Book Summary: Body, Mind, and Sport

by John Doulliard

What’s it about?

Everyone known about the “Zone”, the name given to what countless professional athlete have experienced as a fluid, Zen-like calm in which performance is at a high level, championships are won, and records are broken. This book tries to figure out what makes the “Zone” possible, and how we can take better advantage of it in our normal, civilian, non-professional exercise.

Why I read it:

To me, exercise is a deeply spiritual experience. Physical exertion is at least as difficult for the mind as it is for the body. And it’s such a primal thing, so much a part of us that it just seems ripe for metaphor. There’s so much depth to the idea of fitness. It makes me think of mortality, of evolution, history, greatness, willpower, and self-actualization. I’m always looking for books that deal with the more poetic side of physical fitness, but they seem few in number. Most fitness books seem to be simple diet/workout regimens, and never end up being as philosophical or as literary as I’d like them to be.

My impressions:

Well, it definitely had a lot of promise, and I certainly picked up a few things, but it could have been better. Douillard has a really wonderful approach to exercise, that is, until he gets into the specifics. Influenced by Ayurvedic techniques, he emphasizes the importance for unity of mind and body when exercising. He denounces the common practice of listening to music, watching TV, reading, or whatever when you’re doing physical activity because it distracts you from paying attention to your body’s rhythms and exertion state. Rather than treat exercise as an aggressive just-have-to-push-harder experience in which you ignore your body pleading you to stop, you pay it rapt attention and push yourself only with controlled and concentrated, and then revert back to your comfortable pace.

This is best done, he says, through nasal breathing. Breathing only through the nose when running (or anything else, but running is the example) forces you to breath deeply through the diaphragm, and discourages shallow panic breaths that most of us are used to taking when we exercise. Deep breaths keep the heart rate and breath rate low, which increases satisfaction. So you might not run as far or as fast, but you’ll enjoy it more and you’ll be more inclined to repeat it. Focus less on how fast you can go, and pay more attention to how effortlessly you can do it. It’s a brilliantly counter-intuitive insight that perfectly inverts “no pain, no gain.”

I can attest that the nasal breathing thing works– I had the best workout of my life doing it, and I actually felt invigorated rather than drained at the end. I disagree, however, that nasal breathing is the only way to achieve this kind of performance. As far as I’m concerned, any technique that promotes mind-body connection and encourages you to be mindful of your exertion is a win all across the board.

There is a significant section of the book that is about Ayurvedic diet principles, which seem based on the idea that each person should eat in a way that suits his unique temperament (either Winter, Summer, or Spring). I found it to be scientifically unfounded and really muddled with bullshit New Agey language and meaningless graphs. On top of that, there are long sections that promote exercise programs that didn’t seem particularly useful or novel, not to mention an annoying number of self-promotional references to the writer’s seminar programs.

All in all, it’s an interesting book for the core message, but the specific tactics are a little shaky. If you have an interest in exercise from a philosophical perspective like I do, it’s worth a look. Otherwise, I’d pass.

Further Questions:

  • Why aren’t there more books like this?
  • How does the “Zone” relate to CsikszentmihalyiI’s idea of “Flow”? Are they talking about the same state?
  • Why are people so attracted to the idea of tough-guy Spartan events/obstacle courses like Tough Mudder, Run for Your Life, etc.? What happened to the quiet cultivation of the self as it’s own reward?


“Take notice when playing a particular sport– for example, when you shoot a basketball. Note the immense focus during the shot, followed by an immediate mind-body release right after the ball leaves your fingers. For a second, the mind is totally free of thoughts and the body is totally relaxed. It’s the same silence ancient warriors sought in the release of the bow on the battlefield. Find this silence in your tennis shot, soccer kick, or skill-related activity.”

“With [the right] program the measure of your success will not be limited to how much you can do, but, more importantly, with how little effort you can do it.”

Book Summary: The Black Swan

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What’s it about?

A Black Swan is a future event that is unforeseeable, but that seems inevitable in hindsight.

