It's not that simple. It's never that simple. Not for me, not for you, not for anyone.Read More
That is the current running through Stoicism: reality is malleable. Each time I make a conscious effort to recast how I perceive a situation, I am amazed by the effects.Read More
September was a bit of a write-off in terms of productivity (birthday + week in Croatia) which is reflected in my reading. I also half read and gave up on about half a dozen books that proved unreadable so it’s a shorter list than usual. I am also behind on typing up my notes, so we’ll keep this concise.
Still, here’s what I got through. Most are gems that I urge everyone to read.
The Art of Thinking Clearly - Rolf Dobelli. A somewhat accessible, broad introduction to logic and decision-making, covering common logical fallacies and cognitive biases. Having read dozens of books and hundreds of academic papers on the topic, only a few parts were new to me. It’s essentially a distillation of Kahneman, Tversky, and Taleb, so I wouldn’t recommend it unless you are unfamiliar with the topic and want a series of summaries to pique your interest.
The Conquest of Gaul - Julius Caesar. How did I only just learn that Caesar wrote a book? It’s fascinating in terms of the depiction of historical events and lessons in tactical thinking in the kind of clear, uncluttered, well-paced writing that is far too rare. Caesar’s descriptions of battle scenes are so vivid and carefully crafted that even the most complex maneuvers are easy to visualize. Covering the Roman conquest of parts of Europe between 58 and 50 BC, it is part memoir, part propaganda. It has sent me down a rabbit hole of other books on Ancient Rome in a bid to understand parts.
A Nervous Splendour - Frederic Morton. While looking for a book on Vienna, I came across this glorious gem, recounting ten pivotal months in the life of the city - ending with the birth of Hitler in 1889. Although in a sense a historical work, it’s clear that Morton is a novelist at heart. He goes to great lengths to imagine the inner motivations and thoughts of the figures populating the pages - Prince Rudolf, Hugo Wolf, Freud, Klimt and other icons who walked the same streets in the same days. That does make it border on fiction, but I like the way Morton slotted that year into its historical context and tried to consider why the characters acted as they did. Running through it all is the undercurrent of Prince Rudolf’s love affair with Mary, their tragic suicide, and her erasure from history. Morton also manages to drop hints of the growing tensions that would soon contribute to Austria’s role in the first world war.
Diary of a Suicide - Wallace E Baker. A bizarre, mostly forgotten little book from 1913. The author records his life in the months before his suicide, painting a lucid portrait of day to day life with depression. Certain passages could have been pulled from my own diaries from periods of depression. A good rebuttal to anyone who claims mental illness is a recent invention.
Great Gatsby - F Scott Fitzgerald. Reread. One of the classics I reread every year or so. What is there left to say about this book? It’s magnificent, agonizing and remains an eloquent masterpiece, full of characters who have been so thoroughly absorbed into popular culture that they feel like old friends, yet retain their mystery.
All The Pretty Horses - Cormac McCarthy. Three kids run off to Mexico to play at being cowboys, bringing with them their horses. Except, being McCarthy, it’s horribly dark and brutal. I have a fondness for books which, in the spirit of Kerouac, lapse into pages and pages of descriptions of landscapes, meals, towns, journeys. The dialogue is electric - evocative and tinger with the slow burn of naivety. McCarthy manages to fit in a classic ill-fated love affair, between descriptions of the violence of a Mexican prison and the art of breaking horses. One of the best novels I have read for a while.
The Roman Way - Edith Hamilton. There are countless books that tell of the technical side of the Romans - their military strategies, their architecture, their conquests, their entertainment. In The Roman Way, Hamilton takes a different approach and attempts to understand who they were as people. Each chapter centers around a figure or two that we have sufficient information on. Hamilton’s lifelong love of Roman history is clear in the tender, empathetic way she describes each historical figure like each is familiar to her. She traces the growth of Rome, up to the point of its demise, pulling from plays, poetry, and letters. Each figure becomes a lens to see the city through, with their quirks, flaws, and talents evoked alongside sensitive translations. Hamilton puts it best herself:
“What the Romans did has always interested me much less than what they were and what the historians have said they were is beyond all comparison less interesting to me than what they themselves said.”
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius. Reread. Having lent my copy of the Gregory Hays translation to someone and never gotten it back, I ordered a new one. For some reason, Amazon sent me two copies of the George Long translation instead so I decided to give it a go. It is not as stodgy or archaic as I expected and although it lacks the melodic rhythm of the Hays translation, it is longer and each point is more thoroughly fleshed out. For the uninitiated, Meditations is the private diary of a Roman emperor and happens to be one of the most significant philosophical texts. If you haven’t read it before, go for the Hays. But if you have and want to see a different side, give this one a go.
