Picture of the cover of The Zurich Axioms by Max Gunther.

Yeah, the cover kind of says it all really. The Zurich Axioms by Max Gunther is one of those ‘get rich’ books from the 80’s. It’s right from that ‘Greed is Good’ period just before things stopped going good in 1987. However, a passage from the opening chapter really grabbed me:

To make any kind of gain in life – a gain of wealth, personal stature, whatever you define as “gain” – you must place some of your material and/or emotional capital at risk. You must make a commitment of money, time, love, something.

I really wanted more of that, for Max to take a step back from the get rich theme and spend time exploring cognitive biases and how they shape our perception of risk. But to be fair, I think Max does just this in his follow up ‘How to Get Lucky: 13 techniques for discovering and taking advantage of life’s good breaks’. We need a little pause of appreciation here. I’m in awe of that title, it is 30 years ahead of its time. A perfect exemplar of all the clickbait trash that litters today’s Internet.

Despite all the self-help, get rich talk of The Zurich Axioms I found just enough interesting passages to keep me going:

Never get attached to things, only to people. Getting attached to things decreases your mobility, the capacity to move fast when the need arises. Once you get yourself rooted, your efficiency as a speculator goes down markedly.

Mr Gunther mentioned this nugget when he was writing about opportunity costs in a roundabout way. He was trying to establish a cost for when someone doesn’t speculate on a new idea because they have become entrenched on holding a particular stock.

But for me, the paragraph helped me understand this whole Marie Kondo / David Allen bender I’m on. By prioritising experiences over objects and purging my spaces of the stuff that doesn’t enable my monastic engineering practice, I’m hoping to create more time and space to focus on what is important to me. I guess I’m trying to wriggle free of roots that have me bogged down.

Lately I have been thinking that our consciousness is the product of our experiences. That is to say, how we react to any given situation is the accumulation of every experience since conception. Now objects can certainly enable an activity, but holding onto that object doesn’t necessarily continue to deliver additional experiences. Take a book for example, you can read it. Enjoy the content, assimilate some of the knowledge. Maybe write an esoteric blog post about how some of the writing relates to thoughts of your own. But stacking that book on a shelf like some sort of knowledge-based hunting trophy has a diminishing return in the number of new experiences it can deliver.

This idea that we are a product of experiences gets really weird though, especially when you start to think about the fallibility of memory and subconscious impulses. That ball of cognitive output that lurks on the blurred edges of your thoughts, that gut reaction stuff. So naturally I enjoyed it when Max started to write about intuition in The Zurich Axioms:

For instance, think of a certain man or woman who has played a significant role in your life. This person doesn’t come to you in discrete data bits – brown hair, blue eyes, likes Chinese food, and so on. There are millions of such data bits that you have stored over the years, far more than you could list in your lifetime. Instead of coming to you in bits, the person comes whole. Everything you know and feel about him or her, everything you have ever thought, felt, or experienced in connection with this person – it all comes at once, mysteriously pulled up from that colossal library of not-quite-knowing. Imagine this man or woman in the street. You instantly know who it is. With no conscious thinking at all you instantly react in appropriate ways. Yet if I were to ask you how you recognize this person, precisely what your clues are – the shape of the nose? The manner of walking? – you would have no answer to give. You know you know your friend, but you don’t know how you know. Similarly, if this man or woman telephones you, you instantly recognize the voice. How? By precisely what clues? There is no answer. If you were to attempt to describe that voice to me so that I, too, could recognize it, you would find the task impossible. The information is in your head somewhere, buy you don’t know just what it is or where it is.

That passage helped me appreciate that the blurred edges of our mind works in both directions. Remember the gorilla in the room experiment for inattentional blindness? That stuff is happening all the time, we constantly fail to perceive things in plain sight. But perhaps, at some level a few things slip past into the subconscious. Well that’s the entire premise of Sherlock Holmes I guess, a superhuman ability to recall small details laying around in plain sight.

Anyway, The Zurich Axioms by Max Gunther was OK. I give it three out of five stars.