In the increasingly globalized and specialized world, we frequently find people making very sophisticated and detailed forecasts and predictions about the future. This happens in science (“Experts predict this technology will be comsumer-ready by 20xx…”), politics (war timelines), economics, and business (profit projections). These predictions usually come from the smartest minds on the planet, and employ highly complex mathematical models, often derived from physics. Unfortunately, they’re also frequently dead wrong.

This book is about our arrogance when it comes to predicting the future, and how neither you nor I nor expert economists and politicians are as clever as thing we are. A fallacy of modern science is the belief that we can look at past data and use induction to make guesses about what will happen in the future. This may work for some types of predictions, like physical characteristics; given what we know about the historical average height of humans, we can pretty safely say that a 9-foot-tall person will not be born tomorrow. We do this by looking at past data and extending it into the unknown future. There is comparatively little variation in the physical world. But we erroneously use this same method when we try to forecast variable that are much less predicable and more variable than physical characteristics. Wealth, war, and economic measures are far too diverse for these methods to apply.

Imagine a turkey who looks at the past and sees the farmer being kind to him every day for a thousand days. The farmer feeds him well, cleans his coop, performs medical checkups, and the turkey has no reason at all to doubt the farmer’s benevolence. If the turkey takes the historical data and projects into the future, he would expect nothing but peace and love from the farmer. But when Thanksgiving comes around, the turkey loses anyway.

So to avoid the fate of the turkey, we should put a little less faith in standard models of prediction. Economists didn’t foresee the financial crisis of 2008 (or any financial crisis for that matter), yet they continue to use the exact same forecasting methods and we continue to trust them. Rather than try to predict the future down to the decimal point and then betting all our money on that one horse, we should be more conservative and resist the urge to optimize, optimize, optimize. We should admit that our predictions are frequently wrong, and instead of trying to forecast, we should devote more resources to our defence against destructive Black Swans. We’re can’t predict when or why or how they will unfold, but if we can at least prepare for their possibility the world will be better off.

Why I read it:

Taleb is a fascinating character– a former Wall Street quant, and a highly literate public intellectual. He’s a skeptic with an inclination toward practical rather than academic philosophy.

My impressions:

Apply this to personal life. There are two kinds of Black Swans– negative and positive.

  • Negative: unexpected death, financial ruin, unhappiness for whatever reason.
  • Positive: winning the lottery, meeting the woman of your dreams, good fortune of any kind.

Neither are necessarily extreme, but both are completely unpredictable. So how to do you live with this concept in mind? You try to maximize your exposure to positive black swans while minimizing exposure to the negative.

Understand that many things in the world have asymmetrical payoffs– the wins and the losses are seldom of the same magnitude. Therefore it is possible to put yourself in the position to benefit from positive Black Swans without risking a while lot. Say you’re investing in stocks. Put 80% of your money in extremely low-risk places, but invest the remaining 20% in ultra-high-risk things like start-ups. If they tank, oh well, but if they succeed, you just might have the next Facebook on your hands. This works for everything. Approach that beautiful woman, or send that email to a potential employer, because the potential payoffs are greater than the potential risks. Be very aggressive when you can gain exposure to a positive Black Swan and be very conservative when you are under threat from a negative Black Swan.

Remember the story of the painter who was struggling with his depiction of foam around the a horse’s mouth. He tried unsuccessfully and made a mess, and in frustration, took the sponge he used for cleaning his brush and threw it at the painting. When the sponge hit, it left a perfect pattern of foam on the horse’s mouth.

Moral: Embrace serendipity. We dramatically overestimate our ability to see the true odds of the events that run our lives, and we are fooled into thinking that there is some order, that we have more control over it than we really do. The sooner we resign ourselves to this fact, the sooner we can conquer arrogance and live happier lives.

Further Questions:

  • This book is informative, but sometimes not very practical. How can I make sure I keep these ideas at the top of my head every day? How can I turn them into practice and not just theory?
  • What are some other examples of the ludic fallacy (mistaking the map for the territory)?
  • There is the suggestion that stoicism is aggressive because it entails prior rejection or indifference to an experience before it happens as a way to prepare for its loss or inadequacy. Does anyone else characterize stoicism like this?


