The Best Books I Read in 2016

I’ve been neglecting coreybreier.com/favoritebooks for the past two years, but the knowledge curated there and the power of the right book introduction remain undiminished. So when I saw a flurry of The Best Books I Read in 2016 posts come out from friends like Titiaan Palazzi, Tam Pham and Nat Eliason, I decided to revive the practice as a yearly tradition.

Below you’ll find the best books I read in 2016, along with my main takeaways and links to public notes, if any. I’d love to hear if you end up reading any of these off my recommendation.

Happy Reading! (WordPress isn’t displaying the images here somehow, see Medium for version with pictures)

Nonfiction:

Memoir/ Biography

 

 

Steve Martin’s autobiography isn’t especially notable other than it emphasizes the importance of practice – Steve’s been performing nonstop his entire life. Also, that his jokes have always been very silly.

 


A well-researched, comprehensive look at the man behind the myth. Elon truly has been working on his current problems for his entire life, and has been catastrophically close to failure on several occasions.

There’s also several fun anecdotes in here, like him sleeping in the office and having engineers kick him awake, or trying to calculate how many hours a wife required per week. A worthy question, but now one you’ll answer with science!


I read this book because I loved Shantaram by David Gregory Roberts, and this is the other book all travellers rave about.

It’s a true story about an English drug dealer who went to a Bolivian prison that’s so corrupt that prisoners have to pay for their cells, tourists take tours, and cocaine is made in the basement.

It’s a harrowing book due to the subject matter, but quite an adventure. I’m just glad I didn’t have to live it myself. I had to take reading breaks to get out of the prison myself.


Definitely my favorite book at the close of the year. It’s the memoir of a Wall Street quant who founds a YC backed adtech startup that survives lawsuits to be acquired by twitter, but ditches them to join Facebook.

The author is whip smart with the wit to match and makes full use of both as he tells his story.


Invisible Book Club

My company Invisible Technologies has a book club where we all read the same books and discuss them. This list is a good way for anyone to brainwash themselves to believe the same things we do (And that our company will succeed!)

 

All meat, no filler. This was my second read through of this book, and it might as well be the manifesto demanding our company’s founding. Definitely worth a read for any businessperson.

My rough notes are here.


 

CEO Ed Catmull talks about his journey through Pixar and how it’s run today. A great story and a great management manual.

What stuck out most was Notes Day, once a year when all of Pixar spends the whole day talking about how they can make the company better, by starting with the assumption that it’s happened, and asking how it got there.


A truly powerful manifesto from a master futurist. I can’t believe this wasn’t already on my radar. Incredibly ambitious, and it hits the mark.

Kevin Kelly argues that while Technology is not sentient, it still ‘wants’ things, namely innovation.  It can be a force for bad, but that’s our fault. It’s fundamentally a force for good because the presence of options is always superior to the lack thereof.

Find my rough notes here.


Joseph Campbell was a tenured professor, but he talks like a Zen mystic. It’s awe inspiring to watch him trace the similarities in myths around the world.


Self Development

The grandaddy of all self help books, and you can see why. Those same ideas are laid out here in the plainest and most direct language possible.

That said, the prose is rather alienating if you’re not used to the direct marketing style of writing, but the deeper meanings he refers to ring true. A good non denominational introduction to spirituality, though you’ll need to go elsewhere to get deeper.


Not Ryan’s strongest book, to be honest, but a great collection of stories from history proving that you shouldn’t listen to your ego. Almost like a companion piece to his superior Stoic work The Obstacle is the Way.

I think of him as my personal researcher, whether it’s surfacing stellar books in his monthly newsletter (where many of these came from) or historical anecdotes around a theme with his books.


A strong and short manifesto arguing that the future belongs to the creatives. If you don’t believe that, read this. If you do, read this to back up your thinking with Taylor’s excellent research and firsthand experiences.

There were several statistics in here I wasn’t aware of, pointing out how traditional businesses are on their way out. I guess its just a question of whether the Technological Singularity comes before the Entrepreneurship Singularity.


The best book at interviewing I’ve found, from a former Playboy writer, no less. It’s about researching your subject beforehand, forming good questions, and letting the conversation take itself from there.


Pop Science

A fun Gladwell – esque read about how to be original, likely only helpful for intra-preneurs.

Some stats that stuck out for me where the fact that entrepreneurs with day jobs have 33% higher chances of success,  Nobel prize winners are more likely to be involved in the arts, leading with the problems in your idea makes criticism more difficult, and to allow time for an idea to settle before making a decision.


 

 

Fascinating deep dive into the world of pop music and the industrial machine that produces it. Did you know 80% of modern pop music is made by the same few Nordic producers? You should.

 

 


A surprisingly lively read where a few CS nerds apply computer best practices to normal living.

I learned several helpful heuristics and formal names for tradeoffs I already knew, like Explore/Exploit or Search/Sort. They solved the Prisoner’s Dilemma too – add a Godfather who makes both choices worse (tax or death), and the incentives line up best for all!

 


Philosophy

By the end of this book you’ll be questioning if there’s still a You. I never get past the first chapters of his other bible Godel Escher Bach, and this is a much more focused discussion of similar themes, namely that the self is a lie.

Hofstadter is a wonderful tour guide – similar to Richard Feynman in that irreverent scientist persona. This one still drags a bit, but the good parts more than make up for the lengthy thought experiments.


My other favorite book of 2016. The most fun history book you’ll ever read. I’ve gushed about it enough already in my Takeaways, so read that first if you still need convincing.


Fiction

Science Fiction

Oh man, this was such a fun read, and eerily possible. A hacker unleashes a program that manipulates humans like If/Then loops, telling them to go places and do things in return for money (or else), as part of a master plan to take over the world. Things get crazy in the second book, in the VR-based gamified world economy. Did I mention the program uses bladed motorcycles with blinding laser pointers as shock troops?

 


A true scifi classic, and one of the most engrossing worlds built since Star Wars. So much going on here, from the Canterbury Tales structure, to everything named after Keats poems, to the battle against AI, to the time-independent bladed nightmare known as the Shrike. First 2 books are required scifi reading, and the second two just for fun.

