Impressions of Malaysia

A stop on the KL food tour

A stop on the KL food tour

Malaysia is a country of 30 million people that co-anchors the SE Asian economy with Indonesia. It’s also a place known to have great food and friendly people. So I was delighted to have the opportunity to visit there for the first time recently to give a couple talks.

I was only in Kuala Lumpur so it’s probably more accurate to say I was in Kuala Lumpur rather than Malaysia, as the smaller towns and countryside are quite different from the capital city. (The most striking example of this distinction in Asia is the grand canyon of a difference between “Beijing/Shanghai” and “the rest of China.”)

Kuala Lumpur was more relaxed than I was expecting. A few years ago I spent several days in neighboring Jakarta, a city that overwhelms you with traffic and chaos. KL felt positively tranquil by Jakarta standards.

There isn’t a must-see attraction in KL. There are plenty of striking skyscrapers to gawk at; all the luxury hotel brands with posh buildings; some nice looking mosques; various museums, an aquarium, and so on. The malls are fun and huge and contain everything: movies, nice restaurants, casual restaurants, salons, coffee shops, all sorts of retail, banks, and more. Just wandering around a massive Malaysian mall gives you plenty to look at and think about.

The Kuala Lumpur food tour is very much worth doing. We tasted Malay, Chinese, and Indian food in places where there wasn’t a tourist in sight. A food tour remains a favorite way for me to see a city, learn about its culture and economy, of course taste some of its food. I’ve done them in Istanbul, Copenhagen, Kyoto, and now Kuala Lumpur. It’s great for non-foodies: they tend to emphasize cheap local eats.

Malaysia is predominately Muslim and seemingly a bit stricter about religious rules than its neighbor Indonesia. In Malaysia, if you’re not Muslim and marry a Muslim, you legally are required to convert — a requirement that’s uncommon in other Muslim-majority countries. Also, the local scandal of the moment in KL, as it was relayed to me by a few secular locals, was a boycott of Auntie Anne’s restaurant. Yes – the Western chain that sells those delicious hot dogs and pretzels. The reason for the boycott? The phrase “hot dog” on the menu. Dogs apparently are sacred to some Muslims. Thus, the phrase “hot dog” offends. Strange world. Strange times…

The Factor That Colors Happiness and Unhappiness the Most

Is she enjoying the city she’s living in? Is he enjoying his job, his co-workers, his boss? How’s he feeling about life?

The factor that has the most explanatory power, in my view, on questions having to do with personal happiness and satisfaction in one’s personal and professional life, is the following: Is this person satisfied with their romantic relationship status?

Note I am not saying “in a happy relationship.” There are plenty of people who are single and very happy with that status. But those who are single and yet would like to be in a relationship tend to be unhappy, and project that unhappiness across all aspects of their lives. Those in unhappy relationships act similarly.

Romance rules all. To deeply understand a person and their probable happiness is to understand their romantic happenings. Of course, in almost all professional contexts, and a great deal of personal ones too, it is inappropriate to probe on such topics. Which is one reason why most friendships are not very deep.

What I’ve Been Reading

Books and more books.

gold1. Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper. An incredibly engaging journalistic introduction to Bitcoin and blockchain, with cinematic storytelling about the people who pioneered the technology over the past 15 years. The book is about a year old and since then, Bitcoin has struggled, though I suspect many of the characters in this book — and the experts in real life — remain bullish on cryptocurrencies in the long run. Excellent for those learning the fundamentals of bitcoin and bitcoin history.

2. Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. I made the mistake of starting this sci-fi thriller at 11pm one night in bed. I was up till 1am. It’s a classic page turner set against the backdrop of the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, which is a real thing and which is super interesting to contemplate. (There is a universe right now where Donald Trump is not the current president-elect, for example.)

3. Lightning Rods by Helen Dewitt. I definitely would not admit to being entertained by this entertaining novel. Definitely not.

4. Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of Emotions by Martha Nussbaum. I’m a Nussbaum fan and the early chapters here contained provocative reflections on the power of emotions. How an emotion like fear of death manifests in so many aspects of our thought stream. Ultimately this was too dense for me to make it all the way through, but I’m glad I read as far as I did.

Visiting Prison Again — With Defy Ventures

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A few weeks ago, I continued my education on an issue I’m passionate about — criminal justice reform and the prison system — when I participated in a Defy Ventures event at a California maximum security prison. It was an incredibly powerful day.

About 50 VCs and entrepreneurs, mostly from LA, trekked to the prison north of Los Angeles, under the organizing leadership of Mark Suster and Brad Feld and the non-profit Defy Ventures. Defy Ventures, in their own words, “transforms the lives of business leaders and people with criminal histories through their collaboration along the entrepreneurial journey.” Catherine Hoke, founder/CEO of Defy, is one of the most passionate entrepreneurs I’ve ever encountered — and I’ve encountered many passionate entrepreneurs.

From 9:15am-8pm we gathered with the inmates in an indoor gymnasium. The gym looked and felt like any other — except for the multiple signs on the wall that said “No Warning Shots Will Be Fired in the Gym” and for the gunner who paced back and forth from a ledge near the roof of the building, holding an automatic rifle.

