Stoicism is not a task we can pop on a to-do list then tick off later. Rather, I view it as a habit. A part of everyday life. Something to turn to during big tragedies and small annoyances. The philosophy itself is based on exercises which incorporate the key principles.Read More
When I was about 14, I had a vinyl record of The Best of John Lennon. There was a scratch on it which always made the needle skip on a particular line of the song Watching The Wheels.
Now, whenever I hear that song on Spotify, I still hear the skid of the needle as it used to jump back and play the same line until I moved it.
I don't even own a vinyl player anymore and that particular record is long gone. But that little scratch is so ingrained in my mind that I often don't realize I'm not actually hearing it.
Six months ago I was at university, studying English Literature and Language. I felt suffocated and frustrated. I wasn't really learning anything.
My university accommodation was a mess, with rats, mold and no option to change the contract. I hated the whole thing with every fiber of my being and just wanted to be doing something which felt meaningful, to be learning by living. Yet university left me with nothing but essays on poetic language and long days in the library making notes on postmodernism. By the end of the first semester, I knew I couldn't stay. So I decided on a trial period - I would take a year off to do whatever I wanted and if I couldn't get a job without a degree, I would return. The first question I ask myself when I make a big decision is this: how will I feel about this when I’m eighty?
When I was making the choice to drop out of university, I asked myself that and knew the answer straight away. If lacking a degree held me back too much I could always return and finish the one I started. At 80, I wouldn’t care if I got my degree at 22, or 27, or 40 or never. But if I stayed at university for another 3 years, miserable, unfulfilled and not learning anything, I would end up regretting it. Even if I only took a year off (as was my initial plan), I knew I wouldn’t regret spending that time traveling and learning. Time is the ultimate leveler.
A few days after signing the relevant paperwork, I opened Airbnb and looked for a place which I could afford to rent for a month, and which was available at short notice. There were two available. One was a loft with a 4-foot high ceiling. The other was in a converted barn in what I would consider the middle of nowhere. I went for the barn and spent 30 days there, barely seeing another person the whole time. My days were spent writing and walking the muddy hills, seeing ponies and sheep. My nights were spent reading Robert Greene by the fire. I made plans. I worked on my portfolio. I started pitching potential writing clients.
One day, while out for a walk, I rescued a pheasant from a dog and carried it to a safe field wrapped in a towel. If you are unfamiliar with pheasants, just know that they are incredibly dumb birds which even dumber people breed and release so they can shoot them. This one hadn't actually been hurt, the dog had just pulled out some feathers. Once it calmed down, it ambled off across the field. It occurred to me that most of my big ideas are a lot like that pheasant. I find them when I'm looking for something else, they're a bit feeble and take some time to find their feet, and they are never what I plan for. But they get somewhere and they lead to the next thing. I kept Steven Johnson's advice in mind:
“The patterns are simple, but followed together, they make for a whole that is wiser than the sum of its parts. Go for a walk; cultivate hunches; write everything down, but keep your folders messy; embrace serendipity; make generative mistakes; take on multiple hobbies; frequent coffeehouses and other liquid networks; follow the links; let others build on your ideas; borrow, recycle; reinvent. Build a tangled bank.”
I returned to civilization to do my TEDx talk, reduced my belongings down to one bag, then went traveling for a few months. I couch surfed and took last minute flights, visiting Paris, Chaville, Versailles, Verona, Venice, and Berlin. In each place I explored, not doing anything fancy, just walking and soaking up the beauty of my surroundings. Paris involved a lot of time in bookshops, afternoons sat by the canal, a day in Pere Lachaise cemetery, visits to small museums. In Italy I stayed in the countryside and mostly passed my days among fields and dilapidated farmhouses, sometimes straying into central Verona to see churches and galleries. I took the train to Venice after dreaming of it since my childhood. I cried as I stepped out into the streets because it was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined.
Now I have begun embracing adulthood. I just got my first flat, a sweet little 3 room place which I am proud to call my own. My flatmate is a scruffy kitten called Patti who enjoys destroying books and taking naps on my shoulder. I found her via an ad and when I went to collect her, she was sat by the door seemingly waiting for me. I work full time as a freelance writer, doing work I love and building my portfolio further.
Dropping out didn't turn me into Bill Gates, but it also hasn't left me a failure at life.