“Trial and error means trying a lot.”


“[C]ontrary to social-science wisdom, almost no discovery, no technologies of note, came from design and planning–they were just Black Swans . . . The strategy is, then, to tinker as much as possible and try to collect as many Black Swan opportunities as you can.”


“The classical model of discovery is as follows: you search for what you know (say, a new way to reach India) and  find something you didn’t know was there (America).


If you think that the inventions we see around us came from someone sitting in a cubicle and concocting them according to a timetable, think again: almost everything of the moment is the product of serendipity.”


“Missing a train is only painful if you run after it!”


Book Summary: The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America

by Daniel J. Boorstin

What’s it about?

Boorstin wrote this in the early 1960s, but it’s still incredibly relevant. Anyone who has ever wondered about the nature of celebrities (people “famous for being famous”), public relations, advertising, or political campaigning will find value in this book. If you’ve ever smelled a whiff of insincerity or fabrication in media, and wondered about the cultural tendencies that give rise to these deceptions, you need to read it.

The author proposes the notion of a “pseudo-event”– an event that exists solely to be reported. Press conferences, presidential debates, and interviews of every kind fall into this category, and are all to some degree illusory as a result. He goes deep into his theory of how these illusions are created and perpetuated, and why we as a society are so drawn to them in the first place.

Why I read it:

It was cited a a major inspiration for Ryan Holiday’s excellent book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.”

My impressions:

Lots of the problems I have with the current new and media system are discussed in some detail in this book. Boorstin could not have foreseen the advent of the internet and the blog culture, but his principles still apply. He writes about the ever-quickening pace at which our media is produced and consumed, which he observed even in the early 60s. He traces this quickening to the fact that as publication cycles became shorter, newspapers and magazines became more numerous and so they had to find more and more content to fill their pages. Naturally, with the 24/7 operation of the internet news apparatus, this effect can still be observed.

So the news industry needs more and more content to drive newspaper sales, subscriptions, and page views. How to create news where there is none? Enter the “pseudo-event.” Because spontaneous events are not nearly frequent or convenient enough to make quick and easy news, reporters (and bloggers) have taken to manufacturing events. These “pseudo-events” give them an opportunity to publish some piece of content on an event that they themselves created. Does that make you feel a little sick? That’s the effect it has on me. The logic is almost beautiful in its circuitousness.

It’s not just the reporters who can do this– anyone can. You can see this every day if you look closely: the sensational behind-the-scenes documentary, the sex tape, the candid interview. These events are not news in the same way a war or an accident or a miracle are news; they are not spontaneous. These events, by contract, were created only so that they could become news.

Sensationalism becomes the natural order of business, because it is the only way to capture enough attention to sell newspapers or drive clicks. This sensationalism gives us impossibly high standards of how exciting and spectacular we expect the world to be. High expectations breed high hopes and wishful thinking, which give rise to all kinds of messy side effects, like the creation of the celebrity. Everything becomes coated in a layer of superficiality so as to appear more sensational and satisfy our hunger for flash and style.

Increasingly, Boorstin says (and I can confirm), we live in a world in which we do not search for new experiences; we merely seek to confirm the beliefs we already hold. Our minds become inundated with the highly stimulating images and pseudo-events to which we are exposed, and we lose our tolerance for nuance and depth. When we go to Germany, we might say we want to experience an authentic representation of the culture, but it’s just lip-service. How awful it would be if our experience of Germany didn’t match the image in our heads! What a waste of money that would be! We just want to drink a giant beer with a mustachioed man wearing lederhosen. Why do to the Louvre to see a new exhibit? Everyone just wants to see the Mona Lisa to confirm the work that they’ve already seen a million times. In everything we do, we try only to see if the real thing matches up to the image which we’ve been fed.

