Monthly Archives: March 2013

Book Discussion: “Future Perfect” by Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson is one of my favorite authors. I’ve blogged about his various books several times; I’ve read them all.

Last week, I had the opportunity to participate in a Google Hangout discussion with Steven and a handful of other commentators to discuss his new book Future Perfect: The Case for Progress in a Networked Age. The full hour discussion is below and on YouTube. (BTW: Google Hangout group discussions work pretty well — I’ll be doing more of them.)

The Skill Developed in Meditation

I enjoyed this clear description:

Meditation is basically a training method for your mind. When certain things happen to you, your mind generates a certain response whether it be happiness, frustration, anger ect. The way your mind has been inculcated is the path of least resistance and the path it wants to take, and will take unless you know how to mitigate it. Meditation teaches you how and makes it easier to override the process. Who is doing the overriding of this process? Well, that’s the million dollar question. But I digress.

So here’s what I’m getting at: if meditation is too easy, you’re doing something wrong. You might be getting yourself really relaxed, but is it possible that’s all you’re doing? Not saying it is. I don’t know, just throwing some ideas out there and it’s up to you to see if any seem to fit your situation.

But as you meditate, your mind wants to grab onto the thoughts and not your breath. The course of least resistance is away from your breath and back into whatever thoughts are vying for your attention. Every time you go back to the breath, you train or teach yourself even, to take the opposite of the path of least resistance. This is coupled with the fact that half the time when you meditate, your mind says, “I’m tired. Stop concentrating on the breath and just kick back and let a guided meditation do most of the work.” But every time this comes up you learn to drop it by returning to the breath and not listening to the thought no matter how loud and powerful it can get.

When you first start meditating you have this thought and then come back to the breath. But there’s still a trace of this thought floating around in your mind and eventually it pulls you in again. As soon as you realize your back in that thought again, you turn your awareness back to the breath and away from the thought. But then it pulls you in again. And then you drop it again. You do this over and over and over. But as you practice you get better and better and faster and faster at recognizing it. You start to figure out how to do it most efficiently and quickly, seeing and dropping thoughts before they even become thoughts at all.

After doing this hour after hour, you gain a skill. One day you realize that you don’t have to be sitting on a cushion to use this skill. I can’t really explain how it’s done, but it’s just something you learn from continually focusing, coming back to, and holding your attention on the breath. It’s like if you ever do a lot of push-ups, eventually you will realize, “I can flex my pecs.” You couldn’t flex them before, and you don’t really know how you learned to do it, but now you can just do it.

(Hat tip to Andy McKenzie)

Audiobook Review: This is How You Lose Her

Junot Diaz is a Pulitzer Prize winning novelist and professor at MIT. He also speaks English with a native Dominican accent. These two facts make his latest novel, This is How You Lose Her, an unusually good choice for audiobook.

The stories, which surround the life of a Dominican man at different points in his life, are well-written. They are on themes of infidelity, friendship, love found, and love lost. There are sentences like “The half-life of love is forever.” When Diaz speaks these sentences on the audiobook from the perspective of the man, he does so with intensity — especially when it’s a lewd reference or expletive. There are probably a dozen Spanish sentences scattered throughout, and Dominican musical beats separating each chapter.

You can listen to a sample on Audible.com. Here’s the Amazon hardcover link.

So far, my algorithm for listening to audiobook (vs. print or e-book) has been “something I probably won’t need to reference later.” This recent experience has led me to modify that criteria: I’ll also seek audiobook when it’s read by someone with a voice that truly upgrades the reading experience in authentic way.

#

One other point on audiobooks: I’m buying CDs now for the car because it’s too damn hard to download MP3s and sync across iTunes and control the start/stop functions while also using phone’s GPS. Old school works.

How Busy People Find Time to Think Deeply

(Originally published on LinkedIn, where there are 300+ comments.)

During the first presidential campaign Michelle Obama was worried her husband’s schedule allowed him “no time to think.” You hear the same from business executives who traverse impossibly packed days.