The schedule was non-stop. Shaking hands, talking 1:1, listening to their business pitches. Many of the inmates were nervous: some told us that the opportunity to meet us was the biggest opportunity they ever had in their life. We were also nervous: we were in a max security prison. A day full of personal interactions with “criminals” forces you to abandon stereotypes and understand these men for who they are: human beings, flawed like all of us, but human.

The most powerful hour of the day occurred just after lunch. Inmates and volunteers lined up in two lines facing each other. There was about 7-8 yards separating the two lines, and a line of tape on the floor in the middle. We stared at each other across the line. Catherine posed a series of questions and asked us to step to the middle line if the statement was true for us. Example: “If you grew up in poverty, step to the line.” Almost every inmate stepped to the line; almost no volunteers did. “If your parents have been incarcerated, step to the line.” Almost every inmate stepped to the line; almost no volunteers did. And so on. It became abundantly clear very early on — and clear in the most visible way, as people physically stepped forward and back during the questions — that most of the inmates were dealt a set of cards in life that made “failure” a likelihood.

We were asked to maintain eye contact with the inmate standing directly across from us in the lineup. I didn’t know the backstory of the person I happened to line up across from. Then the question: “If you were arrested under the age of 17, step to the line.” He did. Then: “If you have been incarcerated for more than 20 years, step to the line.” He did. Those two questions stopped me cold. He made a mistake as a teenager, and has spent 20 years in the slammer. Are you kidding me? I choked up. Meanwhile, he maintained a steady, compassionate gaze, reaching out to shake volunteers’ hands whenever they stepped to the line.

Afterwards, I went up to him and learned his story. He was in for attempted murder — he had been out with a group of guys one night and one person had a gun and the prosecution proved there was intent to kill. I asked about his time behind bars. He said he spent several years at Pelican Bay, the notorious supermax prison in California, where the entire prison was on complete lock down for three straight years — meaning everyone was confined to their cell 23-24 hours a day. I can’t imagine the effect such isolation has on the human mind. By the end of our conversation, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this guy had been completely screwed by “the system” — the length and conditions of incarceration seemed utterly unjust.

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A year ago, I visited San Quentin State Prison and spoke to a group of 20 inmates about The Startup of You. They had all read the book and our 90 minute discussion was a mind blow — it opened my eyes to a population of people and a political issue to which I was totally blind. I wrote about my experience in this blog post.

I’ve been thinking about the criminal justice system ever since: how unjust the system is to so many, how prisons mete out punishment and yet often fail to cultivate rehabilitation, the philosophical basis for believing in redemption and second chances, among other topics.

My interest has led to me on several paths:

  • A friend and I spent a bunch of time brainstorming business ideas that would serve prisoners and their families. There are more than two million Americans locked up and many of them are gouged by predatory companies that supposedly “serve” their families. Specifically, a small number of telecom companies monopolize the phone systems inside prisons and charge ridiculous fees for inmates to call their families. Is there a way to disrupt them
  • I watched the Netflix documentary 13th, which is about the mass incarceration problem in America and how it’s connected to race. The film’s title is a reference to the 13th amendment which banned slavery. The film argues that mass incarceration is a modern version of racially-charged enslavement. I highly recommend the documentary.
  • I’ve been reading Shaka Senghor’s moving memoir Writing My Wrongs, about his 19 year incarceration for murder and ultimate redemption. Shaka did a tour of duty as an MIT Media Lab Fellow and delivered a popular TED talk. I’ve gotten to know Shaka a little bit and find him inspiring.
  • I donated money to The Last Mile and am headed back to San Quentin in a few weeks to speak to another group of men who are reading The Startup of You.

Speaking of The Last Mile, they have pivoted to a model that may, from my perspective, make it one of the most interesting programs in the prison reform marketplace of ideas: they’re teaching inmates how to code! They have set up computers in prison that let inmates code despite the computers not being connected to the internet. Coding instructors on the outside pipe in via live video chat to teach the inmates. Imagine if inmates could get paid for coding while on the inside (prisons as the new low-cost outsourcing option for companies!). And when they get out, the men possess one of the highest paid skills in the modern economy. Coding skills may be the most reliable path to economic self-sufficiency today.

Anyway, thank you to Defy Ventures for all the work you are doing to tackle one of America’s most morally pressing issues. And thank you to Brad and Mark for inviting me on the unforgettable trip.

Book Review: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

sapiensOne of my favorite books of 2016: Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. I feel a little sheepish joining the parade of praise — everyone in Silicon Valley seems to be reading the book. I’ve wandered into more than one cocktail party conversation where someone is going on about how myths underpin modern society (which is one of the arguments of the book).

It’s extraordinary in scope, engagingly written, and full of provocative factoids that make you stop and think. Through it all, there is an overarching argument about why homo sapiens overtook other human species on earth (punch line: our ability to cooperate and trade with strangers). And he also presents a history of the world that’s driven by what he calls three revolutions: cognitive, agricultural, scientific.

