What's the worst case scenario? A bit of embarrassment and some wasted time. What's the best case scenario? An infinite array of possibilities and potential benefits.Read More
My notebooks aren't as much about documenting my life as about managing emotions and making plans. I'm not joking when I say that it is the main thing which keeps me sane during bad times. The time and effort I put into journaling directly correlate to how happy, calm and productive I am.Read More
I believe in the power of less. Less stuff. Less commitments. Less distractions. Less worrying. Less wasted time. Less wanting.
Because less can mean more. More freedom. More focus. More calm. More time. Choosing less lead to a radical change in my life. I owe my current life trajectory and the changes I have made to minimalism.Read More
Aside from the usual bunch of academic texts which I won't include here, this month's reading focused on classics and books about rationality/decision making. I don't purposefully chose cohesive books, but themes always seem to emerge.
Also, Smart Reading is now available in Kindle and PDF format. It's a collection of essays covering the techniques I use to get the most out of books.
Here's what I read this month.
Black Swan- Nassim Taleb. It has taken me far too long to start reading Taleb's work and, although my Amazon wishlist has about 500 books on it, his others are now at the front of the queue. Black Swan took me about a week to read - it's dense with important ideas and the margins of my copy are covered in notes. A Black Swan is any highly improbable event which we seek to explain away or ignore in hindsight, anything revealing the flaws in predictive models. The highest leverage books are those which include versatile, foundational knowledge because they make reading others easier. Read this if you want to better understand human irrationality, probability, statistics and the role of chance (in a format that makes sense and includes the right dose of sarcasm.)
The Poor Mouth - Flann O'Brien. A ridiculously funny, satirical book about rural Ireland in the early 20th century, a place and time where life was cheap, people shared their beds with farm animals and everything revolved around potatoes. In The Hair Of The Dogma (which I also read this month), O'Brien describes a friend walking in as he had finished typing the title page. The friend asks if he's disturbed his writing, and O'Brien remarks that the book is half finished - most people will only read the title so the hard part is done.
The Year of the Hare - Arto Paasilinna. I often find that books in Scandinavian languages tend to lose some crucial element in translation, some cultural undertone that doesn't work through an alternate lens. Even so, I adored this book. A discontented journalist quits real life after encountering an injured hare. With the hare as his companion, he lives in the woods, avoiding responsibility and stumbling into a series of odd situations ranging from bear hunts to a forest fire. It's a timely reminder of the importance of freedom and unstructured time outside, something I have missed of late. Pico Iyer's introduction is a wonderful compliment to the story too.
Lost at Sea - Jon Ronson. Five hundred pages of madness, documenting Jon Ronson's trips into the world of the esoteric. Ronson has a knack for inserting himself into ludicrous situations - attending a competitive eating competition, roaming the streets with real life superheroes, interviewing a reclusive billionaire, getting to know a cult who believe in donating their kidneys - then recording the experience in a vivid, sensitive way.
18 Minutes - Peter Bregman. A bit superficial with way too many anecdotes and a nauseating amount of name dropping (sadly common these days in books which seem to be written more as a means of proving how smart the author is, rather than serving readers.) It's rare that I finish a sub standard book and I hate posting negative reviews. But I enjoyed the HBR article this is based on and kept waiting for some sort of insight beyond simplistic cliches and references to same studies/quotes that 99% of non-fiction books seem to chose. I'm scaling back on reading productivity books because the diminishing returns are apparent at this point.
Anything You Want - Derek Sivers. Reread. A short, sweet book I often turn to for guidance.
You Are Not A Gadget - Jaron Lanier. Someone recommended this via email and I can't remember who, so thank you if you're reading this. How do I explain this book? It's a disconcerting, non-sensationalist, considered exploration of digital culture written by someone who was part of many pivotal moments in the creation of the internet we know today. Lanier looks at the ways the internet is subverting our individual and cultural identities, changing the way artists work and creating a false meritocracy. If your living depends on the internet (as mine does), it's essential reading for understanding the deeper implications. I recommend getting familiar with some key aspects of postmodernist theory (simulacra and the panopticon come to mind) before reading.
