The Big Review of Books 2019 is back for its second instalment and I hope that many of you find the same amount of value from this as you did the first.
Each year I look back on all of the books that I have read, give a brief description, a few personal thoughts and then give you some of my favourite quotes, highlights and excerpts from them. Not only do I really enjoy recapping all of the life lessons that I have learnt from the year, but it is also a great way for you to discover some new, incredible books. Even if you never pick up any of the books from this list, I include highlights from each book so you can still take away and use the most valuable points in your own life.
Because of its length, this post will definitely serve you best as a guide. If you have the time to read it all of the way through that’s awesome, but if not you can find jump-links to just the books that might interest you below. If you plan on coming back to this post for reference in the future, be sure to bookmark it for easy access!
For each section, you can click on the image of the book to buy it or click on the Blinkist link to read the full summary of it. It is worth noting however that not all books have a Blinkist summary. If this is your first time using/hearing of Blinkist, you can check out my tips for getting the best out of it.
Without further ado, here are the links to all of the books on this list:
The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene
–Read this book on Blinkist—
It’s a bit of a shame that I have chosen to list all of the books that I’ve read this year alphabetically because we begin with The 48 Laws of Power that I was quite disappointed with.
It is a highly regarded book by many people and although I did manage to get a few beneficial nuggets of information from it, I only made it to about Rule 20 before calling it quits.
To me, it felt more like a book on how to manipulate people, with some of the rules including ‘Pose As a Friend, Work As a Spy’ and ‘Stir Up Waters To Catch Fish’
I’m a writer and a fairly normal guy, not a 14th-century nobleman in Italy trying to climb the power ranks. So for me, a lot of it was fairly unrelatable. Here are a few excerpts of what I did like though:
People are enthralled by mystery; because it invites constant interpretation, they never tire of it. The mysterious cannot be grasped. And what cannot be seized and consumed creates power.That is the power of the mysterious: it invites layers of interpretation that excites our imagination, seduces us into believing that it conceals something marvellous. The word has become so familiar and its inhabitants so predictable that what wraps itself in mystery will almost always draw the limelight to it and make us watch it.
Never associate with those who share your defects – they will reinforce everything that holds you back. Only create associations with positive affinities. Make this a rule of life and you will benefit more than from all of the therapy in the world.
You can never be sure who you are dealing with. A man who is of little importance and means today can be a person of power tomorrow. We forget a lot in our lives, but we rarely forget an insult.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
The Alchemist was one of those books that not only lived up to my expectations but also managed to surpass them.
From the book’s cover: “It is an unforgettable story about the essential wisdom of listening to our heart and, above all, following our dreams.”
The reading of this book is short, light, entertaining and contains some important messages about life that aren’t too difficult to spot. If you are looking for an easy-read fictional fable that has plenty of wisdom and meaning to it, look no further than The Alchemist. Here are a few of the best bits:
*On blessings, opportunities and our responsibility to take advantage of them*
Today, I understand something I didn’t see before: every blessing ignored becomes a curse. I don’t want anything else in life. But you are forcing me to look at wealth and horizons I have never known. Now that I have seen them, and now I see how immense my possibilities are, I’m going to feel worse than I did before you arrived. Because I know the things I should accomplish, and I don’t want to do so.
*An analogy about why people don’t follow their dreams*
‘Well, why don’t you go to Mecca now?’ asked the boy.‘Because it’s the thought of Mecca that keeps me alive. That’s what helps me face these days that are all the same, these mute crystals on the shelves, and lunch and dinner at that same horrible cafe. I’m afraid that if my dream is realised, I’ll have no reason to go on living.‘You dream about your sheep and the pyramids but you’re different from me, because you want to realise your dreams. I just want to dream about Mecca. I’ve already imagined a thousand times crossing the desert, arriving at the Plaza of the Sacred Stone, the seven times I walk around it before allowing myself to touch it. I’ve already imagined the people who would be at my side, and those in front of me, and the conversations and prayers we would share. But I’m afraid that it would all be a disappointment, so I prefer just to dream about it.’
‘My heart is a traitor,’ the boy said to the alchemist, when they had paused to rest the horses. ‘It doesn’t want me to go on.’‘That makes sense,’ the Alchemist answered. ‘Naturally it’s afraid that, in pursuing your dream, you might lose everything you won.’‘Well then, why should I listen to my heart?’‘Because you will never again be able to keep it quiet. Even if you pretend not to have heard what it tells you, it will always be there inside of you, repeating to you what you’re thinking about life and about the world.’
‘Every search begins with beginner’s luck. And every search ends with the victor’s being severely tested.’The boy remembered an old proverb from his country. It said that the darkest hour of the night came just before the dawn.