But even if you don’t follow the overarching argument, there’s plenty to think about when it comes to ancient history, animal rights, religion, happiness, and technological revolution. Not surprisingly, with so much ground covered, subject matter experts have quibbled (or more than quibbled) with some of Yuval’s claims, though nothing triggered me to lose trust in Harari as a guide.

I highlighted 170 sentences or paragraphs in the book. I’ve pasted a bunch of them below. As always, each paragraph is a new thought, and all are direct quotes from the book.


The truth is that from about 2 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago, the world was home, at one and the same time, to several human species. And why not? Today there are many species of foxes, bears and pigs. The earth of a hundred millennia ago was walked by at least six different species of man. It’s our current exclusivity, not that multi-species past, that is peculiar – and perhaps incriminating. As we will shortly see, we Sapiens have good reasons to repress the memory of our siblings.

The fact is that a jumbo brain is a jumbo drain on the body. It’s not easy to carry around, especially when encased inside a massive skull. It’s even harder to fuel. In Homo sapiens, the brain accounts for about 2–3 per cent of total body weight, but it consumes 25 per cent of the body’s energy when the body is at rest. By comparison, the brains of other apes require only 8 per cent of rest-time energy. Archaic humans paid for their large brains in two ways. Firstly, they spent more time in search of food. Secondly, their muscles atrophied. 

Death in childbirth became a major hazard for human females. Women who gave birth earlier, when the infant’s brain and head were still relatively small and supple, fared better and lived to have more children. Natural selection consequently favoured earlier births. And, indeed, compared to other animals, humans are born prematurely, when many of their vital systems are still under-developed. A colt can trot shortly after birth; a kitten leaves its mother to forage on its own when it is just a few weeks old. Human babies are helpless, dependent for many years on their elders for sustenance, protection and education.

Raising children required constant help from other family members and neighbours. It takes a tribe to raise a human. Evolution thus favoured those capable of forming strong social ties. In addition, since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. This is a key to understanding our history and psychology. Genus Homo’s position in the food chain was, until quite recently, solidly in the middle. For millions of years, humans hunted smaller creatures and gathered what they could, all the while being hunted by larger predators. It was only 400,000 years ago that several species of man began to hunt large game on a regular basis, and only in the last 100,000 years – with the rise of Homo sapiens – that man jumped to the top of the food chain.

Millions of years of dominion have filled them with self-confidence. Sapiens by contrast is more like a banana republic dictator. Having so recently been one of the underdogs of the savannah, we are full of fears and anxieties over our position, which makes us doubly cruel and dangerous.

According to this theory Homo sapiens is primarily a social animal. Social cooperation is our key for survival and reproduction. It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.

How did Homo sapiens manage to cross this critical threshold, eventually founding cities comprising tens of thousands of inhabitants and empires ruling hundreds of millions? The secret was probably the appearance of fiction. Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths.

In contrast, ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have been able to change their behaviour quickly, transmitting new behaviours to future generations without any need of genetic or environmental change. As a prime example, consider the repeated appearance of childless elites, such as the Catholic priesthood, Buddhist monastic orders and Chinese eunuch bureaucracies. The existence of such elites goes against the most fundamental principles of natural selection, since these dominant members of society willingly give up procreation.

Trade may seem a very pragmatic activity, one that needs no fictive basis. Yet the fact is that no animal other than Sapiens engages in trade, and all the Sapiens trade networks about which we have detailed evidence were based on fictions. Trade cannot exist without trust, and it is very difficult to trust strangers. The global trade network of today is based on our trust in such fictional entities as the dollar, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the totemic trademarks of corporations.

Significant differences begin to appear only when we cross the threshold of 150 individuals, and when we reach 1,000–2,000 individuals, the differences are astounding. If you tried to bunch together thousands of chimpanzees into Tiananmen Square, Wall Street, the Vatican or the headquarters of the United Nations, the result would be pandemonium. By contrast, Sapiens regularly gather by the thousands in such places. Together, they create orderly patterns – such as trade networks, mass celebrations and political institutions – that they could never have created in isolation.

The pursuit of an easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away. One of history’s few iron laws is that luxuries tend to become necessities and to spawn new obligations.

As humans spread around the world, so did their domesticated animals. Ten thousand years ago, not more than a few million sheep, cattle, goats, boars and chickens lived in restricted Afro-Asian niches. Today the world contains about a billion sheep, a billion pigs, more than a billion cattle, and more than 25 billion chickens. And they are all over the globe. The domesticated chicken is the most widespread fowl ever. Following Homo sapiens, domesticated cattle, pigs and sheep are the second, third and fourth most widespread large mammals in the world. From a narrow evolutionary perspective, which measures success by the number of DNA copies, the Agricultural Revolution was a wonderful boon for chickens, cattle, pigs and sheep.

To ensure that the pigs can’t run away, farmers in northern New Guinea slice off a chunk of each pig’s nose. This causes severe pain whenever the pig tries to sniff. Since the pigs cannot find food or even find their way around without sniffing, this mutilation makes them completely dependent on their human owners. In another area of New Guinea, it has been customary to gouge out pigs’ eyes, so that they cannot even see.

