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Purpose

“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

The only competition that matters is the competition between the version of who you are now and the version of you that you can become.

How is the you one year from now, say, going to be a more fully realized version of your potential than the you of today?

Will future you be able to kick the ass of current you?

What will it take now to begin becoming what you are capable of becoming?

Writing it down is a good start. Express in detail the kind of character you want to live your way into, the kind of life a person with your potential might live. Point yourself in that direction and begin the journey.

Shine with all you’ve got right now.

But get busy becoming.

Fulfill your potential.

Good Government

“Not being able to govern events, I govern myself.” –Michel de Montaigne

Good for Montaigne.

He certainly had the right idea, and I don’t doubt that he had more success than the average person in governing himself and avoiding the futility of worrying over things outside his control.

How simple it is to understand that the vast majority of things that have happened, that are happening, and that will happen are beyond our control.

How challenging it is, though, to genuinely accept our very limited role in the unfolding of events.

Stuff happens. You can see events as happening to you. Or you can see everything—even, or especially, undesirable events—as happening for you, as opportunities for you to choose wisely how to respond and how to govern yourself.

Baffled, amazed, undone

“If we are not sometimes baffled and amazed and undone by the world around us, rendered speechless and stunned, perhaps we are not paying close enough attention.” –Ben Marcus

Perhaps we are sleepwalking through life, trudging obliviously through the pattern we’ve grooved and smoothed to protect ourselves from the unevenness, from the surprises of reality.

Moments of genuine, bracing presence shine in my memory for their rarity.

You can’t live in perpetual amazement. (Some do, I suppose. Mystics or saints or those we deem crazy and avoid on the sidewalk.)

But even occasional doses of bafflement—with the infinite sky, with the joy or anguish of an open heart, with the sheer oddity of being alive and aware—would be a potent enough tonic for our numbness.

Pay attention. Come undone. Be amazed.

Delete yo’ self: Aziz Ansari’s unconnected life

This recent GQ interview with Aziz Ansari highlight’s the comedian’s unconventional approach to the Information Age. The interviewer seems incredulous as he comprehends just how much of an outlier Ansari is:

I heard you deleted the Internet from your phone. And that you deleted Twitter and Instagram and e-mail. No way that’s true, right?

It is! Whenever you check for a new post on Instagram or whenever you go on The New York Times to see if there’s a new thing, it’s not even about the content. It’s just about seeing a new thing. You get addicted to that feeling. You’re not going to be able to control yourself. So the only way to fight that is to take yourself out of the equation and remove all these things. What happens is, eventually you forget about it. You don’t care anymore. When I first took the browser off my phone, I’m like, [gasp] How am I gonna look stuff up? But most of the shit you look up, it’s not stuff you need to know. All those websites you read while you’re in a cab, you don’t need to look at any of that stuff. It’s better to just sit and be in your own head for a minute. I wanted to stop that thing where I get home and look at websites for an hour and a half, checking to see if there’s a new thing. And read a book instead. I’ve been doing it for a couple months, and it’s worked. I’m reading, like, three books right now. I’m putting something in my mind. It feels so much better than just reading the Internet and not remembering anything.

What about important news and politics?

I was reading all this Trump stuff, and it doesn’t feel like we’re reading news for the reason we used to, which was to get a better sense of what’s going on in the world and to enrich yourself by being aware. It seems like we’re reading wrestling rumors. It’s like reading about what happened on Monday Night Raw. When you take a step back, it all just seems so sensationalized. Trump’s gonna get impeached! No, he’s not. None of that shit’s happening. But you are going to read all the articles. So if you take yourself out of it, you’re not infected with this toxicity all the time. Also, guess what? Everything is fine! I’m not out of the loop on anything. Like, if something real is going down, I’ll find out about it.

Yeah, but take yesterday’s insane breaking story, for example.

Wait, tell me what it is. I don’t even know if I know what it is.

You didn’t hear about Pence stepping down?

Mike Pence stepped down yesterday?!

Dude! Yes. Mike Pence is no longer the vice president. He resigned because of the Russia investigation.

Wait, wait, wait. That really happened?!

No. It didn’t.

Okay, see! [laughs]

But that could happen! And you could have missed it.

No, see, I would have found out now—like, now. I would have found out, and then I’d be like, Wow, that’s crazy.

But you’re choosing to be uninformed.