I'm more and more skeptical about the universal value of a university education. A degree is a product. A well-marketed one, yet still an expensive one. In this new economy more and more of us are able to create the jobs we want, doing work based on our skills and not on a grade on a piece of paper. I am content with what I do now and happy to not have a heap of debt hanging over my head for the next few decades. Not having a degree means I am not tied to any one area. When I need to learn about a new subject for a piece of writing I am doing, I spend a few days reading textbooks and academic papers, get a grasp of the basics and then write about it. In this way, I'm learning a hell of a lot more than I would have done at university. By 2020 around 50% of us will be freelancers.
A lot of people ask me (usually via Quora) why I dropped out, in a way that suggests I'm throwing my life away or I am doing something abnormal. A few people have even got in touch to say they are concerned I'm not going to survive in the 'real world.'
But dropping out is not as big a deal as the stigma surrounding it suggests. It's one thing to drop out because you find university too hard and you just want to nap on your parents' couch and watch Netflix. It's another thing to do what I have managed to do - make a plan, assess the options, drop out, get your own place and launch into a career. Those are two very different scenarios.
There is also a dramatic difference between going to university because you don't know what else to do, or because everyone else is, or because you're scared of adulthood, and going to university because you have a focused reason to do so. Plenty of other people have told me that university is valuable for meeting people and having fun. To me, that sounds like a weak excuse - it's pretty easy to network without getting into debt. Plus, drinking and going to clubs is a weird standard for 'fun.' That’s not a judgment statement. It didn’t work for me. I wilted in university. I’m thriving outside of it. This isn't me being a slacker, this is me making a considered choice. That's the important part.
It took a lot of guts to make such a sudden, drastic pivot. I had no idea if it would work out. But I'm proud of everything I have achieved in half a year - travelling alone, getting my own place, becoming financially independent, finding work I love and which (just about) supports me, having meaningful experiences.
Six months on, I guess this is adulthood. I guess this is real life.
I'm learning to enjoy the simple stuff- lying on the floor playing with Patti, building my own furniture out of palettes, fixing things, cooking rice for the first time, buying kitchenware, getting my work done. I guess, like John Lennon, I'm just watching the wheels go round. The only thing I really know is that I keep finding (metaphorical) pheasants and that things do work out eventually, with work and patience. That sometimes the scratch on the record becomes part of the music, and it sounds wrong without it.
. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it takes to be happy on a day to day basis, not on occasional special events. The interesting realization I have come to from reading a lot of books and doing a lot of thinking is that we don’t become happier by doing more of the one off, fun stuff. We become happier by making the dull, routine stuff meaningful as well. I’m talking about paperwork, chores, annoying phone calls to apathetic customer services, that kind of stuff. We all have to do it and most of the time we hate it.Read More
We want to hack and negotiate and manipulate and outsource and trick our way towards productivity, success, happiness. We want to read a clickbait-y article and learn the top ten tips for whatever it is we're aiming for. We want takeaways, action points, shortcuts, secrets, an edge.Read More
This has been a hectic month (lots of work + my new cat needing a lot of attention + trying to find somewhere to live) but I got through 15 books in my own time, plus about a dozen work related ones which I won't cover here. Here's a summary of the best of them.
Norwegian Wood - Haruki Murakami. I turn 20 in 3 months so this was the perfect time to read this book; a time when the character’s confusion surrounding adulthood mirrors my own. I read most of it in one sitting, alone in a dark bar with whiskey because that felt like the most appropriate setting. On the whole, Norwegian Wood is about the slow, introspective unfolding of the protagonist (Toru Watanabe) as he experiences a succession of sort of mundane events; friendships and the ends of friendships, relationships and the ends of friendships, movement and stillness, travel and finding a home. The only criticism I have is that four suicides is a bit excessive, and it seemed to be used as a convenient way to get certain characters out of the picture.
Siddartha - Herman Hesse. - Herman Hesse. A beautiful, simply written book set in ancient India at the time of the Buddha, wherein Siddhartha (the son of a Brahmin) sets off from home looking for enlightenment. He travels the countryside, meets different religious groups whose teachings he ends up rejecting, falls in love, has a son who abandons him, becomes rich then gives everything away, becomes a ferryman and eventually sort of understands the meaning of life. The society in which it is set is an alien one, yet I think the appeal of this book lies in the universal resonance of Siddhartha’s search for meaning and the many mistakes he makes along the way. His ultimate revelations have a sense of elegant wisdom:
“I have had to experience so much stupidity, so many vices, so much error, so much nausea, disillusionment, and sorrow, just in order to become a child again and begin anew. I had to experience despair, I had to sink to the greatest mental depths, to thoughts of suicide, in order to experience grace.”
“I will no longer mutilate and destroy myself in order to find a secret behind the ruins.”