On Writing - Stephen King. Reread. This has taught me much of what I know about the topic. Part memoir, part guide, Stephen King shares the rules he follows in his own work and the techniques he has developed or learned from decades of literary mastery. Someone once criticised me for reading so much Stephen King, claiming his work isn't 'serious literature.' I disagree. He's an absolute genius with a wonderful ability to craft fantastical narratives which revolve around core human themes and remain gripping from the first to last page. He's a genius and I'm always willing to defend his honour, usually by lobbing one of his 1000+ page books at any critics.
The Old Man And The Sea - Ernest Hemmingway. Considering how much I read, people are often surprised when I haven't read a particular classic, with this being a prime example. I read this in one sitting and I'm still confused about how a book about fishing can be so suspenseful. It's almost painful in many parts. I guess that's a testament to Hemingway's brilliance.
In Cold Blood - Truman Capote. Chilling and masterful, proof that the truth can sometimes be more bizarre than fiction. This type of journalism is a dying art. Side note: I can't believe you can actually buy a 50 page 'summary' of In Cold Blood. The whole point is the brilliance of Capote's writing, not the basic details of the plot.
The Dip - Seth Godin. I cried when I read the first page of this book, where Seth Godin writes that he often feels like quitting. I cried because it is unimaginably comforting to hear that someone as incredible as him feels like that. It can be hard not to put extraordinary people on a pedestal and assume they never have off days or feel like giving up. To see it in plain language - "I feel like giving up. Almost every day, in fact." - is almost surreal. This is a book about when to quit, when to stick and how to quit the right way. All too often, we praise persistence, doggedness, determination. But, as Seth Godin writes, sometimes quitting is a smart choice. It's about the difference between a Dip (the point where something gets hard before the real rewards kick in), a Cul De Sac (where nothing gets better) and a Cliff (which has a drop-off point where everything falls apart.) One of the most significant parts for me is an idea drawn from ultra marathon runners: "Write it down. Write down under what circumstances you're willing to quit. And when. Then stick to it." I love this because quitting can so often be a spontaneous, in the moment decision. The idea of deciding, before going into an endeavour, the exact circumstances in which you will quit is brilliant and not something I would have ever considered.
The Quiet American - Graham Greene. Having read Pico Iyer's beautiful memoir about his relationship with Graham Greene, it was time to start on the latter' works. This book is wonderful, with each sentence crafted so perfectly that I found myself reading parts aloud, and rereading sections several times before I felt able to move on. Condensing the plot into a few sentences feels wrong, so I'll just say that it's about a love triangle set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War. More than that though, it's about the way people relate to each other and the way we try to fit other cultures into neat boxes, ignoring when they spill out and subvert our expectations.
Perennial Seller - Ryan Holiday. Being a deadpan, relaxed person gifted with great patience, I naturally sprinted down to my local bookstore the day this came out to avoid waiting for it to be delivered, pushed several people aside and grabbed the sole copy on the shelf. I just love books about making art and the long game perspective this book espouses is far too rare. Also, Ryan Holiday's books always have the best bibliographies and give me endless ideas for what to read next.
The Hair of the Dogma - Flann O Brien. It's probably no surprise by now that I love Flann O'Brien and am working my way through everything he wrote. This is a collection of his newspaper columns, written in the 1940s and all somehow sounding like they could have been written today. The issues he covers - 'click bait' book titles, dysfunctional cars, inept politicians, strange cultural phenomena - reveal the unchanging basic nature of the media.
Simple Rules - Sull and Eisenhardt. This is one of the most useful, practical books I have read for a while and one which is guiding me in my quest to becoming a better decision maker. Sull and Eisenhardt explore the concept of 'simple rules' - foundational guidelines for making complex situations simple. It's also rare to read a non jargon-y non fiction book which is actually based on science and includes original research. Simple Rules is having a substantial impact on the way I make decisions and plans.
As always, if you have strong feelings about any of these books or want to recommend one, send me an email here. I love getting suggestions and they always go on my list.
Most of what I know about productivity comes from times when I’ve been depressed and still have work I need to get done. Those times have taught me that productivity isn’t really about motivation. It’s about:
Knowing what you need to do and why.
Putting systems in place to make it as easy as possible to get it done.
Cutting out anything which gets in the way.
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.”