I’m not choosing ignorance. I’m choosing to not watch wrestling.

Ansari’s career seems to be on a roll. Bringing Tom Haverford to the world through one of my all time favorite shows, Parks And Recreation, is a heck of an accomplishment on its own. But he also created, writes, and stars in his own critically acclaimed TV show, Master Of None. He’s producing quality and quantity at a high level. And he’s not paying attention at all to the constant flow of “new things” most of us fill our time with.

I’m guessing the most prolific creators and most productive knowledge workers take an Ansari-like approach to their time and attention. They at least carve out distraction-free days, times, and places to get things done or just to have moments of calm and quiet. One of author Jonathan Franzen’s rules for writers: “It’s doubtful that anyone with an internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

How much of significance would you really miss if you deleted even a few of those internet portals that consume your attention?

And how much could you learn and grow and produce and connect authentically if you freed up some of your head space from the attention suck of your flickering devices?

Do you even remember what it feels like to be bored? Can you, as Ansari suggested, “just sit and be in your own head for a minute”?

Can you engage in a long and winding conversation with a fellow human being without glancing at a screen or flinching at that buzzing notification in your pocket?

I deleted Facebook and Instagram from my phone a year ago. I don’t miss them. At all. I used to open The New York Times and The Washington Post every morning to check the headlines. I haven’t done that in a year. (I still have a Twitter problem. It’s my internet version of “treat yo’ self”. I’m no Aziz Ansari. Yet. I still have some Tom Haverford in me.)

Delete yo’ self (forgive me) from those things that suck your time and attention—basically your life—without offering worthwhile value or meaning in return.

The serendipity of discovery

“I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.” –Shelby Foote

Same here.

This describes most careers, most love stories and deep friendships, and probably the bulk of the greatest ideas and discoveries. Looking for something else, but found this wonder instead.

It’s such a delight to stumble across possibilities unimagined and unbidden.

But you’ve got to be looking for something. The serendipity of discovery does not happen if you’re not actively searching.

Action is the X factor. You don’t have to be certain of your destination. In fact, you shouldn’t be certain. Just don’t sit there waiting for the wonder to come to you.

When in doubt, simply get moving on the search for something. Anything. Pick a direction and go.

Make something wonderful

I’m a sucker for an Apple product announcement. Yesterday’s event inaugurated the Steve Jobs Theater at the new Apple campus. The theater looks stunningly gorgeous, as you would expect from the world’s most prominent design-centric company.

The products announced were almost overshadowed by the venue and by the touching tribute that opened the keynote. The first voice heard as the event began was that of Steve Jobs himself. It was a recording of what I’m assuming was an internal speech Jobs gave to Apple employees years ago. It’s worth watching just the first five minutes of the keynote to appreciate this moment.

Here’s the text of that opening message:

“There’s lots of ways to be, as a person. And some people express their deep appreciation in different ways. But one of the ways that I believe people express their appreciation to the rest of humanity is to make something wonderful and put it out there. And you never meet the people. You never shake their hands.You never hear their story or tell yours. But somehow in the act of making something with a great deal of care and love something’s transmitted there. And it’s a way of expressing to the rest of our species our deep appreciation.” –Steve Jobs

A lovely thought. To express your appreciation for all you’ve been given by others, “make something wonderful, and put it out there.”

Do your part for humanity. Make good art. Be a craftsman of your work. Give your full attention and your best effort to whatever has been entrusted to you.

Shine where you can. Be awesome.

It’s a small price to pay in gratitude to those who’ve given their best art, who’ve made something wonderful and put it out there for us.

Defying gravity

I get The Daily Stoic daily email. Today’s email quoted this passage from Walker Percy’s book, The Moviegoer:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

I read this and smiled and got up from my desk with a little more courage.

Lately I’ve been feeling a little less sure and a little more lost than normal.

I don’t seem to be getting wiser as I get older. I’m just becoming even more aware of how little I truly know. Or maybe that’s what getting wiser is all about. If so, wisdom is not living up to the hype.

Regardless, I do know that I can live by my “lights”, by my meager understanding of what it means to be good and to do good.

I know how it feels to come alive, even momentarily, and shake off the half-hearted, half-asleep caution that most of us cower behind perpetually.

I can fight. I can attempt to rise, knowing I’ll still go down sooner or later. But in merely making the attempt I will prevail and fleetingly defy the gravity that aims to keep us from escape velocity.

