Audiobook season: Taleb’s Antifragile

antifragile-e1357363505650My reading habit has been weak lately, so I’m going to supplement with audiobooks. I’ve been listening to nothing but podcasts while I drive, so it will be simple to switch in some audiobooks. And there will be plenty of drive time over the next few weeks around the holiday to make good progress.

My first audiobook will be Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile. I’ve been intrigued with this book for a while but had only downloaded a sample until today. It’s about the value of disorder and stressors and uncertainty. You don’t want to just be able to withstand difficulty; you want the difficulty to make you stronger. You want to be the opposite of fragile. You want to become antifragile.

I’ve started listening and can already tell that Taleb’s provocative writing style and counterintuitive approach will make for a worthwhile read/listen.

This theme, embracing uncertainty and disorder, is right in my Stoic wheelhouse. A Stoic sage would purposely take on hardship – forgoing food or shelter for a short time, for example – in order to strengthen his appreciation for what he has. A daily cold shower (which is actually part of my morning routine) or regularly visualizing the loss of what you hold most dear are the kinds of strategies a Stoic might pursue to steel himself and strengthen his character.

I’m looking forward to seeing how well a challenging topic like this takes hold by listening rather than reading.

Always have a poet in your pocket.

John Adams advised his son to “always have a poet in your pocket”, to be prepared to make good use of found reading time. With our technology, we’ve got no good excuse for not always having quality information at hand. Whether it’s a conventional book or e-book or audiobook, fill your mind with wisdom and insight and occasional doses of contrariness from smart people. And if you get stuck in a rut of not finding time to sit and read, give an audiobook a chance.

2014 books

I’ve seen a couple of book lists pop up as the year-end and holiday shopping and reading seasons are upon us.

Here’s Maria Popova’s list of 2014’s Best Books on Psychology, Philosophy, and How to Live Meaningfully.

The New York Times has a list of 100 Notable Books of 2014.

The books I’ve read this year that I finished and that I recommend:

Non-fiction –

Meditations: A New Translation by Marcus Aurelius, translated by Gregory Hays – Yes, I’m reading from this at least weekly if not daily.

Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James Romm

The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

Show Your Work by Austin Kleon

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

Fiction –

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

 

 

Sunday morning Stoic: It’s time to stop being vague

From Epictetus, in Sharon Lebell’s excellent collection of his sayings, The Art of Living:

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I spend a lot time with college students, and many of them invest a disproportionate amount of mental and emotional energy worrying about what they want to be.

What if, instead, they focused more on who they want to be, on the kind of character and disposition they want to mark their lives?

People of my generation, though, are mostly resigned to what they do. (It’s never too late to rethink that, however.) Yet, who you are matters much more than your job or your career path.

You have the power to make yourself into the person you want to become. Be clear about the kind of person that is. Envision your ideal self in as much detail as you can – habits, demeanor, character. Write down a description of that person. Keep it in a journal or in your computer or on your phone.

Read about people you admire. Seek out mentors and kindred spirits. Fill your mind with what you’re aiming for.

And start acting like you already are who you want to become. Live your way into the person you deserve to be.

You won’t regret being generous

Epictetus in The Art of Living:
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My 10-year-old will still occasionally remind me of the time a few years ago when she saw me decline a stranger’s request for a couple of dollars. I was in a hurry and didn’t want to be bothered to fish around in my wallet for a guy on the street I would never see again.

My daughter was surprised, and clearly disappointed, I didn’t help the man. I regret the message that sent to her. I regret my failure to model generosity in front of her.

I have never regretted being too generous, though. When you consider an impulse to give, in money or service, see how it feels to up the ante, to offer even more than you think reasonable.

My wife is good like that. I will suggest a reasonable, safe gift, and she will trump it with an offer to do even more. And then I think, “Of course! Why not do better and give more if we can?”

Honor your impulses to do good, to give, and to be kind.

Sunday morning Stoic: Perspective

Meditations 9.32:

“You can discard most of the junk that clutters your mind—things that exist only there—and clear out space for yourself:
… by comprehending the scale of the world
… by contemplating infinite time
… by thinking of the speed with which things change—each part of every thing; the narrow space between our birth and death; the infinite time before; the equally unbounded time that follows.”

I remember even years ago walking into work, feeling burdened and stressed by whatever seemed pressing at the time, and visualizing a view from above. Like in a dramatic scene in a movie, the picture in my mind would zoom out from wherever I was and let me see just how small I was until I was the size of an ant scurrying across this grand landscape. And then I couldn’t help but smile at the foolishness of my little worries.

When you fly and look out the plane window you can get the same sense of the smallness and insignificance of whatever petty concerns are tugging at you.

Seeing the really big picture – from the vast scale of the universe to the fleeting nature of our experience of it – can restore perspective and shine a light on the insanity of our daily worries.

