Here are SIX things I learned, thought were interesting, or found useful.
Make Your Point And Get Out Of The Way
A lesson I should have included in the things I’ve learned from Ryan Holiday. The last couple weeks, I’ve been working on two manuscripts for him, and he always gives the instructions: see if you can cut 10%. So word economy has been on my mind lately. Did you know someone spoke before Lincoln at Gettysburg? His speech was 13,607 words. Lincoln’s was 271. A Spartan general once captured a city. His dispatch home just said, “City taken.” “The magistrates fined him for being verbose,” Steven Pressfield writes in The Warrior Ethos. “‘Taken,’ they said, would have sufficed.” And Morgan Housel’s “advice applicable to everything you do: Make your point and get out of the way.”
Action Produces The Appetite For More Action
Speaking of Steven Pressfield. Sometimes I wake up feeling anxious or overwhelmed or like there’s so much to do I don’t know what to do. On these mornings, I think of Leonidas’ speech from Pressfield’s Gates of Fire. Leonidas is addressing the Spartan and allied officers just after the first sighting of the enemy forerunners. War was on the brink. “Brothers and comrades,” Leonidas began, “it appears that the Persian, despite our impressive showmanship, remains unconvinced of the prudence of packing his kit and embarking for home. It looks like we’re going to have to fight him, after all. Hear, then, what I expect from each of you…Our deportment here must not differ from any other campaign…Above all, the little things. Maintain your men’s training schedule without alteration. Omit no sacrifice to the gods. Continue your gymnastics and drills-at-arms. Take time to dress your hair, as always. If anything, take more time.” And, “Keep your men busy. If there is no work, make it up, for when soldiers have time to talk, their talk turns to fear. Action, on the other hand, produces the appetite for more action.” Along similar lines, Rich Roll has a good mantra: mood follows action.
Accept The State of Being Stuck
Of course sometimes, you have to sit with the discomfort of being stuck—on a piece of writing, on a programming problem, on a centuries-old theorem. For 385 years, mathematicians couldn’t solve a problem: Fermat’s Last Theorem. Those who tried and failed would publicly state that “[it’s] impossible to actually prove” or “[it’s] completely inaccessible.” When he was 10 years old in 1963, Andrew Wiles came across Fermat’s Last Theorem in a book. He was captivated and decided to pursue mathematics. In 1974, he earned his bachelor’s degree in mathematics. In 1980, his PhD. He then bounced around teaching mathematics at prestigious universities throughout the ‘80s. At some point in 1986, he decided to dedicate his time fully to Fermat’s Last Theorem. And in May 1995, Wiles’ proof was published in the Annals of Mathematics. In 2016, after a decade of mathematical celebrity, Wiles was asked, what are some of the themes you’ve tried to emphasize when talking to a broader public? Accept the state of being stuck, he replied. “What you have to handle,” he said, “is accepting the state of being stuck. People don’t get used to that. They find it very stressful. But it’s part of the process. You have to accept it. You have to learn to enjoy it.” Wiles insists that he, like the best mathematicians he knows, is not exceptionally bright (and we’re pretty sure we believe him). “We’re just prepared to handle the struggle,” he said, “the stressful situation of being stuck.”
You Can Shut Your Ears, Can’t You?
There’s a restaurant that sporadically hosts all types of bands. It’s a distance away that only sometimes it is within earshot of where I live. On Friday night, I was getting situated. I made a cup of pu’er. I placed two recently-read books beside a stack of notecards and two Paper Mate Flair Felts. I scooted my chair into a nook between two bookshelves and as I took the cap off the Flair Felt, some kind of progressive avant-garde screamo band erupted within earshot. One of my dogs took off barking then launched himself at the front door where he howled at the ceiling, seemingly wanting to keep the intruders out but confused as to where they were coming from (they were 180° the opposite direction). The other dog shimmied under the bed where she barked here and there, seemingly wanting to be supportive but with caution. As I calmed the watchdog, I imagined a phone call and how a request to lower the volume a few notches would be received. Then the following came to mind. Apparently, Eric Larson writes in The Splendid and the Vile, Winston Churchill hated the sound of whistling. His police guardian, Detective Inspector Walter Henry Thompson, said, “It sets up an almost psychiatric disturbance in him—immense, immediate, and irrational.” Churchill and Thompson were once walking to 10 Downing Street. A young newsboy was coming towards them, “hands in pockets, newspapers under his arms, whistling loudly and cheerfully,” Thompson recalled. Churchill couldn’t contain his anger and snapped at the boy, “Stop that whistling!” The boy countered, “Why should I?” “Because I don’t like it and it’s a horrible noise.” “Well, you can shut your ears, can’t you?” The two parties kept walking. “Churchill was for the moment stunned. Anger flushed his face,” Larson writes. “But one of Churchill’s great strengths was perspective, which gave him the ability to place discrete events into boxes, so that bad humor could in a heartbeat turn to mirth.” Thompson would recall that a smile slowly started to form on Churchill then he said to himself but loud enough that Thompson heard it, “You can shut your ears, can’t you?” Then, Churchill laughed out loud. And so I put on my Sony MDR7506’s, which boast an “outstanding reduction of external noises,” and returned to my note taking station.
What Sushi (Should Have) Taught Us
Dr. Dre’s debut album The Chronic is nearly universally regarded as a masterpiece. It’s hard to find a “Greatest Albums of All Time” list without The Chronic on it. Kanye famously said “it’s the benchmark you measure your album against if you’re serious.” But the musician Questlove hated The Chronic when it first came out. The loud drums, the whiny synths, the slow lyrical cadence—“I hated The Chronic when it fist came out,” Questlove said on Quest for Craft. “It took me 18 years to realize…” 18 years!? Malcolm Gladwell intervenes. “I thought you were going to say 18 months.” “No, it took me 18 years. I regret not embracing it at the time.” Less surprising than Questlove’s 18-year aversion to The Chronic, Gladwell had an interesting theory. “I’ve thought about this a lot,” he begins, as interesting theories often do. “Unusual and mediocre—in that first moment when you’re just experiencing something—they register the same in your stomach. And so it takes you a while to tease apart, ‘Oh the reason I had that what’s going on here? reaction is just that I hadn’t encountered it before.” Food is a good example: everyone has a food they hated at first but then came to love. “You give sushi to a 6-year-old,” Gladwell continues, “they make a face. But you know 100% that one day they’re going to love sushi. They’re not registering that sushi is terrible. They’re registering that sushi is unusual. And they’re not old enough or mature enough to know that terrible and unusual just feel the same. Well actually, adults, we never really grow out of this.”
Re-Cognizing: Understanding Precedes Understanding
Another example of Gladwell’s theory, I think, is reading or learning. Sometimes it takes time to tease apart something you don’t like and something you’re just not familiar enough with. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, Iain McGilchrist drives the point home. “In order to know [something],” he writes, “We have to be able to recognise (‘re-cognise’) what we experience: to say this is a ‘such-and-such’, that is, it has certain qualities that enable me to place it in a category of things that I have experienced before and about which I have certain beliefs and feelings.” And in another spot, “For us to be able to understand anything we have already to be in possession of enough understanding of it to be able to approach it, and indeed we have, yes, already to understand it in some sense before we can ‘understand’ it. We arrive at the position (which is so familiar from experience) that we cannot attain an understanding by grasping it for ourselves. It has already to be in us…This is also the meaning of the dark saying that ideas come to us, not we to them. Our role in understanding is that of an open, in one sense active, passivity: ‘in insight (Einblick), men are the ones that are caught sight of’.”