Make the attempt. Shine where you can. Get up and get going and put up a fight. Be the hero of your own life.

Darwin’s plodding path to brilliance

I filed away this Farnam Street article and just now read it. It’s a great take on what made Charles Darwin such a transformational thinker.

In short, Darwin wasn’t gifted with an off-the-charts IQ. He was no Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. But he could focus intently on minute details and stick with an idea for a very long time. And he was relentless about fully considering any contrary evidence, any doubt or kernel of hesitation about his own ideas.

He clearly had what turned out to be a crucially valuable ability to sit with the discomfort of not knowing, of probing deeply into how he might be wrong.

Most of us are inclined to be content with our own opinions and never entertain contrary viewpoints. Blissful ignorance is a thing.

So much of current public discourse makes no pretense of genuinely trying to understand the opposing view.

Criticism is painful to absorb, and I know I don’t seek it out.

But Darwin squarely faced any sign that he might be in error. And with diligence and vigilance he sought to test and to prove and to meticulously weigh every argument that challenged his thesis. 

He could have published his landmark theory many years earlier than he did, but instead he patiently pursued the long game to be certain his idea had the full weight of the most compelling evidence. 

Talent tends to be overrated. Raw intellectual horsepower is a wonderful gift. But it is effort and persistence and a willingness to trudge through adversity and obstacles that just might vault you into a level of accomplishment that mere talent alone will not. 

Wired for story

“After nourishment, shelter, and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” –Philip Pullman

Humans are wired for story. It’s what knitted us together into a tribal species and ended up being a key to our eventual dominance of the planet. We built our culture on stories, useful fictions that allowed us to unite into communities that propelled us exponentially further than we could have gone on our own.

The quality of the stories we consume and tell can determine the quality of our lives.

If you lead others, what is the story that will bring out the best in those you serve? What is the big picture? What direction, what quest, what heroic call to action will move them and supply meaning?

If you’re simply trying to lead yourself, what kind of story would be worth telling with the way you live your life? 

Too often we are victims of lousy stories—whether it’s that we’re stuck living out someone else’s story or our own failure of imagination is giving us a story unworthy of telling.

Make your story one worth talking about, one that you will delight in telling and delight in living.

What I’m listening to and reading

I recently listened to some fascinating interviews:

Shane Parrish interviewed Naval Ravikant on Parrish’s podcast, The Knowledge Project. Ravikant is thoughtful and interesting and candid and often counterintuitive. And Parrish is a solid interviewer. He sets a good pace and does a nice job of facilitating and keeping the focus on the interviewee.

Tyler Cowen interviewed the author Malcolm Gladwell on Cowen’s podcast, Conversations With Tyler. Two sharp minds in a very entertaining question and answer session.

Ezra Klein interviewed the author Yuval Harari on The Ezra Klein Show. (I then searched Klein’s podcast episodes and also enjoyed listening to his conversation with the author Elizabeth Kolbert who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sixth Extinction. Klein also has a new podcast up with a great interview of Tyler Cowen that is fast-paced and packed with information.)

Harari wrote the book Sapiens, which is the most remarkable book I’ve read in the last two years. It’s a sweeping, refreshingly readable, and enlightening history of humankind.

I’ve just begun reading Harari’s follow up book, Homo Deus, which looks forward to what humans might become. This book hasn’t grabbed me yet like Sapiens did. (I like Sapiens so much I’ve read the e-book version more than once, I bought a hardcover copy just to have on my shelf, and I’ve listened to the audiobook.)

As for other books, my little side table can barely hold the books that are in my current reading buffet. It’s a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction. I don’t wait to finish a book before adding new books to my stack. If the description of a book grabs me, I grab it.

Have no shame in your library game. Stockpile the books that interest you. Don’t feel bad if you never get to them all. And don’t hesitate to move on if a book doesn’t interest you enough to finish it.

Even just one excellent paragraph that stretches your mind and awakens a new possibility is worth the price of a book.

Expanding frontier of ignorance

It’s just up ahead. So close.

My destination. Finally.

I’m there.

But… turns out…

There is no there there.

Only more questions, more unknowns that I didn’t know I didn’t know.

It will always be such.

I’ll never get there.

If I keep at it, the depths of my ignorance will only keep growing.

Questions will multiply. Answers will crumble under me.