Immediately after birth the calf is separated from its mother and locked inside a tiny cage not much bigger than the calf’s own body. There the calf spends its entire life – about four months on average. It never leaves its cage, nor is it allowed to play with other calves or even walk – all so that its muscles will not grow strong. Soft muscles mean a soft and juicy steak. The first time the calf has a chance to walk, stretch its muscles and touch other calves is on its way to the slaughterhouse. In evolutionary terms, cattle represent one of the most successful animal species ever to exist. At the same time, they are some of the most miserable animals on the planet.

Until the late modern era, more than 90 per cent of humans were peasants who rose each morning to till the land by the sweat of their brows.

Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth. In what sense do all humans equal one another? Is there any objective reality, outside the human imagination, in which we are truly equal? Are all humans equal to one another biologically?

So here is that line from the American Declaration of Independence translated into biological terms: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men evolved differently, that they are born with certain mutable characteristics, and that among these are life and the pursuit of pleasure.

When, in 1860, a majority of American citizens concluded that African slaves are human beings and must therefore enjoy the right of liberty, it took a bloody civil war to make the southern states acquiesce.

How do you cause people to believe in an imagined order such as Christianity, democracy or capitalism? First, you never admit that the order is imagined. You always insist that the order sustaining society is an objective reality created by the great gods or by the laws of nature. People are unequal, not because Hammurabi said so, but because Enlil and Marduk decreed it. People are equal, not because Thomas Jefferson said so, but because God created them that way. Free markets are the best economic system, not because Adam Smith said so, but because these are the immutable laws of nature. You also educate people thoroughly.

An objective phenomenon exists independently of human consciousness and human beliefs. Radioactivity, for example, is not a myth. Radioactive emissions occurred long before people discovered them, and they are dangerous even when people do not believe in them.

The subjective is something that exists depending on the consciousness and beliefs of a single individual. It disappears or changes if that particular individual changes his or her beliefs. Many a child believes in the existence of an imaginary friend who is invisible and inaudible to the rest of the world. The imaginary friend exists solely in the child’s subjective consciousness, and when the child grows up and ceases to believe in it, the imaginary friend fades away. The inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals. If a single individual changes his or her beliefs, or even dies, it is of little importance. However, if most individuals in the network die or change their beliefs, the inter-subjective phenomenon will mutate or disappear. Inter-subjective phenomena are neither malevolent frauds nor insignificant charades. They exist in a different way from physical phenomena such as radioactivity, but their impact on the world may still be enormous. Many of history’s most important drivers are inter-subjective: law, money, gods, nations.

If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy.

The Sumerians thereby released their social order from the limitations of the human brain, opening the way for the appearance of cities, kingdoms and empires. The data-processing system invented by the Sumerians is called ‘writing’. Continue reading

Book Notes: Tribe by Sebastian Junger

51r-egdn4sl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger is a short book about how humans relate to each other and how modern society is pulling us away from our “tribal” roots. It touches on many topics related to community, war, how our very old brain is ill-equipped for modern society, the community norms of Native Americans, and more. Somehow it manages to hold together to be a stimulating and coherent read from start to finish. I think does accurately describe some of the dynamics that lead to modern unhappiness. Recommended. Highlighted sentences from the Kindle below, not in order.



Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European,” a French émigré named Hector de Crèvecoeur lamented in 1782. “There must be in their social bond something singularly captivating and far superior to anything to be boasted of among us.” 

It’s easy for people in modern society to romanticize Indian life, and it might well have been easy for men like George as well. That impulse should be guarded against. Virtually all of the Indian tribes waged war against their neighbors and practiced deeply sickening forms of torture. Prisoners who weren’t tomahawked on the spot could expect to be disemboweled and tied to a tree with their own intestines or blistered to death over a slow fire or simply hacked to pieces and fed alive to the dogs.

A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

The psychological effect of placing such importance on affluence can be seen in microcosm in the legal profession. In 2015, the George Washington Law Review surveyed more than 6,000 lawyers and found that conventional success in the legal profession—such as high billable hours or making partner at a law firm—had zero correlation with levels of happiness and well-being reported by the lawyers themselves. In fact, public defenders, who have far lower status than corporate lawyers, seem to lead significantly happier lives.

Bluntly put, modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values over intrinsic ones, and as a result, mental health issues refuse to decline with growing wealth. The more assimilated a person is into American society, the more likely they are to develop depression during the course of their lifetime, regardless of what ethnicity they are. Mexicans born in the United States are wealthier than Mexicans born in Mexico but far more likely to suffer from depression.

“The economic and marketing forces of modern society have engineered an environment… that maximize[s] consumption at the long-term cost of well-being,” a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders concluded in 2012. “In effect, humans have dragged a body with a long hominid history into an overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, competitive, inequitable, and socially-isolating environment with dire consequences.”