Antifragile by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
–Read this book on Blinkist—
Antifragile was an interesting book in the fact that it contained a lot of deep, interesting knowledge about how the world works, how institutions work and how we work.
However, I found it to be a difficult read, becoming lost often with some of the concepts and as a result, only being able to digest a few pages at a time before something else grabbed my attention elsewhere. Because of this, I am only about 150 pages into it and have postponed finishing it indefinitely.
Maybe I wasn’t putting enough effort into understanding the concepts or maybe I had other books on my list that wanted to be read before this. Either way, it had some good ideas in but wasn’t a smooth read for me at all. Here are some bits that I picked out though:
*On what ‘Antifragile’ actually means*
Logically, the exact opposite of a “fragile” parcel would be a package on which one has written “please mishandle” or “please handle carelessly.” Its contents would not just be unbreakable, but would benefit from shocks and a wide array of trauma. The fragile is the package that would be at best unharmed, the robust would be at best and at worst unharmed. And the opposite of fragile is therefore what is at worst unharmed.
*On asking the right questions*
The psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer has a simple heuristic. Never ask the doctor what you should do. Ask him what he would do if he were in your place. You would be surprised at the difference.
*On thinking up reasons to do or not do things*
If you have more than one reason to do something (choose a doctor or veterinarian, hire a gardener or an employee, marry a person, go on a trip), just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.
*On living in the modern world*
Abundance is harder for us to handle than scarcity.
Awareness by Anthony de Mello
Of all of the incredible books that I have read this year, Awareness has been my number one life-changing book. I have never experienced so much wisdom on a per-page basis (the book is only 184 pages long) and my favourite quotes and ideas cover pretty much the entire book.
The whole concept of Awareness comes down to living in the present and seeing your own life – internal and external – from a perspective that you never even knew existed. Anthony de Mello includes analogy after story after metaphor to make many of the key messages much more memorable and easy to digest.
I cannot recommend this book highly enough to anyone reading this. If you only pick up one book from this year’s selection, let it be this one. I could easily just copy and paste 80% of the book and call them highlights, but here is an even more condensed selection of my favourite parts:
*On relationships and happiness*
The first step to waking up is to be honest enough to admit to yourself that you don’t like it. You don’t want to be happy. Want a little test? Let’s try it. It will take you exactly one minute. You could close your eyes while you’re doing it or you could keep them open. It doesn’t really matter. Think of someone you love very much, someone you’re close to, someone who is precious to you, and say to that person in your mind, “I’d rather have happiness than have you.” See what happens. “I’d rather be happy than have you. If I had a choice, no question about it, I’d choose happiness.” How many of you felt selfish when you said this? Many, it seems. See how we’ve been brainwashed? See how we’ve been brainwashed into thinking, “How could I be so selfish?” But look at who’s being selfish. Imagine somebody saying to you, “How could you be so selfish that you’d choose happiness over me?” Would you not feel like responding, “Pardon me, but how could you be so selfish that you would demand I choose you above my own happiness?!”
*On selfishness, obvious and hidden*
There are two types of selfishness. The first type is the one where I give myself the pleasure of pleasing myself. That’s what we generally call self-centeredness. The second is when I give myself the pleasure of pleasing others. That would be a more refined kind of selfishness.The first one is very obvious, but the second one is hidden, very hidden, and for that reason more dangerous, because we get to feel that we’re really great. But maybe we’re not all that great after all. You protest when I say that. That’s great!
The most difficult thing in the world is to listen, to see. We don’t want to see. Do you think a capitalist wants to see what is good in the communist system? Do you think a communist wants to see what is good and healthy in the capitalist system? Do you think a rich man wants to look at poor people? We don’t want to look, because if we do, we may change. We don’t want to look. If you look, you lose control of the life that you are so precariously holding together. And so in order to wake up, the one thing you need the most is not energy, or strength, or youthfulness, or even great intelligence. The one thing you need most of all is the readiness to learn something new. The chances that you will wake up are in direct proportion to the amount of truth you can take without running away. How much are you ready to take? How much of everything you’ve held dear are you ready to have shattered, without running away? How ready are you to think of something unfamiliar?
We all have our positions, don’t we? And we listen from those positions. “Henry, how you’ve changed! You were so tall and you’ve grown so short. You were so well built and you’ve grown so thin. You were so fair and you’ve become so dark. What happened to you, Henry?” Henry says, “I’m not Henry. I’m John.” “Oh, you changed your name too!” How do you get people like that to listen?
It’s not that we fear the unknown. You cannot fear something that you do not know. Nobody is afraid of the unknown. What you really fear is the loss of the known. That’s what you fear.