I really loved the way he draws a distinction between “heroes” and celebrities. It used to be that heroes were the ones in the public consciousness– this is Boorstin’s name for famous scientists, inventors, politicians, rulers, and warriors. They were famous because of some accomplishment. One of the reasons this doesn’t happen today is because now it’s not enough to be merely accomplished; you need to be charismatic and flamboyant too. You need a media-friendly personality. Celebrities end up fitting the bill better than actual heroes even though they don’t have any solid credentials to back it up. (The other reason for the shift may be that science and technology is more collaborative than it once was. If it’s hard to turn a quiet nerd into a household name, it’s even harder to work magic on a whole research team. It’s also less intelligible to the average citizen.)

There is so much to unpack in this book that I am really struggling to outline it in this post. I’ll end with one other thought: The increase of pseudo-information in the media can also explain the popularity of sports. Why? Because sporting events are one of the last bastions of truly unpredictable events left in the world. That is, until the post-game interview…

Further Questions:

  • How can you distinguish a pseudo-event that is actually beneficial? Where do you draw the line, say, between an interview that is gratuitous and unnecessary and one that provides interesting insight into a subject? Is it possible to structure a press conference or debate that actually promotes meaningful discourse?
  • Boorstin echoes many criticisms of culture that we hear today, and it’s interesting to see that some of these same ideas have been around since the 1960s. But what are the differences? If he could read HuffPo and BuzzFeed and other media outlets of today, would he revise any of his theories or would they stand rock-solid?
  • Is there a way to reverse the process or are we all doomed to a world made of pseudo-events?


 The successful reporter is one who can find a story, even if there is no earthquake or assassination or civl war. If he cannot find a story, then he must make one– by the questions he asks of public figures, by the surprising human interest he unfolds from some commonplace event, or by “the news behind the news.”

Most pleas for “more information” are therefore misguided. So long as we define information as a knowledge of pseudo-events, “more information” will simply multiply the symptoms without curing the disease.

[The celebrity] is neither good nor bad, great nor petty. He is the human pseudo-event. He has been fabricated on purpose to satisfy our exaggerated expectations of human greatness.

The fantastic growth of advertising and public relations together with everybody’s increasing reliance on dealers in pseudo-events and images cannot–contrary to highbrow cliches–accurately be described as a growing superficiality. Rather these things express a world where the image, more interesting than its original, has itself become the original. The shadow has become the substance.

Book Summary: The Start-Up of You

by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha

What’s it about?

This is a book on career advice from Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, on how you can benefit by adapting common characteristics of Silicon Valley tech startups to your individual career. They contend that all humans are entrepreneurs, in the sense that we all are hard-wired to create things, to be curious, and to seek out lucrative opportunities. Thus, being entrepreneurial, even if you’re not literally starting a business, is a necessary strategy to survive in the workforce today. Resilience, effective planning, smart risk tolerance, and networking are all discussed.

Why I read it:

I heard about it from Ben Casnocha’s blog, who seems to run in the same circles as a few other people I’ve been reading: Ramit Sethi, Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday, Charlie Hoehn.

My impressions:

This book contains a lot of ideas that have been floating around in my head from other books and blogs, so while I can’t stay it gave me a whole lot of new insight, it did present those ideas very cleanly and compellingly. Despite the buzzwordy title, it was surprisingly low on actual buzzwords and overall business book fluffiness.

A key theme is adaptability. Near the beginning, the writers are quick to take a swipe at the near-sacred mantra of “follow your passion” as delineated in Richard Bolles 1970 classic What Color is Your Parachute?. In the vein of Parachute, Hoffman and Casnocha say you need to focus on the intersection of your assets, your aspirations/values, and the realities of the market. The departure from Bolles is that you need to realize that the three pieces are in constant flux and are subject to constant reevaluation during your career. The common-in-some-circles idea that each person has one golden idea, one true path to follow, is bunk.

So you need to experiment, potentially by working for free or on the side. It’s especially interesting to hear the example of how Reid got product development experience simply by pitching product ideas to a friend in the field and asking for feedback. I personally tend to think too that this kind of free work or internship-type stuff needs to be technical, but I have been looking for way to develop and demonstrate soft skills exactly like this.