If I stand pat, clinging to my fragile answers, the comfort of “certainty” will be merely an illusion.

And I will know it.

The universe is smaller and paler, and seemingly safer, facing away from that confounding frontier.

We humans are here today, though, because our ancestors kept pushing at the horizon and into the unknown.

It’s deep within us to quest and attempt to unravel mysteries and to merely see what’s around the bend.

We will be in peril when we no longer heed the call of the frontier, when we are content with the answers we already have.

We’re in peril now.

Our hope, individually and collectively, is in the embrace of our ignorance and the pursuit of truth no matter where it leads.

“I don’t mind not knowing. It doesn’t scare me.” –Richard Feynman*

*It was Feynman who relished the “expanding frontier of ignorance” in his study of physics. And it was Feynman who delighted in the pleasure of finding things out.

Invincible

“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” –Epictetus, Discourses 1.18.21

(I came across this while catching up on my reading of The Daily Stoic, which has become a delightfully bracing start to most of my mornings.) 

I had an interpersonal communication class in college where I first encountered this principle. The professor pointed out that most of us regularly say something like “You make me mad!” 

No other person or external event, she said, can make you have a certain emotion. You generate that emotion on your own. 

As Victor Frankl made clear in Man’s Search for Meaning (which is a powerful little book overdue to be reread), there is a gap between stimulus and response. And it’s in that gap that we can choose how to respond. 

It may be a tiny gap and we may be conditioned to forfeit our range of choices in that gap, but we have the power to choose our response. 

This is hard and it puts us on the spot and removes our claims to victimhood. 

It takes practice—catching yourself at the moment of choice repeatedly, seeing the gap and owning the choice.

With concentrated effort and mindfulness, though, the gap between stimulus and response will seem to grow and your range of reasoned choices will offer clarity and a reassuring power over your actions. You will feel invincible.  

The true country of a virtuous soul

“To a wise man, the whole earth is open, because the true country of a virtuous soul is the entire universe.” –Democritus

This is from a fascinating essay on Aeon.co about the atomic theory’s ancient origins and the ultimate impact of that theory on our perception of the universe and our place in it.

We are all floating along in a wonderful mystery.

Take your stand right here, right now


Meditations 7.45:

“It’s like this, gentlemen of the jury: The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him—well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.”

Marcus Aurelius just happened to be the commander-in-chief of all the armies of Rome. He was the most powerful man on the planet at the time. But even he didn’t always get to choose the terms of battle or have the advantage of the high ground or the luxury of waiting till the weather was nice.

Wherever you may be when the fight begins, make your stand there. Own the circumstances as if you had chosen them. Then give it your all.

The true enemy is the version of yourself that settles for momentary comfort over enduring excellence. Kick his ass.

Your duty is to be the best you can be, to do the most with what you’ve got wherever you may be.

Take your stand right here, right now.

Bertrand Russell’s message to future humans: Facts matter, love is wise, hatred is foolish

This is timely insight from a 1959 interview with the philosopher Bertrand Russell about what he would say to a distant future generation of humans:

“I should like to say two things, one intellectual and one moral. The intellectual thing I should want to say is this: When you are studying any matter, or considering any philosophy, ask yourself only what are the facts and what is the truth that the facts bear out. Never let yourself be diverted either by what you wish to believe, or by what you think would have beneficent social effects if it were believed. But look only, and solely, at what are the facts. That is the intellectual thing that I should wish to say. 

The moral thing I should wish to say… I should say love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world which is getting more closely and closely interconnected we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

This aligns nicely with my favorite quote from Russell: “The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge.”

Pursue truth.

Spread love.

Simple, right?

Raw materials

I routinely forget to celebrate the arrival of unwanted circumstances that are beyond my control.

I need to remind myself that external events which I perceive to be happening to me are actually raw materials that I can use in my endeavor to craft a more excellent life. I can utilize events out of my control to work for me—to make me stronger and wiser and to propel me into previously unimagined possibilities.

I keep forgetting, though, and I resist, futilely, things that already are.

What is, is. Make something good with whatever comes your way.

Ten years later: iPhone’s impact

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Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone on this day ten years ago during his 2007 Macworld keynote.