 


A bit dated and simplistic, like all Golden Age scifi, but a decent read for the libertarian in all of us about the moon declaring independence.


Fantasy

 

This was the year I finally boarded the GRRM hype train. All the hype makes sense now!

Some of the most intricate and character-driven fantasy out there, rugged and tough with just enough dragons and magic to keep you interested. Books 1-3 are something else, while 4 and 5 lag, but by then you’ll be so into the world it won’t matter.


Super fun quick read about a coder who finds the source file for reality and goes to Middle Age England to be a wizard where people respect him. Except that he’s not the first to do so!

If you liked Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, you’ll love this world. It’s full of irreverent hacker fun and pop culture references. I’m looking forward to the other two books in the series.


A rollicking adventure story about an assassins guild in a roguish world filled with lackadaisical murders and intrigue.

Some of the best insults and one liners I’ve ever read.


Not Exactly 2016

I read these before this year, but after the last book roundup, so I don’t want them to get lost!

 

Cheryl Strayed is a queen. You’re probably heard of her as the author of Wild after the recent movie with Reese Witherspoon, but this is an even more intimate at her shockingly rough life, squeezed out into some of the best life advice you’ll find anywhere. Raw, authentic, and helpful – don’t miss.

 

 


Cal Newport’s convincing argument that skills trump passion in the professional world. Instead, find a few things you’re good at, and become the best person at the intersection of those things.

You should be moderately interested in them, but you being talented is more important than you being interested, even if you’re optimizing for fun.


Heartbreakingly beautiful love story set in gothic Barcelona. The prose, oh the prose!

Takeaways from Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

Flow was one of those books that kept getting recommended to me again and again. Every book that multiple  people have recommended me again and again has turned out to be excellent, and this was no exception.

The author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is a psychologist, and usually science books run the risk of being full of data and experiments without much soul or narrative to hold them together. (This was my experience with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.)

But Flow does not read like a science book, it reads like a self-help book. It’s a personal manifesto backed by science, rather than science warped to serve a manifesto, as sometimes happens when self-development and science intersect. The author puts it best:

“Rather than presenting a list of dos and don’ts, this book intends to be a voyage through the realms of the mind, charted with the tools of science. Like all adventures worth having it will not be an easy one. Without some intellectual effort, a commitment to reflect and think hard about your own experience, you will not gain much from what follows.”

Needless to say, I gained much and think it’s well worth a read.  Here’s excerpts of the 13 main points I noticed, with some extra comments from me. Plaintext is Csikszentmihalyi, italics are me.

———————————————————————————

To Live Well, Resist the Chaos of Reality by Controlling Consciousness

“A happy life it is an individual creation that cannot be copied from a recipe. The more you aim at success and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue…as the unintended side-effect of one’s personal dedication to a course greater than oneself.”

“People moving through life eventually ask a question ‘Is this all there is?’ Childhood can be painful, adolescence confusing, but for most people, behind it all there is the expectation that after one grows up, things will get better. During the years of early adulthood the future still looks promising, the hope remains that one’s goals will be realized. But inevitably the bathroom mirror shows the first white hairs, and confirms the fact that those extra pounds are not about to leave; inevitably eyesight begins to fail and mysterious pains begin to shoot through the body. Like waiters in a restaurant starting to place breakfast settings on the surrounding tables while one is still having dinner, these intimations of mortality plainly communicate the message: Your time is up, it’s time to move on.”

“Those who cannot cope with a meaningless life may retire gracefully into relative oblivion. Following Candide’s advice, they will give up on the world and cultivate their little gardens. They might dabble in genteel forms of escape such as developing a harmless hobby or accumulating a collection of abstract paintings or porcelain figurines. Or they might lose themselves in alcohol or the dreamworld of drugs. While exotic pleasures and expensive recreations temporarily take the mind off the basic question “Is this all there is?” few claim to have ever found an answer that way.”

 Csikszentmihalyi notes that reality is chaotic, or entropic, in scientific terms. Living in a place where things change and you are buffeted by forces out of your control is a recipe for disaster and depression, which is why we must gain some measure of control of reality in order to create stability. Yet reality is fickle and cannot be truly controlled – the only aspect we control is our consciousness. That is what we should seek to control and shape, not the outside world. Doing so through passive entertainment will merely distract you from chaos – only seeking to control it will offer fulfillment.

You Cannot Adopt Another’s Way of Confronting Chaos

“There are many protective devices—religions, philosophies, arts, and comforts—that help shield us from chaos. They help us believe that we are in control of what is happening and give reasons for being satisfied with our lot. But these cultural shields are effective only for a while; after a few centuries, sometimes after only a few decades, a religion or belief wears out and no longer provides the spiritual sustenance it once did.” 

“When we follow the suggestions of genetic and social instructions without question we relinquish the control of consciousness and become helpless playthings of impersonal forces. The person who cannot resist food or alcohol, or whose mind is constantly focused on sex, is not free to direct his or her psychic energy.”

“Control over consciousness cannot be institutionalized. As soon as it becomes part of a set of social rules and norms, it ceases to be effective in the way it was originally intended to be. Routinization, unfortunately, tends to take place very rapidly.  The insights of the Gospels, of Martin Luther, of the framers of the Constitution, of Marx and Freud—just to mention a very few of those attempts that have been made in the West to increase happiness by enhancing freedom—will always be valid and useful, even though some of them have been perverted in their application. But they certainly do not exhaust either the problems or the solutions.”

This is why you must create your own recipe for a meaningful life – you cannot adopt the dogma of someone else because it will not work for your unique experience.” 

Invest Psychic Energy In Your Method To Find Flow

Once one has some idea of how they wish to control consciousness, they must take action to invest psychic energy into doing so, and once you get good at whatever that thing is, you will enter a flow statean effortless state when you lose track of time and become lost in the activity. Flow is psychic energy focused to the point that people can control their consciousness effortlessly, by shutting off all mental processes but the immediately relevant ones.

Once one finds a flow activity that works towards a goal, they can organize their concept of self around it. “Then, even though that person is objectively a slave (to the goal), subjectively he is free.”