When strategizing, utilize “ABZ Planning” in order to think like a start-up:

  • Plan A – Your current career or objective. Your main focus. Concentrate on making constant tweaks, small changes, and iterations. If something changes….
  • …take Plan B. Plan B is your pivot plan. It’s related to Plan A, but it’s a bigger shift than an iterative approach allows. It might be a change of field or industry.
  • Plan Z – Your worst-case scenario. Your “move back home and work at Starbucks” plan. This exists so that you can fearlessly answer the question “What have I got to lose?”

Networking is another major point. All start-ups have strong professional and personal support networks, so The Start-Up of You needs one as well. Networking gets a bad rap, but the secret is to realize that networking is not slimy. It’s not transactional, and it’s not all about Me, Me, Me. When meeting someone in a business context, you must emphasize mutual benefit instead of give-and-take. Always have something to offer, and never expect anything in return.

Curiosity and resourcefulness are important as well. Entrepreneurs always look for more information because they’re always asking “Why?”. They see opportunities where others see problems. They made do with what they have. They are persistent. Do I really have to explain how these are applicable to an individual’s career?

Lastly, the book talks about how risk is a fact of professional (and for that matter, personal) life. Despite common misconceptions, careers in relatively stable professions like teaching, engineering, and government are surprisingly risky precisely because they don’t expose you to risk. On the other hand, risky careers like freelancing carry less risk over the long run because you’re trained to tolerate the risk every single day, so when the market crashes you’re able to cope better than the person who just got laid of from his sole employer for two decades.

Good book for anyone my age who is looking for a job, trying to rethink his strategy, or just get a better understanding on the way the job market works today. Just try to ignore the shameless plugs for LinkedIn and Sheryl Sandberg.

Further Questions:

  • What are some other ways to add value, to provide small gifts, and to do free work that isn’t quantitative? Hard skills are easier to sell, but what are the best ways to sell/demonstrate soft skills?
  • How does the “many paths to happiness” idea relate to that of Marcus Aurelius when he says “people who love what they do wear themselves down doing it”? Did Marcus read What Color is Your Parachute? What about Paulo Coehlo’s Personal Legend idea?
  • How can I make myself hustle more? Is fear holding me back from pushing harder and developing an “action bias” as David Schwartz says in The Magic of Thinking Big? If so, fear of what?


“[I]f you are not genuinely pained by the risk involved in your strategic choices, it’s not much of a strategy.” – Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

When you have no resources, you create them. When you have no choice but to fight, you fight hard. When you have no choice but to create, you create.

Fragility is the price we pay for a hyperlinked world where all the slack is optimized out of the system.

Discovering what people want, in the words of start-up investor Paul Graham, “deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people’s point of view, instead of thinking only for yourself.”

Until you hear “No,” you haven’t been turned down.

The puzzle pieces are always changing. The best you can do is articulate educated hypotheses about each. “I believe I am skilled at X, I believe I want to do Y, I believe the market needs Z.” All plans contain these kinds of assumptions.

Book Summary: The Inner Citadel

by Pierre Hadot

What’s it about?

It’s all about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and an important figure in the branch of philosophy called Stoicism.

Why I read it:

After Meditations became my favorite book of all time when I read it this summer, was eager to learn more about the man and his philosophy.

My impressions:

This book goes very deep into Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy, so by necessity it serves as a pretty solid textbook on Stoicism in general. It delves into the foundational tenets of Stoicism as well as Marcus’ influences and fellow Stoics, Epictetus and Seneca.

On Meditations: One of the most incredible things about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was that he wrote the book only for himself; he never intended for it to be published or read by anyone else. I think this makes the original work seem all the more powerful. Marcus wrote these brilliant, incredibly lucid passages for himself, and for nobody else. He was a humble man who was trying to do his best to live up to his principles, and he was absolutely not trying to preach. Hadot points out, by laboriously grouping together all the passages in Meditations which share a common theme, that there are in fact very few original ideas in the work. You can practically see the pattern of Marcus’ thought as he tries to assimilate the words of others, turn them around in his head, and reformulate them in a way that makes sense to him. They’re not neat or coherent, and they’re not indexed. Sometimes they’re hard to understand at all, or they reference unknown works. And they’re not literary or poetic, but I think that is for the best. Hadot calls the writing of these thoughts a “spiritual exercise.” It gives them authenticity and kind of a forceful beauty and would have been ruined if Meditations had been anything other than a first draft.