The Third Policeman - Flann O’Brien. Reread. I'm not sure how many times I read this book in June (probably three or four.) It probably ranks as my favorite fictional book. Although the exact plot is impossible to define in any meaningful way, the book takes place in a strange, surreal world which has its own peculiar logic. None of it makes much sense if taken out of context. Space and time are subverted, eternity can be reached via a lift, a color exists which sense people mad if they see it, bicycles are sentient, death is predicted by the color of the wind when someone is born. It is a book which demands to be read again and again because it is somehow too indistinct to feel like the same story each time. I was lent it by my friend Corrie who asked me to underline the passages which I found meaningful. She asks each person who reads it to do that in a different pen, to see if eventually every part of the book is underlined. The whole thing is so wonderful that I expect this will happen. It's hard to summarize the plot, so just read it.
A Confederacy of Dunces - John Kennedy Toole. Also a recommendation from Corrie and one of the funniest books I have read. The humor lies in the ridiculous characters. The protagonist, Ignatius J. Reilly, is surely the most obnoxious figure conceivable and the characters who animate the various subplots are all brilliant. The book mostly revolves around Ignatius’ attempts to hold down a job, which involves him attempting to rally factory workers into a rebellion, using a hot dog stand to store illegal porn, getting arrested a lot and never managing to make any money.
Of course, the whole thing is tinged with sadness on account of Toole’s suicide prior to the book’s publication. We all have a tendency to glorify dead authors, to see their depression as having contributed to their creativity. I avoid that view. It is tragic that Toole wasn’t able to write more novels and it is tragic that publishers failed to see the genius of this one. It reminds of Jack London’s Martin Eden, in which a young writer becomes rich and famous on account of work he wrote years before whilst in a state of abject poverty. London’s character cannot enjoy the success:
“Why didn’t you dare it before?...When I hadn’t a job? When I was starving? When I was just as I am now, as a man, as an artist, the same Martin Eden? That’s the question. I’ve been asking myself for many a day. My brain is the same old brain. And what is puzzling me is why they want me now. Surely they don’t want me for myself, for myself the same old self they did not want. They must want me for something else, for something that is outside of me, for something that is not I. Shall I tell you what that something is? It is for the recognition I have received. That recognition is not I. Then again for the money I have earned and am earning. But money is not I. And is it for the recognition and money, that you now want me?”
I Will Teach You To Be Rich - Ramit Sethi. This is the first personal finance book I have ever read, and it proved to be exactly what I have been looking for; a logical, clearly explain step by step guide to managing money. Sethi covers the high leverage stuff, urging people to forget about saving money on lattes and focus on automated systems. The key messages are to automate, then “Spend extravagantly on the things you love, and cut costs mercilessly on the things you don’t.” I am still in the process of implementing the systems writes about and hopefully it will let me sidestep quite a few financial mistakes.
The Art Of Communicating - Thich Nhat Hanh. We spend a huge part of our lives communicating with others, yet we rarely stop to think about how and why we do it. Thich Nhat Hanh reflects on a lifetime of experience as a monk and educator with a focus on communication. Most interestingly (for me) is his thoughts on the way we fail to communicate with ourselves:
“Many of us spend a lot of time in meetings or e-mailing with others, and not a lot of time communicating with ourselves. The result is that we don’t know what is going on within us. It may be a mess inside. How, then, can we communicate with another person?”
And on anger:
“Usually when anger manifests, we want to confront the person we think is the source of our anger. We’re more interested in setting that person straight than in taking care of the more urgent matter, which is our own anger. We are like the person whose house is on fire who goes chasing after the arsonist instead of going home to put out the fire. Meanwhile, the house continues to burn.”
Tiny Beautiful Things - Cheryl Strayed. I cried a lot at this book. I cried so much that I had to ration it out bit by bit because I have a rule about only crying once a week, maximum. For the uninitiated, Tiny Beautiful Things is a collect of agony aunt columns written by Cheryl Strayed. She answers letters from people grappling with love, loss and finding meaning - more often than not by reflecting on her own life. I read the letter where she describes rescuing two kittens on the night I brought Patti home and cried a bit more:
“It was an odd thing that happened to me during a sad and uncertain time in my life that I hoped would tell readers something deep about my ex-husband and me. About how in love we were and also how lost. About how we were like those kittens who’d been trapped and starving for weeks. Or maybe not about the kittens at all. Maybe the meaning was in how we heard the sound but did nothing about it until it was so loud we had no choice. I could’ve sanded it down. I could have fit it in.
