My friend Rob Montz created a 10 minute mini-documentary called The Quarterlife User Manual. Contains fantastic advice on careers and life delivered in an engaging format. It’s very much consistent with The Startup of You. Cal Newport, Jon Haidt, and I are featured, among others.
I completed the next 800 pages of the Karl Knausgaard My Struggle odyssey. Book 2 — “A Man in Love” — is said to be the best of the six volumes. I ate it up. So intimate. So raw. So many insights. This book focused on falling in love, having kids, and the balancing of work and family. Also, death: frequently death.
Not everyone should commit to reading a 3,600 page six-volume novel about a Norwegian writer who’s writing a 3,600 page novel. (To borrow a phrase from Leland de la Durantaye.) There’s a ridiculous amount of detail stuffed into the stories, but it’s all centered on one man, so it’s easier to keep track of than your typical 1000+ page beastly novel. And fortunately, the man has a pretty interesting inner life.
My Kindle highlights below. All bolding mine. Here were my highlights from book one.
People who don’t have children seldom understand what it involves, no matter how mature and intelligent they might otherwise be, at least that was how it was with me before I had children myself.
She was blond, had high cheekbones and narrow eyes, a long, slim body, and she knew how to dress, but she was much too pleased with herself, too self-centered for me to find her attractive. I have no problem with uninteresting or unoriginal people – they may have other, more important attributes, such as warmth, consideration, friendliness, a sense of humor, or talents such as being able to make a conversation flow to generate an atmosphere of ease around them, or the ability to make a family function – but I feel almost physically ill in the presence of boring people who consider themselves especially interesting and who blow their own trumpets.
I was with other people I was bound to them, the nearness I felt was immense, the empathy great. Indeed, so great that their well-being was always more important than my own. I subordinated myself, almost to the verge of self-effacement; some uncontrollable internal mechanism caused me to put their thoughts and opinions before mine. But the moment I was alone others meant nothing to me. It wasn’t that I disliked them, or nurtured feelings of loathing for them, on the contrary, I liked most of them, and the ones I didn’t actually like I could always see some worth in, some attribute I could identify with, or at least find interesting, something that could occupy my mind for the moment. But liking them was not the same as caring about them.
This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it. So the life I led was not my own.
What would it have been like to live in a world where everything was made from the power of your hands, the wind, or the water? What would it have been like to live in a world where the American Indians still lived their lives in peace? Where that life was an actual possibility? Where Africa was unconquered? Where darkness came with the sunset and light with the sunrise? Where there were too few humans and their tools were too rudimentary to have any effect on animal stocks, let alone wipe them out? Where you could not travel from one place to another without exerting yourself, and a comfortable life was something only the rich could afford, where the sea was full of whales, the forests full of bears and wolves, and there were still countries that were so alien no adventure story could do them justice, such as China, to which a voyage not only took several months and was the prerogative of only a tiny minority of sailors and traders, but was also fraught with danger. Admittedly, that world was rough and wretched, filthy and ravaged with sickness, drunken and ignorant, full of pain, low life expectancy and rampant superstition, but it produced the greatest writer, Shakespeare, the greatest painter, Rembrandt, the greatest scientist, Newton, all still unsurpassed in their fields, and how can it be that this period achieved this wealth? Was it because death was closer and life was starker as a result? Who knows?
Be that as it may, we can’t go back in time, everything we undertake is irrevocable, and if we look back what we see is not life but death. And whoever believes that the conditions and character of the times are responsible for our maladjustment is either suffering from delusions of grandeur or is simply stupid, and lacks self-knowledge on both accounts.
This state lasted for six months, for six months I was truly happy, truly at home in this world and in myself before slowly it began to lose its luster, and once more the world moved out of my reach.
Yet I wanted to have more of what came in its wake because public attention is a drug, the need it satisfies is artificial, but once you have had a taste of it you want more.
What had once been normal topics you didn’t talk about much, namely children, were now placed at the forefront of existence and cultivated with a frenzy that ought to make everyone raise their eyebrows, for what could be the meaning of this? In the midst of this lunacy there was me trundling my child around like one of the many fathers who had evidently put fatherhood before all else.
The slight disdain I felt for men pushing strollers was, to put it mildly, a double-edged sword as for the most part I had one in front of me when I saw them.
I swayed from side to side with Vanja in my arms, thinking that this must be what hell was like, gentle and nice and full of mothers you didn’t know from Eve, with their babies.
Now I had an hour to myself. It was the sole condition I had made before taking over responsibility for Vanja during the daytime, that I would have an hour on my own in the afternoon, and even though Linda considered it unfair since she’d never had an hour to herself like that, she agreed. The reason she’d never had an hour, I assumed, was that she hadn’t thought of it. And the reason she hadn’t thought of it was, I also assumed, that she would rather be with us than alone.
But the whole point for me of living in a big city was that I could be completely alone in it while still surrounded by people on all sides. All with faces I had never seen before! The unceasing stream of new faces.
One’s self-image not only encompasses the person you are but also the person you wanted to be, could be or once had been. For the self-image there was no difference between the actual and the hypothetical. It incorporated all ages, all feelings, all drives.
As a result I walked around Stockholm’s streets, modern and feminized, with a furious nineteenth-century man inside me. The way I was seen changed, as if at the stroke of a magic wand, the instant I laid my hands on the stroller. I had always eyed the women I walked past the way men always have, actually a mysterious act because it couldn’t lead to anything except a returned gaze, and if I did see a really beautiful woman I might even turn around to watch her, discreetly of course, but…
Before Dostoyevsky, the ideal, even the Christian ideal, was always pure and strong, it was part of heaven, unattainable for almost everyone. The flesh was weak, the mind frail, but the ideal was unbending. The ideal was about aspiring, enduring, fighting the fight. In Dostoyevsky’s books everything is human, or rather, the human world is everything, including the ideals, which are turned on their heads: now they can be achieved if you give up, lose your grip, fill yourself with non-will rather than will. Humility and self-effacement, those are the ideals in Dostoyevsky’s foremost novels, and inasmuch as they are never realized within the framework of the story line, therein lies his greatness, because this is precisely a result of his own humility and self-effacement as a writer.
