Books I’ve Read Recently

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt

Unbelievable. The energy with which Roosevelt lived his life is mind-boggling. This book taught me the value of enthusiasm and vigor. It’s a fat of life, I think, that people who attack their problems with the most energy usually win, and TR is living proof of that. This book covers his life before his presidency, and it’s incredible to see his work habits. Always making moves quickly as soon as he got a new position, always expanding his power and finding new responsibilities to take on. Seeing each job as an opportunity to excel. I think it’s easy to look at TR and assume that this attitude was in some way aided by a certain fixity of purpose or a lot of money in the bank, but the surprising truth is that he was deeply uncertain of his path at nearly every stage in this part of his life. He was also in debt, so much that he couldn’t afford to buy champagne when dining with dignitaries. The fact that this didn’t seem to put a damper on his spirits and his dedication to the ‘strenuous life’ is astounding.

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler invented the hard-boiled urban private eye in this book. Full of murky crimes, dangerous dames, and lots and lots of rain, this book just oozes atmosphere. The plot is somewhat secondary in fact– it’s almost too convoluted to pay any attention to, but the writing is so good and the character so interesting that you don’t mind. I always knew this was a classic, and now that I’ve read it I can see it’s influence all over the place, in books and movies and music and art. It’s like listening to the Beatles– they sound hokey and trite until you realize that they aren’t following the trend because they invented it.

Eating the Dinosaur by Chuck Klosterman

This one had a long gestation period. I wasn’t crazy about it until I went back through my notes and realize how artful and profound some of the ideas are. He does an excellent job at seeing connections between disparate pieces of society. For example, the NFL and the GOP, or Nirvana and Waco, TX. Some really fascinating insights here into sports, the meaning of celebrity, media, and culture, and with a lot of humor as well. I definitely want to read more Klosterman.

Dry by Augusten Burroughs

I read this in like 2 sittings. The writing is just so effortless and well-crafted. I was a little disappointed that this was really more of a memoir involving addiction, and not a book purely about addiction. He really doesn’t go very deeply into the nature of addictive behavior, which I think is an incredibly important things for everyone to study. We’re all addicts in one way or another, I think. But it was a great read nonetheless. I’m not the first one to compare Burroughs to Sedaris, and despite being ostensibly a book about addiction and with a plot that involves the death of an AIDS victim, this was a quick and light read.

If you want to know how something works, figure out how to break it.

Here’s an exercise. It’s an idea I stole from Taleb.

Take anything you’re trying to understand– your company, your relationship, the economy, an old stereo. To understand how it works, you need to figure out how to break it.

When taken as a whole, things that work seem almost mystical. How does it work? I have no idea. If I knew, it wouldn’t be cool. But take the opposite approach. Pretend you’re a spy or a saboteur or a revolutionary. How would you make the whole thing fall apart and come crashing down?

This is how you practice precision in thinking. When you can break something, you know what part to destroy. And you know what part is most important. And then you know how it works from the inside out. From the ground up.

I think what he said was built on something the Stoics practiced. New problems are mysterious, and  understanding something complex involves cutting through that mystery.

“…latching onto thing and piercing through them, so we see what they really are… to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”

Not Once

I have never once regretted going to the gym.

Sure, it’s hard to get going, but I’ve never once walked out of the locker room and thought, “You know, I shouldn’t have done that. That was a bad idea. What a waste of time.” Never.

So many things are the same way– hard to begin, but never regretted once they’re done. It’s one of life’s little asymmetries. Likewise, so many things are regrettable in hindsight, but they take almost no effort at all to get started. Overindulgence, impulsive behavior, laziness of any type.

###

Other things I’ve never regretted, and their flip sides:

I’ve never regretted getting up early, but I’ve regretted sleeping in.

I’ve never regretted staying sober for a night, but I’ve definitely had too much to drink.

I’ve never regretted working hard, but I’ve regretted spending the afternoon watching Mad Men instead of working hard.

I’ve never regretted delaying sex with someone I loved, but I’ve regretted sex with someone new too soon.

