How Do People Get New Ideas?

In a previously unpublished 1959 essay, Isaac Asimov explores how people get new ideas.

Echoing Einstein and Seneca, Asimov believes that new ideas come from combining things together. Steve Jobs thought the same thing.

What if the same earth-shaking idea occurred to two men, simultaneously and independently? Perhaps, the common factors involved would be illuminating. Consider the theory of evolution by natural selection, independently created by Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace.

There is a great deal in common there. Both traveled to far places, observing strange species of plants and animals and the manner in which they varied from place to place. Both were keenly interested in finding an explanation for this, and both failed until each happened to read Malthus’s “Essay on Population.”

Both then saw how the notion of overpopulation and weeding out (which Malthus had applied to human beings) would fit into the doctrine of evolution by natural selection (if applied to species generally).

Obviously, then, what is needed is not only people with a good background in a particular field, but also people capable of making a connection between item 1 and item 2 which might not ordinarily seem connected.

Undoubtedly in the first half of the 19th century, a great many naturalists had studied the manner in which species were differentiated among themselves. A great many people had read Malthus. Perhaps some both studied species and read Malthus. But what you needed was someone who studied species, read Malthus, and had the ability to make a cross-connection.

That is the crucial point that is the rare characteristic that must be found. Once the cross-connection is made, it becomes obvious. Thomas H. Huxley is supposed to have exclaimed after reading On the Origin of Species, “How stupid of me not to have thought of this.”

[…]

Making the cross-connection requires a certain daring. It must, for any cross-connection that does not require daring is performed at once by many and develops not as a “new idea,” but as a mere “corollary of an old idea.”

It is only afterward that a new idea seems reasonable. To begin with, it usually seems unreasonable. It seems the height of unreason to suppose the earth was round instead of flat, or that it moved instead of the sun, or that objects required a force to stop them when in motion, instead of a force to keep them moving, and so on.

The paradox here is that crazy people are good at seeing new connections too, one notable difference being the outcome.

As a brief aside, I wonder if people are creative, in part because they are autodidacts rather than being autodidacts because they are creative? The formal education system doesn’t exactly encourage creativity. Generally, there are right and wrong answers. We’re taught to get the right answer. Autodidacts try new things, often learning negative knowledge instead of positive knowledge.

When you’re right about connections that others cannot see, you are called a creative genius. When you’re wrong, however, you’re often labelled mentally ill.

This comes back to Keynes: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for the reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

A great way to connect things is with a commonplace book.

Simplify Your Life

simplify your life

​​“Let your boat of life be light, packed with only what you need—a homely home and simple pleasures, one or two friends worth the name, someone to love and someone to love you, a cat, a dog, and a pipe or two, enough to eat and enough to wear, and a little more than enough to drink, for thirst is a dangerous thing.” — Jerome Klapka Jerome

After realizing that she no longer wanted her life to be so complicated, Elaine St. James set out on a path to improve the quality of her life while decreasing the complexity. Simplify Your Life shares 100 of her tips to slow down and enjoy the things that really matter.

The first thing she did was “get rid of all the stuff we didn’t use anymore.” Sounds tough right, how will you know what you need and what you don’t? As for what to do with things you want to get rid of but can’t bear to throw out …

Put them in a box with a label indicating a date two or three years from now—but don’t list the contents on the label. Store the box in the attic or the basement, or wherever is convenient. Once a year, examine the labels. When you come across a box whose date has passed, throw it out without opening it. Since you don’t know what’s inside, you’ll never miss it.

Another way to simplify your life is to (#55) Stop The Busy Work:

Busy work is the nonproductive time we spend sharpening pencils, cleaning out our desks, making unnecessary phone calls, getting another cup of coffee, organizing our schedule, drawing up reports, doing research, making more unnecessary phone calls—things we convince ourselves have to be done before we can get down to our real work. Some busy work is unavoidable and necessary. What I’m talking about here is the avoidable kind. There are two reasons for busy work. One, we don’t want to do what we’re really supposed to be doing. Two, we don’t have anything that has to be done, but we want to look busy. In this age of workaholism, busy work has been elevated to an art form. It is the phenomenon that in many cases makes it seem imperative that we spend ten to twelve hours a day in the office.

And consider (#23) Reduce Your Go-Go Entertainment and find meaning in the quiet moments.