Why should we do one thing rather than another when there was no goal anyway, nor any direction in life, apart from to huddle together, live, and then die?
Death makes life meaningless because everything we have ever striven for ceases when life does, and it makes life meaningful, too, because its presence makes the little we have of it indispensable, every moment precious.
Or as Jünger writes: “Little by little all areas are brought under this single common denominator, even one with its residence as far from causality as the dream.” In our century even our dreams are alike, even dreams are things we sell. Undifferentiated, which is just another way of saying indifferent. That is where our night is.
However, it is not a dead point, not for literature either, for literature is not just words, literature is what words evoke in the reader. It is this transcendence that validates literature, not the formal transcendence in itself, as many believe.
…it is about opening up what language normally does not have access to but that we still, somewhere deep inside us, know or recognize, or if we don’t, allows us to discover.
Feeling cold to the depths of my soul, I walked down the corridor.
What did I want? I didn’t know. I was lying on a sofa just outside Stockholm, knowing not a soul, and everything in me was chaos and unrest. The uncertainty penetrated to my core, through to that which defined who I was.
“Attending a poetry reading is like being in a hospital,” he said as we left the next station. “Full of neuroses.”
Then I met Linda and the sun rose. I can’t find a better way to express it. The sun rose in my life. At first, as dawn breaking on the horizon, almost as if to say, this is where you have to look. Then came the first rays of sunshine, everything became clearer, lighter, more alive, and I became happier and happier, and then it hung in the sky of my life and shone and shone and shone.
But Arve, it seemed to me on that day, was a truly open person, as well as being curious and constantly striving to understand what he saw. But there was no ulterior motive about his openness, it was not a damned psychologist’s openness, nor was there any ulterior motive about the curiosity.
I was married, we were fine, soon we would be buying a flat together. Then I came here and wanted to wreck everything? I did. I wandered beneath the sun-dappled shade from the trees, surrounded by the warm fragrances of the forest, thinking that I was in the middle of my life. Not life as an age, not halfway along life’s path, but in the middle of my existence. My heart trembled.
She eyed me with obvious scorn. Pancakes are for children, she said. We’re not having a children’s party. Okay, I said, let’s call them crêpes then. Is that good enough for you? She turned her back on me.
If she was angry her presence was all that existed in me. It was like having an enormous dog in the room growling and I had to take care of it.
“I’m very sorry. Terribly sorry. But it was what you said that hit me so hard. Before I met you I hadn’t even dared imagine that I might have children one day. I didn’t dare. Even when I fell in love with you I didn’t. And then you said what you said. It was you who brought up the subject, do you remember? The very first morning. I want to have children with you. And I was so happy. I was so utterly, insanely happy. Just the fact that there was a possibility. It was you who gave me that possibility. And then … yesterday … Well, it was like you were withdrawing the possibility. You said perhaps we should put off having children.
The next day we moved my things, that is to say all my books, which had now grown to number twenty-five hundred titles, a fact which Anders and Geir, who were helping me with the move, cursed from the bottom of their hearts as we shifted…
And it is never easy to confront life-changing news, especially when you are deeply embroiled in the everyday and the banal, which we always are. They absorb almost everything, make almost everything small, apart from the few events that are so immense they lay waste to all the everyday trivia around you. Big news is like that and it is not possible to live inside it.
One evening I got so angry at her that I threw a glass at the stove with all my might. Strangely enough, it didn’t break. Typical, I thought afterward, I couldn’t even perform the classic act of smashing a glass during a fight.
When she became pregnant everything changed, now there was a horizon beyond the one the two of us formed, something greater than us, and it was there the whole time, in my thoughts and hers. Her unease may have been great, but even in its midst there was always a wholeness and security in her. Everything would fall into place, it would be fine, I knew it would.
The problem, if you can call it a problem, was that it was impossible to dislike him. He could talk to anyone, which is a rare gift, and he was generous, which you noticed as soon as you met him. And he was always happy. He was the person who stood up at parties and thanked the hosts for the spread or congratulated them on whatever occasion it was or did whatever was required, and he had a kind word for everyone, however much or little they had in common with him.
She was so angry that she screamed, actually screamed on the phone. I just held it away from my ear and kept writing. She said she would leave me. Go, I said. I don’t care, I have to write. And it was true. She would have to go if that was what she wanted. She said, I will. You’ll never see us again. Fine, I said. I wrote twenty pages a day. I didn’t see any letters or words, any sentences or shapes, just countryside and people, and Linda phoned and screamed, said I was a fairweather father, said I was a
Sweden hasn’t had a war on its soil since the seventeenth century and how often did it cross my mind that someone ought to invade Sweden, bomb its buildings, starve the country, shoot down its men, rape its women, and then have some faraway country, Chile or Bolivia, for example, embrace its refugees with kindness, tell them they love Scandinavia, and dump them in a ghetto outside one of the cities there. Just to see what they would say.
It was easy to protect yourself against music when you were prepared or just had it on as background, because it was simple, undemanding, and sentimental, but when I was not prepared, like now, or was really listening, it hit home with me. My feelings soared and before I knew what was happening my eyes were moist. It was only then that I realized how little I normally felt, how numb I had become. When I was eighteen I was full of such feelings all the time, the world seemed more intense and that was why I wanted to write, it was the sole reason, I wanted to touch something that music touched. The human voice’s lament and sorrow, joy and delight, I wanted to evoke everything the world had bestowed upon us. How could I forget that?