When you say of someone, “He’s a communist,” understanding has stopped at that moment. You slapped a label on him. “She’s a capitalist.” Understanding has stopped at that moment. You slapped a label on her, and if the label carries undertones of approval or disapproval, so much the worse! How are you going to understand what you disapprove of, or what you approve of, for that matter? All of this sounds like a new world, doesn’t it? No judgment, no commentary, no attitude: one simply observes, one studies, one watches, without the desire to change what is. Because if you desire to change what is into what you think should be, you no longer understand.
Put this program into action, a thousand times: (a) identify the negative feelings in you; (b) understand that they are in you, not in the world, not in external reality; (c) do not see them as an essential part of “I”; these things come and go; (d) understand that when you change, everything changes.
Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins
–Read this book on Blinkist—
David Motherf*cking Goggins.
If you want an example of how a man can go from being a night-shift exterminator and weighing almost 300 pounds to being the first-ever person to complete training as a Navy Seal, Army Ranger and Air Force Tactical Air Controller, Goggins is your man.
This isn’t to mention breaking the world pull-up record, running more than 60 ultra-marathons, triathlons and ultra-triathlons. I used to think people like this were either born freakishly motivated or they weren’t. Goggins’ past life as a self-proclaimed ‘loser’ to everything that he has accomplished today puts all of that into doubt.
He is the master of mastering the mind and has rightfully become a motivational ‘celebrity’ on places like Instagram where he posts videos with his attitudes to life – usually whilst running, doing pull-ups, press-ups or sit-ups. You know, the usual stuff.
I read Goggins’ book just at the right time: when I was lacking motivation and needed to someone to kick the procrastination out of me. I have made copious amounts of notes from his book, but here are some of my favourites:
*On staying in the fight, whatever your personal fight is*
‘Why am I here?’ If you know that moment is coming and have your answer ready, you will be equipped to make the split second decision to ignore your weakened mind and keep moving. Know why you’re in the fight to stay in the fight!And never forget that all emotional and physical anguish is finite! It all ends eventually. Smile at pain and watch it fade for at least a second or two. If you can do that, you can string those seconds together and last longer than your opponent thinks you can, and that may be enough to catch a second wind.
And I remembered something else too. This wasn’t the first time I’d taken on a seemingly impossible task. I picked up my pace. I was still walking, but I wasn’t sleepwalking anymore. I had life! I kept digging into my past, into my own imaginary cookie jar.These weren’t mere flashbacks. I wasn’t just floating through my memory files, I actually tapped into the emotional state I felt during those victories, and in so doing accessed my sympathetic nervous system once again.From then on, the cookie jar became a concept I’ve employed whenever I need a reminder of who I am and what I’m capable of. We all have a cookie jar inside us, because life, being what it is, has always tested us. Even if you’re feeling low or beat down by life right now, I guarantee you can think of a time or two when you overcame odds and tasted success. It doesn’t have to be a big victory either. It can be something small.
Over a period of time, your tolerance for mental and physical suffering will have expanded because your software will have learned that you can take a hell of a lot more than one punch, and if you stay with a task that is trying to beat you down, you will reap the rewards. On the first day of boxing, one punch really hurts. After 10 years, you can go 10 rounds easy, even though the punches haven’t gotten softer or the opponents easier.
The sole reason I work out like I do isn’t to prepare for and to win ultra races. I don’t have an athletic motive at all. It’s to prepare my mind for life itself. Life will always be the most gruelling endurance sport, and when you train hard, get uncomfortable, and callous your mind, you will become a more versatile competitor, trained to find a way forward no matter what. Because there will be times when the shit life throws at you isn’t minor at all. Sometimes life hits you dead in the fucking heart.
That doesn’t mean I was having any fun. I wasn’t. I was over it. I didn’t want to do pull-ups anymore, but achieving goals or overcoming obstacles doesn’t have to be fun. Seeds burst from the inside out in a self-destructive ritual of new life. Does that sound like fucking fun? Like it feels good? I wasn’t in that gym to get happy or do what I wanted to be doing. I was there to turn myself inside out if that’s what it took to blast through any and all mental, emotional and physical barriers.
The engine in a rocket ship does not fire without a small spark first. We all need small sparks, small accomplishments in our lives to fuel the big ones.When you want a bonfire, you don’t start by lighting a big log. You collect some witch’s hair – a small pile of hay or some dry, dead grass. You light that, and then add small sticks and bigger sticks before you feed your tree stump to the blaze. Because it’s the small sparks, which start small fires, that eventually build enough heat to burn the whole fucking forest down.
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker
–Read this book on Blinkist—
With the modern media perpetually filled with doom and gloom articles, it is refreshing to read a book that doesn’t just illuminate how well we’re actually doing as a species in terms of reducing poverty, infant mortality and a number of other crucial factors, but has an abundance of scientific data to back it up. Something which is often lacking in most places.