If you began your simplification program out of the need or the desire to cut back on your spending, your entertainment expenses were probably among the first to be reduced. If you’re seeking simplicity as part of getting off the fast track, then reducing your need for outside entertainment will no doubt be high on your list. In either case, cutting back on your nightlife, and looking within yourself and to your family for entertainment, is a positive step toward simplification.

The financial rewards of avoiding such activities as movies, plays, theater, opera, concerts, cabaret, and nightclubs are obvious. The personal rewards may not be so apparent at first. After all, we’ve been compelled in recent years to go, to do, to be on the move, to experience all that money can buy. Oftentimes, in the process, the things we really like to do have been overlooked.

I was recently in a meeting with a dozen high-powered professional people. We started talking about our goals for our leisure time, and how seldom we allow ourselves to truly enjoy our own quiet moments. We each decided to make a list of the things we really liked to do.

The lists included things like:

Watching a sunset. Watching a sunrise. Taking a walk on the beach or through a park or along a mountain trail. Having a chat with a friend. Browsing in a bookstore. Reading a good book. Puttering in the garden. Taking a nap. Spending quiet time with our spouse. Spending quiet time with our children. Listening to a favorite piece of music. Watching a favorite movie. Spending time with our pets. Sitting quietly in a favorite chair and doing nothing.

We were surprised and delighted to see most of the things we listed required little or no money, no expensive equipment, and were available for anyone who wants to take advantage of them. For the most part, our favorite pleasures were the simple pleasures.

***

Today we get lost. Lost in the noise. Lost in the relentless torrent of things to do. The information age has accelerated the pace.

This reminds me of something I came across recently. Pico Iyer writes in The Art of Stillness:

We’ve lost our Sundays, our weekends, our nights off – our holy days, as some would have it; our bosses, junk mailers, our parents can find us wherever we are, at any time of day or night. More and more of us feel like emergency-room physicians, permanently on call, required to heal ourselves but unable to find the prescription for all the clutter on our desk.

“It was access to information and movement that seemed our greatest luxury,” Iyer writes, “nowadays it’s often freedom from information, the chance to sit still, that feels like the ultimate prize. Stillness is not just an indulgence for those with enough resources – it’s a necessity for anyone who wishes to gather less visible resources.”

Going nowhere … isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.

***

Simplify Your Life is a compilation of the steps taken by one household to simplify their life.

Building a Business and Making Your Mark

99u Don't hate Create

While ‘managing by bestseller’ is a misguided approach to fixing organizational problems, there is a lot to be learned from the leading experts and entrepreneurs on what’s different about building a business today.

Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact, edited by Jocelyn Glei, features insights from twenty-one leading experts and entrepreneurs to explore the principles that propel some of today’s most successful companies.

It’s about “applying the forces of business to creativity.”

In the foreword to the book, Scott Belsky, the Founder of Behance and author of Making Ideas Happen, points to one of the fundamental problems with creativity: it’s often undiscoverable. And if it’s undiscoverable it has no impact.

Creativity has many definitions.

For me, creativity is solving problems in new ways and conceiving new ways of looking at the world.

Creativity can be expressed in many forms, like art, science, and thought.

But creativity is all too often undiscoverable and incomprehensible.

Art, without distribution and discovery, moves nobody. Did it ever exist? Science, without clear explanation and advocacy, won’t be understood by the masses. Will it make an impact?

Creation, he argues, “must be made accessible for consumption.” Creativity alone, is not enough. We need to make it consumable by channeling and packaging it.

99u Make your Mark

The best businesses are purpose driven. But you can’t go far without an incredible product experience. What guides all great product development are the twin ideals of “an unstoppable enthusiasm for bringing something great into the world and a relentless focus on usability.” Making good products takes time.

Excellense is doing

Enter Sebastian Thrun, the leader behind the team that created Google Glass and the Google Self-Driving Car. He’s also the co-founder of Udacity, which is trying to disrupt education by improving the learning experience. Thrun does a Q&A in the book and it’s one of the best things I’ve read recently.

How do you focus your energies at the beginning of a project?

When thinking about products, I like to use a mountain-climbing analogy. The first step is to pick a peak. Don’t pick a peak because it’s easy. Pick a peak because you really want to go there; that way you’ll enjoy the process.

The second thing is to pick a team you trust and that’s willing to learn with you. Because the way mountain climbing really works is that you can’t climb the entire route perfectly. You have to know that you are going to make mistakes, that you’ll have to turn around, and that you’ll have to recover.