“The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity. Both try to achieve a joyous, self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body. Some critics, however, prefer to stress the differences between flow and Yoga. Their main divergence is that, whereas flow attempts to fortify the self, the goal of Yoga and many other Eastern techniques is to abolish it.”

Csikszentmihalyi rejects abolishing the self. The subjective experience remains important. “It is not the hearing that improves life, it is the listening. We hear Muzak, but we rarely listen to it, and few could have ever been in flow as a result of it.” “What a person sees in a painting is not just a picture, but a “thought machine” that includes the painter’s emotions, hopes, and ideas—as well as the spirit of the culture and the historical period in which he lived.”

“Indeed, the personal with a fortified self is stronger than one without identity. They can draw strength from within. While others need external stimulation—television, reading, conversation, or drugs—to keep their minds from drifting into chaos, the person whose memory is stocked with patterns of information is autonomous and self-contained. Additionally, such a person is also a much more cherished companion, because she can share the information in her mind, and thus help bring order into the consciousness of those with whom she interacts.”

With a strong self, one does not rely on external stimulus to control consciousness. Think of enjoying crossword puzzles – you are dependent on “the challenge provided by an expert in the Sunday supplement or puzzle magazine. To be really autonomous in this domain, a better alternative is to make up one’s own crosswords. Then there is no longer need for a pattern to be imposed from the outside; one is completely free. And the enjoyment is more profound.”

Institutional Chaos Management Methods

“It is a common fate of many human institutions to begin as a response to some universal problem until, after many generations, the problems peculiar to the institutions themselves will take precedence over the original goal. For example, modern nations create armed forces as a defense against enemies. Soon, however, an army develops its own needs, its own politics, to the point that the most successful soldier is not necessarily the one who defends the country best, but the one who obtains the most money for the army.”

Young people are more intolerant of the constraints of routine and what came before – they are eager for change and filled with the energy to affect it. This is a better quality of experience, because you can “ play with and transform the opportunities in your surroundings, which is clearly more enjoyable than that of people who resign themselves to live within the constraints of the barren reality they feel they cannot alter.”

Only Flow Will Set You Free – Entertainment is a Distraction

There are many passive entertainment options that allow one to relinquish control of consciousness and enjoy oneself at the same time. But these are inferior to the active entertainment facilitated by personal flow experiences, because they are external stimuli that distract us from taking steps on our own.

With television: “We do not run risks acting on our beliefs, but occupy hours each day watching actors who pretend to have adventures, engaged in mock-meaningful action. This vicarious participation is able to mask, at least temporarily, the underlying emptiness of wasted time. But it is a very pale substitute for attention invested in real challenges. The flow experience that results from the use of skills leads to growth; passive entertainment leads nowhere. “

With drugs: “While under the influence of chemicals, the self is relieved from the responsibility of directing its psychic energy; we can sit back and watch the patterns of thought that the drug is providing for—whatever happens, it’s out of our hands.” “While psychotropic drugs do provide a wider variety of mental experiences than one would encounter under normal sensory conditions, they do so without adding to our ability to order them effectively.” He argues that drugs do not expand perspectives, as they are commonly said to do; rather they  reorder the contents of your existing one. 

Conquer Solitude Instead

Instead of contenting oneself with distraction, “It is crucial to learn how to exploit the opportunities of solitude. To enjoy being alone a person must build his own mental routines, so that he can achieve flow without the supports of civilized life—without other people, without jobs, TV, theaters, restaurants, or libraries to help channel his attention.”

Csikszentmihalyi isn’t the only one who thinks conquering solitude is of utmost importance. Leo Babauta of ZenHabits calls it ‘The No1 Habit of Highly Creative People”, and cites several greats from history who agree.

He offers a vivid anecdote about a lone sailor stuck for days in an area without wind. The man had rotten eggs from a spoilt fridge, and was so bored he broke the eggs on the deck so that he would get to clean them up afterwards, just to have something to do. “In ordinary circumstances, solo sailors have plenty to keep their minds occupied. Their survival depends on being ever alert to the conditions of the boat and of the sea. It is this constant concentration on a workable goal that makes sailing so enjoyable. But when the doldrums set in, they might have to go to heroic lengths to find any challenge at all.”

On Raising Children Respectfully

Raising children in a way that allows them to control consciousness, find flow activities, and do so without being sidetracked by passive entertainment is tricky. It’s hard to tell another human how to spend their life while respecting their personal agency. That’s why families are so easy to mess up.

“A successful family must be both differentiated and integrated. Differentiation means that each person is encouraged to develop his or her unique traits, maximize personal skills, set individual goals. Integration, in contrast, guarantees that what happens to one person will affect all others. If a child is proud of what she accomplished in school, the rest of the family will pay attention and will be proud of her, too. If the mother is tired and depressed, the family will try to help and cheer her up. In an integrated family, each person’s goals matter to all others.”

So you need to support the kids while letting them do their own thing. But it’s hard for kids to find their own things that are legitimate activities, since their underdeveloped psyche is drawn to the easy distractions of drugs, sex, and video games. Suburbs are especially poisonous, since they’re essentially teenage nurseries, formulated to keep them as sheltered as possible from ‘the real world’. ( “Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seems boring and sterile. The whole place is a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children. – Paul Graham, Why Nerds Are Unpopular

Csikszentmihalyi agrees: “What can a strong, vital, intelligent fifteen-year-old do in your typical suburb? If you consider that question you will probably conclude that what is available is either too artificial, or too simple, or not exciting enough to catch a teenager’s imagination. It is not surprising that athletics are so important in suburban schools; compared to the alternatives, they provide some of the most concrete chances to exercise and display one’s skills. Consciously or not, many young girls feel that becoming pregnant is the only really adult thing they can do, despite its dangers and unpleasant consequences.”

Instrumental and Expressive Skills

“One way to describe the skills that every man and woman has is to divide them in two classes: the instrumental and the expressive. Instrumental skills are the ones we learn so that we can cope effectively with the environment. They are basic survival tools, like the cunning of the hunter or the craft of the workman, or intellectual tools, like reading and writing and the specialized knowledge of the professional in our technological society. People who have not learned to find flow in most of the things they undertake generally experience instrumental tasks as extrinsic—because they do not reflect their own choices, but are requirements imposed from the outside.”