The Path: A New Way to Think About Everything - Christine Gross-Loh and Michael J. Puett. I try to never finish a crappy book, but this month was an exception as I traveled a lot and got stuck with the books I had brought with me. I chose this while looking for an introduction ancient Chinese philosophy and thoroughly regret wasting my time on it. Describing mostly common sense advice based on texts from thousands of years ago as ‘a new way to think about everything’ seems a bit rich and any attempts at practical advice dissolved into the kind of cliches clearly aimed at bored office workers wanting to feel like deep thinkers. I should have learned my lesson by now - with philosophy, it is always best to go straight to the source texts and ignore commentaries.
That’s all for this month. As always, feel free to let me know what you have been reading here.
Sometimes we have to murder the people we used to be.
It isn't easy.
Our past selves can be nagging, insistent, often seemingly repulsive creatures. They are hard to shake off. They linger in photographs, old journals, stubborn habits, scars and tattoos, in the backs of drawers, the memories of others.
We don't make it easy for ourselves and other people don't make it easy for us. You know when someone asks if you're still studying X or doing Y job or are still obsessed with Z and you wince? Those statements pull us back to the past, reminding us of what we are trying to outrun.Read More
Sometimes the best way to learn something is to invert our thinking and go backward from what we want to avoid. Not what do I want? But what don’t I want? Or, instead of asking what improves my life? Ask what damages my life? Then avoid that. It’s trial and error. I’m not very good at this yet. But I’m trying to avoid the worst stuff and hoping the rest sorts itself out. I'll probably ruin my life plenty more times in my twenties and get even better at fixing it.Read More
Someone once asked Ansel Adams what he considered to be the most important tool for a professional photographer.
His response? “A trash can.”
Likewise, in On Writing, Stephen King describes one of the most important lessons he learned early on in his career:
“Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggests cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings)...I got a scribbled comment that changed the way I rewrote my fiction once and forever. Jotted below the machine-generated signature of the editor was this note: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%. Good luck.”
That’s how any good art comes about. You collect outpourings; jottings on receipts, drawings on notebooks, words in a dictaphone, thoughts. Then you trim out the bad parts. Then you trim out the mediocre parts. Then you try to find the guts to cut out a bit more. Then you polish what remains, maybe add something else.
Paul McCartney once remarked that The Beatles’ biggest songs always started so small - a few chords, words on a scrap of paper, the four of them mucking around in a hotel. Sure, sometimes they would end up doing ninety versions before settling on the final one. But it all began with something tiny.
Take enough care with those steps and the audience assumes that the final product emerged fully formed. The trash can, cutting room floor, whatever, don’t get seen. That’s one reason why it is so fascinating when we do get to glimpse the rough versions.
Like the manuscript for Laura, Nabokov’s final, unfinished book. Or the demo versions of songs (like this early version of The Long and Winding Road which is so much nicer than the final one.) Or this post about the making of Ryan Holiday’s latest book. Or this post by Jason Fried about editing sales copy. Or Conor Oberst’s early albums from when he was a teenager, recording cassettes in his parents’ basement.
Because there is something almost uncanny about seeing the rough versions. We get to see the human side of the creator. The crappy sentences, ink smudges, crossing outs, grammatical errors.
It feels more accessible, less mysterious. Like any of us are capable of creating something beautiful.
It’s good practice to get acquainted with the rough versions of work by people we admire. To hunt down their demos, or blog posts from ten years ago, first editions, drafts, anything that gives hints about the story behind the polished work we know and love.
It changes how we perceive it - and offers clues as to how we can improve our own work. Hunting for the slaughtered darlings is a good way to overcome the narrative fallacy and stop seeing grand autobiographies where none exist.
Rather than believing that good art emerges fully formed and perfect, we can appreciate the scatty, scrambled, tangential process it took to make it. Then we can get over a few more of the barriers that prevent us from working on our own drafts.
On the surface, all the metrics involved look good. Under the surface, hidden risks accumulate. The type that is hard to measure until it emerges. We don't have a metric for measuring fragility - but it's obvious when it emerges.Read More
The downside of not being a student any more is not getting six weeks of summer holiday to devote to reading. The upside is being able to chose to read textbooks for fun, which is what I devoted much of August to. Here's what I read this month.
