Notes from Underground
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was one of those authors I had heard about in school but never really contemplated reading directly. He lived 1821-1881 and wrote such classics as Crime and Punishment that I never considered myself invited to read. What a mistake. This isn’t exactly the first classic that I’ve given myself permission to read that rendered the inhibition to do so silly, but it really nailed home the point.
It’s such a lovely weird book. Partly, it’s Dostoyevsky giving us an account, through the fictional narrator, of his view on the human condition. Just one quote: “But man has such a predilection for systems and abstract deductions that he is ready to distort the truth intentionally, he is ready to deny the evidence of his senses only to justify his logic”. The idea of humans being suckered into living only according to “logic”, and not only the vanity of such a pursuit, but the impossibility of it, is a wonderful antidote to much of contemporary morality and wonkness.
In the same vein, I found the attack on the core underpinning concept of much of 20th century economics, that people are rational beings making rational choices to optimize their own advantage, so forward for its time. Notes from Underground is from 1864, yet manages to expertly debunk that narrow view. Freedom, not material advantage, is the “most advantageous advantage”, even when that’s the freedom to do yourself harm. (Any analysis of Brexit and Trump would do well to consult with Dostoyevsky).
The second part is the story of slights, self-hatred, neurosis, and projection. It’s exaggerated and cringeworthy, but the presentation of all the little daily dilemmas, social faux pas, and torment of over analyzing everything still holds up a mirror that’s well worth reflecting in. The odd narration style, constantly backtracking, negating what was just said, interrupting himself, and giving us the full, bared inner life of a seriously sick and disturbed individual is addicting.
Also, major bonus points for being a short book, yet packing so much punch.
Existentialism Is a Humanism
As a newcomer to existentialism, it can be hard to wrap your brain around the core concepts when reading novels like The Stranger or Nausea, or writers like Kierkegaard. You get a great feel for the existentialist ambience, but what are the core tenets? This (short) book delivers it about as directly as you can get it, as it’s basically just two parts: 1) An account of a lecture/defense that Sartre gave of existentialism, complete with a debate with someone in the audience, and 2) Sartre’s review of Camus’ The Stranger.
The key concept that Sartre explains is the notion of Existence Precedes Essence. It’s one of those concepts that sounds intimidatingly highbrow, but really just means that we are not born with a purpose before we are “thrown into this world”. That then sets the stage for reaffirming human choice. That we always have a choice. That destiny or divine purpose is just an excuse we use not to make (hard) choices.
This description of existentialism really resonated with me and provides a wonderful alternative vision to the stoic philosophy. There’s much agreement between the two views of the world, but also enough disagreement to provide interesting tension. Especially between the Aurelius version of stoicism, which endlessly belabors the point of doing “what the universe asks you to do”.
Existentialists like Sartre are big on the idea that you can’t just relate a philosophical worldview by simply stating values, techniques, and facts. To understand existentialism, you must feel it. Breathe its ambience. It’s like a tonal curve for life. Yes, we can talk about highlights, shadows, and all the mechanical elements of that tonal curve, but you won’t become an artist just by knowing these mechanics. It goes much deeper than that.
So Nausea is a novel, which imparts the existentialist tonal curve. I’m only halfway through it, but I’m liking it a lot already. It’s not as wild or erratic as Notes from Underground, but it’s got that similar feel. That the narrator gives us a mirror to reflect in, and those reflections are novel because we’re outside the normal tonal curve.
Psychoanalysis and Zen Buddhism
Escape From Freedom is probably my favorite book of 2018, and Erich Fromm has quickly become one of my favorite writers of all time. This short comparison between psychoanalysis and Zen Buddism is equally profound. Fromm’s examination of the conscious vs the unconscious is simply mind altering, in the best sense of the words. It’s one of those aha moments where you have to look up from the book every few pages as just go “man, I just never thought of it like that, but what perfect sense it makes”.