And if there had been any limits before they had certainly been removed now that a grandchild had come into the world. She worshipped Vanja and would do anything, absolutely anything for her.
One of the consequences of living here, I mused, as I banged the container lids shut and unlocked the door to have a cigarette outside, was that I simply said less. I had just stopped almost all the small talk, chatting with assistants in shops, waiters in cafés, conductors on trains, and strangers in chance encounters. This was one of the best parts about returning to Norway: the ease of dealing with people I didn’t know returned and my shoulders dropped.
Since I also wrote I ought to have been able to relate to her work, but the craft side was so prominent in writing a screenplay, where it was about all manner of ebbs and flows of tension, character development, plots and subplots, intros and turning points, I assumed I would have little to contribute in that respect and never mobilized more than polite interest.
She radiated a business-like manner that went well with Fredrik’s more flippant and child-like character. They had one child and were expecting another. Unlike us, they had everything under control, there was order in the home, they went out with their child and organized interesting activities. After we had been to theirs, or they had been to ours, that was often what Linda and I discussed: how on earth what appeared to be so simple for them could be so utterly beyond our capability.
But there was always a piece missing, it was always as though we were standing on opposite sides of a small chasm, the conversation was always tentative, we never really found the right tone. But the few times we did it was to everyone’s relief and pleasure. Much of the reason it did not really work was me: my great expanses of silence and the slight discomfort that came over me when I did say something.
From there it was a swift jump to pregnancies in general and then to births. I chimed in with something or other, added a snippet here and there, and otherwise listened in silence for the main part. Births are an intimate and sensitive topic of conversation for women, there is a lot of covert prestige and as a man the only possible option is to keep well away. To refrain from expressing an opinion.
The clouds in the sky to the east had a gentle golden hue, as though lit from the inside by the sun that was behind them.
Vidar drove as many older men did, hunched over the wheel, as though the few extra centimeters closer to the windshield were decisive for good vision.
The light beneath the sky was losing its luster. The approaching darkness was unevenly distributed across the landscape, the already dark areas were sucking it in more and more greedily, such as the trees at the edge of the forest, the trunks and branches were completely black now. The weak February light faded without a fight, without resistance, not even a last flicker could it rouse, just a slow, imperceptible decline until everything was darkness and night.
What was going through her head? Oh, I knew. She was all alone with Vanja during the day, from when I went to my office until I returned, she felt lonely, and she had been looking forward so much to these two weeks. Some quiet days with her little family gathered around her, that was what she had been looking forward to. I, for my part, never looked forward to anything except the moment the office door closed behind me and I was alone and able to write.
We might believe that our world embraced everything, we might do our thing down here on the beach, drive around in our cars, phone each other and chat, visit one another, eat and drink and sit indoors imbibing the faces and opinions and the fates of those appearing on the TV screen in this strange, semi-artificial symbiosis we inhabited and lull ourselves for longer and longer, year upon year, into thinking that it was all there was, but if on the odd occasion we were to raise our gaze to this, the only possible thought was one of incomprehension and impotence, for in fact how small and trivial was the world we allowed ourselves to be lulled by? Yes, of course, the dramas we saw were magnificent, the images we internalized sublime and sometimes also apocalyptic, but be honest, slaves, what part did we play in them? None. But the stars twinkle above our heads, the sun shines, the grass grows, and the earth, yes, the earth, it swallows all life and eradicates all vestiges of it, spews out new life in a cascade of limbs and eyes, leaves and nails, hair and tails, cheeks and fur and guts, and swallows it up again. And what we never really comprehend, or don’t want to comprehend, is that this happens outside us, that we ourselves have no part in it, that we are only that which grows and dies, as blind as the waves in the sea are blind.
He radiated naïveté, but not as though from inexperience, quite the contrary, he gave every impression of having experienced a great deal, it was more as if all the experiences were there but he hadn’t drawn the consequences, as though they had left him unaffected, so to speak.
I had only met her a couple of times, but to me she seemed to have many sides, there was a wealth of nuance in her personality, and you intuited a psychological depth, with no apparent signs of neuroticism, the constant companion of sensitivity of course, at least not obtrusively.
Not that I think she is innocent, necessarily, but she gives that impression. Innocence of this kind is typical of you. Purity and innocence don’t interest me. However, it’s very clear in you. You’re a deeply moral and a deeply innocent person. What is innocence? It is that which has not been touched by the world, that which has not been destroyed, it is like water into which a stone has never been thrown. It’s not that you don’t have lusts, that you don’t have desire, for you do, it’s just that you conserve innocence. Your insanely huge longing for beauty comes in here as well. It wasn’t by chance that you chose to write about angels. That’s the purest of the pure. You can’t get purer than that.” … Others search and search, and when they find a nugget, they sell it to acquire life, splendor, music, dance, enjoyment, luxury, or at least a bit of pussy, right, throw themselves at a woman just to forget they exist for an hour or two. What you lust for is innocence and this is an impossible equation.
What is a saintly life? Suffering, sacrifice, and death. Who the hell would want a great inner life if they don’t have any outer life? People only think of what introversion can give them in terms of external life and success. What is the modern view of a prayer? There is only one kind of prayer for modern people and that is as an expression of desire. You don’t pray unless there is something you want.
I shook my head. “There’s no safer place for secrets than in you,” he said. “You forget everything. Your brain’s like Swiss cheese without the cheese.