Baby rhesus monkeys were separated from their mothers and presented with the choice of two kinds of surrogates: a cuddly mother made out of terry cloth or an uninviting mother made out of wire mesh. The wire mesh mother, however, had a nipple that dispensed warm milk. The babies took their nourishment as quickly as possible and then rushed back to cling to the terry cloth mother, which had enough softness to provide the illusion of affection. Clearly, touch and closeness are vital to the health of baby primates—including humans.

Also unthinkable would be the modern practice of making young children sleep by themselves. In two American studies of middle-class families during the 1980s, 85 percent of young children slept alone in their own room—a figure that rose to 95 percent among families considered “well educated.” Northern European societies, including America, are the only ones in history to make very young children sleep alone in such numbers. The isolation is thought to make many children bond intensely with stuffed animals for reassurance. Only in Northern European societies do children go through the well-known developmental stage of bonding with stuffed animals; elsewhere, children get their sense of safety from the adults sleeping near them.

Boehm points out that among current-day foraging groups, group execution is one of the most common ways of punishing males who try to claim a disproportionate amount of the group’s resources.

One year into the siege, just before I got to the city, a teenage couple walked into no-man’s-land along the Miljacka River, trying to cross into a Serb-held area. They were quickly gunned down, the young man falling first and the woman crawling over to him as she died. He was a Serb and she was a Muslim, and they had been in love all through high school. They lay there for days because the area was too dangerous for anyone to retrieve their bodies.

American analysts based in England monitored the effects of the bombing to see if any cracks began to appear in the German resolve, and to their surprise found exactly the opposite: the more the Allies bombed, the more defiant the German population became. Industrial production actually rose in Germany during the war. And the cities with the highest morale were the ones—like Dresden—that were bombed the hardest.

He was unable to find a single instance where communities that had been hit by catastrophic events lapsed into sustained panic, much less anything approaching anarchy. If anything, he found that social bonds were reinforced during disasters, and that people overwhelmingly devoted their energies toward the good of the community rather than just themselves.

According to a study based on a century of records at the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, male bystanders performed more than 90 percent of spontaneous rescues of strangers, and around one in five were killed in the attempt. (“Hero” is generally defined as risking your life to save non-kin from mortal danger. The resulting mortality rate is higher than for most US combat units.) Researchers theorize that greater upper-body strength and a predominantly male personality trait known as “impulsive sensation seeking” lead men to overwhelmingly dominate this form of extreme caretaking.

The greater empathic concern women demonstrate for others may lead them to take positions on moral or social issues that men are less likely to concern themselves with.

In late 2015, a bus in eastern Kenya was stopped by gunmen from an extremist group named Al-Shabaab that made a practice of massacring Christians as part of a terrorism campaign against the Western-aligned Kenyan government. The gunmen demanded that Muslim and Christian passengers separate themselves into two groups so that the Christians could be killed, but the Muslims—most of whom were women—refused to do it. They told the gunmen that they would all die together if necessary, but that the Christians would not be singled out for execution. The Shabaab eventually let everyone go.

What would you risk dying for—and for whom—is perhaps the most profound question a person can ask themselves.

“The miners’ code of rescue meant that each trapped miner had the knowledge that he would never be buried alive if it were humanly possible for his friends to reach him,” a 1960 study called Individual and Group Behavior in a Coal Mine Disaster explained. “At the same time, the code was not rigid enough to ostracize those who could not face the rescue role.”

If women aren’t present to provide the empathic leadership that every group needs, certain men will do it. If men aren’t present to take immediate action in an emergency, women will step in.

Twenty years after the end of the siege of Sarajevo, I returned to find people talking a little sheepishly about how much they longed for those days. More precisely, they longed for who they’d been back then. Even my taxi driver on the ride from the airport told me that during the war, he’d been in a special unit that slipped through the enemy lines to help other besieged enclaves. “And now look at me,” he said, dismissing the dashboard with a wave of his hand.

We didn’t learn the lesson of the war, which is how important it is to share everything you have with human beings close to you. The best way to explain it is that the war makes you an animal. We were animals. It’s insane—but that’s the basic human instinct, to help another human being who is sitting or standing or lying close to you.” I asked Ahmetašević if people had ultimately been happier during the war. “We were the happiest,” Ahmetašević said. Then she added: “And we laughed more.”

Given the profound alienation of modern society, when combat vets say that they miss the war, they might be having an entirely healthy response to life back home. Iroquois warriors did not have to struggle with that sort of alienation because warfare and society existed in such close proximity that there was effectively no transition from one to the other.

But the very worst experience, by far, was having a friend die. In war after war, army after army, losing a buddy is considered the most devastating thing that can possibly happen. It is far more disturbing than experiencing mortal danger oneself and often serves as a trigger for psychological breakdown on the battlefield or later in life.

Horrific experiences are unfortunately a human universal, but long-term impairment from them is not, and despite billions of dollars spent on treatment, roughly half of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have applied for permanent PTSD disability. Since only 10 percent of our armed forces experience actual combat, the majority of vets claiming to suffer from PTSD seem to have been affected by something other than direct exposure to danger.