But how many people budget serious thinking time on their calendar? Few. After all, what would you actually do during time set aside to just “think”? Sit in a chair, stare straight ahead, and ponder the world?

Indeed, it’s not a challenge you confront head-on. As Alain de Botton says, “The mind may be reluctant to think properly when thinking is all it is supposed to do; the task can be as paralyzing as having to tell a joke or mimic an accent on demand.”

If you want to do more proactive, deep thinking, you want to obliquely engage in two kinds of activities.

Directed Thinking Activities

Write. Famed author Joan Didion says, “I don’t know what I think until I try to write it down.” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos preaches the value of writing long form prose to clarify thinking. Unless you’re a professional writer, writing is not always about the written output; it’s about the thinking that happens as you attempt to communicate. Do not assume you have to share your writing with others for it to be time well spent.

Read a book. Don’t read an executive summary or two-page cheat sheet. Read a full book. It’s not about the content of what you’re reading — in most business books, there’s not much new anyways — it’s about the quiet time you’re spending by yourself. Unless you’re a professional book reviewer, reading is not about reading; it’s about thinking. It’s about hearing yourself think.

Undirected Thinking Activities

“Undirected” thinking time involves activities that are themselves minimally mentally taxing, and conducive to creative thinking about other things.

Drive to and from the office. Driving a familiar route = good thinking time. “When Joan Didion moved from California to New York, she realized that she had done much of her thinking and mental writing during the long drives endogenous to the Californian lifestyle,” Steve Dodson once noted. I’m the same. I can’t tell you how many decent thoughts I’ve concocted in my head while driving on the 101 or 280 freeways in the Bay Area.

Take your dog for a walk. Same as driving, but safer.

Take extra long showers. You’re free from distraction, you’re engaged in a monotonous activity that doesn’t require active focus, and you’re in a different environment. Sounds like the perfect place for a creative thought.

Stare out of airplane windows. Travel journeys of any sort are the midwives of thought. “Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains…Introspective reflections that might otherwise be liable to stall are helped along by the flow of the landscape,” says Alain de Botton. On the topic of airplane windows and thinking, I always call to mind this picture (right) of Bill Clinton, having a moment.

Organize your office/room/house. Tidy up documents, pick up around the floor, rearrange books. It’s an excellent foil to serious thinking.

***

When do you find time to think deep thoughts amid the day to day chaos of professional life?

(Photo credit: Flickr)

What I’ve Been Reading

Books, books, books.

1. A Gift of Freedom: How the John T. Olin Foundation Changed America by John J. Miller. A remarkable account of how a foundation with a set of intellectual convictions went about spreading those ideas into society, especially via the academy. Any philanthropist keen on spreading a philosophical idea should read this book.

2. Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality by Leigh Eric Schmidt. I was hoping this would shed light on the uniquely American view of spirituality, but it was too dense for me. Too much detailed history. That said, the following six characteristics that she says help define what most Americans mean by “spiritual” I thought was spot on:

1) a yearning for mystical experience  or epiphanic awareness; 2) a valuing of silence, solitude, and sustained meditation; 3) a belief in the immanence of the divine in nature and attunement to that presence; 4) a cosmopolitan appreciation of religious variety, along with a search for unity in diversity; 5) an ethical earnestness in pursuit of justice-producing, progressive reforms; 6) an emphasis on self-cultivation, artistic creativity, and adventuresome seeking

3. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. The classic introductory book; full of wise guidance on the nature of meditation and stuffed with practical exercises to get you started. Excellent for uninitiated.

4. Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright. As a huge Robert Wright fan, it was about time I read Non-Zero, cited by many in the Valley as their favorite book. It’s been a decade since the book came out, and many of the assertions about globalization and greater economic/political integration — and how they drive greater zero-sumness in the world — may seem less profound than on the date of publication. But it remains an excellent introduction to basic game theory and the authoritative framework for thinking about non-zero-sum interactions.

5. Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur by Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor. Brad’s blog posts on work-life-balance are among the most thoughtful you’ll read anywhere. His post last November “Resetting My Priorities” was especially poignant. In his latest book, co-authored with his wife Amy, they detail the full range of strategies they employ to have a happy marriage amidst the chaos of busy entrepreneurial lives. I expect this book will occupy a very important niche that many people will turn to on a downswing. Hopefully an increasing number of entrepreneurs will turn to it proactively at the outset of a relationship. It’s a critical topic I’ll write more about in a later post.

6. Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun Than You Think by Bryan Caplan. Citing twin studies to make a nature over nurture argument, Caplan says parents put too much pressure on themselves by thinking every choice they make will be consequential to their kids’ futures. Relax, he says. Do less work and relish the fact that while the first couple decades of their life are rough from a parenting perspective, you’ll have them around at least as long after that; in their adult years they can be vital companions and caretakers. There are other points he makes, but this is the one that seemed most compelling.

7. Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing by Constance Hale. I picked this up in a bookstore on a whim, and while there are some good writing tips throughout, I made the mistake of thinking I could read it passively versus actively. Hence, by the time I reached the end, none of it had stuck. I’ll have to re-visit it when I’m prepared to try out the tips in real writing in real time.

8. How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton. An appealing title and excellent form factor in terms of a smaller physical book. I love de Botton, but I didn’t glean any killer insights out of this one, other than a vigorous head nod at this general point: “A mind originally designed to cope with little more sexually temping than the occasional sight of a tribeswoman across the savannah is rendered helpless when bombarded by continual invitations to participate in erotic scenarios far exceeding any dreamt up by the diseased mind of the Marques de Sade.”

Growth by Learning: Does Progress Accelerate with Mastery?

Scott Young wrote a good post about two types of progress when learning something new: logarithmic and exponential.

Anything you try to improve will have a growth curve. Imagine you ran everyday and you tracked your speed to finish a 5-mile course. Smoothing out the noise, over enough time you’d probably get a graph like this:

Logarithmic Curve

Here, improvement works on a logarithmic scale. As you get better, it gets harder and harder to improve. Elite athletes expend enormous effort to shave seconds off their best times. Novice athletes can shave minutes with just a little practice.

Logarithmic growth is the first type of growth. This is where you see a lot of progress in the beginning, but continuing progress is more difficult.

Now imagine a different graph. This time you’ve build a new website you update regularly and you’re measuring subscribers. This graph would likely look very different:

This is exponential growth, the second type of growth. Website traffic is often exponential because as a blog attracts more readers, there are more opportunities for word about the blog to spread. A blog with zero traffic also has zero word of mouth.

I’ve noticed most things tend to be either logarithmic or exponential growth. Despite this, linear progress is what most people expect. We tend to expect things to move in the same direction or rate as they have in the past. This violation of our expectation leads to some mistakes in how we set goals and act on them.

 Scott later offers advice on how to tell whether a given activity is one or the other:

The easiest way to tell is to look at how other people have progressed in that field. Don’t pay attention to their rates, just pay attention to the shape of their growth trajectory. Is it the kind that slows down with mastery or speeds up?

I’ve written about related themes in the past. Here’s my post about efforts where you see continuous, ongoing improvement vs. quantum leaps. Here’s my post about how formal schooling is an information rich environment where you receive constant feedback on how you’re doing, whereas in the real world you sometimes have to go months without knowing if you’re on the right track.

Book Short: Republic, Lost

Larry Lessig’s latest — Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress, and a Plan to Stop It — is an excellent overview of how money and campaign finance cripples D.C. lawmakers.

At a time when everyone seems to have a different pet policy issue that’s “urgent” and “critical” to our country’s future, it’s refreshing read something that contemplates deeper, underlying issues that, if addressed, could have a positive trickle down effect on the entire system.

Lessig’s writing in general is, as they say, self-recommending.