On Stoicism in general: As I said, this book is incredible for the way it distills and identifies the fundamental ideas of Stoicism. The basic idea behind Stoicism is this (in my words):

There are two kinds of things in the world– those you can control and those you cannot. Accept the things you cannot and work ceaselessly to perfect the things you can.

That’s it. It’s a very simple philosophy. Or as Hadot says, “There is no good but moral good, and there is no evil but moral evil.” In other words, the good/evil dichotomy exists only inside one’s mind and actions. The Stoic says that everything else– disease, war, suffering, others’ aggression toward you– is completely neutral and is neither good nor evil.

This is what is meant by “The Inner Citadel.” The Stoics believed that your soul is your stronghold. It’s the only thing over which you have complete control, and striving to perfect your soul your intentions in the only thing that matters in life. Old age, violence, and the trials of life may lay waste to your body, but your soul is untouchable to the outside world. It is entirely your own, and it’s maintenance is entirely your own responsibility.

There are three pieces to the Stoic conception of the good life. They are:

1) Judge everything objectively.

You must eliminate all prejudice. See things as they are, and never as anything else. “To lay them bare… to strip away the legend that encrusts them” as Marcus says. When you experience things in the world, in a sense you’re having a dialogue. You see a painting and the painting seems to ask you “Do you like me?” and you respond internally, “I like you. You are good.” When you smell rotting garbage or experience physical pain, your answer is “This is uncomfortable. You are bad.” To the Stoics, this is not ideal. Instead, try to be objective and quiet your inner discourse with the world. See things only as they are, and resist the temptation to add your own thoughts and impressions. Do not judge the value of things in the world, because they are all equal and they are all outside your control anyway.

(To follow this too strictly, in my opinion, is pretty extreme. The perfect Stoic would derive absolutely no pleasure from art, music, sex, food, etc., just as he would feel no pain from hunger, poverty, or discomfort. Luckily I don’t think my will is strong enough to run that risk.)

2) Don’t wish your circumstances to be any different than they are.

The second point is to love your fate, and to fearlessly accept whatever happens to you without complaint. The Stoics had a complicated relationship with Destiny or Fate, but the basic point is that you shouldn’t complain. Anything bad that happens is not an obstacle, but it is actually an opportunity. Your weaknesses are actually your strengths if you frame them correctly in your mind, and when you encounter something blocking your path, it is merely a chance to practice some new virtue that you have been neglecting. Patience, tolerance, persistence, courage, or something else. If you don’t love your fate and respectfully submit to whatever the world throws at you, you will just get stuck complaining about things and feeling sorry for yourself. Stop saying: “Life would be so easy if I only had an Ivy League degree / $X in the bank / the right connections / better parents.” Start saying: “This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and these are the tools I have. What can I do with them?”

Marcus is relentless in his admonition of people who aspire to fame or riches. By remembering your own mortality and the relative insignificance of the entirety of your life, you are more able to realize the indifference of Nature to your tiny little actions, and therefore more accepting of things that occur.

3) Be fair, generous, and dignified, both to yourself and to others.

The first two principles deal with the right thoughts and frame of mind. This is all nice in theory, but what principles should guide our actions day-to-day? What does Stoicism look like in its practical application? That’s number three– right actions. First: you must concentrate every minute on doing what you know is right, on living each minute like it will be your last, and, as Marcus says, “worship your inner power.”

You need to respect yourself by working diligently to do what Nature intended for you, and you must also be respectful and altruistic toward others. Realize that they are not so different from you. All men are brothers, so by doing good to one you are doing good the whole community, including yourself.


This is obviously just a basic introduction to Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius. Like so many things, the fundamentals are simple but there is nearly infinite room to explore the depths and make connections, as Hadot does in his book.