It’s also a master class in how Fromm treats his predecessors, like Freud and Suzuki. The admiration and reverence is clear, but it doesn’t hold Fromm back from providing a critical analysis where either falls short or where their ideas can be expanded. It’s graceful without being forced.
This book also made me interested in finishing up Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. I had found that book a little difficult, and a lot of it was down to the filters of language and logical paradigm that Fromm so clearly details in the book. The eastern paradoxical logic just wasn’t penetrating my brain, but with Fromm’s help, I think I’m ready for another crack at it.
Fear and Trembling
While most of the 20th century existentialists, like Sartre and Camus, were devout atheists, Kierkegaard is an existentialist obsessed with faith. Fear and Trembling is a very long, and at times obtuse, meditation on the topic of faith and doubt. It uses the story of Abraham and Isaac to contrast the ideas of faith and humanism. Kierkegaard is in awe of Abraham’s faith and how it compels him to sacrifice Isaac, and he uses that to interrogate the topic of faith in general.
I found the theological acrobatics employed by Kierkegaard a bit strained, to say the least. But it was a fascinating read none the less, and Kierkegaard’s language and metaphors and incredible depth is inspiring. I’m keen to give this a read in the original Danish form.
Despite being an avid student of Stoicism for many years, I somehow never got around to reading the last of the three big stoic writers, Epictetus, directly. What a mistake. The Manual is a profound work. It’s perhaps the most tensely packed tome of wisdom I’ve ever had the good fortune to read. Seriously. You can read it in about an hour, but you’ll spend weeks, years, hell, probably the following lifetime, trying to internalize and master its hard-hitting truths and techniques.
It was a great reminder that even if you think you know a topic, there’s a big gap between knowing and knowing. None of the themes in The Manual would be novel to anyone who’ve read Aurelius or Seneca, but the delivery is so different, so direct, that the material still comes across as entirely fresh.
The Manual is the double espresso of stoicism.
I’ve read the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius twice before. It was the first original stoic text I read after getting the modern introduction, and I’ve been in awe ever since. It’s funny, though, that the Meditations is almost the diametrical opposite of The Manual. It’s utterly long-winded, repetitive, and at times convoluted. But where The Manual hits so hard because it’s simply a summary of all the most profound stoic conclusions, Meditations takes us through all the personal proofs that lead to those conclusions.
In that sense, it’s equally powerful, and perhaps even more inspiring, than The Manual. Here’s the emperor of fucking Rome, writing to himself to remind himself to do better, be better. To counter his own human fallacies and mental frailties. It’s self-help taken to the next level by someone at the highest level.
It’s also a good reminder that some books and some lessons don’t reveal their power by simply reading them once. The power is in returning to them, meditating on them, and constantly striving to achieve them. Meditations was a direct inspiration for both the style and focus for It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work.
Thirst: A Story of Redemption, Compassion, and a Mission to Bring Clean Water to the World
Scott Harrison, the founder of charity:water, tells his redemption story of being a night-club promoter in NYC that ran the hard and fast life for a decade before rediscovering his faith and committing to a mission for humanity. It’s an at times tense story that gives you a real appreciation for those who choose to give their life to a higher cause.
It was also at times a bit of hard book for me to read, because it’s such a personal account of how Harrison’s christianity drives his work down to a tactical level that’s difficult to connect to as an atheist. Tactically praying for specific milestones and luck, and then going OMG: God Just Totally Bailed Us Out, is just so far out of my personal worldview that it was pretty jarring at times.
But I’m thankful that Harrison didn’t shy away from going there, even if he must have known that it could be a bit grating for people not in the “of course you ask the big man upstairs for a favor” camp. It’s authentic, and it’s healthy to see how most of the people in the world uses religion to guide their daily life.
It’s also just a feel-good story that inspires you to care. I signed up monthly donations via The Spring.