Pinker puts forward a very compelling case that life is getting far better for the vast majority of us, not worse. As he states in the preface: “In the pages that follow, I will show that this bleak assessment of the state of the world is wrong. And not just a little wrong – wrong wrong, flat-earth wrong, couldn’t be more wrong.” Not only does Pinker manage to do this with facts and figures throughout the book, but he also appeals for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress to lead the charge into the future.
He includes chapters on our improvements in Life, Health, Wealth, The Environment, Peace, Safety, Terrorism, Democracy, Quality of Life, Happiness and much more. The book contains a significant amount of graphs as well as a huge list of references. Much of them come from Our World In Data which you can play around with for yourself. For the sake of this short book review though, like with the rest of the books on this list, I will only be including some of my favourite quotes.
If you truly think that the world around you is falling apart, you need to give this book a read.
*On why specialisation and financial incentives for profit in markets work*
“It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love.” [Adam] Smith was not saying that people are ruthlessly selfish, or that they ought to be; he was one of history’s keenest commentators on human sympathy. He only said that in a market, whatever tendency people have to care for their families and themselves can work for the good of all.
*On why we should judge ideas on themselves, not on who came up with them*
The Enlightenment thinkers were men and women of their age, the 18th century. Some were racists, sexists, anti-Semites, slaveholders or duelists. Some of the questions they worried about are almost incomprehensible to us, and they came up with plenty of daffy ideas together with the brilliant ones.
They of all people would have been the first to concede this. If you extol reason, then what matters is the integrity of the thoughts, not the personalities of the thinkers.
*On our rising standards for people around the world*
As we care about more of humanity, we’re apt to mistake the harms around us for signs of how low the world has sunk rather than how high our standards have risen.
*On what progress is*
What is progress? You might think that the question is so subjective and culturally relative as to be forever unanswerable. In fact, it’s one of the easier questions to answer. Most people agree that life is better than death. Health is better than sickness. Sustenance is better than hunger. Abundance is better than poverty. Peace is better than war. Safety is better than danger. Freedom is better than tyranny. Equal rights are better than bigotry and discrimination. Literacy is better than illiteracy. Knowledge is better than ignorance. Intelligence is better than dull-wittedness. Happiness is better than misery. Opportunities to enjoy family, friends, culture, and nature are better than drudgery and monotony. All these things can be measured. If they have increased over time, that is progress [which they all have].
*On seeing what remains to be solved, rather than what has already been solved*
But it’s in the nature of progress that it erases its tracks, and its champions fixate on the remaining injustices and forget how far we have come.
Everything Is F*cked by Mark Manson
–Read this book on Blinkist—
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck was one of my favourite books last year and its sequel, Everything Is F*cked, was one of my favourites of this year. Manson’s no bullshit, unconventional ‘negative self-help’ approach is both entertaining and filled with valuable insights.
In this year’s book, Manson explores more abstract concepts about Hope, Emotions, Identity, Morality and other things that are key to being human. Just like his last book, this one was full of quotable content, interesting insights and an informal tone that made it feel like you were getting a pep-talk from your best mate. Another great read to add to your list.
*On the link between our emotions and our actions*
Action is emotion. Emotion is the biological hydraulic system that pushes our body into movement. Fear is not this magical thing your brain invents. No, it happens in our bodies. Its the tightening of your stomach, the tensing of your muscles.Anger pushes your body to move. Anxiety pulls it into retreat. Joy lights up the facial muscles, while sadness attempts to shade your existence from view. Action and emotion are inseparable.This leads to the simplest and most obvious answer to the timeless question, why don’t we do the things we know we should do?Because we don’t feel like it.Every problem of self-control is not a problem of information or discipline or reason but, rather, of emotion. Self-control is an emotional problem; laziness is an emotional problem; procrastination is an emotional problem.Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt compares the two brains to an elephant and its rider: the rider can gently steer and pull the elephant in a particular direction, but ultimately the elephant is going to go where it wants to go.
Self-worth is contextual. If you were bullied for your geeky glasses and funny nose as a child, your Feeling Brain will ‘know’ that you’re a dweeb, even if you grow up to be a flaming sexpot of hotness.People raised in strict religious environments and are punished harshly for their sexual impulses and often grow up with their Feeling Brain ‘knowing’ that sex is wrong, even though their Thinking Brain has long worked out that sex is natural and totally awesome.
