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?

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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.

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People Who Read Chomsky

A person said to me in casual conversation this week:

“I don’t understand why people watch reality TV. Why don’t more people watch TV documentaries about great people, like Noam Chomsky?”

I had to laugh. This is a person who doesn’t understand how knowledge works. Her implication is that people who pay attention to academics like Chomsky are better off that regular folk. It’s self-evident, she seemed to say, that readers of his work are more intellectual, more cultured, are more in tune with the world around them. Superior in every way. As if Mr. Chomsky’s research has the built-in ability to improve the lives of every person in the world, if they’d only pay attention. And that reality TV has fundamentally less merit.

On the one hand I agree with her. She’s not really talking about Noam Chomsky specifically — all she’s saying is that if more people had the habit of thinking with depth and logic and empathy as Mr. Chomsky does, then the world would be a better place and everyone would be happier. And that might be true.

But on the other hand I disagree with her strongly. This is a person who thinks that the point of education is to assemble as many facts as possible. She thinks the hallmark of smartness is the ability think abstractly and end lots of words with “-ism” and “-ivity”.

She’s an idiot, and she’s missing the point. Life is about assembling as much knowledge that is specific to your own circumstances as possible. It makes no difference whatsoever if you find beauty and insight in Miley Cyrus, in Dostoyevsky, or yes, even Noam Chomsky.

Diligence

Diligence is a word I’ve been thinking about. My definition of it goes something like this: Dilligence is the ability to follow through with tasks that you are assigned, either from  yourself or others. It is the determination to see something through to conclusion without second-guessing, rethinking, or fear.

It’s similar to ambition and equally important, but like so many things the devil is in the details. Ambition is the desire to do great things with your life. Dilligence is the follow-through. You can strive for and expect great things to come of your life, but if you never get around to doing the work, you will lose.

Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.

-Peter Drucker, management guy

Luck, Skill, and What Happens When You Toss a Coin 10 Times

Look at this chart– it’s a simulation of 20 people flipping a coin ten times. Let’s call it the World Series of Flipping. Heads are worth +1 point and tails are worth -1 point.

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 1.28.34 AM

Just as you would expect, some contestants did better than others. The spread is approximately symmetrical– about 3 people scored very high, about 4 scored very low, and the rest were more-or-less average. Of those, some were above 0, some 0, but they were overall unremarkable compared to the big leaders and big losers.

Suppose the World Series of Flipping is a multi-round game. The winners get to keep on playing, but once a contestant gets caught with a score of -1 or lower, he becomes a loser.  Losers have to collect their things and go home.

So here is what happens when we remove the losers:Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 1.30.30 AM

Now we expand it to remove the unoccupied negative space:

Screen Shot 2013-12-22 at 1.29.23 AM

The symmetry of the first image disappears, and this paints a very different picture of the outcome. Rather than an even distribution of some failures, some successes, and most mediocrity, we just have a few winners with the rest being non-winners who are still in the game.

Why is this misleading? Consider this: if you were to take the results of the first round, remove the losers like we did, and run it again, remove the losers again, and so on, you would end up with just one or two winners. You would then be inclined to look at one of the long-term winners and, judging by their impeccable track records compared to their failed competitors, logically conclude that they are more skilled at tossing coins. You might even be tempted to suggest that he is more likely to toss heads in the future than the others.

But that’s obviously wrong– this was a purely probabilistic exercise. No one competitor is any more skilled than another. Each one, regardless of his track record, has a 50/50 chance of flipping heads next round, and hence a 50/50 chance of coming up as a loser in the long run. But that’s not always how it seems.

Like the World Series of Flipping, life is a game made up of many rounds. The lucky ones, as long as they keep living, get to keep on playing, and the unlucky ones get weeded out.

We have a tendency to look at successful people and try to emulate them, and we look at less successful people and we try not to do what they did. And why not? We’re only trying to learn from our environment.

But in doing this we fall victim to a significant fallacy. We make the mistake of assuming that past performance is an indicator of future success. And the real bitch of it is that sometimes past performance really does indicate a propensity for future success, but generally we have no way of identifying when that’s true. Sometimes success is the result of competence, and sometimes it’s luck. I think usually it’s a combination, but in any case we can’t tell the difference by observing.

It gets worse: We can’t tell the difference between luck and skill when observing other people, but we also can’t tell the difference in ourselves and in our own histories. Are you successful because of a series of favorable coin tosses, or are you talented in some unknown and useful way? How could you possibly answer that?

