Monthly Archives: January 2014

Studying One’s Own Work for Imperfections

Garry Kasparov, the chess grand master, obsessively studied his past matches, looking for the slightest imperfection, but when it came time to play a chess game, he said he played by instinct, “by smell, by feel.” After Herb Stein finishes shooting a soap opera episode, he immediately goes home and reviews the rough cut. “I watch the whole thing,” Stein says, “and I just take notes. I’m looking really hard for my mistakes. I pretty much always want to find thirty mistakes, thirty things that I could have done better. If I can’t find thirty, then I’m not looking hard enough.” These mistakes are usually little things, so minor that nobody else would notice. But Stein knows that the only way to get it right the next time is to study what he got wrong this time. Tom Brady spends hours watching game tape every week, critically looking at each of his passing decisions, but when he’s standing in the pocket he knows that he can’t hesitate before making a throw. It’s not an accident that all of these experts have converged on such a similar method. They have figured out how to take advantage of their mental machinery, to steal as much wisdom as possible from their inevitable errors.

From Jonah Lehrer’s How We Decide.

Ben Franklin Didn’t Like the Choice of Bald Eagle

As a Franklin devotee, I kind of loved this anecdote. Fight on, Ben!

In 1782, after years of argument and indecision, Congress concluded that the bald eagle would make an appropriate symbol of national power and authority, and so it was decided that the bird, depicted with its wings outspread, its talons grasping an olive branch, etcetera, should be adopted as the emblem for the great seal of the United States….Not everybody agreed with the decision… Benjamin Franklin thought the turkey a better choice and considered the bald eagle—a plunderer and a scavenger of dead fish rather than a hunter, and timid if mobbed by much smaller birds—an animal of bad moral character and in fact a coward.

(From Netherland by Joseph O’Neill.)

Book Review: How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

In 2009, I reviewed at length Mohsin Hamid’s book, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, where I noted that the book so captivated me that I spent a whole day reading it instead of exploring the Afro-Caribbean streets of Cartagena, Colombia where I happened to be at the time.

Last week, I read Hamid’s latest novel, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, lying next to a pool in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Once again, Hamid kept me adhered to my chair, as evidenced by the picture to the right.book

It’s a rags-to-riches story of a boy who’s born in a poor village who transforms himself into a big city entrepreneur-mogul.

As a piece of writing, Hamid is masterful. His effortless use of the second person voice — rare in novels — increases the sense of urgency while reading. He can also bring characters to life with an efficient dash of a paragraph, which is how the book clocks in at a brisk 200 pages or so and yet still feels deep.

Three big picture themes especially resonated with me.

The first theme is the simple entrepreneurial hustle required in a dirty, somewhat dangerous, fast moving emerging market. The self-help structure is a parody, but effectively conveys the underlying truth which is that only relentless do-anything go-getter win in “Rising Asia.” (The namelessness of places and people – “Rising Asia” is the setting of the book, “you” the protagonist, and “Pretty Girl” the main romantic interest – permits readers to interpret its various lessons as broadly as possible.)

The second theme that resonated is the relationship between romance and careerism. The protagonist’s marriage falls apart because of his relentless focus on his career. And the real object of his sexual desires is not his wife but another girl who also happens to be obsessed with her career, and therefore stays firmly single despite an occasional hotel rendezvous together. Two careerists do not a couple make.

Third, I learned that the humanity of a person gets brought into relief from the juxtaposition of flaws and virtues. For example, in this book, the protagonist entrepreneur essentially misleads customers about the authenticity of his product; bribes government officials; hires employee based on nepotism; and commits other unethical or unwise acts. Yet he somehow maintains your sympathy throughout. Why? His flaws are rationalized with an air of reasonableness, and he maintains several other virtues besides. Real people tend to be a bundle of the good and bad and complicated shades of both all at the same time. Skilled writers direct a wide lens to capture this nuance–we see flaw and virtue together, and it reminds us of ourselves, and makes the whole story feel relatable.

This was a novel that was not easy to put down, and it will not be easy to forget.

Favorite paragraphs excerpted below.

Continue reading

Life is Not a Highlight Reel

The economist Tyler Cowen once told me a test for whether a couple can be happy in a relationship is whether they can go to a drug store together with a shopping list, pick out the right items, pay, and leave the store, without once getting in an argument. His point, as I understood it, was that when you’re in a relationship you need to get through the day to day trivia and tedium of life — such as picking up extra toilet paper at a Rite Aid — with a kind of communal contentment.