You also have to maintain your sense of purpose. For a long time, it may feel like you’re on the wrong path, but you must have the resilience to forge ahead. You just have to keep moving uphill.

It’s about the process not the outcome.

For me, the journey is much more delightful if you can derive pleasure from the process every day, rather than at the end of the year. If your goal is to IPO and get rich, then you’re going to be in for a very long, very sad ride. Because most people don’t IPO and don’t get rich.

Our most important asset is our time, so I think it’s best to manage your time well right now and be happy about it, rather than focus on some deferred goal, like buying a fancy car in the future. The data shows that people who are rich aren’t any happier, so you might as well derive your happiness from what you are doing today.

How does iteration figure into your process? Do you think it’s best to create a functional prototype as soon as possible?

To return to the mountain idea, if you think about it, there’s no other way to get up the mountain than taking a hundred thousand steps. You could have all the meetings and all the documentation and work for weeks on end to make the perfect plan. But in my opinion, all you’ve done at that point is lost time. You’ve done nothing. You’ve learned nothing.

Sure, if this mountain has been climbed ten thousand times before, then you just get the book, and the maps, and you follow the same steps. But that’s not innovation. Innovation is about climbing a mountain that no one has climbed before. So there ought to be some unknowns along the way because no one has solved the problem yet.

And when you’re innovating, sheer thinking just won’t work. What gets you there is fast iteration, and fast failing. And when you fail, you’ve done something great: you’ve learned something. In hindsight, it might look a little embarrassing, and people will say, “You should’ve known that.” But the truth is you couldn’t have known because it’s unchartered territory. Almost every entrepreneur I know has failed massively many, many times along the way.

What’s the most common mistake that people make when they’re developing a product?

One mistake I see a lot is the eternal thinker, the perfectionist. This is the person that builds all the components without putting them together, because there’s perfection in component development. And they have this idea that if you only put things together right before launch, everything will go fine. Of course, that never happens.

The second mistake I see is more of a character issue, which is being discouraged by failure. Where you do something three or four times, spend half a year in development, and think, “Oh my god, I’m not there yet, let me change my career . . .” So that’s a lack of perseverance.

The last one I see is being driven by fear. When your competitor does something new, you become fearful and decide that you’re going to change course. But every single time you do this, you’re already behind your competitor and that’s just a bad idea. You have to have faith in yourself, and believe in your vision.

At some time, everybody is driven by fear. But we need to—as much as we can—take fear out of the game. One way to do this is to imagine that you are already successful. You’ve looked into the future, and you’ve succeeded. What would you enjoy doing today given that knowledge?

make your mark

Clearly, certain personality types are more comfortable with iteration and failure than others. Do you think you can learn to be if it doesn’t come naturally?

It’s obvious to me that there’s a certain personality type that can deal with failure more than others. But I think this awareness can also be acquired, especially when you realize that the failures that come out of experimentation really don’t relate to you as a person. It’s just the course of innovation; failure is a systemic part of that process.

For instance, if you’re driving a car, and after three hundred miles the car runs out of gas, no one takes offense because the “failure” is inherent to the car, not to you. It’s not your failure to operate the car correctly. We all know that you have to refill the gas tank; that’s just the way it is. So if we think of failure in innovation in the same way—as having to refill the gas tank regularly—we can take it much less personally.

That’s a great metaphor. So you think the idea of constant—and playful—experimentation is the best mind-set for innovation?

It’s very uncommon for people to have the attitude of “Wow, I don’t know.” In childhood, researchers call this a “growth mind-set”—this idea that you’re comfortable with the fact that you just don’t know something yet, or that you just can’t do something yet. But most people are raised with this feeling that they know everything.

But if you know everything, you can’t possibly innovate, right? It’s impossible, because there is nothing new to learn or discover.

There’s this funny saying that I like: “After high school, kids know everything, after their bachelor’s degree, they know something, and after a PhD, they now know that they know nothing.”

I think that the ability to see how much more there is to know and be humble about it is actually a good thing. Returning to the mountain metaphor, every mountain climber I know of feels small in the mountains and enjoys the feeling of being small. No matter what you do, the mountain is always bigger than you are.