The truth is that being lucky feels a lot like being talented. The foolish person assumes that his accomplishments are the result of hard work, dedication, and his own innate skill. But the smart person takes the opposite approach– he assumes it’s always luck and starts each day with the assumption that there is at best a 50/50 chance of absolute failure. The smart person acts accordingly in the face of this uncertainty.

Tenacity, Risk, and Failure

An entrepreneur I know is looking for investors. According to his research, he thinks he’ll be able to secure a funder for every 50 people he pitches to. Think about how much work that is– that’s 50 potential funders he needs to tap his network to identify, successfully contact for a meeting, arrange a time to meet, pitch to, and then probably not hear back for weeks or months. If he hears back, he’ll have to meet with them at the drop of a hat, even if it means hopping a train or a plane to meet. He would be a fool to miss an opportunity. He’s been doing this for months. So far he’s met with six.

Is his research accurate? It doesn’t matter. The point is that he’s willing to meet with tens, if not hundreds of eccentric rich people before he finds a single one who might help him build his business.

This is a case-study in tenacity. The ability to retain your composure, your dedication, and your sense of perspective day after day in this way is a crucial ingredient to success. This much I know. Yet so many would get discouraged far too quickly and decide that entrepreneurship isn’t really for them.

One way to manage this is to retain a sense of playfulness in the whole matter. You’re not doing anything serious, you can tell yourself. Nothing important is at stake. Life, health, or morality. It’s just business. Just money. Just work. It will make the tough decisions less tough, because they seem inconsequential, and reversible if they need to be.

Everything, from the hardest business problem to the most intimidating social situation to the knottiest math problem, can be made more solvable by acknowledging that the challenge at hand does not require boldness if it does not entail risk.

In other words, if failure and success feel equally acceptable, then the pressure it off. By asking yourself at each juncture, “What happens if I fail?” and answering honestly, failure loses its scare power. It’s probably not really that bad. Boldness becomes less heroic, and therefore less intimidating.

Jerry Seinfeld on Jokes

Jerry Seinfeld knows how to write comedy. This video gives some insight into his creative process.

Key points:

  • Work hard and revise. Repetition, editing, and rewriting is crucial for nearly any project. William Zissner says this too: The essense of writing is really rewriting. That’s why Jerry obsesses over specific words, syllables, and pacing. He knows that a good joke isn’t just a funny idea– the real art is in the  way it’s delivered.
  • Always prepare. Stand up comedy seems improvisatory. You get the impression that the performer is just rattling off thoughts as they pop into his head. Or even if you realize that he must have prepared his bits beforehand, you probably assume that he’s telling it in a laid back, off-the-cuff sort of way. But that’s not the case at all. Jerry meticulously writes down every word he says during the bit, if not the entire act.
  • Don’t tell anyone you prepared. Once the jokes are written, they’re told as if they were just made up on the spot. This is what Robert Greene says in the 48 Laws of Power: “Law 30 – Make your Accomplishments Seem Effortless”When you do this, you seem natural, at ease, and more graceful. You also command respect because you seem much more competent than if you had told everyone how hard you worked. I did this once before a job interview– scripting and memorizing the perfect response for every possible question, and then when asked I basically recited it as if  I was just making it up on the spot. They offered me a job.
  • Embrace ritual. Jerry wrote the entirety of the show Seinfeld with the same type of pen. He must have felt comforted by the habit. Smart people have consistent rituals, like a morning cup of coffee out of the same mug every day, or a sacred location, time, specific pen, a closet full of the same outfit, etc. It saves brain power for more important tasks and it instills your work with a sense of duty.

Also see Seinfeld’s excellent tip to increase your productivity.

How to Read: Start Many Books, Finish Few

When I studied music in college, I listened a lot.

As music majors, my friends and I treated it like a job. We listening to all kinds of things with a fury and a passion unlike anything I’ve experienced since. We immersed ourselves in the things we loved, always on the hunt for something new and interesting. We listened to anything– mostly jazz and classical music, but also blues, R&B, hip hop, funk, rock, and country. When you dig deeply, it’s incredible how much commonality you discover across wide stylistic and historic diversity.

We didn’t just listen casually, like you might put on the radio while you clean the house or work out. We would sit still in our living room with the lights low, our attention rapt. Instead of a TV, we had a stereo and a record player, and listening to music was it’s own activity. We didn’t do anything while we listened. We just listened.