Expressive skills, on the other hand, refer to actions that attempt to externalize our subjective experiences. Singing a song that reflects how we feel, translating our moods into a dance, painting a picture that represents our feelings, telling a joke we like, and going bowling if that is what makes us feel good are forms of expression in this sense.”

“When involved in an expressive activity we feel in touch with our real self. A person who lives only by instrumental actions without experiencing the spontaneous flow of expressivity eventually becomes indistinguishable from a robot who has been programmed by aliens to mimic human behavior.”

I’d characterize this distinction through activities you have to do, versus activities you want to do. Needs vs wants. You can take pleasure in both, but you undertake them for very different reasons. Dare I mention how well this fits into my fundamental duality of subjective/objective?

On Friends and Community

“A true friend is someone we can occasionally be crazy with, someone who does not expect us to be always true to form. It is someone who shares our goal of self-realization, and therefore is willing to share the risks that any increase in complexity entails.”

“A person is part of a family or a friendship to the extent he invests psychic energy in goals shared with other people:

  • A community should be judged good not because it is technologically advanced, or swimming in material riches; it is good if it offers people a chance to enjoy as many aspects of their lives as possible, while allowing them to develop their potential in the pursuit of ever greater challenges.
  • Similarly the value of a school does not depend on its prestige, or its ability to train students to face up to the necessities of life, but rather on the degree of the enjoyment of lifelong learning it can transmit.
  • A good factory is not necessarily the one that makes the most money, but the one that is most responsible for improving the quality of life for its workers and its customers.
  • And the true function of politics is not to make people more affluent, safe, or powerful, but to let as many as possible enjoy an increasingly complex existence.”

Offering freedom and challenge at the same time makes for good communities, and offering acceptance yet shared goals makes for good friends. I was close with my recipe for a bestie – true friends share values, preferred activities, and pasts. 

Be Autotelic – Translate Threats Into Opportunities

“Richard Logan found in his study of individuals who survived severe physical ordeals—polar explorers wandering alone in the Arctic, concentration camp inmates—one common attitude shared by such people was the implicit belief that their destiny was in their hands. They did not doubt their own resources would be sufficient to allow them to determine their fate. In that sense one would call them self-assured, yet at the same time, their egos seem curiously absent: they are not self-centered; their energy is typically not bent on dominating their environment as much as on finding a way to function within it harmoniously.”

“People who know how to transform stress into enjoyable challenge spend very little time thinking about themselves. They are not expending all their energy trying to satisfy what they believe to be their needs, or worrying about socially conditioned desires. Instead their attention is alert, constantly processing information from their surroundings. The focus is still set by the person’s goal, but it is open enough to notice and adapt to external events even if they are not directly relevant to what he wants to accomplish.”

“The ‘autotelic self’ is one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person who is never bored, seldom anxious, involved with what goes on, and in flow most of the time may be said to have an autotelic self. The term literally means “a self that has self-contained goals,” and it reflects the idea that such an individual has relatively few goals that do not originate from within the self. For most people, goals are shaped directly by biological needs and social conventions, and therefore their origin is outside the self. For an autotelic person, the primary goals emerge from experience evaluated in consciousness, and therefore from the self proper.”

“A person who pays attention to an interaction instead of worrying about the self obtains a paradoxical result. She no longer feels like a separate individual, yet her self becomes stronger. The autotelic individual grows beyond the limits of individuality by investing psychic energy in a system in which she is included. Because of this union of the person and the system, the self emerges at a higher level of complexity. This is why ’tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.

This is how Csikszentmihalyi justifies the fortified Western sense of self over ego-less Eastern philosophies. Such a person is so in tune with her reality that she ceases to exist, yet it is precisely her ability to find flow regardless of circumstance that defines her. They are not passive, but proactive in response to her environment – she is happy with what is and also what could be.

For more on translating threats into opportunities, check out Ryan Holiday’s stellar introduction to the philosophy of Stoicism: The Obstacle is The Way.

Transform Your Life Into One Big Flow Activity to Find Meaning

“But to change all existence into a flow experience, it is not sufficient to learn merely how to control moment-by-moment states of consciousness. It is also necessary to have an overall context of goals for the events of everyday life to make sense. If a person moves from one flow activity to another without a connecting order, it will be difficult at the end of one’s life to look back on the years past and find meaning in what has happened. To create harmony in whatever one does is the last task that the flow theory presents to those who wish to attain optimal experience; it is a task that involves transforming the entirety of life into a single flow activity, with unified goals that provide constant purpose.”

It is one thing to recognize that life is, by itself, meaningless. It is another thing entirely to accept this with resignation. The first fact does not entail the second any more than the fact that we lack wings prevents us from flying.”

“From the point of view of an individual, it does not matter what the ultimate goal is—provided it is compelling enough to order a lifetime’s worth of psychic energy. The challenge might involve the desire to have the best beer-bottle collection in the neighborhood, the resolution to find a cure for cancer, or simply the biological imperative to have children who will survive and prosper. As long as it provides clear objectives, clear rules for action, and a way to concentrate and become involved, any goal can serve to give meaning to a person’s life.”

“The price one pays for changing goals whenever opposition threatens is that while one may achieve a more pleasant and comfortable life, it is likely that it will end up empty and void of meaning. For those who have met goals consistently, despite pain and failure, life as a whole had a chance to become like an extended episode of flow: a focused, concentrated, internally coherent, logically ordered set of experiences, which, because of its inner order, was felt to be meaningful and enjoyable.”

On Balancing Activity and Reflection

“Activity and reflection should ideally complement and support each other. Action by itself is blind, reflection impotent. To discard the hard-won information on how to live accumulated by our ancestors, or to expect to discover a viable set of goals all by oneself, is misguided hubris. The chances of success are about as good as in trying to build an electron microscope without the tools and knowledge of physics.”