I’ve never regretted play, but I’ve regretted time where my mood prevented me from being playful.

I’ve never regretted reading a book, but I’ve regretted taking the easy way out and opting for a movie or a blog instead.

I’ve never regretted writing, but I’ve regretted spending all night bouncing from distraction to distraction. I’ve felt the pain of wasting hours with nothing to show for myself.

I’ve never regretted getting in touch with someone new, but I’ve regretted missed opportunities to form a new relationship.

###

Why is it so hard to think ahead? Why can’t we see the end result, but we are instead stuck in a pattern of instant gratification? The answer is right in front of us, but we act like we can’t see what’s right in front of us? Why do we do this, flitting from one impulse to the other, never able to focus on the not-so-distant future?

Seneca said: “Call to ming when you ever had a fixed purpose; how few days have passed as you had planned…You will realize that you are dying prematurely.”

He’s right. Instead of focusing on the distant future, we spend out lives tossed around by these alternating forces of impulse and restraint, action and hesitation, pride and regret.

We are all like children. Or addicts.

Experience: Too Much / Not Enough

If you apply for a job today, it seems like you practically need a masters degree for an entry level position. This is true even for menial work like office administration.

During the draft in WW2 and Vietnam, and even in the military today, it’s possible to take an 18 year old and turn him into a tank operator or a pilot or a marksman within a couple years. At the very least he can be a passable soldier and a comeptant office administrator within a month or so.

It seems unheard of to hire someone with no skills to do a corporate job, yet the military shows that it’s obviously possible to train an inexperienced person to do complex tasks. So why the discrepancy? Why the overemphasis on formal education? I’ve heard it said that it’s a symptom of rampant over-education. A sort of “more college is always better” mode of thinking. The soccer mom-ificaton of society, trying to over prepare everyone for everything.

But the answer is much simpler and less ominous. It ignores that there is probability at play: military recruiting and corporate recruiting are fundamentally different because the military takes thousands of new recruits on at a time, while businesses only hire one person for the job.

The military is making small bets on a thousand horses. If one private can’t make the cut, it’s no big deal. Next, please.

Businesses don’t have that option. They’re betting big, so they want to see some security in the form of excessive degrees and experience. They need to do this to mitigate risk, to cover their asses.

 

Ignorance from the Outside

I remember when I first started working at Greensgrow. It’s funny now to think about it, but I assumed that because it’s an environmentally-focused organization that deals in produce, that everyone on staff would be radical environmentalists, great cooks, and knowledgeable farmers. I was nervous at first because I didn’t have any of those skills at all. So foolish!

As it turns out, you don’t need to be a good farmer to manage a farm. And you don’t need to know the difference between an Ida Red and a Red Delicious to keep inventory in stock and sell apples.

 I made a classic mistake– I was nevous because I lacked skills that I assumed were relevant, but that were actually pretty superficial. What I  had, and what they were really looking for, were less specific but more valuable skills. Leadership, responsibility, insight, humility, competence.

This can be solved by (1) being more confident and direct with my abilities, and (2) recognizing the domain independence of certain skills. If I had gone into that interview talking about how much I know about produce, they would have laughed at me. But they, like all smart people, know that the right knowledge doesn’t necessarily look like the right knowledge to outsiders.

In other words, what looks like knowledge might not be knowledge, and what looks like ignorance isn’t necessarily ignorance.

Signal and Noise, or Why I Don’t Watch the News

This is an oscilloscope. It’s measuring an electrical signal.

Notice how the line is defined by many small jagged variations, but if you zoom out a little, perhaps if you unfocus your eyes a bit, you see a larger trend as well. It spikes up, then down, then back to the middle, before sinking down again. The larger, more interesting, more long-term information is the signal, and all the minute disturbances along the way are the noise.

P7310003

Or another way to think of it: suppose you’re in a crowded restaurant, struggling to hear your date over the loud conversations taking place at all the adjacent tables. You have to mentally phase out all the other talking, chewing, slurping, clinking, and laughing– not easy, but possible. Signal and noise.

