The Four Disciplines: Vital Knowledge for Business and Life

by Brian on December 30, 2014 in Autodidacticism,Productivity,Winning

The Four Disciplines: Vital Knowledge for Business and Life

(Image by Tessss)

As much as you learned in your school years, once you left school you probably realized that you didn’t know as much as you thought you did and there was still plenty about life and work to figure out. Lately I’ve been thinking about continuing education and what areas we can focus on as adults to move the needles of success in our lives and work.

People love to learn about business management, but is this really the best investment of your time?

What about health, relationships, and other important parts of life? It might be a good idea to know something about those.

How about when you see study results reported in the news. Can you trust it because “it’s science?” How do you even know?

I’ve come up with what I’ve decided to call “The Four Disciplines.” Namely:

  • Statistics
  • Evolution
  • Biology
  • Psychology

The more you learn about these, the closer you can get to Benjamin Franklin’s standard of being healthy, wealthy, and wise. Ignorance of these subjects will lead to many failures and missed opportunities in your life that you chalk up to “bad luck,” not knowing that things could have been different.


A traditional high school math education culminates in calculus. Which is unfortunate, because most people will never use calculus again for the rest of their lives.

The real math of business and life is Statistics. All forms of business modeling and revenue forecasting are basically applied statistics. Endless time is spent trying to figure out why a business had a bad day (and making unkeepable promises to clients that it will never happen again) when the overwhelming majority of the time it’s simple, ordinary variance.

If you have any role in advertising or promoting your business, you need to know how to conduct an A/B test and how to interpret the results. If you’re sizing up a new market with a survey, you should know that there’s a gigantic chasm of a difference between asking questions like “how much would you pay for this?” and actually asking someone to buy a product at a certain price point.

Interpreting the results of scientific studies is an explicit act of statistical analysis. If you’re reading about a study you need to know at bare minimum a thing or two about statistical relevance and how poor methods can produce biased or junk results. It’s also helpful to be able spot cues that data has been tortured to make it look like there is some benefit when there isn’t (*cough* statins).

Statistics, like the other disciplines, is not an independent silo unto itself. For example, psychology and emotions often get in the way of good data and cause you to make bad decisions. Let’s say you want to buy a new car. You do your research and after checking up on reliability ratings decide to buy a Honda Accord. But then the next day you ask your neighbor about their Honda Accord and they tell you it’s always breaking down and they’ve had nothing but problems with it. Do you still buy one?

Now you are having major second thoughts. The fact is that a dramatic story has an outsized impact on our decision making. As they say, if one person dies it’s a tragedy, but if 100 people die it’s a statistic. As far as your car is concerned, if you know about statistics you will realize that even though your neighbor got a lemon you can still rest assured that their sample size of n=1 is not statistically relevant and you can still confidently proceed with your purchase.

Get started with statistics:

Read a book:

Statistics in Plain English

Take a free online class:

Stat 2x: Introduction to Statistics (part 2, part 3; taught by UC Berkeley)


You might be surprised to see Evolution listed here as a core discipline. But as Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said, “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” And as he ought to have mentioned nothing in psychology, romantic relationships, or a great many other areas of life makes any sense either.

The scope and ramifications of evolutionary thinking are far broader than some vague notion of monkeys turning into people or survival of the fittest (neither of which are accurate, but stories for another time…).

At heart, evolution is a simple algorithm: produce variation, keep the best variants. And the measuring stick is reproductive success. This is the exact same algorithm that marketers use in advertising, except they call it an A/B test. In the business management world you know the products of evolutionary processes as “best practices.” All other conclusions in evolution flow from this simple, but powerful algorithm.

Evolution has no ultimate goal. When we talk about intelligent and wise people as being “evolved” this is a misapplication of the word. Evolution doesn’t care about your IQ, it only cares about your number of babies.

Simply knowing how the algorithm works allows you to predict things about biology and psychology. One of the most obvious and important predictions for human health is cancer. Basically cancer results from a renegade cell that starts replicating as much as possible at the expense of its neighbors. An enormous amount of biological machinery goes into preventing cells from exhibiting this otherwise ordinary behavior. It is, therefore, not surprising that sometimes this machinery breaks down. Also, there is no contradiction in the fact that a cancerous cell can pre-maturely end the life of body it lives in. It knows nothing beyond how much it can reproduce in the here and now.

Evolution is also important for understanding what to eat. People evolved as omnivores, therefore it is not surprising that health often suffers on diets entirely lacking in animal foods or entirely lacking in vegetable foods. Cows evolved with rumens to eat and digest grass. Therefore it is not surprising that they become sick and unhealthy on an all grain diet.