The Big Short - Michael Lewis. One of the greatest skills a writer can have is the ability to explain complex topics in a manner that a lay audience can understand (provided they concentrate), without skipping integral details or dumbing anything down. Michael Lewis does this better than anyone. I'm late to the game with reading this one, yet I'm glad to have got to it now, at a time when I have enough foundational understanding to properly sink my teeth into the narrative. My only complaint is that it seems too short at 300 pages and I would have happily devoured something twice as long.
We Learn Nothing - Tim Kreider. I haven't laughed as much at a book since A Confederacy of Dunces. One evening, I took this book down to the beach and I'm certain every sunbather for miles around heard me laughing. It's a collection of essays on Kreider's life - with far more coherence and less of a blog post-y feel than most essay collections. The wild anecdotes range from getting stabbed in the neck, adventures with a friend who was paranoid about peak oil, attending political rallies, reading to his invalid mother, meeting his biological half sisters for the first time, and a bunch of glorious drinking stories. Between bouts of maniac laughter, I managed to cry at a few of the essays. It's an emotional rollercoaster. Read it on public transport if you want to ensure no one has the audacity to sit next to you. The 'Lazy: A Manifesto' chapter is obligatory reading for anyone who likes moaning about how busy they are.
Moon Walking With Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything - Joshua Foer. More of a memoir / extended piece of investigative journalism than an instruction manual - which I like. I'll forgive Foer for the subtitle because he probably didn't choose it. After covering the US Memory Championships, Foer decided to dive deeper into memory techniques and learn how to improve his own recall. In the process, he meets a medley of impressive, interesting people, looks into Greek philosophy and how our perception of memory has changed over the millennia. Although it's not a self-help book, some of the techniques have proved wildly useful for me. In particular, I have been using them to deal with my chronic inability to remember people's names. The research into the effect of novelty on our perception of time is important:
Monotony collapses time; novelty unfolds it. You can exercise daily and eat healthily and live a long life, while experiencing a short one. If you spend your life sitting in a cubicle and passing papers, one day is bound to blend unmemorably into the next - and disappear. That's why it's so important to change routines regularly, and take vacations to exotic locales, and have as many new experiences as possible that can serve to anchor our memories. Creating new memories stretches out psychological time, and lengthens our perception of our lives.
The Lost Diaries of Adrian Mole - Sue Townsend. The first book in the Adrian Mole series was one of those formative books that shaped my childhood - which I am always a little embarrassed about. I started reading them when I was about 8 and got away with it because they sound like kids books (they're not.) I was too young to understand satire and took the whole thing very seriously - only upon rereading this one after a gap of a decade did I get the humor. The series widened my younger self's vocabulary a lot. I recall sitting with a dictionary, looking up words like 'naive' and 'au pair.' Not quite sophisticated literature, but it was a lot of fun to relive the memories.
Showing Up For Life - Bill Gates Sr. I bought this thinking it was written by THE Bill Gates, but it's actually his father. There is nothing particularly original here - it's a collection of anecdotes covering the lessons he has learned throughout his long life. Even so, it is always a treat to read the wisdom of people in their eighties and beyond, to get a sense of their perspective on the world. This was the section I found most significant:
'As we work and acquire assets of various kinds, there's a tendency to credit ourselves for our successes and achievements. If we're generous by nature, we also may include at least some good luck and timely help from friends. But all of that overlooks the obvious. Those of us who live in a free and open society owe a very large debt to our country as well. To make that point I sometimes give the example of my son's success. I'm among the first to give him credit for hard work, a keen intellect, perseverance, a passion for technology and innovation and a powerful analytical approach to work and life - all characteristics we capitalists believe deserve a reward. But what if he'd been born in the mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan? or in Darfur? There would have been no Microsoft, not Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.'
Tools of Titans - Tim Ferriss. Reread. I spent an enjoyable half a day going over this book to make notes and type up sections. It is worth putting up with the overlong anecdotal sections for the sake of the best 20 or so interviews, several of which have had a profound influence on me.
Fooled By Randomness and Antifragile - Nassim Taleb. Very few books truly change the way we think. Nassim Taleb's glorious trio, which I read over the last two months, have managed to do that. As a series, they have completely changed the way I think, destroying inaccurate paradigms learned in school, giving me a richer understanding of mental models I have built up, generally altering how I see the world. Antifragile might be the most revolutionary nonfiction book I have read to date. Every page is dense with insights and new ideas. I won't attempt to summarise it - there are far too many concepts to cover in any meaningful way.
