Monthly Archives: August 2013

Book Review: Breath by Breath

Breath by Breath: The Liberating Practice of Insight Meditation by Larry Rosenberg is one of the better books on meditation I’ve read. It’s a terrific introduction by the founder and resident teacher of the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center in Massachusetts.breahtbybreath

The problem with most of the stuff I read on the topic is it’s either inaccessibly technical / arcane, or too new-agey and lacking in substance. Breath by Breath strikes a good balance: it seems faithful to some of the key ideas expressed by the Buddha in the original Pali language while at the same time expressing in clear English how a meditation practice functions in modern life. There are also specific instructions and tips for those looking to strengthen their practice.

The emphasis on breath continues to be the most practical aspect of my practice. I have a very subtle perception of my breath and this allows me to return to the present moment more easily.

Some other random points from the book, among many:

  • The idea is to go from “doggy mind” to a “lion mind,” in which there is deep steadiness.
  • People often take up meditation because they want to achieve or gain something; the paradox in the practice is that the best way to get “there” to be fully present “here.”
  • The first law of Buddhism is that everything is constantly changing.
  • Buddhism isn’t about beliefs. It’s about firsthand knowledge.

Thanks to Amy and Brad Feld for letting me “steal” this book from them.

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The always-interesting Robert Wright interviews Shinzen Young on Bloggingheads.tv about meditation. It’s worth watching for insights from one of the more prominent American experts on meditation. Shinzen says that when he thinks about meditation, he doesn’t call to mind the common image of someone sitting quietly in a darkened room. Rather, he thinks of someone in a gym, doing cardio, pumping weights, and making a lasting effect of the physical structure of his body. Certain formal exercises increase flexibility; others increase endurance; others build muscle strength.

The Beautiful vs. Sublime, Instagram Edition

Fun musings on the trend of Instagram photos of sunsets:

The genre has turned into a commonplace—a grab at easy beauty. My friend, an amateur photographer, likened shooting sunset pictures to “eating Lucky Charms for breakfast.” “What do you mean,” I pressed, speaking as someone who faults Lucky Charms only insofar as they aren’t Fruit Loops. She elaborated: “They’re sweet and anodyne. The effect is like a sugar rush that disappears.” Buried in her objection is the hoary philosophical distinction between the beautiful and the sublime, between prettiness that doesn’t challenge us and sights that fill us with awe and terror.

Romantic writers expressed a preference for sublimity over attractiveness in the late 18th and 19th centuries. Edmund Burke wrote, “For sublime objects are vast in their dimensions, beautiful ones comparatively small: beauty should be smooth and polished; the great, rugged and negligent … beauty should not be obscure; the great ought to be dark and gloomy: beauty should be light and delicate; the great ought to be solid, and even massive.” The experience of watching a sunset usually counts as sublime. The scene unfolds on a grand scale, loud with color and radiance; you get a shivery feeling of time passing as you sip your G&T; death draws just a bit nearer. Sunset pictures, though, reduce and tame that sublimity. Instead of your mortality rising to meet you, you see pretty colors, locked in a small and tidy moment. It’s as if putting sunsets on film magically relegates them to the same cloying aesthetic category as wildflowers and blonde children—other people’s.

The Problem With Walking Meetings

Walking meetings are all the rage.

Steve Jobs and Larry Ellison, best friends for years, went on walks together around Palo Alto. Jeff Weiner wrote that he’s converting many 1:1 meetings to walking meetings. Brad Feldsays his best meetings are walking meetings. Mark Zuckerberg supposedly walks with key candidates he’s recruiting to Facebook.

Walking meetings are awesome for obvious reasons. Exposure to sun and fresh air lifts your mood. Walking counts as exercise, which is important for health and cognitive function. A physical atmosphere that’s different from the normal white walls of an office — trees, sun, a beautiful landscape — can spark creative trains of thoughts.

My favorite reason for walking meetings? They enable a different kind of social bonding. People open up more outside the office. You can cover personal topics more easily.

Yet walking meetings involve trade-offs, and before you propose them, you should be sure the topic you want to discuss is well-suited to a walking format.