Nassim Taleb, in his incredible book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder, makes a case for avoiding the news, mainstream or otherwise, based on this principle. It’s obvious that not all news is worth watching. So much of what we consume is overhyped and turns out to be inconsequential. We’re looking for the signal, but sometimes all we hear is noise.

Let’s imagine that during the course of a year, pieces of real, imporatant news (signal) and pieces of overhyped news that publications use to fill their pages and get viewers on slow days (noise) come in equal proportions. But what happens if you zoom in, say to every day? You suddenly can’t see the big picture, and you see less of the signal. If you’re checking news daily, you are exposing yourself to a higher proportion of noise-to-signal, maybe 95% to 5%. And if you’re a day trader or a person who refers to the front page of the NYT every few hours “to stay informed,” the proportion might be more like 99.5% noise, 0.05% signal.

The irony, of course, is that you’ll actually feel more informed. But the truth is that so much of the stuff we consume every day is meaningless and prone to exaggeration and speculation unless we can view it in the context of the long term. Watching the news crowds our brains with information that will likely be of no use, all the while giving us a false sense of understanding and “awareness” of the world.

It’s remarkable how the truly important things have a way of finding their way into my brain. I don’t watch the news, but I know all about the failings of the ACA, Justin Bieber’s arrest (OK maybe not so important), the conflict in the Ukraine, and Governer Christie’s bridge closing debacle. Like magic. Instead of following the painstaking fluctuations, I let time and distance filter out most of the noise.

Whether it’s in the news, in restaurant conversations, in physics, in your weight-loss regimen, in inventing, and in business or military strategy, this is a universal law: If you bother less with the day-to-day minutia, the longer-term trends, which are ALWAYS more important, present themselves to you more readily.

So stop watching the news.

If Everyone Hated You

Assume everyone hates you. They hate you and they don’t want you to succeed or to ever be happy. They laugh at you behind your back, and sometimes right to your face.

In Greek myth, Sisyphus was condemned in the afterlife to push a boulder to the top of the hill, but every time he made it to the top, he would slip and the boulder would roll down to the bottom. There was another myth about a man named Tantalus who stood forever in a pool a water. Within arm’s reach was the branch of a fruit tree, but whenever he reached for it, it would move away, and whenever he crouched down to drink the water, it would recede. He was condemned to eternal hunger, thirst, and frustration.

I like these stories because the tell of a type of suffering that is so different from the Christian hell– fire and brimstone and all that stuff. These stories are less direct. They’re not about intense physical pain, but rather they’re stories of deep psychological suffering. I think they’re worse. Maybe it’s because I know the frustration of a task that’s never quite finished, or the discomfort of  hunger or thirst. A long day with no time for lunch or dinner, or a tragically unsaved Word document when the computer freezes– these things are far more real and more painful to me that the thought of being skinned alive and branded by a bunch of little mustachioed red men with pitchforks.

What if your own version of hell was this: You are living life much like you are now. You have the same friends, job, home, and belongings, but everyone speaks a language that you don’t know and can never learn. And they all dislike you and you don’t know why. There seems to be nothing you can do about it. What do you do you? Do you give up and hit the bar every morning until your time on earth is used up? Do you steal some drugs and have sex with hookers for the rest of your life? Pursue an existence of pure pleasure? Or do you keep pushing ahead in spite of the impossible odds and say “fuck ’em” of allt he people who hate you, just like Sysuphus did to that boulder ever single time?

###

OK, now back to reality. Not everyone hates you. But sometimes it’s helpful to pretend they do, just so you can practice saying “Fuck ’em.”You didn’t need them anyway.

The Stoics had an excercise where they would imagine they already lost.

“Imangine your life is over,” Marcus said. “Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Seneca said something similar:

“Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I so feared?’

These exercises force you to accept the absolute worse case scenario– death, poverty, alienation– as a given, and then proceed from there. Accepting the worst. Assume you already lost, and the move on.

Because once you do that, fear ceases to exist. You are able to see the advantages of every situation and seize them with both hands. You don’t hesitate so much. Your regrets are dead in the water, and you are moved to action.