Whatever our brain adopts as its highest value, this tippy top of our value hierarchy becomes the lens through which we interpret all other values. This can be known as the ‘God Value’.Some people’s God Value is money. These people view all other things (family, love, prestige, politics) through the prism of money. All conflict, respect, jealousy, love, anxiety – everything boils down to money.Many people adopt Jesus, Muhammad or Buddha as their God Value. They then interpret everything their experience through the prism of that spiritual leader’s teachings.You can argue about facts until you’re blue in the face, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter – people interpret the significance of their experiences through their values.If a meteorite hit a town and killed half the people, the uber-traditional religious person would look at the event and say that it happened because the town was full of sinners. The atheist would look at it and say that it was proof that there is no God, as how could a benevolent, all-powerful being let such an awful thing happen? A hedonist would see it and decide that it was even more reason to party, since we could all die at any moment.Evidence serves the interest of the God Value, not the other way round.
The Formula of Humanity [Kant] has a ripple effect: your improved ability to be honest with yourself will increase how honest you are with others, and your honesty with others will influence them to be more honest with themselves, which will help them to grow and mature. Your ability not to treat yourself as a means to some other end will in turn allow you to better treat others as ends. Therefore, your cleaning up your relationship with yourself has the positive by-product of cleaning up your relationships with others, which then enables them to clean up their relationships with themselves, and so on.
This is how you change the world – not through some all-encompassing ideology or mass religious conversion or misplaced dreams of the future, but by achieving the maturation and dignity of each individual in the present, here and now.
*On why death is important (and thoughts on ‘curing’ death)*
We might be able to ‘cure’ death in the future with the use of biotechnology.Why is this a bad idea? Because it would be a psychological disaster in the making.If you remove death, you remove any scarcity from life. And if you remove scarcity, you remove the ability to determine value. Everything will seem equally good or bad, equally worthy or unworthy of your time and attention, because… well, you would have infinite time and attention. You could spend a hundred years watching the same TV show, and it wouldn’t matter. You could let your relationships deteriorate and fall away because, after all, those people are going to be around forever, so why bother?Death is psychologically necessary because it creates stakes in life. There is something to lose. You don’t know what something is worth until you experience the [tangible] potential to lose it. You don’t know what you’re willing to struggle for, what you’re willing to give up or sacrifice.Pain is the currency of our values. Without the pain of loss (or potential loss), it becomes impossible to determine the value of anything at all.
More From Less by Andrew McAfee
Similar to ‘Enlightenment Now’ on this list, More From Less tells the story of how the world has been getting better and why there is so much room for optimism in a very pessimistic world. More specifically, this book focuses on how we have moved past ‘peak stuff’ in many industries, how we have started to decouple growth from consumption and how the ‘Four Horseman of the Optimist’: Capitalism, Tech Progress, Public Awareness and Responsive Government are helping us get there.
This was an interesting book that illuminates in more than a few ways that although we still have a long way to go, we are collectively heading in the right direction and aren’t all doomed to catastrophe. If you want a real insight into what is happening in and to the world, you should prioritise reading this book. Here are some parts that I picked out:
*On the importance of capitalism and the bounce-back of socialism*
Capitalism is widely unpopular at present, and socialist ideas are making a comeback. Yet markets, competition and innovation have brought us previously unimaginable prosperity. As we’ve seen, they’ve also finally enabled us to take less from the earth. So we need to not turn away from them now. Instead, we need to focus them on finding meaningful opportunities for people at risk of disconnecting from society.
For many of us, the strong tendency when we interact with people who have different beliefs and moral foundations is to quickly try to show them why they’re wrong – why their logic is flawed, their evidence is fake news, and their beliefs are unsupportable. This almost never works. It usually just makes other people dig in their heels and hold on to their existing beliefs even more strongly.A better way is to start to find common ground. The psychologist Jonathan Haidt highlights that people with both liberal and conservative moral foundations believe deeply that we have a responsibility to care. Few of us are unmoved by the sight of a sick child, a starving animal, or a pile of trash on the beach. So a good way to start building relationships with others, especially with members of distance tribes, is to find out which aspects of the human condition and the state of the world they care most about, and go from there.
The story is that in recent years capitalism and tech progress have combined not only to increase human prosperity but also to bring us to post-peak in resource consumption in America and other rich countries and finally allow us to get more from less. This happened because resources cost money, profit-seeking competitors don’t want to spend that money if they don’t have to, and tech progress now offers them many ways to slim, swap, evaporate, and optimise their way out of using resources. As a result we continue to consume more, but our consumption is now dematerialising. We are entering a Second Enlightenment.But that’s not the end of the story. Capitalism and tech progress won’t by themselves deal with the negative externality of pollution and won’t isolate vulnerable ecosystems and animals from market forces. To accomplish these critical goals, we need both responsive government and public awareness.