Administration counselor I spoke with, who asked to remain anonymous, described having to physically protect someone in a PTSD support group because other vets wanted to beat him up for seeming to fake his trauma. This counselor said that many combat veterans actively avoid the VA because they worry about losing their temper around patients who they think are milking the system. “It’s the real deals—the guys who have seen the most—that this tends to bother,” he told me.

It’s common knowledge in the Peace Corps that as stressful as life in a developing country can be, returning to a modern country can be far harder. One study found that one in four Peace Corps volunteers reported experiencing significant depression after their return home, and that figure more than doubled for people who had been evacuated from their host country during wartime or some other kind of emergency.

One of the most noticeable things about life in the military, even in support units, is that you are almost never alone. Day after day, month after month, you are close enough to speak to, if not touch, a dozen or more people. When I was with American soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan, we slept ten to a hut in bunks that were only a few feet apart. I could touch three other men with my outstretched hand from where I lay. They snored, they talked, they got up in the middle of the night to use the piss tubes, but we always felt safe because we were in a group. The outpost was attacked dozens of times, yet I slept better surrounded by those noisy, snoring men than I ever did camping alone in the woods of New England.

According to Shalev, the closer the public is to the actual combat, the better the war will be understood and the less difficulty soldiers will have when they come home.

Secondly, ex-combatants shouldn’t be seen—or be encouraged to see themselves—as victims. One can be deeply traumatized, as firemen are by the deaths of both colleagues and civilians, without being viewed through the lens of victimhood.

Rachel Yehuda pointed to littering as the perfect example of an everyday symbol of disunity in society. “It’s a horrible thing to see because it sort of encapsulates this idea that you’re in it alone, that there isn’t a shared ethos of trying to protect something shared,” she told me. “It’s the embodiment of every man for himself. It’s the opposite of the military.”

American Indians, proportionally, provide more soldiers to America’s wars than any other demographic group in the country. They are also the product of an ancient culture of warfare that takes great pains to protect the warrior from society, and vice versa.

Unlike criticism, contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker.

“There Are No Shortcuts”

A few months ago, President Obama gave a moving eulogy in honor of Beau Biden, the late son of Vice President Biden. Minutes 13-15 are emotional, as Obama’s voice cracks. And the words ring true. In the social media age, it’s not hard to get some attention; to generate some controversy. But to make your name mean something and to have it stand for dignity and integrity — that’s rare. It’s not something you can buy. There are no shortcuts. Video below (start at minute 13).

When Giving Advice to Peers…

It’s hard to give advice to a peer or an especially prideful person of any sort. Advice giving can be interpreted as a power move, and if you don’t deliver the advice in the right way, the other person — a colleague, a partner, someone who’s close to you in terms of professional trajectory — can feel subtle resentment. Even if he asks for your feedback, a part of him is asking himself: “Who are you to be giving me advice?”

I handle this in two ways.

“I’m Trying, Too.”

Make your advice come off as less condescending by acknowledging your own on-going quest to live up to it or your own on-going need to be reminded of it.

In her brilliant book of advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed writes to a reader:

You need to stop feeling sorry for yourself. I don’t say this as a condemnation–I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too. I’m going to address you bluntly, but it’s a directness that rises from my compassion for you, not my judgement of you. Nobody’s going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you’re rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.

She literally says: “I don’t say this as a condemnation — I need regular reminders to stop feeling sorry for myself too.” And that’s what makes it work.

Another example. Recently, a friend on Facebook recently wrote about how she is grappling with critiques of her personality. Another friend — who’s her peer, not an anointed Wise One — commented: “Be yourself, because your self is awesome. Trite to say, a lifetime to try to do. I know because I’m also trying.”

I know because I’m also trying. That’s the sort of advice given by a friend who’s a peer.

From “You should…” to “I would…”

The second approach I take when giving advice to a peer or prideful person is I avoid directly addressing their scenario and instead I make it about myself. When you find yourself saying “You should do X…” you begin to trigger people’s pride instincts. Even if they asked you directly for advice, by directly telling them what to do, you risk unleashing subtle but very real swirls of resentment.

So if you tell me about an employee you’re trying to hire and a dilemma you’re facing in the hiring process, and ask me what you should do about it, I would talk about a similar experience I’ve had and how I handled it, or construct a hypothetical parallel experience and talk through what I would do in that scenario. I’m avoiding the phrase “you should do X, you should think about Y.” I’m instead saying “I would be doing X, I guess I would be thinking about Y, I wonder about Z…” I’m trusting in their ability to connect the dots between my experience or my constructed parallel scenario and their own situation.

Note that for people who are clearly my junior, or where I do not fear at all any status offense, I will sometimes be quite direct in my advice. But relationships with peers at work and the associated status considerations are rarely quite that simple!

Haunting Photo of the Day

Mahmoud Raslan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

A five year old boy placed on an ambulance in Syria, after being pulled out of a bombed out house. NPR has a video of him being carried into the ambulance but the photo is almost more haunting. The eerie stillness of it all.

Book Notes: The Road to Character

brooksI’m a longtime lover of David Brooks’ columns and books. His most recent book, The Road to Character, resonated. It connects well with the themes I touch on in my essay Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing Happiness.