See, while some walking meeting proponents pitch the activity as refreshingly distraction-free, there are distractions while you walk. Namely, having to put one foot after the other and undergo the physical act…of walking. You have to watch where you’re going, even if it’s a familiar path. You have to control your speed and match it with your meeting partner’s pace: not too fast, not too slow. These distractions are cognitively taxing — they draw away your attention and deplete your well of self-control.

See Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow:

It is normally easy and actually quite pleasant to walk and think at the same time, but at the extremes these activities appear to compete for the limited resources of System 2. You can confirm this claim by a simple experiment. While walking comfortably with a friend, ask him to compute 23 x 78 in his head, and to do so immediately. He will almost certainly stop in his tracks. My experience is that I can think while strolling but cannot engage in mental work that imposes a heavy load on short-term memory. If I must construct an intricate argument under time pressure, I would rather be still, and I would prefer sitting to standing….

Accelerating beyond my strolling speed completely changes the experience of walking, because the transition to a faster walk brings about a sharp deterioration in my ability to think coherently. As I speed up, my attention is drawn with increasing frequency to the experience of walking and to the deliberate maintenance of the faster pace. My ability to bring a train of thought to a conclusion is impaired accordingly. At the highest speed I can sustain on the hills, about 14 minutes for a mile, I do not try to even think of anything else. In addition to the physical effort of moving my body rapidly along the path, a mental effort of self-control is needed to resist the urge to slow downSelf-control and deliberate thought apparently draw on the same limited budget of effort.

Bottom Line: Walking meetings are fantastic. Beyond exercise, it’s a great format for social bonding and perhaps for creative thinking. Yet, I believe on average you are less likely to think big thoughts and solve difficult problems while walking. Furthermore, the faster and harder the walk, the worse the ideas you generate. So for serious analytical work or high stakes conversation, consider the old fashioned routine of sitting in an office or conference room.

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Some other musings on physical activity and thinking:

  • Our brains are associative. Associate certain physical places, positions, or activities with certain kinds of thinking. Have a desk where you do hard, analytical thinking; have a desk where you do light email. Have a walk you do where you’re trying to be as creative as possible; have a different walking route that’s more for social catch up. Train your brain.
  • Standing desks vs. sitting desks: There’s a parallel to walking meetings. Standing desks are great for “exertion” — it tires my legs, which helps me sleep better, and sleep’s the key to everything. I stand about half the day; while standing I do email, web browsing, and other lightweight tasks. But serious thinking and writing? I have to sit.
  • I generate some of my best ideas while on the telephone, pacing in a confined space (like a living room). Being on the phone while walking in an open yard is not the same; I need to be able to pace back and forth.

(Image: FlickrOriginally published on LinkedIn)

Quiet Celebrations

Think of “celebration” and, if you’re like me, you think of athletes celebrating a win on the field. You think of a soccer team winning the Olympic gold medal and rushing the field, hugging, screaming…unabashed ecstasy.

But not all celebration involves such a spirited display. In fact, more often in life, a person’s reaction to amazing news is more subdued.

Consider this scene from the movie Pursuit of Happyness. Will Smith’s character is told by the firm he’s interning at that he has a full-time job as a broker. After much struggle, landing the job is quite an achievement. His response to the news? Stoic. Steady. Wet eyes.

Another example actually does come from the world of sports, but in the locker room, not on the field. Brandon Belt, a player on the San Francisco Giants, being told in spring training he had made the big league club. It’s in the first few minutes of this clip (embedded below). Rather than break out into cheering, Belt is quiet, and starts lightly crying. Why does he cry quietly here, but rush the field after his team win a game? Is it just the social / group dynamic?

Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a book intriguingly titled Dancing In the Streets: A History of Collective Joy. I haven’t read it because I generally don’t like Ehrenreich, but a paragraph review of the book seems apropos:

It is a truism that everyone seeks happiness, but public manifestations of it have not always been free of recrimination. Colonial regimes have defined spectacles as an inherently “primitive” act and elders harrumph at youthful exultation. Social critic and bestselling author Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) teases out the many incarnations of sanctioned public revelry, starting with the protofeminist oreibasia, or Dionysian winter dance, in antiquity, and from there covering trance, ancient mystery cults and carnival, right up to the rock and roll and sports-related mass celebrations of our own day. “Why is so little left” of such rituals, she asks, bemoaning the “loss of ecstatic pleasure.” Ehrenreich necessarily delineates the repressive reactions to such ecstasy by the forces of so-called “civilization,” reasonably positing that rituals of joy are nearly as innate as the quest for food and shelter. Complicating Ehrenreich’s schema is her own politicized judgment, dismissing what she sees as the debased celebrations of sporting events while writing approvingly of the 1960s “happenings” of her own youth and the inevitable street theater that accompanies any modern mass protest, yet all but ignoring the Burning Man festival in Nevada and tut-tutting ravers’ reliance on artificial ecstasy. That aside, Ehrenreich writes with grace and clarity in a fascinating, wide-ranging and generous account.

Book Review: Help! by Oliver Burkeman

A few months ago I reviewed Oliver Burkeman’s recent book The Antidote, which is a powerful meditation against conventional self-help gospel and in favor of a different, darker sort of path for happiness.help

After I wrote the review, I met Oliver in New York and he gave me a copy of his earlier book entitled Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. It’s a collection of his columns in The Guardian. It’s fantastic — full of insight, cyncial quips and cheap shots, and amusing yet still very wise suggestions on how to live the good life. It’s also easy to read. Each column is a couple pages long and the topics vary quite a bit, so you can skip around without feeling guilty.

I stand by my claim that Oliver is one of the most interesting commentators on, and curators of, the vast self-help space.

Favorite quotes from the book below.



SMART goals: ‘Smart’ stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-bounded, and it’s one of those acronyms that ought to make you suspicious from the outset, if only because it spells out a slightly too convenient word.

The other day, I learned of some breakthrough psychological research which proves that contributing to good causes stimulates the same part of the brain as receiving large sums of money — only more so. Giving to others, it turns out, really may be the key to happiness. About 35 minutes later, I ran into a ‘charity mugger,’ collecting for a human rights organization, and became consumed with a quasi-homicidal rage that only worsened as he trotted after me down the street, stoking fantasies of breaking his clipboard in two and dropping it into pieces at his feet. There seems to be a contradiction here. Some possible conclusions: a) my brain is hardwired wrongly; b) the psychology researchers screwed up, or c) there are only certain conditions under which giving makes you happy, and being bullied by an out-of-work actor with a goatee isn’t one of them.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: when really big crises occur, people often find inner strength; it’s the little things that drive us crazy. Deep down, we know we can escape bereavement, and maybe illness and divorce, but we think we shouldn’t have to deal with queues or irritating colleagues.

The scholar Dacher Keltner makes a powerful case that embarrassment is evolution’s answer to the ‘comittment problem’: it’s in everyone’s interests to collaborate for long-term gain, but how do you weed out the conmen who want to take advantage? Perhaps because they’re unembarassable. Embarrassment — signalled by facial microexpressions that can’t be faked and that are remarkably consistent across cultures — ‘reveals how much the individual cares about the rules that bind us together.’ In the moment, you realize you’ve come to the restaurant without your wallet, your eyes shoot down, your head titles, a smile flickers. These are the ‘the most potent nonverbal cues we have to an individual’s commitment to the moral order.’

On a really bad day, I may spend hours stuck in angst-ridden meanderings, wondering if I need to make major changes in my life. It’s usually then that I realize I’ve forgotten to eat lunch.

Ted Huston, a University of Texas psychology professor who runs the PAIR Project, a long-term study of married couples that began in 1981. The project has reached numerous intruiging conclusions, such as that couples who are ‘particularly lovey-dovey’ as newlyweds are more likely to divorce.