If it freaks you out a bit to be reminded how small we are, how brief our time here is, welcome to reality. But it’s important, also, to appreciate how special it is that we can even think at all and ponder and marvel at our place in this perplexing, magnificent universe.

Imagining a better future

 

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I just started reading Zero to One, the new book by entrepreneur Peter Thiel. He opens the book with this contrarian question he asks in job interviews: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?”

He’s usually disappointed by the answers. He says a good answer takes this form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.” He goes on to say that good answers to the question can point us to the future:

“But what makes the future distinctive and important isn’t that it hasn’t happened yet, but rather that it will be a time when the world looks different from today. In this sense, if nothing about our society changes for the next 100 years, then the future is over 100 years away. If things change radically in the next decade, then the future is nearly at hand. No one can predict the future exactly, but we know two things: it’s going to be different, and it must be rooted in today’s world. Most answers to the contrarian question are different ways of seeing the present; good answers are as close as we can come to looking into the future.”

I was 5-years-old when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. I assumed we would all have flying cars and be living in a completely peaceful and prosperous Jetsons-like world by the time I was 50.

But progress in our time has been mostly iterative, fine-tuning of previous breakthroughs, not revolutionary. Cars are a little safer and more comfortable and a bit more energy efficient than when I was a kid, for example. Communication technology has been the exception.

I’m inspired by the possibility of what could be if we put our intellectual horsepower to work on asking better questions about the future.

What do we take for granted that needs challenging? What basic assumptions are just wrong? What could the world look like 50 years from now if we stretched our collective imagination for the best possible options for humanity and all life on this planet?

What is an important truth that most of us are just wrong about?

Make a fool of yourself

“Compulsive avoidance of embarrassment is a form of suicide.” –Colin Miller

Austin Kleon shared this quote in his excellent, short book, Show Your Work!

To risk being vulnerable takes courage, and there’s no guarantee of success to reward your courage. In fact, failure and disappointment are more likely than success when you attempt hard things and open yourself to disapproval and even ridicule.

But not much good will come from the safety and caution of avoiding embarrassment. Keep flinching and you risk dousing the creative fire inside you.

I’m too proud of how cool I am, or appear to be. Throw off your coolness. Make a fool of yourself if you have to to bring out your best self and your best work.

And cheer for and stand up for those with the guts to risk embarrassment in their attempt to be or do something excellent.

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The magical math of marriage

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I was intrigued by this book on marriage and ordered it last week. It just arrived, and I haven’t started it yet. I have not read many books on marriage. But I’m looking forward to thinking more clearly about how my wife and I can make our marriage even better.

I want to be more intentional about nurturing the most important relationship in my life. It’s easy to let the crush of busyness and routine, especially with two genuine, full-speed kids ruling our schedules, keep us from making space for our marriage.

I heard Joseph Campbell say that the key for a successful relationship is to put the marriage ahead of any individual interests. The marriage is a separate, unique entity. You don’t make sacrifices for the other person; you do it for the marriage, something bigger than even the two of you separately. And what we have together is more dynamic and has more creative potential than what either of us can realize on our own.

That’s some magical math. It’s synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 1+1 is somehow more than two.

Strong relationships are possibility machines.

Strong relationships are possibility machines, in families and business and in friendships. It’s worth making the effort to examine and nurture the most important relationship of all. Honoring my marriage will pay dividends to my kids. Loving my wife well is as much a gift to my kids as anything I could do for them directly.

What will matter most, what will mark the true success of our lives, is the quality of our most significant relationships.

Toughen yourself

Looking back through my highlights in Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, I found this:

You’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is—at best—indifferent to your existence.

It’s the same sentiment as this from Ramana Maharshi:

WANTING TO REFORM THE WORLD WITHOUT DISCOVERING ONE’S TRUE SELF IS LIKE TRYING TO COVER THE WORLD WITH LEATHER TO AVOID THE PAIN OF WALKING ON STONES AND THORNS. IT IS MUCH SIMPLER TO WEAR SHOES.

Setting out to change the world seems noble, but the direct path to epic transformation is as simple as changing yourself, steeling yourself against the blows that are bound to come in this world. And helping others do the same would surely change their world.

Epictetus on choices and living artfully

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My wife put a lamp by the deeply cushioned chair in our bedroom last night to make a new reading spot in our house, and I gave it a go. I sat down to read from an actual book, made from paper. It was my hardcover copy of The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell’s collection of the best of the wisdom of the first and second century Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Epictetus had been a slave who earned his freedom through his excellence as a student and, eventually, a teacher of Stoic philosophy. Nothing he may have written survives, but his students collected and saved his teachings, which went on to influence everyone’s favorite philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. (Marcus was an emperor, not a king, of course. Philosopher emperor was beyond even Plato’s imagination.)

The single sentence on the opening page above is as good an exhortation as anyone could need. But it’s followed on the next page by this jewel of simple yet often neglected common sense:

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We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.