Brooks shares stories about exemplars of moral virtue from various historical periods. He makes a special point to underscore how our modern culture may be distorting the most fulfilling version of the good life. He challenges those who take moral shortcuts en route to professional achievement. Most of all, he recommends prioritizing “eulogy virtues” (the sorts of things people talk about at your funeral) over “resume virtues” (the sorts of accomplishments you list on your resume).

Highly recommended. Below are some of my favorite paragraphs and sentences.


The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.”

This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship. We do this all the time.

One could, Frankl wrote, still participate in a rapturous passion for one’s beloved and thus understand the full meaning of the words “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

A dozen voices from across the institution told students that while those who lead flat and unremarkable lives may avoid struggle, a well-lived life involves throwing oneself into struggle, that large parts of the most worthy lives are spent upon the rack, testing moral courage and facing opposition and ridicule, and that those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure.

Eisenhower himself would later lose his own firstborn son, Doud Dwight, known in the family as “Icky,” an experience that darkened his world ever after. “This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life,” he would write decades later, “the one I have never been able to forget completely. Today, when I think of it, even now as I write about it, the keenness of our loss comes back to me as fresh and terrible as it was in that long dark day soon after Christmas, 1920.” The fragility and remorselessness of this life demanded a certain level of discipline.

When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. It just means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become increasingly blind to the moral stakes of everyday life.

We really do have dappled souls. The same ambition that drives us to build a new company also drives us to be materialistic and to exploit. The same lust that leads to children leads to adultery. The same confidence that can lead to daring and creativity can lead to self-worship and arrogance.

The danger of sin, in other words, is that it feeds on itself. Small moral compromises on Monday make you more likely to commit other, bigger moral compromises on Tuesday. A person lies to himself and soon can no longer distinguish when he is lying to himself and when he isn’t. Another person is consumed by the sin of self-pity, a passion to be a righteous victim that devours everything around it as surely as anger or greed.

Since self-control is a muscle that tires easily, it is much better to avoid temptation in the first place rather than try to resist it once it arises.

He was willing to appear tongue-tied if it would help him conceal his true designs. Just as he learned to suppress his anger as a boy, he learned to suppress his ambitions and abilities as an adult. He was reasonably learned in ancient history, admiring especially the crafty Athenian leader Themistocles, but he never let that on. He did not want to appear smarter than other people, or somehow superior to the average American. Instead he cultivated the image of simple, unlearned charm.

Eisenhower, for example, was fueled by passion and policed by self-control. Neither impulse was entirely useless and neither was entirely benign. Eisenhower’s righteous rage could occasionally propel him toward justice, but it could occasionally blind him. His self-control enabled him to serve and do his duty, but it could make him callous. 

He distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity because he know that in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high—the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right. Therefore caution is the proper attitude, an awareness of the limits the foundation of wisdom.

The whole object of VMI training was to teach Marshall how to exercise controlled power. The idea was that power exaggerates the dispositions—making a rude person ruder and a controlling person more controlling. The higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits. So it is best to learn those habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age. “What I learned at VMI was self-control, discipline, so that it was ground in,” he would recall later.

And indeed, if we look at love in its most passionate phase, we see that love often does several key things to reorient the soul. The first thing it does is humble us. It reminds us that we are not even in control of ourselves.

Love is a surrender. You expose your deepest vulnerabilities and give up your illusions of self-mastery. This vulnerability and the desire for support can manifest itself in small ways. Eliot once wrote, “There is something strangely winning to most women in that offer of the firm arm; the help is not wanted physically at the moment, but the sense of help, the presence of strength that is outside them and yet theirs, meets a continual want of imagination.”

Next, love decenters the self. Love leads you out of your natural state of self-love. Love makes other people more vivid to you than you are to yourself.

If the shallow person lives in the smallness of his own ego, a person in love finds that the ultimate riches are not inside, they are out there, in the beloved and in the sharing of a destiny with the beloved. A successful marriage is a fifty-year conversation getting ever closer to that melding of mind and heart. Love expresses itself in shared smiles and shared tears and ends with the statement, “Love you? I am you.”

Self-control is like a muscle. If you are called upon to exercise self-control often in the course of a day, you get tired and you don’t have enough strength to exercise as much self-control in the evening. But love is the opposite. The more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. A person who loves his town does not love his country less. Love expands with use.

Augustine’s feeling of fragmentation has its modern corollary in the way many contemporary young people are plagued by a frantic fear of missing out. The world has provided them with a superabundance of neat things to do. Naturally, they hunger to seize every opportunity and taste every experience. They want to grab all the goodies in front of them. They want to say yes to every product in the grocery store. They are terrified of missing out on anything that looks exciting. But by not renouncing any of them they spread themselves thin. What’s worse, they turn themselves into goodie seekers, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self. If you live in this way, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semicommitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose. You lose the ability to say a hundred noes for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling yes.