We don’t know our friends nearly as well as we imagine. Research demonstrates that we tend to assume our friends agree with us — on politics, ethics, etcetera — more than they really do….Friendship may be less about being drawn to someone’s personality than about finding someone willing to endorse your sense of your own personality. In agreeing to keep your company, or lend an ear, a friend provides the ‘social-identity support’ we crave. You needn’t be a close match, nor deeply familiar with their psyche, to strike this mutual deal. And once a friendship has begun, cognitive dissonance helps keep it going: having decided that someone’s your friend, you want to like them, if only to confirm they you made the right decision. We don’t want to know everything about our fiends, Gill and Swann suggest: what we seek is ‘pragmatic accuracy.’ … Friendship as an agreement to keep each other company, overlook each other’s faults, and not probe too deeply in ways that might undermine the friendship.

“One of the greatest mistakes of successful people is the assumption, ‘I am successful. I behave this way. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way.’ They don’t see that their behavior may be irrelevant, or worse, that they succeeded in spite of it.” – Marshall Goldsmith in his book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There

Neil Pasricha from 1000awesomethings.com has a deep affinity for another category of pleasures, usually neglected by purveyors of pop psychology, which fall under the heading of “relief”: the joyous moment an unpleasant experience stops, or when things don’t turn out half as badly as you were expecting. Who’d dissent, for example, from Pasricha’s observation that there’s a weirdly disproportionate enjoyment, when hauling luggage or shopping, in ‘picking up something that turns out to be a lot lighter than you expected’? Or ‘dropping your cell phone on the sidewalk and then realizing it’s totally fine’? Or arriving late for a rendezvous, sweaty and exhausted, only to find the other person’s even later’?

Would You Rather Enjoy Today, or Have Great Memories Tomorrow and Forever?

Would you rather enjoy today, or have great memories tomorrow and forever?

Should you optimize decision making in life to have great experiences in the moment or to create great memories to look back on later?

They are not the same thing; to get one you may have to trade off on the other. In other words, oftentimes if you want to maximize the likelihood of experiencing pleasure in the present means you minimize the likelihood of creating a great memory to look back on in the future.

Travel illustrates the choice. Sit on a beach in Mexico for a week and you’ll almost certainly enjoy a decent amount of experienced, in-the-moment pleasure. But it’s not likely to lead to many memories, especially if you’ve sat on a lot of beaches before. On the other hand, wind your way through the streets of Cairo for the first time and you’ll likely experience some harrowing and maybe not altogether very fun moments, but you’ll be telling stories about your journey years later.

There are merits to both styles of travel. The experiencing-self enjoys being able to be in the moment on the Mexico beach; to be mindful, meditative, and attentive; to feel each sensation. To have a great meal in a low-stress situation, say. The remembering-self (to use Daniel Kahneman’s terminology), on the other hand, wants memories. In an article about his trip to Tasmania, James Fallows said, “I judge travel by the density of the memories it creates.” Why? Because memories underpin meaning.

It’s when I take stock of my life as a whole — “as a whole” being a trigger phrase for memory — that I feel most deeply satisfied. It’s when I look back on all that I’ve experienced that my life feels most meaningful. I revel in the sweep of nostalgia. Ultimately, I think memories matter most. We are the stories we tell ourselves, says Joan Didion. Yet, unless we’re on a strong diet of self-delusion, we can only tell stories about things we remember.

Practically speaking, I’d argue most people underinvest in memories. Here some tips:

Prize novelty. Novelty leads to memories. Seek bulk, positive randomness. Mix things up. New food, new people, a new route home from work. Steven Johnson wrote about slowing down time by moving to California from New York. A new place forces you to pay attention and take in new complexity—denser memories result. As we get older, by default, people experience less and less novelty. I sometimes hear people who turn 50 remark that their 40 birthday felt like just yesterday. I’ve never heard somebody who turned 30 say the same about turning 20. We generate fewer and fewer memories in late age. Unless, that is, we do something about it, by prioritizing novelty. Here are 50 specific ways to invite newness into your life.

Take on challenges; endure struggle; feel intense lows and highs. You remember what you have to overcome. As Oliver Burkeman says, an awe-filled life is about feeling more intensely — experience lower lows, like during a mighty struggle where you’re totally exhausted, and revel in higher highs when you make it to the finish line.

Do things with people. And use people as a key variable. Great memories usually involve other people. Relationships matter. But think of people as a variable that can easily layer novelty on top of the tried-and-true. New people, old places. Or old people, new routines. Go to Mexico every year for Christmas, but with a different group of friends each time. Or go on a different hike every week, but with the same friend.