We believe things because the people around us believe them, or members of our political tribe do, or members of the opposite political tribes believe the opposite. Many of us believe things because we have an inherently zero-sum perspective: if someone is doing better, it must be because someone else is doing worse. Most of us are likely to believe things if we hear them enough times, since we have a glitch in our mental hardware to mistake familiarity for truth. Similarly, we believe a lot of things because our innate negativity bias is reinforced by a constant stream of dire headlines, expert predictions of decline and doom, and vivid images of things going wrong.
A study published in 2017 by researchers Christian Schmidt, Tobias Krauth, and Stephan Wagner found that 88–95 percent of all plastic garbage that flowed into the world’s oceans from rivers came from just ten of them, of which eight were in Asia and two in Africa. The developed economies of North America and Europe were as a group contributing little to the problem of river-sourced plastic trash in our oceans.
Principles by Ray Dalio
–Read this book on Blinkist—
Principles is one of those books that had been sitting on my shelf staring at me until I decided to eventually take the plunge. Why did I put it off for so long? The book is a beast and can only be compared to a phone book, albeit including a lot more useful information than its thick counterpart.
The book is split into three parts: Lessons and Key Events from Ray’s life, Life Principles and Work Principles. I have read all of the first two parts and a small portion of the Work Principles. I stopped there because although I was gaining a lot of useful and interesting information, I just didn’t need it in that moment (e.g. ‘Hire Right, Because the Penalties for Hiring Wrong Are Huge’).
With a couple of in-built bookmarkers, this book is definitely best suited for reference-when-needed usage, although it can be read all of the way through. Here are some of the most valuable parts of the book that I noted down on my first time round:
*On the importance of history (and knowing and learning from it)*
My failure to anticipate this, I realised, was due to my being surprised by something that hadn’t happened in my lifetime, though it had happened many times before. The message that reality was conveying to me was ‘You better make sense of what happened to other people in other times and other places because if you don’t you won’t know if these things can happen to you and, if they do, you won’t know how to deal with them.When I was faced with types of situations I had encountered before, I drew on the principles I had learned for dealing with them. But when I ran into ones I hadn’t seen before, I would be painfully surprised. Studying all those painful first-time encounters, I learned that even if they hadn’t happened to me, most of them had happened to other people in other times and places, which gave me a healthy respect for history, a hunger to have a universal understanding of how how reality works, and the desire to build timeless and universal principles for dealing with it.
While mankind is very intelligent in relation to other species, we have the intelligence of moss growing on a rock compared to nature as a whole. We are incapable of designing and building a mosquito, let alone all the species and most of the other things in the universe. So I start from the premise that nature is smarter than I am and try to let nature teach me how reality works.
Pain + Reflection = ProgressThe challenges you face will test and strengthen you. If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximising your potential.Every time you confront something painful, you are at a potentially important juncture in your life – you have the opportunity to choose healthy and painful truth or unhealthy but comfortable delusion. The irony is that if you choose the healthy route, the pain will soon turn into pleasure.
In all aspects of life, what’s happening today seems like a much bigger deal than it will appear in retrospect. That’s why it helps to step back to gain perspective and sometimes defer a decision until some time passes.
When you ask someone whether something is true and they tell you that it’s not totally true, it’s probably by-and-large true.
If you’re like most people, the idea of facing the unvarnished truth makes you anxious. To get over that, you need to understand intellectually why untruths are scarier than truths and then, through practice get accustomed to living with them.If you’re sick, it’s natural to fear your doctor’s diagnosis- what if it’s cancer or some other deadly disease? As scary as the truth may turn out to be, you will be better off knowing it in the long run because it will allow you to seek the most appropriate treatment. The same holds true for learning painful truths about your own strength and weaknesses. Knowing and acting on the truth is what we call the ‘big deal’ at Bridgewater. It’s important not to get hung up on all those emotion and ego-laden ‘little deals’ that can distract you from the overall mission.
Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
Stories of Your Life and Others was the first fiction book that I have read in a long, long time. I used to be quite the fiction fanatic until I discovered just how potent and applicable the right non-fiction book can be.
I heard Chiang’s book get recommended a few times earlier in the year so decided that I would eventually take the temporary leap back into a bit of fiction. It was a great decision and I forgot not only how entertaining a well-written fiction book is but also how it lets you imagine, wonder, get creative and all of those other artistic aspects that die-hard non-fictioners tend to neglect.
Stories of Your Life and Others isn’t just a fiction book but rather a series of short stories or novelettes. The most famous short story from the book, Story Of Your Life, has been made into the major hit film Arrival starring Amy Adams.