Furthermore, the world is so complex, and fate so uncertain, that you can never really control other people or the environment effectively enough to be master of your own destiny. Reason is not powerful enough to build intellectual systems or models to allow you to accurately understand the world around you or anticipate what is to come. Your willpower is not strong enough to successfully police your desires. If you really did have that kind of power, then New Year’s resolutions would work. Diets would work. The bookstores wouldn’t be full of self-help books. You’d need just one and that would do the trick. You’d follow its advice, solve the problems of living, and the rest of the genre would become obsolete. The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.

One key paradox of pride is that it often combines extreme self-confidence with extreme anxiety. The proud person often appears self-sufficient and egotistical but is really touchy and unstable. The proud person tries to establish self-worth by winning a great reputation, but of course this makes him utterly dependent on the gossipy and unstable crowd for his own identity. The proud person is competitive. But there are always other people who might do better. The most ruthlessly competitive person in the contest sets the standard that all else must meet or get left behind. Everybody else has to be just as monomaniacally driven to success. One can never be secure.

One of the things you have to do in order to receive grace is to renounce the idea that you can earn it. You have to renounce the meritocratic impulse that you can win a victory for God and get rewarded for your effort. Then you have to open up to it. You do not know when grace will come to you. But people who are open and sensitive to it testify that they have felt grace at the oddest and at the most needed times.

As the theologian Lisa Fullam has put it, “Humility is a virtue of self-understanding in context, acquired by the practice of other centeredness.”

Johnson was living a life, familiar to us now but more unusual in his own day, in which he was thrown continually back on himself. Without a settled trade, like farming or teaching, separated from the rootedness of extended family life, he was compelled to live as a sort of freelancer according to his wits. His entire destiny—his financial security, his standing in his community, his friendships, his opinions and meaning as a person—were determined by the ideas that flashed through his mind. The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit—loosely, “falling-to-pieces-ness.” This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.” When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.

Man’s chief merit consists in resisting the impulses of his nature.

He devised a strategy to defeat the envy in his heart. He said that in general he did not believe that one vice should be cured by another. But envy is such a malignant state of mind that the dominance of almost any other quality is to be preferred. So he chose pride. He told himself that to envy another is to admit one’s inferiority, and that it is better to insist on one’s superior merit than to succumb to envy. When tempted to envy another, he persuaded himself of his own superior position. Then, turning in a more biblical direction, he preached charity and mercy. The world is so bursting with sin and sorrow that “there are none to be envied.” Everyone has some deep trouble in their lives. Almost no one truly enjoys their own achievements, since their desires are always leaping forward and torturing them with visions of goods unpossessed.

Montaigne came to realize how hard it was to control one’s own mind, or even one’s body. He despaired over even his own penis, “which intrudes so tiresomely when we do not require it and fails us so annoyingly when we need it most.” But the penis is not alone in its rebellion.

A philosopher can cultivate the greatest mind in history, but one bite from a rabid dog could turn him into a raving idiot. Montaigne is the author of the take-you-down-a-peg saying that “on the loftiest throne in the world we are still only sitting on our own rump.” He argues that “if others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off—though I don’t know.” As Sarah Bakewell observes in her superb book on the man, How to Live, that final coda “though I don’t know” is pure Montaigne.

He’s a little lazy, so he learns to relax. (Johnson gave himself fervent self-improvement sermons, but Montaigne would not. Johnson was filled with moral sternness; Montaigne was not.) Montaigne’s mind naturally wanders, so he takes advantage and learns to see things from multiple perspectives. Every flaw comes with its own compensation.

The ardent and the self-demanding have never admired Montaigne. They find his emotional register too narrow, his aspirations too modest, his settledness too bland.

Most important, Johnson understood that it takes some hard pressure to sculpt a character. The material is resistant. There has to be some pushing, some sharp cutting, and hacking. It has to be done in confrontation with the intense events of the real world, not in retreat from them.

This moral realism then found expression in humanists like Samuel Johnson, Michel de Montaigne, and George Eliot, who emphasized how little we can know, how hard it is to know ourselves, and how hard we have to work on the long road to virtue. “We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves,” Eliot wrote. It was also embodied, in different ways and at different times, in the thought of Dante, Hume, Burke, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Isaiah Berlin. All of these thinkers take a limited view of our individual powers of reason. They are suspicious of abstract thinking and pride. They emphasize the limitations in our individual natures.

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex. We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves. Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves. Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves. Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures. To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence—on others, on institutions, on the divine. The place that limitation occupies in the “crooked timber” school is immense.

Then came humanistic psychology led by people like Carl Rogers, the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. The humanistic psychologists shifted away from Freud’s darker conception of the unconscious and promoted a sky-high estimation of human nature. The primary psychological problem, he argued, is that people don’t love themselves enough, and so therapists unleashed a great wave of self-loving.

If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.” This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.

Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible.

Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success.

You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind.

Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self can you be open to the external sources of strengths you will need. Only by stilling the sensitive ego can you react with equipoise to the ups and downs of the campaign. The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement—reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing—and a capacity for reverence and admiration.

Sin and limitation are woven through our lives. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling—in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.