But I took it out because of you, Ruler. I realized it was a story you needed to hear instead. Not how the kittens suffered during those weeks they were wandering inside the dark building with no way out—though surely there’s something there too—but how they saved themselves. How frightened those kittens were, and yet how they persisted. How when two strangers offered up their palms, they stepped in.”
This Modern Love- Will Darbyshire. I’m not normally a fan of crowdsourced books. Still, this one works because of (not in spite of) its scattered mixture of stories. Darbyshire collected letters from hundreds of different people, each addressed to either a crush, current partner or ex-partner. Some are sweet. Some are full of bitterness. Some are heartbreaking. A few are breathtaking.
The Hard Life - Flann O'Brien. Having loved The Third Policeman for over a year, I don’t know why it has taken me this long to read any of O’Brien’s other books. Set in turn of the century Dublin, this book is mostly comprised of dialogue between Mr. Collopy (who the unnamed protagonist lives with) and a priest called Father Fahrt, as the pair get drunk and talk about religion and women. It does end up feeling a bit like an elongated short story though.
Smarter Faster Better - Charles Duhigg. The Power of Habit (Duhigg’s previous book) changed my life and although this one lacks the same sort of clear focus - it is more of an essay collection - there are a lot of gems regarding productivity and creativity. Duhigg has a knack for telling stories, then pulling them together to make a research-backed point. I particularly liked the final chapter, where he explains how he used the described techniques when writing the book. Yes, the ideas are not new and many are obvious, but the structure makes them memorable. Like a lot of non-fiction books on similar topics, it is longer than it needs to be and there’s a distinct whiff of confirmation bias. I’m still looking forward to his next book.
The Humans - Matt Haig. I needed something lighthearted to finish off this month. An alien comes to earth and takes on the form of a professor, in order to prevent humanity from solving the Riemann hypothesis and becoming too good at maths.
It’s less sci-fi, more a satirical look at what makes us human and what makes life on this planet worth living (spoiler: mostly love, peanut butter, music, books, and dogs.) There’s some sage advice too:
“The key rule is, if you want to appear sane on Earth you have to be in the right place, wearing the right clothes, saying the right things, and only stepping on the right kind of grass.”
“A paradox: The things you don’t need to live—books, art, cinema, wine, and so on—are the things you need to live.”
The solution is not to take a gentle approach. When I see people talking about taking an '24 hour social media detox' or blocking it for the first hour of the day, I am dumbfounded. That shit makes us dumber. It wastes our time. It permanently erodes our ability to focus and do meaningful work. It's addictive. The average person picks up their phone 85 times a day, including right before falling asleep and during the night. 91% of people never leave their homes without their phone. We shouldn't be talking about how much time we take away from social media. We should be talking about how much time we do spend on it. And if we're serious, we should be tracking that metric and doing something about it, if it is a problem.Read More
Most people keep hundreds of items which seem like they might come in useful one day. In a hypothetical future, those empty jam jars could save your life. On the rare occasions they are required, most are cheap and easy to replace. There are always other options and solutions which can be solved via a well-chosen key set of possessions. Keeping endless 'just in case' items takes up space, mental energy and even if money if you have so many that you require off=site storage.Read More
Here's some strange food for thought:
Everything you have ever experienced - every struggle, every failure, every heartbreak, every triumph, every epiphany, every challenge- has happened to countless people before you.
We all know this on some level, yet it’s so easy to succumb to the belief that our situation is unique. No one has ever felt like this before! No one has ever been this miserable, or this happy! No one has ever had this sort of crisis! Surely we’re special.
Take a look at any q&a site and you will see numerous people asking for advice about a particular situation, whilst explaining that their case is different. The standard guidelines don't apply. Their breakup or career crisis or uncertain choice is unique.
But we’re not that different to those who came before us, whether they were born a decade or a millennium prior to us.
Billions of humans have lived and died on this earth over thousands of years and dealt with the same questions. Who am I? What should I do with my life? What happens when I die? How do I keep going when everything is so bleak and hopeless? Every human who has ever lived has had pretty much the same needs and desires - stability, love, purpose, meaning, happiness.
To learn about ourselves and the world around us, we don’t need to pour over newspapers and news sites. We don’t need to probe into our souls to understand who we are and what we mean. We don't need to always look forward. Sometimes we need to look backward and learn from the mistakes and successes of others. By doing this, we add the sum of their years to our own. It would take a dozen lifetimes to learn all the lessons I learn from reading each year.
Today I'm reading The Art of Communication and taking on a Buddhist monk's lifetime of experience surrounding meaningful communication. Yesterday I read I Will Teach You To Be Rich by Ramit Sethi and skipped a good decade's worth of financial mistakes. A few days ago, I read Siddartha and absorbed a beautiful summary of Siddartha's search for purpose. Tomorrow I'll read a book of Montaigne's essays and who knows what I will learn.