Science (What Is) vs Faith (What Ought To Be)

“A vital new religion may one day arise again. In the meantime, those who seek consolation in existing churches often pay for their peace of mind with a tacit agreement to ignore a great deal of what is known about the way the world works.”

“If a new faith is to capture our imagination, it must be one that will account rationally for the things we know, the things we feel, the things we hope for, and the ones we dread. It must be a system of beliefs that will marshal our psychic energy toward meaningful goals, a system that provides rules for a way of life that can provide flow. It is difficult to imagine that a system of beliefs such as this will not be based, at least to some degree, on what science has revealed about humanity and about the universe.”

“Without such a foundation, our consciousness would remain split between faith and knowledge. But if science is to be of real help, it will have to transform itself. In addition to the various specialized disciplines aimed at describing and controlling isolated aspects of reality, it will have to develop an integrated interpretation of all that is known, and relate it to humankind and its destiny.”

“The obvious critique of this scenario is that science in general, and the science of evolution in particular, deals with what is, not with what ought to be. Faiths and beliefs, on the other hand, are not limited by actuality; they deal with what is right, what is desirable. But one of the consequences of an evolutionary faith might be precisely a closer integration between the is and the ought.”

“When we understand better why we are as we are, when we appreciate more fully the origins of instinctual drives, social controls, cultural expressions—all the elements that contribute to the formation of consciousness—it will become easier to direct our energies where they ought to go.”

This is just a taste. Go read the book!

Takeaways from Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Can Create A Powerful Purpose For Their Lives

I read Black Hole Focus: How Intelligent People Can Create A Purpose For Their Lives by Isaiah Hankel off a friend’s recommendation, and I’ll admit that at first I was skeptical.

I’d become so desensitized to self-development verbiage that the book’s blurb and description made it sound generic. The author realized he wasn’t happy with his life so he changed it and here’s how you can too, blah blah blah. But as soon I started reading I could tell this was different – it’s absurdly actionable, inspiring, and gripping, even for a piece of nonfiction.There’s a reason why this book has 5 stars with over 100 reviews on Amazon – it’s fantastic.

I almost don’t want to write up notes because I’d rather you read the book, but if I can get even one person to read this who wouldn’t have read the book, then it’s worth it. I read a lot of books in the self development space, and this is the best I’ve encountered yet because it distills the teachings from so many others into one taut script for success.

So here we go – the best takeaways and insights from Black Hole Focus:

Part 1: Why You Need A Purpose

  • Japanese on Okinawa have a special word for “a reason to get up in the morning” – ikagai – which is one of the reasons why they live the longest
  • If there’s pain in your life, it’s because you’re not meeting one of the 3 prime needs: growth, connection, and autonomy
  • Ever notice how once you know it’s the last sprint you can run it faster than the penultimate one? It’s because you have clarity and energy to know what is ahead – same thing with defining your purpose
  • You can’t define your purpose using some personality test that lumps people into 16-odd categories – everyone’s purpose is different. You are the only one that can define it, nobody else can.
  • Any good screenwriter constructs the plot of a movie by starting at the end. They ask “What is the cause of this effect?” over and over until they have a compelling narrative. With your life purpose in mind, you can do the same

Part 2: How To Find your Purpose

  • Start by ruthlessly evaluating your current position: How would a complete stranger describe your life right nowwith no knowledge of your past or emotions? Measure your assets and liabilities, and your strengths and limitations.
  • Then create a wish list of actions that you want to do on a daily basis. This is your purpose – the day to day reality of your life. What do you want it to look like?
    • To determine this list, look at what you currently enjoy doing, what you lose yourself in, what you do in your free time. You’re probably already doing some things in line with your purpose
  • Write down everything you want to do, to be, and to own. Write BIG things, that make you feel alive on the inside
  • Determine your current core priorities. These are the values and traits you give importance to – things you perceive as good.
    • To do this, write down the personal strengths you are proud of, the traits you admire in others, and the traits that you want to possess. Be ruthlessly honest.
    • Realize that your current core priorities are what got you to where you are today. They will not get you to your purpose. Rewrite your priorities so that they will get you closer to your purpose. Choose words that fill you with hope and energy.
  • Attach an aggressive short term goal to each of your core priorities. Setting these goals should set your mind racing and fill you with enthusiasm, urgency, and a sense of mild panic. (1-6 months is good)
  • Program yourself to succeed with a positive story. Recognize the stories you tell yourself about your life and rewrite it to be inspiring.
    • Beware the ‘one vs many’ meme that’s popular in fiction, it does not encourage an abundance mentality
    • Princeton researchers found that when people communicate through storytelling, neural activity becomes almost synchronous – the listener’s activity mirrors that of the speaker with a one second lag. The story you tell yourself becomes reality.
  • To do this, set aside a block of time to be alone and reflect on the times in your life when you felt the most inspired.
    • When did you feel maximally empowered? What were you watching, reading, or doing? From memory, create a giant list of the things that inspire you. Don’t google anything and don’t worry about spelling.
    • What do these things have in common? Identify at least a dozen words that make you come alive on the inside.
    • Inject these words into your preexisting story in order to create an inspiring new one. Use them as the backbone of the new story
  • Ask yourself difficult questions enough times and you will eventually find a way to answer them.
    • How can I get to X? What is my purpose? What is my story? What are my core priorities? Will this matter a year from now? What is the most important thing I can do right now? What’s great about this situation right now?
  • Create a personal slogan. This is the abridged version of your personal philosophy. Isaiah’s is to ‘contribute massively, build strong relationships, and live like a lion’. Shorten it even further into a meme in order to easily repeat it to yourself in times of need – Isaiah’s meme is ‘bring’ as in ‘bring all you got’
  • Create a vision board: Find a short phrase or visual representation of your biggest goal and put that in the middle. Then fan out with representations of your long term goals, then short term goals. It should feel excruciatingly personal.
  • Amplify your belief in the decision to achieve your vision, and validate it repeatedly.
    • No one else is going to save or validate you. No one else can live your life for you. They can give you rewards and experiences, but feelings of achievement and fulfillment must come from within
    • Story of the meatpacker who got stuck in the meat train after 20 years of work. Knew there was no oxygen inside so prepared himself to die, and wrote his last goodbyes on a piece of paper before succumbing to deprivation.
    • The catch: his car had an air leak he didn’t know about – there was enough air for him to live. He killed himself through self-fulfilling beliefs.
    • If your mind is powerful enough to kill you, it’s also powerful enough to give you the life you want.
  • You must expect to succeed with irresistible intensity – you will not fail, there is no other option, this is the mountain you will die on.
  • Celebrate progress – it is how you keep perishable inspiration alive.
  • Calculate what your vision will cost – it’s often much less than you think, perhaps and extra $20 a day when thinking in daily terms.
  • Thinking in terms of daily income allows you to act right then – find that extra $20 as if your life depended on it.