How to Break Up with Your Phone
I don’t know a lot of people in our business who feels completely at ease with how much they use their phone. After years and years of a tiny minority trying to get our attention about the dangers of phone addiction, it seems like the idea is finally getting a larger audience. I’m certainly in that camp. I use my phone too much, and I’d like to use it less.
This book gave me the motivation to try harder to actually do something about it. There weren’t any novel arguments or statistics I hadn’t heard before, but recounting them all in one place provided the final push to finally do something. This kicked off a thorough review of not just how much time I spend on my phone, but reviewing what that usage has done to both my capacity for concentration and my motivation to go deeper on topics. I didn’t like the conclusions I came to.
So I’ve started taking more sabbaticals from my phone and the addictive apps on it. I credit this book for finally getting that going.
Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now
Where How to Break Up with Your Phone took a pretty tame view of social media – hey, maybe it’s not great, so let’s just do a bit less – this book goes for the jugular. Reviewing all the ways social media companies are conspiring against us, selling our attention to the highest bidder (whether that be an ad for a new car or a new president), and how the algorithms that drive social-media engagement are self-optimizing for the worst of everything.
Like How to Break Up with Your Phone, there wasn’t that much new information here, especially for someone who’s been paying close attention to the social media landscape for years, but there was a renewed sense of outrage and purpose and contextualization. The idea that you don’t have to believe that Zuckerberg or Sandberg are evil masterminds plotting to derail civilization to accept that social-media engagement algorithms that run on auto-pilot much of the time could very well get us there.
I wish the book had been edited a bit more, though. It’s kinda meandering at times, and I think the conclusions would have hit harder if the author hadn’t fallen so in love with his own metaphors. That was a good mirror to me as a writer in itself.
How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence
I don’t think it’ll come as a surprise to anyone reviewing my reading habits that I’m pretty interested in the concept of perception. How we get locked into viewing the world, ourselves, and each other in a certain way, and then finding it difficult to relate to alternative perspectives or seeing other angles.
Studying philosophy, psychology, and sociology is a way to break those rigid frames we all build over time. But that’s still all happening at a pretty high level of perception.
Mind altering drugs, and especially psychedelics, is another way to break up those rigid frames, but at a much lower level. So I’ve been fascinated with LSD, mushrooms, and other psychedelics for a long time, despite being too scared to actually try (partly because of a family history of mental illness, partly because, you know, THE LAW, and partly because of having something to lose).
Anyway, that’s a really long preamble to why I started reading this book. Partly to understand the history of psychedelics, the discovery of LSD, the clinical studies from the 50s and 60s, and then finally to live vicariously through the author’s account of his own experiments.
So far I’d say it’s a bit of a mixed bag. I find the pacing too slow, the minutia overwhelming, and the character set too large. I wish there was a cocaine version of this book in 1/4 the length and the tempo turned up 😄.
Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code (2nd Ed)
Like the stoic books, I read Refactoring and that Smalltalk book again and again not because I’m going to learn something new, per se, but because I want to be reminded about what I already know. And what better time to reread than just as we’re kicking off a new major project that needs a fresh architectural foundation.
Also, these two books just remind every time of how much I love the craft of programming. It’s not just having the programs, it’s not just solving problems, it’s simply using my hands and head to program that in and of itself is sublime.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup is a gripping tale of a fake-it-till-you-make-it bet that did not pay off, resulted in hundreds of millions in dollars defrauded from investors and partners, and, most crucially, tons of patients who got the wrong answers on their blood tests. Some times to disastrous effects, financially or medically.
It’s also a fascinating study of human nature and how much we at times want to believe. Elizabeth Holmes was a character that so many people wanted to believe. Her story about disrupting moribund medical technology (with its stale insistence on “scientific rigor” and “verifiable results”) was too good to check. So good that a long list of Valley dignitaries all got suckered in.
Finally, there’s a rich vein of anecdotes on how destructive excessive loyalty, workaholism, investor pressures, and sleep deprivation can be to your morals, sanity, and manners.