We don't need to go into the woods like Thoreau to learn the value of solitude and simplicity. We don't need to run to Alaska like Christopher McCandless to understand what freedom means. We don't need to be exiled like Seneca to comprehend the value of home.
In Cosmos, Carl Sagan writes:
“Books permit us to voyage through time, to tap the wisdom of our ancestors. The library connects us with the insight and knowledge, painfully extracted from Nature, of the greatest minds that ever were, with the best teachers, drawn from the entire planet and from all our history, to instruct us without tiring, and to inspire us to make our own contribution to the collective knowledge of the human species. I think the health of our civilisation, the depth of our awareness about the underpinnings of our culture and our concern for the future can all be tested by how well we support our libraries...You have to know the past to understand the present.”
Billions of people have experienced the same things, although the vast majority of their lives are forgotten. Yet we have books, diaries, art, architecture, and music which records their experiences.
We have art which records every color on the spectrum of human emotion and experience, every possible struggle or doubt, every moment of confusion. We can learn everything we could possibly need to know from history and from the lives of those who came before us. So, why don’t we? Why do we keep making the same mistakes, racking up the same mishaps?
In a way, it comes down to vanity. We like to think of ourselves as unique, smarter and better equipped than our ancestors, too clever to make their mistakes.
But we do.
And we do, and we do, and we do.
Daniel Gilbert writes in Stumbling on Happiness that psychologists are defined by the way they complete the sentence 'the human is the only animal that...' I'm not a psychologist (heck, I'm not anything in particular.) Nonetheless, I would end that sentence by saying that humans are the only animals that can accrue unimaginable quantities of knowledge without knowing how to make use of it.
In The Silence of Animals, (a brilliant essay collection which I can’t recommend enough), John Grey writes:
“To think of humans as freedom-loving, you must be ready to view nearly all of history as a mistake...If there is anything unique about the human animal it is that it has the ability to grow knowledge at an accelerating rate while being chronically incapable of learning from experience...History may be a succession of absurdities, tragedies and crimes; but – everyone insists – the future can still be better than anything in the past. To give up this hope would induce a state of despair.”
Meanwhile, in Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury writes:
“We do need knowledge. And perhaps in a thousand years, we might pick smaller cliffs to jump off. The books are to remind us what asses and fools we are. They’re Caesar’s praetorian guard, whispering as the parade roars down the avenue, ‘Remember, Caesar, thou art mortal.’ Most of us can’t rush around, talk to everyone, know all the cities of the world, we haven’t time, money or that many friends. The things you’re looking for, Montag, are in the world, but the only way the average chap will ever see ninety-nine per cent of them is in a book.”
To make sense of the present - both our individual lives and the bigger, global picture- we should look to the past. This doesn’t mean falling for cognitive shortcuts (namely, the narrative fallacy, survivorship bias and appeal to ancient wisdom bias.) It doesn’t mean we should see history as a template or an instruction manual. We do have to make our own paths and figure some things out for ourselves. It also doesn't mean that current events don't matter. Of course they do. But reading every news article we come across isn't the same as being informed. Keeping up to date with minutiae doesn't teach us anything. Understanding the latest political antics or finger pointing over a disaster doesn't answer the important questions. What makes a good leader? How do we cope with and recover from a bad one? How can we recover from and prevent disasters? How can we avoid pointless conflict and Pyrrhic victories?
I have learned that we don't just need our own experiences, we also need to accept those of others. Not because it will immunize us to mistakes and bad judgments but because, as Ray Bradbury put it, that might help us to jump off smaller cliffs and make slightly less drastic mistakes.
Between 2007 and 2011, Yann Martel (author of Life of Pi) sent the then prime minister of Canada a book every fortnight. Each book was chosen to teach the prime minister something and to create a trickle down love of good literature among politicians. It's not much of a surprise that Martel's 'books as bullets' approach didn't work. He never received a response or any indication that the books were read. His point - that politicians could learn from classic literature, poetry and history books- is an important one. It is important because Martel was illustrating that many of the questions people (especially leaders) face have been answered long ago. And that they are there for us to learn, if we are willing to listen.
A very comprehensive guide to smart reading - reading more, remembering what you read, enjoying it and benefitting from every single page.Read More
I'll admit this straight off: I have been slacking a bit with my reading (and posting) lately. I have been skim reading about 10 other books a week for work purposes which has left me with less time for my own reading. Still, I got through 13 good books. Here's a summary of each.Read More