Part 3: How to Fulfill Your Purpose

  • When reading nonfiction, focus on the principles, not the processes. There’s hundreds of different ways to state the same basic thing.
  • The only way to get better at something is to do it, not things related to it. Action is the only source of mastery.
  • To be a master at something, it’s acknowledged that you need to spend 10,000 hours in deliberate practice doing that thing. You can only spend about five hours a day in deliberate practice, tops. (There, I just saved you having to read Gladwell’s Outliers or Colvin’s Talent is Overrated)
  • So mastery will take forever, right? No – acknowledge the 10k hour rule but don’t follow it. Increase the quality of your hours through:
    • Association – spend time with masters who know more than you do
    • Convergence – overlap your pursuits to increase the leverage of your hours (i.e. If pursuing writing/speaking, a blog video script counts for both)
    • Metamorphosis – Mimic the greats and so become them. (Like writing students who reconstruct author’s messages)
    • Ritualization – Create habits for your life outside of the mastery hours, so you have more willpower to expend within them
    • Automation – automate any tasks that do not require your engagement, again for more willpower. However, you cannot automate your interactions with other people.
    • Adjustment – structure your environment in order to minimize un-needed use of willpower (i.e. Don’t stock fridge with candy)
  • Recognize that there’s no such thing as a life hack – true mastery takes grinding
  • Willpower is your ability to make good decisions, and it’s limited to your blood glucose levels. Ration it wisely.
  • Peter Silkman’s Marshmallow challenge – build a structure with uncooked spaghetti and place a marshmallow on top. MBAs do the worst, kindergartners the best. Why? They spend more time doing and less time planning. Patience is a vice when it comes to your purpose. Seize action now.
  • Trust that you are self reliant. You can count on yourself, who you are right now, to fulfill your purpose.
  • Manipulate reality by focusing your perspective.
    • Perspective is built of your references and belief system. A wide reaching knowledge base and flexible belief system gives you more opportunities.
    • Make sure your knowledge base is useful, however. Don’t fill your mind with useless references. Read and watch things that bring you closer to your purpose.
    • Better yet, take related actions. Actions create experiences, experiences create references.
    • Believe that anything is possible while recognizing that not everything should be realized.
    • Balance yourself between a limited perspective without hope and a broad perspective without focus.
  • The most important person in your network is the person whose attention you have right now.
  • One minute of connecting is 55 seconds of listening and 5 seconds of talking. Have your 5 seconds of personal differentiation down pat – here’s who you are, what you do, how you can help.
    • One way to do this in 5 seconds is with the X for Y template, like Alien was Jaws in space. Connect existing references.
  • Information age is over – we are totally saturated with information. Now it’s the Idea Age – which are created from quality info. But ideas are commodities.
    • What adds value to an idea is the ability to communicate it effectively, the ability to turn it into reality, and the ability to choose the right idea to execute. 
    • These are the only 3 skills that matter – anything that doesn’t require this in the next decade will be replaced by a mobile app.
    • To be good at these 3 skills, practice oral communication,  physical action, and mental choice.
  • Large estate used to have pacing rooms where the lord would dictate his ideas – studies show you think optimally alongside physical activity.
  • Conclusion – the end point of your purpose is not a title or salary. It’s the wish list of action you want to wake up and do on a daily basis.

Please, please, please get the full book and read it if any part of this summary spoke to you. Isaiah goes into further detail on everything, and you’d be missing out if you stopped here.

I’d love to compare notes on respective purposes if you do – which reminds me, I have to go finish refining my priority list and vision board.

Ten Principles I Live By

I recently finished the free book Principles by Ray Dalio. It’s an interesting piece of nonfiction where Ray lays out the principles he lives his life by, along with his rational for holding principles at all. Sounds boring, right?

If this was some normal person laying out what they believe that’d be the case, but this is Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates. That’s the largest hedge fund in the world, with a near spotless investment record and a famous company culture that values transparency and honesty in an industry infamous for the opposite. So this is a very smart guy laying out what he believes and why.

As such, it is a more interesting read than you would think. Dalio lists some two hundred principles when I think you could cover the same ground in one hundred, so that part drags on, but the beginning section about why it’s important to have and record principles is golden. In short, writing down your principles allows you to evaluate them more objectively, by looking at them on their own outside of your head and determining if you really believe in them or just say so. Values lead to goals, which lead to problems, which lead to diagnoses, then designs, and then tasks, so doing anything without fundamental principles means you’re on a hamster wheel. Plus, it’s easier to make tough decisions with your principles at the ready, because then you can just check them for guidance on which path to take.

I’ve been blogging for a while about my thoughts, but I never thought to lay out the structure behind my beliefs. Reading Principles inspires me to do just that, so that I can challenge and strengthen them through testing and third party observation. So here I go: ten Principles I’ve noticed again and again, phrased as inequalities.

Less > More

“Perfection is Achieved Not When There Is Nothing More to Add, But When There Is Nothing Left to Take Away”
– Antoine de Saint-Expury

The more you cut away without sacrificing function, the better. Whether we are talking about industrial design, politics, sensory overload or just packing for a trip, the best possible version of something is one that uses the least stuff to get the job done. You could rephrase this as an emphasis on efficacy, minimalism, or essentialism – it’s all the same concept.

I try to ask myself what value things add, whether they’re media sources, people, or errant paragraphs. There’s room for them all in theory, but with the above principle in mind, it’s better to cut than to paste. Always thinking about the best way to do more with less reinforces which parts of life are truly important versus which are just noise.