Then Cecilia came into the office wanting to chat. We went for lunch together. She had been out last night with her partner and his friend. She had flirted with the friend all evening, she said, and her partner had been livid when they got home, of course.” “How long have they been together?” “Six years.” “Was she thinking of leaving him?” “No, not at all. On the contrary, she wants children with him.” “So why the flirting?” I asked. Geir looked at me. “She wants to have her cake and eat it, too, obviously.” “What did you say to her? I assume she went to you for advice?” “I said she should deny it. Deny everything. She hadn’t been flirting, she’d just been friendly. Say no, no, no. And then don’t be so stupid next time, wait for an opportunity to offer itself and go about it calmly and collectedly. I don’t blame her for doing what she did. I blame her for being inconsiderate. She hurt him. That was uncalled for.”
However, there are many ways to be trapped; there are many ways of not being free. You have to remember that you’ve had everything you wanted. You’ve had your revenge on those you targeted. You have status. People sit waiting for what you do and wave palm leaves as soon as you show your face. You can write an article about something that interests you and it will be in print in the newspaper of your choice a few days later. People phone and want you to go here, there, and everywhere. Newspapers ask you for a comment on all sorts of matters. Your books will be published in Germany and England. Do you understand the freedom there is in that? Do you understand what has opened in your life? You talk about a longing to let go and fall. If I let go I would be standing in the same place. I’m standing right at the bottom. No one’s interested in what I write. No one’s interested in what I think. … Whenever I enter a room full of people I have to make myself interesting. I don’t preexist, like you, I don’t have a name, I have to create everything from scratch every time. I’m sitting at the bottom of a hole in the ground and shouting through a megaphone. It doesn’t matter what I say, no one is listening.
The last thing you want to hear when you’re in the darkness of depression is the babbling of some happy jerk.
As always after long interviews I felt empty, drained like a ditch. As always, it felt as though I had betrayed myself. Merely by sitting there I had gone along with the premise, which was that the two books I had written were good and important, and that I, the writer, was an unusual and interesting person. That was the starting point for the conversation: everything I said was important. If I didn’t say anything important, well, then I was just hiding it. Because it obviously had to be somewhere! So when I told stories about my childhood, for example, some perfectly normal, ordinary story everyone had experienced, it was important because it was me who said it. It said something about me, the writer of two good and important books. And I not only went along with this view, which formed the basis for the conversation, but did it with great enthusiasm. I sat there jabbering away like a parrot in the zoo. All while knowing the reality of the situation.
If I have learned one thing over these years that seems to me immensely important, particularly in an era such as ours, overflowing with such mediocrity, it is the following: Don’t believe you are anybody. Do not fucking believe you are somebody. Because you are not. You’re just a smug, mediocre little shit. Do not believe that you’re anything special. Do not believe that you’re worth anything, because you aren’t. You’re just a little shit. So keep your head down and work, you little shit. Then, at least, you’ll get something out of it. Shut your mouth, keep your head down, work, and know that you’re not worth a shit. This, more or less, was what I had learned. This was the sum of all my experience.
Relationships were there to eradicate individuality, to fetter freedom and suppress that which was pushing through.
How can you sit there receiving applause when you know that what you have done is not good enough? I had one opportunity. I had to cut all my ties with the flattering, thoroughly corrupt world of culture where everyone, every single little upstart, was for sale, cut all my ties with the vacuous TV and newspaper world, sit down in a room and read in earnest, not contemporary literature but literature of the highest quality, and then write as if my life depended on it. For twenty years if need be.
wanted the maximum amount of time for myself, with the fewest disturbances possible. I wanted Linda, who was already at home looking after Heidi, to take care of everything that concerned Vanja so that I could work. She didn’t want to. Or perhaps she did, but she couldn’t cope. All our conflicts and arguments were in some form or other about this, the dynamics. If I couldn’t write because of her and her demands, I would leave her, it was as simple as that. And somewhere she knew.
The way I took my revenge was to give her everything she wanted, that is, I took care of the children, I cleaned the floors, I washed the clothes, I did the food shopping, I cooked, and I earned all the money so that she had nothing tangible to complain about, as far as I and my role in the family were concerned. The only thing I didn’t give her, and it was the only thing she wanted, was my love. That was how I took my revenge. … Oh, how I gloated when I caught her in the trap and could stand there agreeing to all her demands! After the eruption, which was inevitable, after we had gone to bed, she would often cry and want to be comforted. That gave me an opportunity to extract further revenge, because I wouldn’t comply.
I knew John was asleep. But the ones in the back, had they also nodded off? I turned to look over my shoulder. Yes, indeed. Three girls lay there with mouths agape and eyes closed. Happiness exploded inside me. It lasted for one second, two seconds, maybe three. Then came the shadow that always followed, this happiness’s dark train.
… reinforced by a happiness that was so strong I remembered it twenty-five years later. But this happiness hadn’t had a shadow, it had been pure, undiluted, unadulterated. Then life lay at my feet. Anything could happen. Anything was possible. It wasn’t like that any longer. A lot had happened, and what had happened laid the groundwork for what could happen. Not only were the opportunities fewer, the emotions I experienced were weaker. Life was less intense. And I knew I was halfway, perhaps more than halfway. When John was as old as I was now I would be eighty. And with one foot in the grave, if not both feet. In ten years I would be fifty. In twenty, sixty.
Why, when I’m on board a plane or in a car imagining it’s going to crash, why do I think that’s not so bad? That it doesn’t matter? That I might just as well die as live? For this is what I think more often than not. Indifference is one of the seven deadly sins, actually the greatest of them all, because it is the only one that sins against life.
It’s almost playoffs time in Major League Baseball and so in the theme of awe and how to cultivate it, a frequent topic on this blog…
In the National League, pitchers must hit when it’s their turn in the lineup. Next time you watch a pro baseball game, watch the pitcher try to hit. He almost always strikes out and looks goofy doing it; he’s a pitcher, after all. He spends all his time in the big leagues practicing pitching, not hitting.