Make Your Mark is the third book in 99u’s “missing curriculum” for creative leaders. The two prior ones are Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind and Maximize Your Potential: Grow Your Expertise, Take Bold Risks & Build an Incredible Career.

Ideas are not singular

“If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.”

In January 2006, Disney announced it would spend $7.4 billion to buy its “cousin” Pixar Animation Studios. Many wondered about the fate of Disney Animation Studios itself – would Disney shut down the division that forged its identity, but had stagnated since its success in the early 1990s with films like The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast? Would it leave hand-drawn animation behind in favor of computer animation?

Within months, the question was settled. Disney CEO Bob Iger named Pixar’s John Lasseter and Ed Catmull to head Disney Animation, and the duo decided to leave the divisions separate and autonomous.

The decision played out brilliantly. Not only has Pixar continued to release hits like Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, and Toy Story 3, Disney Animation recently released the best-selling animated movie of all time – Frozen – on the heels of its other well-received animated films, Wreck-it Ralph and Tangled.

***

This kind of success seemed far from reality in 1986, when Steve Jobs decided to purchase a small, struggling division of Lucasfilm with one product: the Pixar Image Computer. As Catmull explains in his book Creativity Inc.:

From the outside, Pixar probably looked like your typical Silicon Valley startup. On the inside, however, we were anything but. Steve Jobs had never manufactured or marketed a high-end machine before, so he had neither the experience nor the intuition about how to do so. We had no sales people and no marketing people and no idea where to find them. Steve, Alvy Ray Smith, John Lasseter, me—none of us knew the first thing about how to run the kind of business we had just started. We were drowning.

By 1990, the team had realized Pixar’s future was not in selling machines, but selling art. Still, it was a tough time. Even as Pixar produced computer animated TV ads and shorts, the company was losing too much money. Jobs tried to sell it more than once – luckily, without success.

Pixar caught its first break in 1991, when Disney’s Jeff Katzenberg asked the company to produce three computer-animated features, which Disney would distribute and own. (These would go on to become Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, and Toy Story 2.)

By the end of 1995, Pixar was a public company and Toy Story a legitimate hit. Amid the success, Catmull had his first existential crisis as President of Pixar Animation:

For twenty years, my life had been defined by the goal of making the first computer graphics movie. Now that goal had been reached, I had what I can only describe as a hollow, lost feeling. As a manager, I felt a troubling lack of purpose. Now what? The thing that had replaced it seemed to be the act of running a company, which was more than enough to keep me busy, but it wasn’t special. Pixar was now public and successful, yet there was something unsatisfying about the prospect of merely keeping it running. It took a serious and unexpected problem to give me a new sense of mission.

Catmull realized that although it had put out a great film, Pixar had a large group of employees who were reluctant to sign on for a second project. With the creative team behind Toy Story being given tremendous resources and status, the production team – responsible for executing thousands of movie-making details – felt marginalized.

In the process of solving his organizational problem, Catmull realized a new purpose: Fostering a sustainable organizational culture.

As I saw it, our mandate was to foster a culture that would seek to keep our sightlines clear, even as we accepted that we were often trying to engage with and fix what we could not see. My hope was to make this culture so vigorous that it would survive when Pixar’s founding members were long gone, enabling the company to continue producing original films that made money, yes, but also contributed positively to the world. This sounds like a lofty goal, but it was there for all of us from the beginning. We were blessed with a remarkable group of employees who valued change, risk, and the unknown and who wanted to rethink how we create. How could we enable the talents of these people, keep them happy, and not let the inevitable complexities that come with any collaborative endeavor undo us along the way? That was the job I assigned myself—and the one that still animates me to this day.

From there, Creativity, Inc. explores the process of developing the culture envisioned in his post-Toy Story hangover. Given his success at Pixar, and then Disney, some of the key points are worth examining.

In the end, it’s about people, not ideas.

If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it, or throw it away and come up with something better.

[…]

Why are we confused about this? Because too many of us think of ideas as being singular, as if they float in the ether, fully formed and independent of the people who wrestle with them. Ideas, though, are not singular. They are forged through tens of thousands of decisions, often made by dozens of people.

Solicit criticism from a trusted group:

I want to stress that you don’t have to work at Pixar to create a Braintrust. Every creative person, no matter their field, can draft into service those around them who exhibit the right mixture of intelligence, insight, and grace.