Principles of Microeconomics - Gregory Mankiw. Yes, this is a textbook. And a fairly hefty one. I think it took about 30 hours to read and was worth every minute. After I started to get interested in economics, I figured the best place to start was with a textbook covering all the basics. It's easy to understand, free of unexplained jargon, written in an engaging style, and it's the perfect crash course in economics. Reminder: you don't need to be a student to read textbooks. Be a student of life and keep learning because there's a lot of value in choosing to educate yourself on topics like this.
Siddartha - Herman Hesse. Reread. 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.”
Heart of Darkness - Joseph Conrad. Reread. Each month, I try to reread at least one older classic and it was time to dip back into Conrad. Heart of Darkness is haunting. It's uncomfortable. There are always points where I want to give up on it (the part where the narrator describes a white necktie worn by a dying African man he encounters always makes me shiver for some reason.) I've read this a few times and Kurtz remains an enigma whom I categorize with Tyler Durden and Dean Moriarty as part of the hall of shadowy, magnetic fictional male characters. The horror...
Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuk. Reread. It's a classic that always hits me between the eyes. I realized that, for some reason, I didn't own a copy of this and finally bought one this month. Like many people, my first brush with Fight Club was an explosive, life changing experience. I admit I saw the film first. We watched it at college and I remember how each scene struck me, how it felt to walk home in the dark afterward, my head spinning. It's one of those books (and films) that you can never be quite done with. The day after reading/watching it, I always find myself walking around in a daze, seeing everything with new eyes. The edition I got also has an extraordinary afterword from the author.
Dreamland: Adventures In The Strange Science of Sleep - David K. Randall. A look at the science of sleep, perhaps the most understudied, underappreciated, misunderstood part of our lives. Lately, I have been shying away from anecdote heavy non-fiction (most of it is pseudo-science filled trash) so I was wary about buying this book. But it's a topic I want to dive into and this book is the best I have read on the subject - it has the perfect balance of science and stories, not leaning too heavily on the usual cliches. Randall walks through various facets of sleep research, then lets the inferences naturally surface without preaching.
As always, feel free to send me an email if you have strong opinions on any of these books, or would like to recommend one. Recommendations always go on my Amazon wishlist and I love getting them (although the list has over 600 items on it now so it will take me a while to get through them.)
Your book has a birthday, Cheryl Strayed writes in a letter from Tiny Beautiful Things, you don't know what it is yet.
A lot of people ask me if I'm writing a book. Family, friends, readers who email me, random drunk people in bars. There's a widespread assumption that all writers are, at all times, straining to write a book. That it's the ultimate goal.
Except the answer, for me, is no. I'm not writing a book. Not directly anyway. Sure, I toy with ideas. I collect research. But I'm not writing a book. There's no secret manuscript or Scrivener document.
Not because I don't want to. I do, more than anything. It's what I dream about when I'm staring out of a train window, or right before I fall asleep, or when I picture my future self. Like a smooth pebble, I carry those words from Cheryl Strayed with me everywhere. I return to them again and again, a reminder that any day of the year could one day be that birthday.
And it's not because I'm lazy. I don't procrastinate. When it comes to writing, I'm disciplined. These days, I research, write and edit the equivalent of an entire book each month for work. I’m not one of those people who claim they want to write yet never practices - it’s all I do. Literally.
For a long time, I wrote 200 words a day towards my ‘book.’ I’d finish work, then open Scrivener and type a couple of paragraphs. I figured within a year or so I’d have my first draft without much effort. Except, those 200 words a day added up to nothing. Or less than nothing, because they made me feel like crap.
So I stopped. I put away the book that wasn't a book. I didn't know why and I felt like a guilty fraud. Then I came across these words from Epictetus:
Remember to conduct yourself in life as if at a banquet. As something being passed around comes to you, reach out your hand and take a moderate helping. Does it pass you by? Don't stop it. It hasn't come yet? Don't burn in desire for it, but wait until it arrives in front of you. Act this way with children, a spouse, towards position, with wealth.
And it started making sense. I started to think about playing the long game. I started focusing on the groundwork. On writing a lot and learning a lot. Reading the books. Doing the thinking. Having the experiences.
Some days I feel like everything I am learning is a wrecking ball, smashing the paradigms I learned in school. It leaves me to rebuild my worldview from scratch. When I say that I have learned more in the six months since leaving formal education than I ever did in it, I mean that. I owe this new found sense of the long term to those words, to the banquet metaphor.