As much as I loved the book, because it is made up of short fiction stories there aren’t too many outstanding quotes or excerpts that make sense outside of the context of the story. However, I have managed to pull a few that I hope you enjoy and give you something valuable to take away:
*A new perspective on night and darkness*
Hillalum rolled over and looked up, in time to see darkness rapidly ascend the rest of the tower. Gradually, the sky grew dimmer as the sun sank beneath the edge of the world, far away.‘Quite a sight, is it not?’ said Kudda.Hillalum said nothing. For the first time, he knew night for what it was: the shadow of the earth itself, cast against the sky.
Men imagined heaven and earth as being at the ends of a tablet, with sky and stars stretched between; yet the world was wrapped around in some fantastic way so that heaven and earth touched.
Unconditional love asks nothing, not even that it be returned.
I knew it was foolhardy; men of experience say, “Four things do not come back: the spoken word, the sped arrow, the past life, and the neglected opportunity.
Waking Up by Sam Harris
— Read this book on Blinkist—
I have been fascinated by Sam Harris this year and reading his ‘Waking Up’ book was just one piece of trying to understand and integrate the larger puzzle that is Sam and his work.
I meditate every day using his ‘Waking Up‘ app which is also filled with lessons and discussions with meditation experts. I regularly listen to his ‘Making Sense‘ podcast which discusses everything from neuroscience to philosophy to world events. I have also toyed with and spent a lot of time thinking about his ideas on determinism and free will, although I am yet to come to a conclusion on those.
Anyway, his ‘Waking Up’ book manages to tie together most of these things. It discusses meditation, mindfulness, neuroscience, psychedelics, religion and other aspects of ultimately living a better, more present life. The full title of the book is ‘Waking Up: Searching for Spirituality Without Religion’ so you can expect some interesting ideas on the two.
Like the rest of his work, I really enjoyed this book and picked out plenty of excerpts that I really like which you can find below:
*On the importance of Mind*
Every experience you have ever had has been shaped by your mind. Every relationship is as good or as bad as it is because of the minds involved. If you are perpetually angry, depressed, confused, and unloving, or your attention is elsewhere, it won’t matter how successful you become or who is in your life – you won’t enjoy any of it.
[Mindfulness] is a mode of cognition that is, above all, undistracted, accepting, and (ultimately) non conceptual. Being mindful is not a matter of thinking more clearly about experience; it is the act of experiencing more clearly, including the arising of thoughts themselves. Mindfulness is a vivid awareness of whatever is appearing in one’s mind or body – thoughts, sensations, moods – without grasping at the pleasant or recoiling from the unpleasant.
Eventually, it begins to seem as if you are repeatedly awakening from a dream to find yourself safely in bed. No matter how terrible the dream, the relief is instantaneous. And yet it is difficult to stay awake for more than a few seconds at a time.Joseph Goldstein likens this shift in awareness to the experience of being fully immersed in a film and then suddenly realising that you are sitting in a theatre watching a mere play of light on a wall.Your perception is unchanged, but the spell is broken. Most of us spend every waking moment lost in the movie of our lives. Until we see that an alternative to this enchantment exists, we are entirely at the mercy of appearances.
If I had been watching sewage spill through our ceiling, how much would I have paid merely to transform it into fresh water? A lot.I am not advocating that we be irrationally detached from the reality of our lives. If a problem needs fixing, we should fix it. But how miserable must we be while doing good and necessary things? And if, like many people, you tend to be vaguely unhappy much of the time, it can be very helpful to manufacture a feeling of gratitude by simply contemplating all the terrible things that have not happened to you, or to think of how many people would consider their prayers answered if they could only live as you are now. The mere fact that you have the leisure to read this book puts you in very rarefied company. Many people on earth at this moment can’t even imagine the freedom that you currently take for granted.
Thoughts pull the levers of emotion:Without continually resurrecting the feeling of anger, it is impossible to stay angry for more than a few moments.You are depressed, say, but are suddenly moved to laughter by something you read. You are bored and impatient while sitting in traffic, but then are cheered by a phone call from a close friend. These are natural experiments in shifting mood. Notice that suddenly paying attention to something else – something that no longer supports your current emotion – allows for a new state of mind. Observe how quickly the clouds can part. These are genuine glimpses of freedom.
Meditation doesn’t entail the suppression of such thoughts, but it does require that we notice thoughts as they emerge and recognise them to be transitory appearances in consciousness. In subjective terms, you are consciousness itself – you are not the next, evanescent image or string of words that appears in your mind. Not seeing it arise, however, the next thought will seem to become what you are.But how could you actually be a thought? Whatever their content, thoughts vanish almost the instant they appear. They are like sounds, or fleeting sensations in your body. How could this next thought define your subjectivity at all?
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
–Read this book on Blinkist—
Legendary marketer Seth Godin has mentioned ‘The War of Art’ numerous times as one of his favourite books and it was only a matter of time before I did get to read it. I only wish that I got to read it sooner.