If one’s personality is in some ways an empty container, then it was my task to fill it with the most beautiful and creative influences I could find. I concentrated deeply on whatever I was listening to, trying to absorb it into my being. When I found something new and excited, it felt like I had conquered it, and I when i finished an album, I would proudly place it on my shelf as a new part of my collection and a new part of my soul. I wasn’t content to absorb the stuff I was listening to. I wanted to devour it.

It was almost a literal hunger, this desire to fill my self with great music, and it became overwhelming. No matter how much I listened, there was always more. Each new artist or album only opened up more possibilities, and each conversation with a musician elicited scores of new recommendations. Great, I though, more shit that I need to research and listen to and study. More money that I need to spend on iTunes.

Once, I told a friend how it depressed me that there is so much great music in the world, and that I will never find time to listen to and appreciate all of it. He told me it didn’t make him sad. Just the opposite, in fact; he loved that no matter how long he lived, music would always be a deep well of happiness and inspiration that would never run dry.

It took me years to understand what he meant, but now I get it. I imagine the entire collection of the world’s music as the ocean. I realize now that I was trying to drink it and make it all mine, which is impossible. I wanted to own it. My friend made me realize that the right thing to do is to swim in it.

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I don’t study music anymore, but I think about this a lot when I read.

In the past two weeks, I’ve started five or six new books. Most were terrible. I’m only reading one now, because I put the rest of them on the shelf or I abandonned them on the subway. I do this in hopes that someone else might enjoy them. Sometimes if they’re really bad, I’ll actually throw them away.

Here’s the thing that most people don’t understand about books: The function of reading is

  1. to educate, and
  2. to entertain.

If a book is doing just one of those things,that’s a good start, but don’t force it.

If it’s doing both in some combination, congratulations. You like this book. Keep reading.

If it isn’t doing either, then it’s time to give up and try something else.

This is not rocket science. Books are meant to be enjoyed and they’re meant to teach you things. If you are not learning about something that interests you– human behavior, psychology, philosophy, birdwatching, Spanish, Grover Cleveland, whatever—and you’re not having a blast doing it, put the book down. Step away. Then pick up another book and start reading that one. It’s OK to be picky.

But this is not easy. It requires your ego to take a blow, since you have to face an uncomfortable fact: If not finishing a book doesn’t make you stupid, then likewise simply finishing a book does not make you smart.

The truth is, it’s not unnatural or shameful to give up on a book, it just seems that way because we’ve all spent so much time in academia, where we’re forced to read books in a very particular way: front-to-back, dryly, at the teacher’s pace and not our own. Reading any other way is literally cheating. Throughout all our education, it never once mattered whether we liked the book or not. The professor had a syllabus that she had to stick to, and she only had a few short months to do it.

This approach requires a certain amount of unlearning. You’re not in school now, and there’s no syllabus for your own education. You can read whatever you want, however you want. There are no rules. Read the Sparknotes first. Ruin the ending. Read the chapters out of order, if it makes the task easier. Who’s going to tell you you’re doing it wrong? Any way to digest a book and figure out the author’s message is the right way to do it. And be sure to quit whenever you get bored.

Smart people know this. Montaigne, one of the most influential writers and intellectuals in history wrote:

“If I encounter difficulties in reading, I do not gnaw my nails over them; I leave them there. I do nothing without gaiety.”

He meant that if he wasn’t enjoying something he read, he had no problem with moving on. He knew that most books are terrible, or at least ill-suited to him at that particular moment. He wasn’t afraid to put a book down, and that sentiment is echoed by some of the smartest and most interesting people the world has known.

Do you realize how many books there are? Almost 130 million, according to Google. If I read at my current pace–about 100 books per year– for the rest of my life, I’ll have read only 6,000 books, or 0.004% of all books in existence.

My advice: It’s largely a matter of quantity. You need to be starting a lot of books, but only finishing the really good ones. Take lots of little tastes of material that you thing might be a interesting or useful to you, and spit most of them out. What is the sense in getting bogged down in a single book, when there are so many others out there waiting to be discovered?

Don’t try to conquer the books you read. Don’t feel proud when you finish them. Don’t use books merely as bulky physical tokens of how smart you are. They are not trophies. They are tools. Be proud only once you find a way to apply what you’ve learned. Be a doer and not merely a scholar.

Don’t feel bad when you don’t finish them. Brush up against the books that you love. Don’t try to own them or make them yours. Just let the dust from their covers rub off and permeate your thoughts, then move on to the next one.

Don’t try to drink the ocean. Just swim.