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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

apple-reinvents-the-phone--how-steve-jobs-launched-the-first-ever-iphone.jpg

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.

Giving the gift is the thing

Decry the commercialism and bemoan the perils of mindless consumption, but the holiday season’s focus on gift-giving offers its own kind of gift.

It’s a joy to be surprised and delighted by a gift someone has given me. But it’s a greater joy to be the one offering the surprise and delight.

You can look at your gift list as a burdensome chore. Or you can see it as an opportunity to try to connect with your family and friends in a meaningful way. A mindful gift-giver will attempt to see through the eyes of those they’re giving to. 

What does my nephew love? What would inspire my wife, and how can I delight my kids? Instead of just going through the motions and checking off the gift list with whatever, make the effort to understand the people on your list just a little better. Inhabit their imagination for a moment. Ask good questions, directly or indirectly. Be a bit of a sleuth in pursuing clues that will unlock a bit of the mystery of your recipients’ wiring — their yearnings and inclinations and even their worries. 

It’s easy to fall into the pattern of giving just exactly what has been asked for, or, worse, what you want them to have. The golden rule will let you down here. Don’t give to others what you like given to you. Instead, give in a way that uniquely delights the recipient, a way that might even disappoint if you were the recipient. I was that guy that, because I love books, would give books, even to people who I knew never read, hoping that my gift would be the one to change everything. I could see the disappointment as they were realizing the wrapped present in their hands was another book from me. 

I’m not saying this mindful approach to gift-giving isn’t hard. It is. And I usually fall short or miss the mark completely. (Occasionally, though, magic happens.) But the attempt is worthwhile and is a challenging way to connect you a little more closely to those who matter most in your life. 

The game is afoot. Giving the gift — the gift of your presence and attention and thoughtfulness — is the thing.

Sunday morning Stoic: A man’s true delight

Marcus Aurelius: “A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”

I don’t think we are each “made” for a particular vocation or calling.

But we are all made to be authentic human beings.

We are made for connection. We thrive as members of groups, as citizens of tribes, as sisters, brothers, fathers, and mothers.

We shine most brightly when we are a part of something bigger than just ourselves.

We are made for adventure, for journeys, for quests — literal and metaphorical.

We are made to be useful. We are adapted to solve problems and make a difference.

We are made to fully inhabit our bodies. Agility and strength and physical skill are coded into us. Those attributes may be asleep in many or even most, but humans are more than just a brain inhabiting a vehicle.

Walk more. Breathe mindfully. Move intently. Get stronger.

Un-numb your five senses.

We are made for curiosity and mystery and awe.

And for play and laughter.

And for wonder and delight.

Reflect on the moments of greatest delight in your life. Drill down to the core of that delight. Make room for more of that in your authentic human life.

Do something amazing


I just discovered this message above the exit of my daughter’s middle school.

As you exit this week today, do something amazing before you go. 

Make a connection that you’ve been meaning to make. Be that person that lights up the room, that summons smiles even from strangers. 

Solve a problem. Get started on that big idea. Focus intently today, without distraction, for a solid hour or more and make something that delights you. 

Uncork your enthusiasm. Make room for wonder. 

Do something amazing.

How lucky we are to be alive right now

Look around…

In spite of a steady stream of bad news and foreboding events, there’s not a better time to be alive in human history than right now.

On the whole we are safer, healthier, more educated, more knowledgeable, more prosperous, and more secure than any generation of humans before us.

“But,” you say, “look at all the people saying and doing bad things. Look at all the suffering and injustice in the world. Look at the fragility of our planet.”

Well, go fight for justice. Provide relief where you can to those who are suffering. Protect our planet. Do good and be good and make the world around you a kinder place.

Let the circumstances that challenge us summon the heroic within us.

The century ahead is filled with unprecedented potential for progress and for peril.

The previous century was marked by both the greatest triumphs and the most shameful transgressions and tragedies of human history so far. But where we are today is markedly better than where we were one hundred years ago.

What do the decades ahead hold for us?

Our story is unwritten. We get to decide how we will respond to the obstacles and opportunities rising before us.

But we are more fortunate and more prepared to push humanity forward than any generation that came before.

Be grateful that you are alive right now.

When you need encouragement

Meditations 6.48:

“When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.”

What if I were intentional about looking for the good in those around me?

My wife’s generosity and her compassion for others regularly humble me and challenge me to give more and care more.

The college students I work with bring energy and humor and innocence that remind me not to be such a serious old man.

My daughters see in me a bigger and better person than I know myself to be. I want to become who they think I already am.

The work ethic, the patience, the common sense and common decency that I encounter from colleagues, friends, and strangers every day should move me to be better and do better.

These qualities usually pass by without my noticing, and so, too, do the gifts I could be receiving.

But if I really looked and intently focused on the ways others shine, I couldn’t help but be encouraged. And if I let them know what I see, they would be encouraged in return.

Go out of your way to warm yourself at the fire in the hearts of others. Make a habit of acknowledging and thanking and spurring on the good you’ve been given.

When you need encouragement, focus on the good that’s all around.

President Obama to his daughters: Fight for treating people with kindness

This remarkable feature in The New Yorker by David Remnick recounts his inside access to President Obama in the days after the election. It is an extraordinary bit of writing and a bittersweet, yet hopeful take on the President’s reaction to this election.

There is a lot to process in the President’s analysis of the state of the nation and what’s ahead for us. But, as a father who had to explain the results last week to my two dismayed daughters, I especially appreciated this:

How did he speak with his two daughters about the election results, about the post-election reports of racial incidents? “What I say to them is that people are complicated,” Obama told me. “Societies and cultures are really complicated. . . . This is not mathematics; this is biology and chemistry. These are living organisms, and it’s messy. And your job as a citizen and as a decent human being is to constantly affirm and lift up and fight for treating people with kindness and respect and understanding. And you should anticipate that at any given moment there’s going to be flare-ups of bigotry that you may have to confront, or may be inside you and you have to vanquish. And it doesn’t stop. . . . You don’t get into a fetal position about it. You don’t start worrying about apocalypse. You say, O.K., where are the places where I can push to keep it moving forward.”

The whole article is fascinating. It’s well worth a read, or two.

I was going to close by saying how much I will miss President Obama, his class and character and wit and his keen, poetic way with words. But, now, I don’t think he will be as removed from the eye of the storm as he had anticipated or hoped. He is needed now in a new way, as a counterpoint to what is to come and as a beacon for what can be. I imagine he will not ride quietly off into the sunset any time soon.

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