A romantic relationship is not about the “highlights” you see on Instagram or Facebook of international trips or fancy dinner parties. Those things are nice but necessarily infrequent. Most of the time is downtime, and if you can’t love the downtime, you’ve got a problem. As Kramer in Seinfeld once famously mocked, conversation with a spouse tends to be repeated discussion of very ordinary days.

Relationships, like life in general, consist mostly of ordinary moments, not extraordinary ones.

In David Foster Wallace’s commencement speech at Kenyon, he notes that our day-to-day lives are full of tedium. For example, suppose after you work you need to pick up some food: “You will go to the supermarket. At the supermarket you will get a cart. The cart will have three functional wheels, and one wheel that spins out all curvy in a weird direction. That wheel – and thus the cart – will drive you mad. If you let it.”

Wallace’s point: How we choose to respond to things like the supermarket cart that can’t roll straight, and the million other daily hassles, in part defines who we are.

The minimum response, I think, is to simply tolerate the trivia, in some Zen kind of way. Accept the trivia for what it is and don’t get too depressed by it. Simple, but not at all easy.

The more ambitious response, as articulated by various sages over the years, is to aspire to find sacredness in, and have compassion towards, the ordinariness around us. Even if said ordinariness seems maddening or utterly banal on the surface. As Abraham Maslow put in: “…the sacred is in the ordinary…it is to be found in one’s daily life, in one’s neighbors, friends, and family, in one’s own backyard.”

Indeed, some of the happiest people I know find joy in the smallest of pleasures and find amusement in what are usually inconsequential inconveniences.

And to Tyler’s point, some of the happiest couples I know are at their best when it’s just the two of them on the couch looking at YouTube videos on their iPad, or taking their dog for a walk together.

So, as I’ve come to see it, the reality is this: For the most part, life is one damn mundane thing after another.

The choice that determines sanity is whether you let the little things drive you bonkers, or worse yet let the little things foment existential angst — or whether instead you can find a way to tolerate it all peacefully.

The choice that determines higher wisdom or enlightenment is whether you can learn toappreciate the little experiences — most of them trivial, indeed — as the precious, joyous stuff.

As the writer Dani Shapiro has noted, if you wait for the special, the extreme, the extraordinary to happen — you may just miss your life.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Sometimes I meet with a friend or acquaintance and I leave the meeting thinking, “Am I doing enough with my life? Am I taking enough risk?” Ramit Sethi once told me he loves those sorts of meetings. (I love them too, though as I’ve written, if someone is too much better than me, it’s actually demotivating.)

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, Ben Stiller’s film which opened on Christmas Day, is a recent example of a movie which caused me to ask questions I ought to ask myself more often: Am I being adventurous enough? Am I being bold enough? Am I trying hard enough to realize my fantasies? Why haven’t I visited Iceland? The questions popped to mind as I took in the gorgeous photography and listened to the lovely soundtrack. (The official trailer is an accurate proxy for physical beauty in the entire film.)

To be sure, most of the critics have given Mitty mixed reviews. I’m hardly a film sophisticate, and even I saw flaws in the movie.

Sure, the actual storyline/plot is so-so, but it’s good enough to make you reflect on the big questions. Because you don’t have to be a shy paper pusher who works in the basement of an office, as Walter Mitty does, to day dream. And you don’t have to be able to jump through windows or on to arctic ships, as Mitty does, in order to make real a more adventrous and perhaps authentic version of yourself.

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On my flight to Hong Kong, I watched The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a film about older Brits who try to invigorate their lives by moving to a hotel for old people in India. It’s a story of seeking adventure, even to your very last day. I enjoyed it quite a bit, for reasons similar to why I liked Mitty.

Another movie I saw recently and loved was Perks of Being a Wallflower. Teen angst, high school travails, mental illness, broken romance, and a surprise ending. Deeply affecting.

Books: “Average is Over” and “The Second Machine Age”

Average is Over by Tyler Cowen was published a couple months ago; The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee will be published a couple weeks from now. I’ve read both and together they provide a persuasive account of how our economy is changing (due to technology and globalization) and who in the labor market will survive and thrive in an era where “average is over.” There are various summaries available.

For individual readers (as opposed to policy makers), you can think of the two books as prequels to The Start-Up of You. In The Start-Up of You, we provide practical advice on how to make yourself more adaptable, how to take risks, how to market yourself, how to grow your network–in a word, how to make yourself more entrepreneurial. Tyler, Erik, and Andy all assert that individuals will need to do these sorts of things to survive in a more challenging labor market, but they don’t have time to get into the details. (They focus more on the macro trends and implications, which are quite important in their own right.) So for enterprising individuals who want to understand the economy they’re living in and specific advice that should follow from this understanding, consider all three excellent books!