Finally, a new Hardcore History series 

Today I opened the Overcast app (my favorite podcast player) and scrolled through my recently downloaded episodes and was delighted to discover the first episode in a new Hardcore History series, King of Kings, about the ancient Persian empire.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is my favorite podcast. In each series he explores one topic in history over several multi-hour episodes.

Carlin is a compelling, thorough, and passionate story teller, and it’s clear he puts in a lot of work to make these podcasts flow so smoothly and cover so much detail while maintaining an engaging, conversational style. 

The downside is waiting for the next episodes to be made. 

You don’t have to be obsessed with history to enjoy his work. If you love good stories well told (and you do), you will enjoy this podcast and accidentally learn a lot as you listen.   

Tim Kreider’s manifesto on the merits of idleness

Tim Ferriss is featuring an audiobook version of Tim Kreider’s book, We Learn Nothing, on his podcast. He posted a sample of the audiobook with a free chapter, Lazy: A Manifesto.

The sample chapter is a terrific essay on the crazy obsession our culture has with being “busy”. When you ask someone how they’re doing, “Busy” is a common and depressingly acceptable, even admirable, response.

Go listen to that free chapter. It’s so good. And Kreider will have you questioning your own addiction to at least appearing to be busy.

From the book:

“Yes, I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cellphones stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?

This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are *so busy*, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”

And this:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice: it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

There is not enough idleness in my life. And most of my busyness is probably not accomplishing much in the big scheme of a 13-billion-year-old universe.

“I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” –Tim Kreider

Do less, better. That should be my mantra. What does matter? What will count for something worthwhile when I look back on it? What makes for a really good day? Focus on the quality of those things that will send me to bed each night with the satisfaction, not of having been busy, but of having spent my time wisely and joyfully.

Conan O’Brien on creativity and perspective

After listening to the Brian Cox episode of the Nerdist podcast, I came across an older episode featuring a long conversation with Conan O’Brien. So good.

I’ve come to think that most really good comedians also are some of our most insightful philosophers. They actively explore the absurdity of life. Imagine being on a constant search for “What’s funny about this?” And then to regularly stand in front of audiences and try to express those absurdities in an effective way, that must lead to a unique perspective on life.

In this podcast episode, Conan reflects on his experiences creating for a daily television show and how most things miss the mark. But sometimes, it just works. I transcribed this from around the 54:00 mark of the episode:

The really great stuff has to be rare… It’s not just back to back to back…

My only hope is that you’re judged for your best work. If you’re judged by your best work, I’ll be okay.

Someone explained to me once that your creative life is laying down little tiles. And you can’t see what it’s all making, and sometimes it’s a slightly darker tile than the other. Sometimes it’s a really brightly colored tile. Sometimes you’ll lay down seven grey tiles in a row. But you’re making a much bigger piece which when seen when it’s completed, when it’s done, could be quite fantastic, you know, but you’re doing it tile by tile, day by day and you can’t know.

You can’t know. At least not from the zoomed in perspective of this moment. But keep laying down tiles. Then, hopefully, you can zoom out eventually and see a body of work that might be more fantastic than you could have planned in advance.


Standing on the edge of the known

A recent episode of the Nerdist podcast featured physicist Brian Cox, who hosts his own entertaining and enlightening podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I listened to most of this episode of the Nerdist while walking my dog last night. The podcast was a fascinating conversation between regular humans and a super smart scientist who has a knack for making complex concepts approachable for the rest of us.

It’s a great episode and made me consider possibilities about the nature of the universe that I hadn’t before. And Cox had this poetic comment more than an hour into it that I had to write down:

“I think the key to being a scientist is to delight in not knowing. It’s to stand on the edge of the known and face the unknown with curiosity and delight and not fear.” –Brian Cox

It’s the key to being not just a scientist, though, but a curious, open-minded human no matter your work. This embrace of not-knowing has been a theme in much of what I’ve read recently.

Courage is required, but delight and wonder and new possibilities are the reward for letting go of certainty.

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The hardest thing

“The hardest thing is spending the most time on the most important things.” –Matt Mullenweg

Mullenweg is the very young founder of WordPress (the home of this web site and many more). He said this in the most recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast when talking about his work and his company’s focus. (Ferriss’s podcast has been killing it recently with quality guests.)

Knowing what’s most important is one thing. Relentlessly devoting most of your time, at the expense of good things that just are not most important, is another thing. But these two things are everything.

Choose what to focus on, what will have the biggest impact over the long term, and keep checking that your time and attention are pointed there. This means eliminating good stuff, but the most important stuff likely won’t get done otherwise.

Upgrading your life “operating system”

I listened to this Tim Ferriss interview with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis recently. Diamandis is promoting his new book, Bold, which is a challenge to aim higher, dream crazier dreams, and take bold action.

The podcast is a solid interview, filled with perspective shifting insights and stories.

I was particularly struck by Diamandis’s notion that we should periodically reevaluate our mind’s OS, our operating system for how we think and behave. I upgrade my computer’s OS almost yearly, but how often do I tinker with my primary mental default settings?

We add “apps” (a new language or skill, for example), but rarely do people examine, tweak, or completely upgrade their default “OS”, the set of assumptions and beliefs about life most people are handed by family, friends, and culture.

Computer software tends to get buggy and slow down over time, and to keep up and remain effective it needs regular updates and occasional wholesale upgrades.

But don’t most of us still rely on unexamined beliefs and principles and buggy habits and potentially outdated modes of operating?

My recent immersion in Stoic philosophy, for example, has led me to rewire my approach to obstacles and setbacks. I’m less of the blind optimist and more willing to embrace the negative.

The primary worldview I had at age 20 is mostly gone now, replaced, however, by an approach that is more realistic, more challenging, and ultimately more empowering. I know, though, how difficult it is to upgrade and debug a long-established mindset. Maybe I’m just slow and particularly resistant to change, but it’s taken three decades to reboot some fairly basic, outdated patterns.

The unexamined life, though… Not. Worth. Living.

A great podcast: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Podcasts have almost completely replaced the radio for occupying my driving time, and I often listen to podcasts on my daily walk. There are so many good podcasts to recommend – TED Radio Hour, Serial, The Tim Ferriss Show, Jeff Garlin’s By The Way.

But the most impressive and engrossing podcast I’ve encountered is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin goes deep and produces what are in essence audiobooks about each historical topic he takes on. But he delivers these amazingly well researched stories in a conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re sitting with a really interesting friend who knows everything about history AND who can tell a great tale.

His latest series on World War I is stunning for its detail and for its effectiveness in conveying the staggering tragedy of the first modern war. He doesn’t gloss over or minimize the stark, often shocking realities of what humans have done to each other throughout history, hence the name “Hardcore History”. His podcasts are not light entertainment. But they are remarkably good.

It’s easy to make a podcast now. You just need a microphone and a computer and you can talk your heart out and post it on iTunes. But what Carlin and the best podcasters create are works of art, carefully, painstakingly crafted with strong content and excellent production values.

Carlin goes deep into his subject, reading voluminously on the topic and laying out his narrative carefully before recording. What he delivers ends up sounding effortless. This level of commitment to quality content and production, though, makes a show like Hardcore History shine.

If you’ve got some time in the car ahead of you this holiday week, Hardcore History or any of the other podcasts I listed above are a great way to fill a few hours.

*My podcast app of choice, by the way, is Overcast for iOS.