Open > Closed

“Being truthful, and letting others be completely truthful, allows me and others to fully explore our thoughts and exposes us to the feedback that is essential for our learning.” -Ray Dalio

Ray often references the astonishing transparency of Bridgewater, where feedback and truth are so important that the lowest intern can question the CEO’s decision, and every meeting is recorded so that no employee is left out of the loop. He justifies this by saying that transparency shares the truth with more people, which lets them align their perspective better to reality. Such radical corporate transparency reminds me of similarly impressive efforts in the tech space like those of Buffer, whose transparency is almost as famous as the product itself . Or look at success in the personal space with James Altucher, who spills his heart out so regularly in public writing that his family will avoid him so not to be talked about.

If it works for these people, it can work for me. I think things function better when they are shared and talked over with others. My blog does this for me – it makes my thoughts collaborative works in progress, rather than private musings in danger of ossifying into dogma. Keeping things secret divorces them from feedback and reality, which is exactly the recipe for disaster, according to Ray  (and common sense). The only time is makes sense to do so is with state or business secrets that could imperil the entity in question, although saying that does open up a slippery slope of ‘for your own safety’ problems. Better to err on the side of truth.

The more one shares, the more their perspective and that of others becomes aligned with reality. Secrets and lies rarely end well. Look at the story of Enron or Lying by Sam Harris for proof positive of that (although I can’t say my own life is without white lies – need to work on that).

Absolute > Relative

“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” – Neil Degrasse Tyson

Opinions are nothing next to facts. Reason always wins over emotion. Reality doesn’t care what you think. It’s either true or it isn’t, and wishful thinking won’t change anything. So empirical observations, thoughtful experiments, and logical reasoning are superior to any other method seeking to reign instead.

You could take this to be an indicator of atheism or rationalism, or just use it to look at your own feelings and comfort. Your feelings in the moment are almost always relative – look at it from somebody else’s point of view and the best course of action becomes clear. Likewise, instead of thinking about how something will feel, thinking about how it will make you feel after you’ve done it. Time heals wounds, but it also changes things like emotions – yet the facts remain.

Zoom out far enough and the petty complaints or thought I have every day become meaningless. What could I do that matters to someone else, or to me ten years from now? Better to optimize for the absolute long term, rather than the relative now.

Meaning > Entertainment

“In the morning we crave meaning, in the evening we crave feeling.” – Gertrude Stein

There’s nothing wrong with being entertained, but it lacks meaning. Meaningful wins out over fun for anyone older than a teenager.

That’s why I try to avoid television and sugary pop distractions in favor of books and games with friends. Time spent with good friends or good art is not as entertaining in the short run as video games, but in the long term they pay off with intellectual interest, whereas entertaining distractions are one time deposits.

How you define meaning is up to you, but however you do it, it’s better to shoot for than contentment.

System > Goal

“Conclusions are not as important as the reasoning behind them.” – (Think this was Peter Thiel’s quote but can’t find where I heard it…)

Process over product. Acceleration over speed. Measure learning, not test scores. The method by which you gain something is infinitely more valuable than the end result. The process can be applied to new challenges, while the product is static. Better to internalize a habit rather than aim for a certain number of pushups. (James Clear has more on goals vs systems here) Hence the value in becoming a life long learner, and embracing the growth mindset.

Creation > Curation > Criticism

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt

Theo says it better than I ever could – The person who creates something has more to offer than any critic, no matter their relative fame. The critic may know what it takes to make something good, but if they haven’t made something themselves, they remain a glorified spectator. Talk is cheap. It’s much harder to create than to curate or criticize. Ideally, one leads to the other, so that the critic becomes a fellow creator offering their take rather than some heathen with an opinion.

Ray brushes against this with his take on earning opinions. He says everyone is entitled to theories, but not everyone has the right to an opinion. Opinions are forged from experience with the matter at hand. If you’re not part of it, who the hell cares what you think?

Opportunity Cost > Actual Cost

“I regret the things I didn’t do far more than the missteps I made along the way” – David Stanley

Too often we don’t ask ourselves about what happens if we don’t do something, rather than what happens if we do. Oftentimes the opportunity cost of what could have been is greater than the sunk cost of the action in question.

I think that we don’t ask ourselves about what happens if we don’t do something enough, instead focusing on what happens if we do it. I try to cultivate a bias towards action, since you never know what will happen when you go out on a limb. Once again, Ray touches on this by pointing out that the best options are those with fewer Cons than Pros, not those without any Cons.

Iterative > Constant

‘”Let’s just call plans what they are: guesses” – Jason Fried

Who is right in the long run – the progressive or the fundamentalist? ‘Because that’s the way we’ve always done it’ is never a good reason to do something. No, the best results come from iterative experimentation, through refining hypothesizes and building on past learnings. Heck, that’s the only reason why we’re not all still hunters and gatherers.

Thus I welcome the advent of buzzwords like ‘lifelogging’, ‘data-driven solutions’, and ‘A/B testing’. Or you could use the old moniker – evolution. All are born from cautious steps forward taken with past steps firmly in mind. That’s how progress is made – bit by bit.

Character > Comfort

“Do not pray for an easy life; pray for the strength to endure a difficult one.” -Bruce Lee

Being comfy is overrated. All the best parts of life happen outside of your comfort zone. I may have whined at Dad back when he made me do things against my will ‘for your own good’, but looking back, I wish I had spent my childhood more constructively. Now I try to challenge myself whenever things get too comfortable.

Caveats:

All that said, the Eleventh Principle could very well be that the correct answer to any dichotomy is usually somewhere in the middle, which means that none of these are ironclad. Radicals of both sides usually come with their own biases and misconceptions – rarely the the best answer lie at the extremes. Here I’m saying that one side is generally better than the other, but not exclusively or specifically so.

Likewise, these sound like work and no play. But I regard play as vitally important – heck , all the biggest breakthroughs came from smart people playing around and stumbling on epiphanies. And I spend large chunks of my life optimizing for play with others.