At the same time, I acutely feel what I think of as The Gap. The agonizing space between where we are and where we want to be. Ira Glass talks about this as the result of good taste. Mostly, The Gap is plain annoying. I get moments where I'm writing and I start waving my hands around, mouthing words as I try to figure out what I'm saying. When it comes to writing a book, I see The Gap and I see how long it will take to get there. As much as I try to give myself deadlines, it's going to be a spatial journey and not a temporal one. The pain of The Gap is what propels us to clock up our 10,000 hours, to keep working to bridge it.
This is the hard part of playing the long game: recognizing when we aren't ready to do what we want to do. Then continuing to prepare for it. Sitting at the banquet, waiting without burning up from desire.
Recognising that your book (or whatever thing you want to create) has a birthday. Any day could be the day you will one day celebrate as the anniversary of the thing you will be most proud of. The thing you are dying to create. The thing that will be your legacy. The part Epictetus missed is that most of what we wait for won't just get handed to us - we have to prepare for it even as we sit there.
Think of all the hair pulling and alcoholism and stress which could have been avoided throughout history if we could know when what we want will get passed to us. But we don't know when the birthday is, so we continue to flounder, thinking it will never come. Or worse - we forget that won't be the end point, that there will be the next milestone to chase afterward.
It's hard. It's hard to balance ambition and the desire to do things with the desire to do them well. It's hard to slow down, to focus on what we're doing now, to keep ego out of the equation. It's hard to figure out how to time things, without getting locked into mediocre stasis.
It's hard to know what everything is adding up to. I'm sure I'll look back on this time once I've done my 10,000 hours and everything will make sense. For now, it often feels like unstructured thrashing. The other morning, I woke up with a start at 2 am, freaking out over an incoherent email I sent three months ago. I remember lying awake, feeling physically sick, going over every damn word of that email and cursing myself for sending it. It took an hour for me to calm down and go back to sleep. That happens a lot. The next day I woke up with the worst case of imposter syndrome, thinking of something I wrote weeks before and why did I think I had the right to write that? What do I know about that? Or I find myself pacing my apartment, hugging my cat until she gets irritated and bites me, panicking over a headline someone else chose or an edit which clashes or a fact I didn't check.
I know this is all adding up to something and that neurotic perfectionism is a useful driving force. The problem is the great unknowability of the future. It's so hard to know when the time will be right. Somehow the only solution seems to be doing something each day to bridge The Gap. I have to constantly remind myself to act like I'm at Epictetus' banquet, that I'm not even twenty yet, that these years are for cutting my teeth.
Jack Kerouac decided he wanted to be a writer at 17, but On The Road wasn't published until he was 35. Before that, he had written other books which received a tepid reception and are forgotten. It took seven years of traveling, literally being on the road, filling journals and drawing links between ideas before he had what it took to write a masterpiece. His early attempts to explain the cultural shift he perceived were exhausting failures. When he did find his own voice, the book exploded out of him in a single three-week marathon typing session.
We’re quick to talk about the hard work it takes to make something, or the glory after it is finished. Less obvious is the time before either of those stages. The years spent building the groundwork necessary to even start working. The years when The Gap is enormous and insurmountable. Those years are always there even if people claim they aren't.
The narrative fallacy leads people to smooth away those years. Everyone pretends they knew what they were doing. They claim they had a plan. They justify it. 99% of the time that's not true. It's just hindsight bias turning confusion into coherence.
For as long as I can remember, I have grounded myself by thinking the opposite of that Cheryl Strayed line. When something significant happens, good or bad, I remind myself that before I know it, a year will have passed. Then five, then ten. However terrible or amazing it feels now, how will I feel in the future? Or when I'm going through something unpleasant, I keep in mind that one day it will be a year from the day it ends. Does that seem so bad now? It gives me perspective. Looking at both ends of the timeline - the distance from what we crave and the distance after it - makes it somehow easier to play the long game.
Speed is good. Breaking things is good. Shipping it is good. But it's about the effective speed for the situation. As Nassim Taleb points out, driving 250 miles an hour in New York will get you exactly nowhere. When it comes to the most important things - those that require solid foundations and a degree of mastery - there is no option but to go at the right speed and wait for someone to pass the plate.
The creative sandbox is a concept I have of a space where interdisciplinary ideas combine to form something else.
It could be the marginalia in a book. A notebook with random thoughts and jottings. The types of conversations where anything goes. Weird projects.
But it’s a space where we bring together different disciplines and parts of our lives to form something new. It's a space where we look at the gaps in between and the overlaps.
You know those moments as you fall asleep when a weird medley of images drift through your mind? When nothing feels concrete and everything mixes together?
That’s what it feels like when you combine disciplines in this unpressured way. Like laying film negatives over each other, finding new images.Read More