But then think about the following. That MLB pitcher who looked utterly goofy at the plate was likely the best hitter on his little league team, the best hitter in his high school, the best hitter at his college, the best hitter in his region growing up, probably one of the most highly touted hitters of his generation. Yet, by the time he gets to the big leagues, he is one of the worst hitters on the field. He’s only in the pros because he can pitch.
It reminds you how good everyone is: truly, the very best in the world. It’s hard not to feel a sense of awe as a result, and it can be felt even if you’re a casual fan watching an otherwise meaningless baseball game.
Awe comes from being in the presence of world-class expertise. But sometimes it takes a little bit of a reminder to yourself to fully feel it. A bit of a re-frame. It does for me, anyway.
Exciting adventures ahead!
One of the delights of the past couple years has been becoming friends with Robert (Bob) Wright. For a long time and from afar, I’ve been stimulated by his writing and thinking. When I discovered that his next effort involved Buddhism, meditation, and evolutionary psychology, I jumped at the opportunity to be an ally/collaborator/thought partner. I’ve learned a lot.
Over the past couple years, in various MeaningofLife.TV episodes, essays, blog posts, tweets, his Coursera course, and elsewhere, Bob has been sharing bits and pieces of how he thinks about the connection between ev psych — which he originally popularized in The Moral Animal — and Buddhism .
Now, in his new book — hot off the presses! — he presents the full argument in one coherent volume. It is titled Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It’s a fantastic book that speaks directly to a secular reader. He makes the argument that the Buddha’s diagnosis of the human condition — that we fail to see the world clearly and this causes us to suffer — is consistent with how you’d expect natural selection to “design” a human brain with the singular goal of genetic proliferation. Buddhism’s prescription for what to do if you wish to see the world more clearly, become happier, and be a more morally upstanding human being (the trifecta!) makes a great deal of sense, in Bob’s view. And in his experience, by attending several meditation retreats and maintaining a daily practice, there are some practical steps one can take to move closer to these truths in one’s own life.
Years of listening to the podcast EconTalk has imparted in me at least one big idea: the market is a pretty amazing mechanism for coordinating human activity.
Those of us lucky enough to grow up in a market economy rarely stop to consider how remarkable it is that our local supermarket always has enough bread on the shelves. Suppose an alien landed from outer space and you had to explain that there were two possible systems for ensuring that there’d be enough bread in the supermarkets to feed a local population. One system involved a “bread czar” who’d be totally focused on making sure every store got the right amount of bread from farmers; the other system would involve a bunch of chaotic, self-organized activity between and among all the farmers and market owners in the world and somewhere it’d all work out. Logically, the bread czar carefully overseeing everything should carry the day. But alas!
Here’s Russ Roberts, from his blog post on Emergent Order:
Understanding and appreciating emergent order, and understanding when it works well and when it doesn’t and it does not always work well, is for me, the essence of economics and the deepest idea that we economists can contribute to helping normal human beings understand the world around us.
Economists call the interaction between buyers and sellers of bread a “market,” but our charts of supply and demand, while often very powerful, don’t get at the richness of how we as human beings manage to cooperate without top-down coordination and do it so peacefully.
Indeed. The post is a companion to a short video titled It’s a Wonderful Loaf, which Russ produced, which tells the story of the would-be bread czar. I had the pleasure of seeing it debut in San Francisco.
Inducing awe is something I’ve written previously about. It’s a powerful habit to cultivate. I love being in the presence of real expertise or real impressiveness and marveling at what happened behind the scenes to manifest the expertise in front of me. Free markets and capitalistic mechanisms — while hardly perfect — for me induce a different but related sense of awe and wonder.
Thanks, Russ, for sharing your passion and sense of wonder with others. It’s infectious.
During both my 10 day silent meditation retreats, there were moments where I felt a deep calm, my mind got very bright, and I possessed an ability to control my attention in a way that seemed totally profound. I don’t think my experience constituted a state of jhana — how the Buddha referred to blissed out, immersive, “absorbed” states of mind. I was probably experiencing “access concentration“, a precursor to the jhanic states; in any case, those minutes of absorption were utterly memorable for me. I remember returning to my dorm room afterwards, late at night, and lying in bed thinking to myself: I have a new superpower.
Like many beginner meditators who experience momentary states of profound absorption and stillness, I have foolishly quested after that state in subsequent meditation sessions. On my second 10 day retreat, I craved the state of ultra concentration that I felt during my first retreat. I intently sat late at night in the meditation hall. And then, as I felt my mind ease into a deeper stillness, I told myself, “Here it comes. Here it comes. Is this it? Is this what happened to me last time?” See ya later, still lion mind. Hello, monkey mind. On my 3 day residential retreat, I never entered deep concentration, probably because of this mental chatter around wanting it.
I think I could use more practice at stabilizing the mind — without the questing and excessive effort — before I go deeper on practicing insight meditation. So I’m going to focus more on samatha over the next year or so. The samatha concentration practice involves stabilizing, unifying, and collecting the mind into what the Buddha called samadhi, or a state of concentration. With a clear and collected mind, you can begin to discern more subtle sensations, and begin to more clearly perceive the truths about your mind and reality.
I recently attended a one day retreat at Spirit Rock on samatha practice. The teacher distinguished samatha from vipassana. Samatha practice is like trying to stabilize a pair of binoculars and getting them into focus. Vipassana is looking through the binoculars in order to observe reality as it actually is.
Throughout the day, we practiced basic relaxation. “Release tension in your body. Now release a little more,” the teacher said, as we scanned each part of the body.