I remember watching the recorded keynote later at home on my beloved first Mac (the adorable white iMac G4*). I sat enthralled watching Jobs masterfully and with obvious glee unveil the never-before-seen features of this new device. I gasped along with the audience at touchscreen scrolling and pinch-to-zoom. I recognized immediately that this device was indeed the breakthrough device Jobs was pitching it to be.

The video of that keynote is worth rewatching even if you’ve seen it before, and it’s definitely worth seeing if you’ve never seen it. It’s embedded here along with a fascinating oral history of what led to the moment.

That moment is a turning point in technology, but also, in many ways, in our culture. We take it for granted now that a powerful computer with access to all the world’s knowledge and all of our most treasured photos and favorite songs can fit in your pocket. Before January 9, 2007 that possibility would have seemed far fetched. 

But Jobs’s keynote was remarkable as a form of presentation art as well. That moment was peak-Steve Jobs. The preparation for and execution of that keynote has become legendary. Jobs was in his element. He knew he had the substance—a once-in-a-generation product that he knew would change everything**—and he brought all the powers of his charismatic style to the moment.

The change sparked by the iPhone is remarkable, and its influence on its competitors and on technology and culture at large is undeniable. The world viewed through the prism of the iPhone generation looks different now than it did ten years ago. Better in many ways. Worse in some. 

It was a triumph of engineering and design. And a triumph of imagination. 

What could appear—what can even you bring to life—that might alter the way we can improve the human experience over the next ten years?

Think different, indeed.  

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*I still have this Mac tucked away on a little used desk in my home. I don’t power it on. But it’s still beautiful to look at.

**January 9, 2007 was also the day that Apple officially dropped the word “Computer” from the name of the company. Jobs knew Apple would never be the same after that day, too. It went from being an iconic, but second-tier computer maker to the most valuable and influential company in the world. 

On having the courage to look silly in pursuit of excellence

“Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” –Lou Brock

via Shane Parrish

My ego puts me at a disadvantage.

If I don’t care that I might come across as weak or naive or silly, I’m open to possibilities and flexible and more willing to try something daring.

But if I’m worried about protecting my image, I’m significantly less likely to accomplish anything worthwhile.

There’s safety in sticking with conventional wisdom and not being an outlier. Of course, “caution is the devil.”

The author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw problem in his excellent podcast, Revisionist History. (What a great podcast series, by the way. Every episode is compelling.)

Chamberlain was one of the all-time great basketball players, dominant in every phase of the game except one—free throws. His teammate, Rick Barry, was one of the best free throw shooters, but he used an unconventional method, the granny shot, an underhanded and surer shot. 

Barry coached Chamberlain on the granny shot, and Chamberlain switched to it—for a while. But using the granny shot subjected the player to the chance of being ridiculed, by other players and by fans. When Chamberlain used the granny shot, his free throw percentage improved significantly. But he refused to stay with it, because as he later wrote in his autobiography, “I felt silly… like a sissy.”

Instead, his brilliant career was marred by his terrible 51 percent free throw percentage.

I’m a big fan of the high school football coach, Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, who is famous for defying the conventional wisdom about how to play football. He rarely punts on fourth down and almost always calls an onside kick when his team kicks off. And he’s remarkably successful, with six state championships and many appearances in the state playoffs. He was recently named USA Today coach of the year

When asked why more coaches don’t adopt his methods, he said “It’s simply risk aversion. People are scared they will have to suffer ridicule by fans, players and the media.”

If you don’t care about looking silly or making a fool of yourself, you’ll have so much room to grow and to fulfill your potential.

For me, I simply need to more regularly just say “I don’t know” rather than scrambling for any response to avoid looking clueless. So many of us feel like we will look bad if we don’t seem sure or confident. It’s acknowledging the not-knowing that often lights the way to breakthroughs.

Have the courage to look silly in the pursuit of excellence.

Steven Pinker explains what education should accomplish

The esteemed scientist and Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, on what higher education should accomplish (ht Farnam Street):

It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition. 

On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

I believe (and believe I can persuade you) that the more deeply a society cultivates this knowledge and mindset, the more it will flourish.

Well said.

Pinker wrote that a couple of years ago, but it’s a sentiment in need of repeating regularly now.

Make America think again.

Be wholly alive

Author William Saroyan’s advice to writers (which is good advice for non-writers, too):

“Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

But, there’s a lot of “try” in there. Yoda would counter: “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

Wake up. Uncork the life force within. Be wholly alive as often as you can.

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