Seek novelty, yes, except when novelty itself becomes routine. Non-stop travelers no longer see a new hotel or city as new. Instead, they process the novelty in terms of their past experiences. The new hotel is worse/better/different than last night’s hotel, instead of being evaluated on its own terms. Meeting new people from different backgrounds becomes a chore instead of an exciting quest to understand the variety of human nature.

Review and re-live memories soon after the fact. Go to the Sunday brunch after the Saturday night wedding. Walk down memory lane with your colleagues after a big week at the office. As I’ve written, doing this systematically can significantly increase an experience’s meaningfulness – in part by solidifying the memory.

If you consciously focus on creating a great memory in the moment, it sticks. A friend writes: “I once had a passion fruit Pisco sour in Lima, Peru that was so great I quipped: “Just the memory of the drink would have been worth the $7.” Something about making that statement has made the memory of the drink stick much better in my mind. I can still almost taste it and I especially remember the thick, velvety texture. Perhaps just a coincidence, but I do see some potential in focusing consciously on how great certain memories will later be.”

You want to both enjoy today and have a rich memory?

The wise approach seems to be to optimize for both the experiencing-self and the remembering-self at the same time. You want both in-the-moment pleasure and memories.

Witness the balancing act in this regard at weddings. To create memories, couples spend a fortune on wedding photographers. The couple’s logic is, “In the end, all we’re left with are the photographs of the day.” At a recent wedding I attended, the photographers popped out of a curtain behind the couple as the couple was reading their vows. It was distracting; it hurt the moment that was being experienced by everyone at the time. But it no doubt led to some especially intimate photographs that will be enjoyed for years to come.

But elsewhere at the wedding, present-experience optimization prevailed. The couple didn’t stop during the vows and hold a pose for the photographer. They didn’t re-do certain lines for the benefit of the photographer to capture them at just the right angle with their mouth open just so. They selected the flowers, tables, and music primarily with the experience-self’s experience in mind, not caring what was going to show up best for the photographs and videos that the remembering-self would enjoy later.

Optimizing for both is good guidance for life decisions more generally. Thus, the bottom line…

Bottom Line: Have a few key areas of non-novelty; put everything else on the chopping block. Do have a long-term significant other. Do have a “home” that doesn’t change every year. Do maintain some traditions and routines. Cherish these routines. (Put them in a lockbox that only you and Al Gore have the key to.) Then, experiment widely, take chances, and kill your status quo everywhere else – you’ll be investing in your memory bank, slowing down time, and increasing the meaning you feel when you take stock of your life.

(Thanks to Stephen Dodson, Charlie Songhurst, Tyler Cowen, Nathan Labenz, Michael McCullough, David Zetland, and Brad & Amy Feld for their useful feedback on this topic.)

(Photo: Prathima Pingali. Originally published on LinkedIn.)

What Questions Are You Thinking About?

I like Robin Hanson’s advice to frame a conversation this way — it can be a telling litmus test:

I know many folks who consider themselves intellectuals. I guess they think that in part because if you asked them “What have you been up to lately?,” they’d tell you about books, articles, blogs, or twitter feeds that they’ve been reading. Or perhaps TED talks they’ve watched. This is why I prefer the question “What have you been thinking about lately?” And I’ll usually be a bit disappointed if the answer isn’t about a question they’ve been trying to answer.

Yes perhaps if they just mention a topic, that really stands for some questions about that topic. But often people thinking about a topic are mostly trying to find more supporting evidence for things they already believe. Less often are they taking what I consider the most productive intellectual strategy: focus on an important question where you don’t know the answer.

Once you start to think about a question, you’ll probably soon start to break it down into supporting sub-questions. Instead of asking “How can we get world peace?” you might ask “What most goes wrong when the United Nations intervenes?” or “Why do citizens on the losing sides of wars support them?” And hearing about your interesting sub-questions might just make my day. That is why I, like the Harvard admissions dean above, will be especially eager to hear that you’ve been thinking about interesting questions.