With total relaxation, you can begin to quiet the mind, and focus on an object of concentration — in our case, the breath. The anapanana practice of studying the breath can become quite a granular analysis. For example, we practiced:
- Noticing whether breath is long or short
- Noticing the beginning of the breath, the middle part of the breath, the end of the breath
- Focusing on spot underneath nostril where breath enters
- Counting breaths up to 10 and then starting again at 1
On the Goenka retreats, you spend the first three days doing nothing but breath awareness, so I have some practice at it. But I never understood how object-awareness connects to broader vipassana practice until now. To deepen my understanding, I’m taking an online class at Spirit Rock on concentration/samatha practice, with 8 hours of video lectures.
I want to thank a blog reader who wrote me a very helpful comment/email last year in response to my blog post about my awareness + wisdom retreat. He helped me explore the difference between samatha and vipassana. After some gentle corrections, he included this line of encouragement at the end: “Not many people have gotten as far as you have with meditation and Buddhism. You also ask good questions and have good insights. You should definitely keep up your practice. It is a rare gift.”
As I get older, praise from others does less and less for me, in terms of emotional impact. This one was different. I’ve been exploring Buddhism and meditation seriously now for about six years and the deeper I go, the more I realize the complexities of the practice. The complexity can be daunting. Hearing encouragement a year ago made a difference to me. So, thank you to Tracy. And thank you for alerting to me to the prospective benefits of a more focused concentration practice.
In the Elena Ferrante series, the narrator visits her best friend after they had become somewhat estranged. She reflects:
“I understood that I had arrived there full of pride and realized that—in good faith, certainly, with affection—I had made that whole journey mainly to show her what she had lost and what I had won. But she had known from the moment I appeared, and now, risking tensions with her workmates, and fines, she was explaining to me that I had won nothing, that in the world there is nothing to win, that her life was full of varied and foolish adventures as much as mine, and that time simply slipped away without any meaning, and it was good just to see each other every so often to hear the mad sound of the brain of one echo in the mad sound of the brain of the other.”
Michael Lewis is one of the highest paid writers in the world, and virtually every piece of writing I read of his is a reminder as to why. His latest book, The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, is a stellar story about Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s pathbreaking research in psychology.
So many popular modern ideas about psychology and cognitive bias and happiness came from Kahneman and Tversky. So many phrases and heuristics and frameworks I have cited without knowing the researchers who first discovered them, who coined them, who explained them: these two!
The book is also a fascinating psychological profile of a partnership between two brilliant men. Lewis refers to it as a non-sexual love story, with all the corresponding ups and downs.
My highlights below — bold font is my own.
Later, when basketball scouts came to him looking for jobs, the trait he looked for was some awareness that they were seeking answers to questions with no certain answers—that they were inherently fallible. “I always ask them, ‘Who did you miss?’” he said. Which future superstar had they written off, or which future bust had they…
He had a diffidence about him—an understanding of how hard it is to know anything for sure. The closest he came to certainty was in his approach to making decisions. He never simply went with his first thought. He suggested a new definition of the nerd: a person who knows his own mind well enough to mistrust it.
“Knowledge is literally prediction,” said Morey. “Knowledge is anything that increases your ability to predict the outcome. Literally everything you do you’re trying to predict the right thing. Most people just do it subconsciously.”
Soon Morey noticed something else: A scout watching a player tended to form a near-instant impression, around which all other data tended to organize itself. “Confirmation bias,” he’d heard this called. The human mind was just bad at seeing things it did not expect to see, and a bit too eager to see what it expected to see.
In some strange way people, at least when they were judging other people, saw what they expected to see and were slow to see what they hadn’t seen before. How bad was the problem? When Jeremy Lin’s coach at the New York Knicks finally put him in the game—because everyone else was injured—and allowed him to light up Madison Square Garden, the Knicks were preparing to release Jeremy Lin. Jeremy Lin had already decided that if he was released he’d simply quit basketball altogether. That’s how bad the problem was: that a very good NBA player would never have been given a serious chance to play in the NBA, simply because the minds of experts had concluded he did not belong. How many other Jeremy Lins were out there?
“His defining emotion is doubt,” said one of his former students. “And it’s very useful. Because it makes him go deeper and deeper and deeper.”
And that’s pretty much what Danny Kahneman remembered, or chose to remember, when asked about his childhood. From the age of seven he had been told to trust no one, and he’d obliged.
Presented with two lines of equal length, the eye is tricked into seeing one as being longer than the other. Even after you prove to people, with a ruler, that the lines are identical, the illusion persists: They’ll insist that one line still looks longer than the other. If perception had the power to overwhelm reality in such a simple case, how much power might it have in a more complicated one?
The University of Michigan psychologist Dick Nisbett, after he’d met Amos, designed a one-line intelligence test: The sooner you figure out that Amos is smarter than you are, the smarter you are.
Shore asked him how he had become a psychologist. “It’s hard to know how people select a course in life,” Amos said. “The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are. Which field we go into may depend on which high school teacher we happen to meet. Who we marry may depend on who happens to be around at the right time of life. On the other hand, the small decisions are very systematic. That I became a psychologist is probably not very revealing. What kind of psychologist I am may reflect deep traits.”
The reigning theories in psychology of how people made judgments about similarity all had one thing in common: They were based on physical distance.
People thought Tel Aviv was like New York but that New York was not like Tel Aviv.
People thought that the number 103 was sort of like the number 100, but that 100 wasn’t like 103. People thought a toy train was a lot like a real train but that a real train was not like a toy train.
“The directionality and asymmetry of similarity relations are particularly noticeable in similes and metaphors,” Amos wrote. “We say ‘Turks fight like tigers’ and not ‘tigers fight like Turks.’
“It is generally assumed that classifications are determined by similarities among the objects,” wrote Amos, before offering up an opposing view: that “the similarity of objects is modified by the manner in which they are classified.