It’s easy to see how bodies are shaped and molded to fit into their environments, but what’s less obvious is that so are our minds. All of our odd behavior around sexual issues, our social posturing, and obsession with social status are direct results of traits that led our ancestors to be more successfully fecund than their contemporaries who left no offspring.

To understand evolution is to understand a great deal about the world around you. If that alone isn’t enough for you, remember that knowledge is power.

Get started with evolution:

Listen to an audiobook:

On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (edited and read by Richard Dawkins)

Take a free online class:

Introduction to Genetics and Evolution (taught by Duke University)

Introduction to Human Evolution (taught by Wellesley College)

Also see other books on evolution and human nature on my recommended books page.


Ask many top executives what the single best thing you can do to improve your productivity is and you will get a surprising answer: “Work out.”

Ask many men and women what the single best thing you can do to improve your attractiveness is and you will get an un-surprising answer: “Work out.”

Taking care of your health may be the highest leverage activity you can do to improve your results in all areas of your life. Understanding biology (and it’s pre-requisite, evolution) is the key to understanding what patterns of health look like.

In order to know what an organism should eat, you need to know what it has evolved to eat. In order to understand why an organism gets sick, you need to understand what the behavioral norm is for that organism and what has deviated from the norm.

Since the benefits of health are obvious, I’ll spend the remainder of this section talking about what I think makes a good foundational knowledge of biology.

Get started with biology:

Take an introductory biology course:

If you took AP Biology in high school you already have a good base to start with. If you took regular high school biology or need a refresher, then I recommend starting with a solid intro course equivalent to a first year biology curriculum at the college level. I couldn’t find any good free ones to recommend, but I have personally used and vouch for Stephen Nowicki’s fine video course. The Great Courses frequently has 70% off sales, so if you just wait you can get it at a discount.

Biology: The Science of Life

Take a physiology course:

Reading health news and books makes so much more sense if you have a basic knowledge of physiology to hang your hat on. It’s also easier to spot BS when you know how things work.

Introductory Human Physiology (taught by Duke University)

Understanding the Human Body (not free like the above course, but much easier to follow)

Take a genetics course:

What is your risk of a genetic disease if your parent has it? What can you learn from DNA testing? Are GMOs safe? Are there gay genes? (hint: yes, there are) Genetics is in the news every day and directly impacts your life in fundamental ways. Unfortunately, most people have views without facts. Get your facts with a free class. Useful Genetics is only taught once a year, but it’s worth the wait.

Useful Genetics (part 2; taught by University of British Columbia)

And finally, this last course doesn’t really fit into any category, but if you’d like to be an informed citizen about controversial topics in biology then check out:

Biology for Voters (part2: taught by UC Berkeley)


It deeply vexes me that psychology is not a required class in high school. All the flavor of the month business management books and relationship books in the world don’t hold a candle to a good fundamental understanding of psychology.

Unfortunately, you are probably way off in what you think psychology is about unless you have taken a psychology course. Firstly, it’s not about Freud and penis envy. His ideas play almost no part in modern psychology. Secondly, psychology is not the same thing as psychiatry. If you meet someone who says they are a psychologist, please don’t take that as a cue to unburden yourself of your problems. They probably have no training at all in counseling.

Basically you can think about psychology as the study of behavior and how people are likely to act under certain circumstances. We may not respond to button pushes entirely like machines, but we come pretty close to it.

In my view, the main goal of studying psychology is to hone what psychologists call “theory of mind.” You can think of it as trying to take the perspective of another person and understand the world from their point of view.

For example, let’s say you want to ask your boss for a raise. What factors go into this decision? Does your boss have to get permission from their boss to give raises? If so, might your boss just say no because they don’t want to have to deal with the hassle of asking their boss? What is a good reason to ask for a raise? Of course you have lots of reasons for wanting money, but does your boss care that you’d really like to take a European vacation this year? Or might it be better to highlight your job performance and the value you bring to the company?

Persuasion attempts are failing all over the world at this very minute due to failure to understand the perspective of the other person. And people all over the world are failing to woo that special someone right now for the same reason.

Get started with psychology:

Read a book:

See psychology books to read on my recommended books page.

Take a free online course:

Introduction to Psychology (taught by University of Toronto)

Social Psychology (taught by Wesleyan University)

And if you’re a fan of police procedural TV shows, then you can’t miss:

The Psychology of Criminal Justice (taught by University of Queensland)

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment (real names only please)

Previous post:

Next post: