great fighters are considered mixed martial artists to the point that many youngsters don’t even begin their training with a specialty. Instead, they choose to learn various martial arts simultaneously.

Aside from being a fascinating story, the evolution of martial arts holds an important lesson—even for those of us not interested in being modern day gladiators: If you venture outside your expertise, you will often progress further. What I’m referring to is a multidisciplinary approach to learning, and life in general!

Warren Buffet and his business partner, Charlie Munger, are known for reiterating Abraham Maslow’s law of the instrument: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, if you only know how to think like a lawyer, an academic, or financial advisor, your restricted breadth of knowledge will limit your results not only in work, but also in other aspects of your life. The solution is, much like today’s martial artists, to learn deeply from as many fields as possible.

As Munger wrote in his great book Poor Charlie’s Almanack:

You must know the big ideas in the big disciplines and use them routinely—all of them, not just a few. Most people are trained in one model—economics, for example—and try to solve all problems in one way. You know the old saying: To the man with a hammer, the world looks like a nail. This is a dumb way of handling problems.

A multidisciplinary approach is critical because you rarely come across the same problem or situation twice. And even if you do, the environment and context may be such that you can’t use the same approach as you did before. Understanding many of the big ideas in various fields allows you a certain advantage, as well. As Munger wrote:

It’s kind of fun to sit there and outthink people who are way smarter than you are because you’ve trained yourself to be more objective and more multidisciplinary. Furthermore, there is a lot of money in it, as I can testify from my own personal experience.

Learning about a variety of different major fields seems like an enormous job, doesn’t it? Well, it is a lot of work, but not as colossal as you may think. As Munger continued:

You may say, "My God, this is already getting way too tough." But, fortunately, it isn't that tough—because 80 or 90 important models will carry about 90% of the freight in making you a worldly-wise person. And, of those, only a mere handful really carries very heavy freight.

If your interest is peaked, Gabriel Weinberg, founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo, has created a list of the mental models he repeatedly uses. You’ll likely find many of them don’t apply to you, but it’s a good place to start. If you’re really serious about them, you may want to consider using his list as a base, adding ones he may not have included while trimming those you don’t need.

A few years ago, I was invited to the grand opening of a high end health clinic in a Bay Street tower. I was introduced to the head physician of the new clinic and the topic turned to the effects of stress on the body. As I had recently completed a course through the Teaching Company on that very subject, I not only followed along, but also added a few points he found interesting. He turned to me and asked, “By the way, what type of medicine to do you practice?” As you can imagine, my answer of “wealth manager” was about the last thing he expected.

Today that doctor is now a client and a good friend who graciously keeps me up to date on the cutting edge of the medicine and wellness industries.

As Munger mentioned above, I’ve found that learning about the big ideas in a variety of fields has helped me think more clearly, and I’ve had a lot of fun learning and discussing them along the way!