We don’t have much control over what happens around us and to us, but we do get to choose our response. Easy to understand. Hard, though, to own that choice standing in the often very small, poorly lit gap between stimulus and response.

I’ve got to at least be more aware that I am making these choices. I am responsible – able to choose my response – and not made to do or be anything not in my choosing. No one or no thing can make me angry, for example. I may choose to be angry in response, but it’s my choice, whether I own up to it or not.

I need these reminders regularly. Searching to share something insightful every day has been a great way to live a more adventurous inner life and to remind myself to do better, to grow and improve. These notes to self that I share publicly have become a daily discipline that I hope will keep me sharp and curious. I recommend this to anyone looking to make better sense of their own thinking and their place in the universe. Oh, that’s everyone. Of course, everyone should write.

We all are artists creating a unique life, a life that’s never been before and never will be again. Choose to craft yours as though you’re sculpting a masterpiece.

Life is asking us a question

From Ryan Holiday’s excellent book The Obstacle is the Way:

The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.

The infinity of past and future gapes before us

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Meditations 5.23-24:

23. Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the “what” is in constant flux, the “why” has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.
So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.
24. Remember:
Matter. How tiny your share of it.
Time. How brief and fleeting your allotment of it.
Fate. How small a role you play in it.

Accept whatever happens

Meditations 4.33:

Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.
And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness.

Then what should we work for?

Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.

What if you embraced whatever happens as if you chose it? Even – especially! – if it is something that seems like a setback.

You have so little control over almost everything external to you. But you always have control over how you respond. If you choose to be curious, intrigued, or fascinated instead of perturbed, discouraged, or angry, imagine how everything changes.

Sampling books

After just finishing a massive novel I find myself a bit lost, wondering what to invest my reading time in next.

I’ve got a good collection of unread non-fiction in my iBooks library, but I can’t resist searching for new discoveries. I keep a separate collection of book samples I’ve downloaded. It’s a great way to remind myself of books to consider and try them out before purchasing.

I never feel guilty about spending on books, though. It’s a virtuous vice. Err on the side of overdoing it with books rather than scrimping on what is easily one of the most beneficial habits for living an excellent life.

Here’s my current collection of samples I’m exploring:

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When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes. –Erasmus

Fantasy recommendation: Words of Radiance

I started reading a fantasy series this summer. I like to have a novel in my reading rotation along with whatever non-fiction I’m reading. It’s nice to end the night with fiction. It’s less likely to spark ideas that get my brain going when I’m trying to wind down.

Fantasy is not my usual genre, though. I read The Lord Of the Rings when I was younger and have enjoyed lighter fantasy like Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. But I’ve never gotten into the breadth of fantasy literature.

A friend recommended Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings when I was looking for beach reads. I gave it a look and ended up enjoying it. It’s a massive first book in a projected ten book series. The author creates a richly intricate and original world and crafts a compelling narrative around three strong main characters.

I ended up downloading the second book, Words of Radiance, as soon as I had finished the first. It’s another 1,000+ page epic, and it’s a page-turner with as satisfying a payoff as any novel I’ve read. Now, a long wait until the third in the series is released.

I read these two books in awe of the author’s ability to hone the details of his story. His vision of the setting and the countless back stories is impressive. What a gift he has to make these stories come to life with such imagination and daring.

If you’re willing to invest some time in a long, long read and invest in a fascinating world of escape, this series will delight you.

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Mesmerized by routine

Mason Currey’s fascinating book, Daily Rituals, is filled with details of how prolifically creative people structure their days. Here’s the opening paragraph on novelist Haruki Murakami’s daily rituals:

When he is writing a novel, Murakami wakes at 4:00 A.M. and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9:00. “I keep to this routine every day without variation,” he told The Paris Review in 2004. “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

A repetitive daily routine seems monotonous, but consistently flipping the switch on a work mode will eventually let the muse know you are in it for the long haul. And the muse will be expected to show up, too. The sameness can lull your inner critic, that voice of caution that kills your creative fight. Mesmerized by routine, you can summon more consistently the creative force that may never otherwise appear randomly.

Microscopic truthfulness

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My favorite book is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. I’ve written about this charming, effusively encouraging and insightful book before and was reminded recently of her championing what she called “microscopic truthfulness”.

Good writing or art or communication of any sort should be characterized by a detailed and exacting commitment to accuracy. Details matter. Our brains can absorb so much and have evolved to find patterns and grasp nuance. The effective artist will take advantage of the audience’s ability and eagerness to fully inhabit and imagine sensory and emotional details. We miss opportunities to deeply connect and make our message resonate if we don’t embrace the fine points, if we stick to mere generalizations.

Hemingway gave similar advice about observing intently and communicating in detail:

Find what gave you the emotion; what the action was that gave you the excitement. Then write it down making it clear so the reader will see it too and have the same feeling that you had.

Details matter and give meaning and energy and interest to what would otherwise be forgettable and lost in the wash of information that rolls over us every day.