That’s  reflected in these principles – since play comes naturally to me, I don’t need a principle for it – rather I need principles that bring me back to getting things done. Ray notes that one person’s principles may not work for another. Therein lies the problem with dogmas like religion or politics – rarely do your personal principles line up exactly with those of someone else, especially those prepared for mass consumption. Yet another reason to write up your own list!

So these principles are just what work best for me, at this point, not prescriptions for others. If you think I’m exceptionally wrong or right with these – call me on it! After all, openness is one of my values.

3 Reasons Why You Should Give This Harry Potter Fanfiction A Chance

I recently finished the current build of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudowsky. It’s an HP fanfiction written by one of the guys behind the Machine Intellegence Research Institute (aka a very, very smart guy). I’ve never given fanfiction a chance before, but the fact that the author is one of the foremost minds in artificial intelligence (and a talented writer to boot) convinced me that it was a worthy read rather than a teenage fantasy. Now it’s one of my favorite works of all time. Here’s three reasons to give it a try:

Watch a Scientist Wreak Havoc with Rowling’s World

HPMOR (as it’s called) is a parallel universe where Harry was raised by an Oxford biochemist, and thus by the time he enters Hogwarts is a  child prodigy well-schooled in the scientific method and rational thinking. As a result, he ditches the oafish Ron Weasley in favor of fellow scientist Hermoine Granger (duh) and Draco Malfoy, with whom he shares a keen intellect due to fatherly pressure. . He ends up in Ravenclaw, pledges himself to decode the fundamental science behind magic however possible, and does a whole lot of crazy stuff from the later books all in his first year.

As the only fanfiction I’ve ever read, I found it fascinating to see a familiar world get manipulated by talented hands, instead of the male pregnancy fantasies I understand to be the standard of the genre. Eliezer takes Rowling’s setting and rules of magic seriously, but he is unmerciful with its flaws. Harry dismisses Quidditch outright upon learning of the Snitch’s exorbitant value, and utilizes his Time Turner to the fullest (as any self respecting hero with a friggin time machine should) It’s fascinating to watch the author attempt to make Magical Britain believable through these methods and by tying it in with our modern Muggle world as well.

It also opens up the fundamental question behind fanfiction : should a talented writer choose to work in another’s imagination? Eliezer undoubtedly has the writing chops to write a compelling story on his own- he doesn’t need to play in somebody else’s sandbox to do so. Yet it was probably the right call in this case, because it makes the tale more readable with familiar characters, and because

It Combines Education and Entertainment

This new Harry has an encyclopedic knowledge of modern science, so you’ll find him referencing famous psychological experiments before a decision or shooting down logical fallacies in his fellow characters’ arguments. As a result, the book transcends simple entertainment and becomes educational, as it teaches you the basics of skepticism and rational thought. You could certainly learn all that Harry knows at Eliezer’s other project, the rational database Less Wrong, but the writing there is technical and unforgiving. In HPMOR it is presented as the sidenotes to a compelling yarn, along with characters you already know, with the end result that I’ll likely remember the concepts far better than I would through the nonlinear and non-narrative Sequences.

Thus as a result of reading I found myself pondering the world of rationalism, weighing options and ethics just like back in undergraduate philosophy classes. Harry divides his thought processes into mental personalities who take on the voices of people he’s encountered, and so there’s a Hufflepuff in his head preaching loyalty, a Ravenclaw preaching truth, a Gryffindor preaching heroism, and a Slytherin preaching cunning. The houses are much more balanced in this version, with Gryffindors as heroic fools, and Slytherins representing ambition and politics, rather than just evil. The reclaiming of Slytherin House is a theme in the book, with Harry trying to turn Draco by teaching him the scientific method and pointing out that a hatred of Mudbloods makes their cause weaker through attracting un-intelligent blood purists rather than worthy comrades.

The way in which Harry methodically convinces Draco is a perfect example of how the author combines entertainment (a new take on familiar fiction) with education (in presenting step by step a persuasive, logical argument that’s fair to both sides). Some readers complain that Eliezer’s writing pushes the rationalist angle too strong as Author Tract ( it is overpowering at times), but it’s hard to argue with, well, rational thought.

It Forces You To Confront Rationality

The chunk of Voldemort’s spirit stuck in Harry’s scar helps him think more rationally, too, since Voldie was always cunningly Machiavellian in getting what he wanted, even if it meant sacrificing health or minions. But since such thinking places importance only on results, rather than what other people’s thoughts and feeling, it is Dark in the purest sense of the word. Thus the struggle inside Harry between his rational Dark side and his empathetic light side (he’ll even go so far as to label the slower characters as NPCs [computer controlled units in online computer games] and completely disregard their presence due to them being unable to comprehend what he’s doing )becomes not just a Rowling parallel, but an examination of rationality as well. It made me question whether strict rational thought has room for empathy within it, based as it is on objective science rather than subjective feelings.

Many rationalists I’ve spoken to would choose results over feelings. Phrased as a strict dichotomy, with leaving a positive life legacy at the cost of love on one end (like, say, Alan Turing) or leading a happy caring life without anyone caring after you die on the other (like any well-loved grandparent who worked their whole life as an industrial worker, perhaps). As someone who prizes long term results over short term pleasure myself, I found this a difficult decision. Without emotions, humans are but robots -indeed, you could say caring is what makes us human. But that same precious ‘human condition’ is nothing but a romantic name bestowed on an advanced version of ape group dynamics, evolved to keep us safe from savannah predators. Without objective results, we’d fall prey to our cognitive biases and petty wants for sex, food, and shelter. There has to be a way to live an ambitious life with room in it for emotions.

Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, to me, was a powerful parable exploring that duality of rationality and empathy, populated with upgraded versions of the familiar Rowling characters we know and love. And it is one of the most gripping stories I’ve ever read, fanfiction or not. If you thought Atlas Shrugged was a worthy treatise weighed down by wooden writing, you’ve got to give HPMOR a try. But if you’re not into science or it’s forays into effective thought, you’re probably going to hate it. Prevailing sentiment is to try it till Chapter 5 and then give up then if you still don’t like it.