Escape from Freedom examines what happened to the human psyche when we went from a medieval caste system to the modern world. As we gained freedom from all sorts of oppressions, we also got detached from a predictable and safe role in society. That anxiety is often difficult to cope with, especially when things don’t turn out the way we aspired to. Fromm argues that we need to balance this freedom from with just as much freedom to. Positive freedom, not just negative freedom.
The book was written in 1941 and obviously colored by the rise of fascism and the world wars. But it’s message is as timely today, in an age of populism and unease. It draws a compelling connection between the loss of identity and belonging with the appeal of authoritarian figures. That it’s a human response to turn away from freedom when that freedom turns life into anxiety and disappointment. So from Trump to Erdogan, there’s strong public support.
Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is an introduction to Buddhism and meditation. There are a lot of echoes between Stoicism and Buddhism, and I thought I’d dive deeper into this on recommendation from Eric Dodson (great YouTube channel for existentialist and stoic explainers and introductions). So far I’m finding that there’s longer between the nuggets of wisdom that slot into my brain than with the stoic writers. But I do enjoy the thread of pushing back against dualistic ideas (separating you from the world, good from bad, etc), as well as the focus on the Beginner’s Mind.
A World to Win: The Life and Thought of Karl Marx is a biography and tour of the man behind one of the sharpest analysis of capitalism. I got inspired to dive deeper into Marx after reading Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which 150 years after Das Kapital was first published provided a lot of the economic long studies to back many of Marx’s theoretical claims (and refute others).
As income inequality continues to rise sharply (in the US in particular, but in much of the world as well), it seems like Marx has never been more timely.
The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker shares a bunch of anecdotes from violent attacks, how the victims often knew per instinct that something wasn’t right, but suppressed that instinct for fear of seeming rude or silly or whatever. He also presents a bunch of analytical frameworks for evaluating threats, stalkers, and other menaces.
But it’s not a dry textbook. Gavin had a violent upbringing and brings a lot of personal anecdotes and perspectives to bear as well.
About a quarter into Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. This is the book that was catapulted by it’s conclusion: r > g. That the rate of return on capital is greater than the growth rate of the economy. Which means that capital, and the people who own it, will end up with a larger and larger share of all wealth and income in the economy as time goes on.
It’s a dense dive into the historical data on wealth, income, and economic growth from the optic of inequality. It’s fascinating to realize just how little economic growth there was before the industrial revolution (<0.1% at times). Centuries would pass where societies got almost no more productive, and thus saw no per-capita growth.
The historical backdrop serves mainly to setup the thesis that the period from 1914 to 1980 (or so) was a historical anomaly. That so much of capital was destroyed by the world wars while at the same time society saw massive steps forward in productivity. Which in turn meant that hereditary wealth was at its least influential in history.
In the past few decades, we’ve moved closer to the historical norm. Real growth through productivity improvements is down a lot since that former golden period, most western societies aren’t growing their population as rapidly as they were, and thus hereditary wealth and privileges are coming back as prime determinants of inequality.
Despite the dense approach, the book isn’t in anyway unapproachable. It’s well told and easily read. And it’s about as timely as it gets. Highly recommend it so far.
The Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker examines the history of violence, and how (most) modern societies have become incredibly safe, compared to historical norms. It’s a deep dive into pre-societal death rates, the savagery and torture of the Middle Ages, and the civilizing process of modern society. It’s not quite at Fukuyama levels of depth, but not far off. Great reminder that for all that is terrible in modern societies, we’ve still made dramatic leaps over even the pretty recent past. Yet still there are these pockets of intense violence, especially in the US, that beggars investigation. And investigate Mr Pinker does. I’m only about 20% through this 800-page tome, but it’s surprisingly easy reading, if not always easy to stomach (he goes DEEP on all the ways humans used to torment each other in all its gory detail).