Although I didn’t really buy the last third of the book on some of Pressfield’s more abstract concepts, the first two parts are phenomenal and worth the purchases in themselves. The book is only 165 pages long and there is minimal writing on each page so you can easily finish it in a day or two, yet the concepts and lessons last far longer than that.
The first ‘book’ talks about Resistance. Whatever stops us from pursuing our creative calling: procrastination, fear, judgment and the like all come from this thing called Resistance. Resistance lurks around every corner and Pressfield locates it in places that I would never have thought of looking. The second ‘book’ is all about ‘turning professional’. It covers how to treat your creative work like the real work that it is as well as all of the qualities that a professional creative needs.
It is a fantastic book for anyone that is pursuing something unconventional and/or creative in life. It serves as a nifty quick reference book for whenever you feel stuck or feel that Resistance creeping in again. Here are some of my favourite bits:
*On the essentiality of creating a habit of your work*
The most important thing about art is to work. Nothing else matters except sitting down every day and trying.
*On accepting fear and moving forward anyway*
Fear doesn’t go away. The warrior and the artist live by the same code of necessity, which dictates that the battle must be fought anew every day.
*On procrastination and changing our lives*
The most pernicious aspect of procrastination is that it can become a habit. We don’t just put off our lives today; we put them off till our deathbed.
Never forget: This very moment, we can change our lives. There never was a moment, and never will be, when we are without the power to alter our destiny. This second we can turn the tables on Resistance.
This second, we can sit down and do our work.
*On Resistance and Fear*
Resistance Is Fueled By Fear: Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance.
*On Resistance being insidious*
Resistance Is Insidious: Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit.
*On being afraid and taking action*
Are you paralyzed with fear? That’s a good sign. Fear is good. Like self-doubt, fear is an indicator. Fear tells us what we have to do. Remember one rule of thumb: the more scared we are of a work or calling, the more sure we can be that we have to do it.
Zucked by Roger McNamee
–Read this book on Blinkist—
I found this book after listening to a podcast between Sam Harris and Roger called ‘The Trouble with Facebook‘. As a former mentor to Mark Zuckerberg and having helped to recruit COO Sheryl Sandberg, Roger has long had the inside scoop on what goes on at the social media giant.
To be honest, what he said in the podcast and what he expanded upon in his book is quite frightening. It helped me to open my eyes to just how much data these giant companies have, what they are doing with it, how they are designed to take your attention and keep your attention plus much more.
If you have a vested interest in technology and not having your data taken and manipulated by the likes of Facebook and Google, this is a real eye-opener. Here are some of my favourite parts of the book:
*On preference bubbles that social media naturally creates*
In a preference bubble, users create an alternative reality, built around values shared with a tribe, which can focus on politics, religion or something else. They stop interacting with people with whom they disagree, reinforcing the power of the bubble. They go to war against any threat to their bubble. They disregard expertise in favour of voices from their tribe. They refuse to accept uncomfortable facts, even ones that are incontrovertible.The tribe is all that matters, and anything that advances the tribe is legitimate. You see this effect today among people whose embrace of Donald Trump has required them to abandon beliefs they held deeply only a few years earlier.
In an essay in the MIT Technology Review, UNC professor Zeynep Tufekci explained why the impact of internet platforms on public discourse is so damaging and hard to fix. ‘The problem is that when we encounter opposing views in the age and context of social media, it’s not like reading them in a newspaper while sitting alone. It’s like hearing them from the opposing team while sitting with our fellow fans in a football stadium. Online, we’re connected with our communities, and we seek approval from our like-minded peers. We bond with our team by yelling at the fans of the other one. In sociology terms, we strengthen our feeling of ‘in-group’ belonging by increasing our distance from and tension with the ‘out-group’ – us versus them. Our cognitive universe isn’t an echo chamber, but our social one is. Belonging is stronger than facts.’
Representative Ben Luján of New Mexico dug much deeper into the issue of data collection. When Zuck[erberg] professed not to know how many data points Facebook had on the average user, Luján told him: twenty-nine thousand. Luján also pinned down Zuck into a paradox: Facebook collects data on people who do not use the platform and have no ability to stop Facebook from doing that without themselves joining Facebook.
Candidates no longer have to search for voters who share their values. Instead, they can invert the model, using micro targeting to identify whatever issues motivates each voter [based on the data they’ve already collected about you] and play to that. If a campaign knows a voter believes strongly in protecting the environment, it can craft a personalised message blaming the other candidate for not doing enough, even if that is not true.
Campaigners can buy a list of two hundred million voting-age Americans with fifteen hundred data points per person from a legitimate data broker for seventy-five thousand dollars.