A banana and an apple seem more similar than they otherwise would because we’ve agreed to call them both fruit. Things are grouped together for a reason, but, once they are grouped, their grouping causes them to seem more like each other than they otherwise would. That is, the mere act of classification reinforces stereotypes. If you want to weaken some stereotype, eliminate the classification.
What Europeans often said about Americans—how wildly informal and improvisational they were—was, to her, even more true of Israelis.
Danny was then helping the Israeli Air Force to train fighter pilots. He’d noticed that the instructors believed that, in teaching men to fly jets, criticism was more useful than praise. They’d explained to Danny that he only needed to see what happened after they praised a pilot for having performed especially well, or criticized him for performing especially badly. The pilot who was praised always performed worse the next time out, and the pilot who was criticized always performed better. Danny watched for a bit and then explained to them what was actually going on: The pilot who was praised because he had flown exceptionally well, like the pilot who was chastised after he had flown exceptionally badly, simply were regressing to the mean. They’d have tended to perform better (or worse) even if the teacher had said nothing at all. An illusion of the mind tricked teachers—and probably many others—into thinking that their words were less effective when they gave pleasure than when they gave pain. Statistics wasn’t just boring numbers; it contained ideas that allowed you to glimpse deep truths about human life. “Because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean,” Danny later wrote,
The only way to understand a mechanism such as the eye, he thought, was by studying the mistakes that it made. Error wasn’t merely instructive; it was the key that might unlock the deep nature of the mechanism. “How do you understand memory?” he asked. “You don’t study memory. You study forgetting.”
Anne Treisman was on a flying visit to Harvard, where the demand to hear what she had to say was so great that her talk had to be moved to a big public lecture hall off campus. Danny left the talk filled with new enthusiasm. He asked to be deputized to look after Treisman and her traveling party—which included her mother, her husband, and their two small children. He gave them a tour of Harvard. “He was very eager to impress,” said Treisman, “and so I let myself be impressed.” It would be years before Danny and Anne left their marriages and married each other, but it took no time at all for Danny to engage Treisman’s ideas.
In very large populations, the law of large numbers did indeed guarantee this result. If you flipped a coin a thousand times, you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times. For some reason human beings did not see it that way. “People’s intuitions about random sampling appear to satisfy the law of small numbers, which asserts that the law of large numbers applies to small numbers as well,” Danny and Amos wrote.
An old friend of Amos’s would later recall, “Amos would say, ‘People are not so complicated. Relationships between people are complicated.’ And then he would pause, and say: ‘Except for Danny.’”
For instance, in families with six children, the birth order B G B B B B was about as likely as G B G B B G. But Israeli kids—like pretty much everyone else on the planet, it would emerge—naturally seemed to believe that G B G B B G was a more likely birth sequence. Why? “The sequence with five boys and one girl fails to reflect the proportion of boys and girls in the population,” they explained. It was less representative. What is more, if you asked the same Israeli kids to choose the more likely birth order in families with six children—B B B G G G or G B B G B G—they overwhelmingly opted for the latter. But the two birth orders are equally likely.
Amos liked to say that if you are asked to do anything—go to a party, give a speech, lift a finger—you should never answer right away, even if you are sure that you want to do it. Wait a day, Amos said, and you’ll be amazed how many of those invitations you would have accepted yesterday you’ll refuse after you have had a day to think it over. A corollary to his rule for dealing with demands upon his time was his approach to situations from which he wished to extract himself…who finds himself stuck at some boring meeting or cocktail party often finds it difficult to invent an excuse to flee. Amos’s rule, whenever he wanted to leave any gathering, was to just get up and leave. Just start walking and you’ll be surprised how creative you will become and how fast you’ll find the words for your excuse, he said.
It confirmed Biederman’s sense that “most advances in science come not from eureka moments but from ‘hmmm, that’s funny.’”
Across North America, more people died every year as a result of preventable accidents in hospitals than died in car crashes—which was saying something.
Bad things even happened to people when they pressed hospital elevator buttons. Redelmeier had actually co-written an article about that: “Elevator Buttons as Unrecognized Sources of Bacterial Colonization in Hospitals.” For one of his studies, he had swabbed 120 elevator buttons and 96 toilet seats at three big Toronto hospitals and produced evidence that the elevator buttons were far more likely to infect you with some disease.
Whenever a patient recovered, for instance, the doctor typically attributed the recovery to the treatment he had prescribed, without any solid evidence that the treatment was responsible. Just because the patient is better after I treated him doesn’t mean he got better because I treated him, Redelmeier thought. “So many diseases are self-limiting,” he said. “They will cure themselves. People who are in distress seek care. When they seek care, physicians feel the need to do something. You put leeches on; the condition improves. And that can propel a lifetime of leeches. A lifetime of overprescribing antibiotics. A lifetime of giving tonsillectomies to people with ear infections. You try it and they get better the next day and it is so compelling. You go to see a psychiatrist and your depression improves—you are convinced of the efficacy of psychiatry.”
By the end of Redelmeier’s medical training, seven years later, researchers had shown that heart attack patients whose arrhythmia was suppressed died more often than the ones whose condition went untreated. No one explained why doctors, for years, had opted for a treatment that systematically killed patients—though proponents of evidence-based medicine were beginning to look to the work of Kahneman and Tversky for possible explanations.
Surgery was more likely to extend your life, but, unlike radiation, it came with the small risk of instant death. When you told people that they had a 90 percent chance of surviving surgery, 82 percent of patients opted for surgery. But when you told them that they had a 10 percent chance of dying from the surgery—which was of course just a different way of putting the same odds—only 54 percent chose the surgery.
The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours. It is sometimes easier to make the world a better place than to prove you have made the world a better place.