At times it’s a little tedious and academic, but it was a great way to explore the context of Marcus’ Meditations, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Stoicism.


The Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one’s inner discourse. Everything in an individual’s life depends on how he represents things to himself–in other words, how he tells them to himself in inner dialogue. “It’s not things that trouble us,” as Epictetus said, “but our judgements of things,” in other words, our inner discourse about things. . . Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises. He was using writing as a technique or procedure in order to influence himself, and to transform his inner discourse by meditating on the Stoic dogmas and rules of life . . . since the true philosopher is he who is conscious of not yet having attained wisdom. -Hadot

What depends on us are value-judgements, impulses toward action, and desire or aversion; in a word, everything which is our own business. What does not depend on us are the body, wealth, honors, and high positions in office; in a word, everything which is not our own business. -Epictetus

Book Summary: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship

by Stephen Potter


“The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship” is a tongue-in-cheek guide to the subtle psychological tricks and games we play on each other. This book is strictly about sportsmanship, but Potter’s other books cover the same principles as they apply to daily life, work, love, and so on.

How I found it:

It was quoted in “Strategy 28” in Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War.


“The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating,” is the hilarious subtitle, which already gives you a sense of what to expect. This is without a doubt the most British thing I have ever read. It’s hysterical in the absolute driest and most deadpan way imaginable. Presented as a self-help work, the author teaches you how to declare polite psychological warfare, for example, by getting your opponent to buy you a drink without realizing it until he is mid-backswing. Or how to unnerve your enemy by repeatedly whistling a tune with one chronically wrong note. There are footnotes, academic-style references that don’t seem to lead anywhere, and plenty of sketches and diagrams to illustrate, say, the proper position on the tennis court from which to deliver a certain sharp remark. I love the fact that he provides example scripts, which make it all the more tactical. You can just imagine a couple of Englishmen shooting the breeze in their knickers, trying to best each other verbally with wit and subtlety.

The humor us so clever and low-key that you really have to pay attention. More than once I caught myself getting bored with the text, quickly pressing ahead until I found the next joke. Turns out they were there, I was just thoughtlessly blowing past them. When I did catch them, I found myself genuinely laughing aloud, a rare thing when reading a book, and especially one from the 1950s. I got this book as part of “The Complete Upsmanship,” containing the whole four-book “gamesmanship” series, and I can’t wait to read the other three.

Humor aside, there is some really useful strategy here. In Potter’s world, it’s not enough to win by scoring; you have to win psychologically too. Consider his advice on being the “antithesis” of your opponent. It is supreme gamesmanship, he explains, to deliberately and confidently take the opposite approach of your opponent. If he is taking a competitive approach, play the amateur; make casual conversation about something else. Nature, or women. But if the opponent is trying to be leisurely, then act like a professional; offer advice to diminish him, give backhanded compliments, and stay focused on the game. Similarly, if your opponent is underdressed, be sure to overdress, and vice versa. This will make him feel slightly awkward and out of his element. By adopting these methods, you can appear to be the winner in your opponent’s memory regardless of the actual outcome.

The goal, above all, is to get your opponent to over-think and second-guess himself. Get under their skin. Use satire, criticism, misdirection, whatever. But don’t be too overt. If you come on too strong, then your opponent will elicit sympathy from others. Do it with tact, and you can make your opponent feel rushed, bored, overextended, or uncomfortable without ever quite sensing why.

Very funny, surprisingly useful read.


Potter’s Opening:A chess opening “invented for use against a more experienced player who is absolutely certain to win. It consists of making three moves at random and then resigning. The dialogue runs as follows:

SELF: Good. Excellent. I must resign, of course.


SELF: Well… you’re bound to take my Bishop after sixteen movies, unless . . . unless . . . And even then I lose my castle three moves later.

OPPONENT: Oh, yes.

SELF: Unless you sacrifice there, which, of course, you wouldn’t.


SELF: Nice game.


SELF: Pretty situation . . . very pretty situation. Do you mind if I take a note of it? The Chess News usually publishes any stuff I send them.”