The Self-Driven Child by Stixrud and Johnson makes the case for letting kids choose most of their life. That parents should be consultants rather than bosses. That if you want capable, intrinsically motivated, and happy adults, you have to let the kids grow into that on mostly their own accord. The authors quote a ton of research that overlaps directly with the work cited in Drive and Punished by Rewards, two other favorites on the topic of motivation. It’s a great book with tons of practical examples for parents on how to learn to let go (without going completely “anything goes”). I think the world would be a happier, healthier place if more parents were taught and understood the lessons of autonomy in children.
Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke applies the thinking of poker decision making to the rest of life. That’s not as stupid of a premise as it sounds. I particularly like the idea of “resulting”, which is to judge the quality of a decision solely by its outcome. Lots of good decisions lead to bad outcomes because its very rare that even good decisions have 100% chance of success. This draws on a lot of cognitive studies by Kahneman and others that show just how poor our default decision making powers are. But it’s also needlessly dragging. This is one of those books that would have been far better if it was a quarter the length, so to make it through, you have to be pretty good at skipping ahead when she belabors the point for the fifth time.
To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I had such a good time with Kafka’s The Trial that I thought I should always be running at least one fiction book next to all the non-fiction material. So I’m kinda just working my way at random through The Classics. Really liking this one so far. I’m sure a lot of people here probably read it in high school or whatever, but it wasn’t on the Danish curriculum, so here I am!
Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic accounts how a few tiny studies on low rates of opium addiction for hospital patients lead to a whole new paradigm for treating pain in the US. From mid 90s to late 2000s, opium pain pills were basically considered non-addictive by much of the medical community. This led to crazy over-prescription, subsequent addiction, and a whole new market for heroin once someone was hooked and couldn’t afford the pills. This heroin market was served in large parts by on-demand delivery services driven by small-town Mexican heroin cells. It’s really an interesting tale of medical hubris, corporate greed, the devastation of whole areas to addiction, and more. It could have used a lot more editing, though. So many phrases, “black-tar heroin delivered like pizza”, just keep repeating over and over again. But it’s a solid recount of how we got to this tragic point that opium overdoses is now a leading cause of death for many demographic groups in the US. More people die from drug overdoses than from car crashes now. Tragic.
Man’s Search for Meaning is part holocaust first-person account, part exposition of “logotherapy”, and combined completely profound. Humans can endure the most gruesome treatment if they have something to live for. And they can die from the most pampered existence once there’s nothing to live for. It’s exceedingly well written, and wonderfully short. The author wrote it in 9 days, and yet it’s probably the best book on the philosophy of life that I’ve read outside of the Stoic classics. Very highly recommended.
The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement is novel about organizational dysfunctions. Only just got started on it. It’s just on the border of being too heavy handed in its Teaching Moments, but I’m going to let it roll a little longer.
The Trial by Kafka is a classic that I’ve wanted to read for a long time. So far, it does not disappoint. It’s a fascinating writing style with a 3rd party observer that’s treated as an extension of the protagonists own sentiments and mind. It’s also just exquisitely written. And the concept of being on trial for charges unknown by a vast, impersonal, yet petty, bureaucracy pulls from a timeless well of societal anxieties. So far, so very good. About half way through.
Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter is a “modern philosophy” book that tries to tackle the issues of the day from many sides of morality. It’s also banal, trite, and predictable, and not very good. Only made it through a handful of the essays before I decided to call it quits. Would not recommend.
Halfway through The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves after reading Tara’s recommendation. I always liked HBO’s In Treatment, and this feels similar in many ways. A chance to reflect on your own life and flaws by reading how others deal with theirs. I also love how short the vignettes are. Usually just a few pages. It’s immensely readable, and the whole book is refreshingly succinct as well. Good counter to my most recent diet of LET ME EXPLAIN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IN FIVE VOLUMES OF 800 PAGES.