A man whom no one would ever have described as happy was setting out, to the wonder of those who knew him, to discover the rules of happiness.
An hour after the procedure, the researchers entered the recovery room and asked the patients to rate their experience. Those who had been given the less unhappy ending remembered less pain than did the patients who had not. More interestingly, they proved more likely to return for another colonoscopy when the time came. Human beings who had never imagined that they might prefer more pain to less could nearly all be fooled into doing so. As Redelmeier put it, “Last impressions can be lasting impressions.”
People did not seek to avoid other emotions with the same energy they sought to avoid regret. When they made decisions, people did not seek to maximize utility. They sought to minimize regret.
Why didn’t people regret Israel’s inaction? Amos and Danny had a thought: People regretted what they had done, and what they wished they hadn’t done, far more than what they had not done and perhaps should have.
They spent more than a year working and reworking the same basic idea: In order to explain the paradoxes that expected utility could not explain, and create a better theory to predict behavior, you had to inject psychology into the theory.
“Happy species endowed with infinite appreciation of pleasures and low sensitivity to pain would probably not survive the evolutionary battle,” they wrote.
The two problems were identical, but, in the first case, when the choice was framed as a gain, the subjects elected to save 200 people for sure (which meant that 400 people would die for sure, though the subjects weren’t thinking of it that way). In the second case, with the choice framed as a loss, they did the reverse, and ran the risk that they’d kill everyone. People did not choose between things. They chose between descriptions of things.
By 1976, purely for marketing purposes, they changed their title to “Prospect Theory.” “The idea was to give the theory a completely distinct name that would have no associations whatsoever,” said Danny. “When you say ‘prospect theory,’ no one knows what you’re talking about. We thought: Who knows? It may turn out to be influential. And if it is we don’t want it to be confused with anything else.”
Then he came straight out with his own feelings about Amos getting the lion’s share of the glory for work they had done together. “I am very much in his shadow in a way that is not representative of our interaction,” he said. “It induces a certain strain. There is envy! It’s just disturbing. I hate the feeling of envy. . . . I am maybe saying too much now.”
It was those constraints that Danny set out to investigate. He wanted to understand better what he was now calling “counterfactual emotions,” or the feelings that spurred people’s minds to spin alternative realities in order to avoid the pain of the emotion. Regret was the most obvious counterfactual emotion, but frustration and envy shared regret’s essential trait. “The emotions of unrealized possibility,” Danny called them, in a letter to Amos.
Toward the end of his thinking on the subject, he summed up a lot in a single sentence: “Reality is a cloud of possibility, not a point.”
What Danny needed was for Amos to continue to see him and his ideas uncritically, as he had when they were alone together in a room. If that involved some misperception on Amos’s part—some exaggeration of the earthly status of Danny’s ideas—well, then, Amos should continue to misperceive. After all, what is a marriage if not an agreement to distort one’s perception of another, in relation to everyone else? “I wanted something from him, not from the world,” said Danny.
But because he was Danny, he made a rule about his fantasy life: He never fantasized about something that might happen. He established this private rule for his imagination once he realized that, after he had fantasized about something that might actually happen, he lost his drive to make it happen. His fantasies were so vivid that “it was as if you actually had it,” and if you actually had it, why would you bother to work hard to get…
“Don’t be transactional. Build genuine relationships. Play the long game. Don’t keep score. Give first.”
All good advice when building your professional network. The Start-up of You is full of these sorts of lines. But good advice taken to the extreme becomes bad advice.
Here’s how. Say you want to maintain a relationship with someone busy in your network. Heck, maybe you even have a specific question or favor to ask of that person. But you don’t want to seem transactional. After all, “authentic” relationships in business involve mutuality and back-and-forth and personal rapport. You don’t want to come off as having a transactional agenda. Right? Right.
So you ping this busy person in your network and ask if they want to “catch up” with you sometime for coffee: “It’d be great to see you and catch up on life. Let me know if you are around next week?”
Unless the person is already a pretty good friend of yours, the answer you often get back is… Crickets.
What happened? The random coffee catch-up meeting request is the most common “external” meeting request in the world, largely because so many of us have been trained to not seem overly transactional when we stay in touch with our network. So when we reach out to busy people, we bury our agenda and hide behind “coffee catch up” as the vague purpose of the meeting.
The problem is, busy people are busy. In fact, they get hit up for coffee catch-ups multiple times a week. They can’t take coffee catch-up meetings all day. They actually have to get real work done. So they avoid your request for random coffee.
What will catch their attention instead? A specific transaction or topic.
“I’m considering taking this job opportunity and would love your perspective.”
“I saw you on stage at a conference and had some feedback for you on the virtual reality topic you spoke about.”
“I’m hosting a conference in a month and would love to brainstorm who we should invite as speakers.”
Best case, this transaction intersects with something they’re actually interested in and would fine useful. Medium case, it lends a finite crispness to the interaction — it feels “manageable” — and the person is likely to agree to a quick call or meeting if he knows it can be quickly resolved. Worst case, the topic isn’t of interest to the person at all — in which case, didn’t you both just save time by realizing that on the front end?
Oftentimes, when reaching out to someone busy, you’ll have a specific transaction in mind plus an interest in just general catch up and general relationship building. In these cases, consider leading with a “transactional bluff.” Lead with the transactional item you have in mind, but know that you may spend 90% of the meeting — once you’re actually in the meeting — talking about whatever general catchup topics you want to cover. Maybe you spend the first 10% of the meeting on the transaction and then you switch to “How can I help you?” and the other practices that fuel long term relationships.
Bottom Line: Busy people need a reason to prioritize scheduling your “catch up” meeting. If you don’t know someone well already — this means most people in your professional network — be candid about a specific transaction you have in mind when making the meeting request.