Here are the qualifications required: The people you choose must (a) make you think smarter and (b) put lots of solutions on the table in a short amount of time. I don’t care who it is, the janitor or the intern or one of your most trusted lieutenants: If they can help you do that, they should be at the table.

Failure is necessary for creative work:

Says [Director] Andrew [Stanton]: “You wouldn’t say to somebody who is first learning to play the guitar, ‘You better think really hard about where you put your fingers on the guitar neck before you strum, because you only get to strum once, and that’s it. And if you get that wrong, we’re going to move on.’ That’s no way to learn, is it?”

Even though people in our offices have heard Andrew say this repeatedly, many still miss the point. They think it means accept failure with dignity and move on. The better, more subtle interpretation is that failure if a manifestation of learning and exploration. If you’re not experiencing failure, then you are making a far worse mistake: You are being driven by a desire to avoid it.

Protect the New:

When I advocate for protecting the new, then, I am using the word somewhat differently. I am saying that when someone hatches an original idea, it may be ungainly and poorly defined, but it is also the opposite of established and entrenched—and that is precisely what is most exciting about it. If, while in this vulnerable state, it is exposed to naysayers who fail to see its potential or lack the patience to see it evolve, it could be destroyed. Part of our job is to protect the new from people who don’t understand that in order for greatness to emerge, there must be phases of not-so-greatness.

Conflict is Essential to Creative Progress

As director Brad Bird sees it, every creative organization—be it an animation studio or a record label—is an ecosystem. “You need all the seasons,” he says. “You need storms. It’s like an ecology. To view lack of conflict as optimum is like saying a sunny day is optimum. A sunny day is when the sun wins out over the rain. There’s no conflict. You have a clear winner. But if every day is sunny and it does’t rain, things don’t grow. And if it’s sunny all the time—if, in fact, we don’t ever have night—all kinds of things don’t happen and the planet dries up. The key is to view conflict as essential, because that’s how we know the best ideas will be tested and survive. You know, it can’t only be sunlight.”

Creativity Inc. is an engaging look inside the creativity engine at Pixar.

Charles Dickens to The Times — I Stand Astounded and Appalled

Charles-Dickens

On November 13, 1849 a crowd of over 30,000 people gathered outside a prison in South London to witness the public execution of Marie and Frederick Manning. Marie and Frederick, a married couple, had recently murdered Marie’s wealthy former lover, Patrick O’Connor. Given that this was the first married couple to be hanged in over a century, the publicity was intense, and it became known as “The hanging of the century.” The event also attracted the pen of Charles Dickens, who shared his opinion with The Times and its readers.

Devonshire Terrace,
Tuesday, Thirteenth November, 1849

Sir,
I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger Lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over. I do not address you on the subject with any intention of discussing the abstract question of capital punishment, or any of the arguments of its opponents or advocates. I simply wish to turn this dreadful experience to some account for the general good, by taking the readiest and most public means of adverting to an intimation given by Sir G. Grey in the last session of Parliament, that the Government might be induced to give its support to a measure making the infliction of capital punishment a private solemnity within the prison walls (with such guarantees for the last sentence of the law being inexorably and surely administered as should be satisfactory to the public at large), and of most earnestly beseeching Sir G. Grey, as a solemn duty which he owes to society, and a responsibility which he cannot for ever put away, to originate such a legislative change himself. I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks, and language of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians, and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police, with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly— as it did— it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgement, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

I have seen, habitually, some of the worst sources of general contamination and corruption in this country, and I think there are not many phases of London life that could surprise me. I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten. And when in our prayers and thanksgivings for the season we are humbly expressing before God our desire to remove the moral evils of the land, I would ask your readers to consider whether it is not a time to think of this one, and to root it out.

I am, Sir, your faithful Servant.
Charles Dickens

This letter and many others can be found in Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience.

Elon Musk Recommends 12 Books

Musk
The best thing about Elon Musk is that he makes us dream big again. Musk, of course, is the billionaire behind Tesla and SpaceX.

Charlie Munger was asked a question about him at the 2014 Daily Journal Meeting and he replied:

I think Elon Musk is a genius, and I don’t use that word lightly. I think he’s also one of the boldest men that ever came down the pike.

Whenever anyone asks him how he learned to build rockets, he says, ‘I read books.’ Not only does he read them, according to his interview with Esquire, he devours them. After meeting Musk, people tend to walk away with the same reaction: ‘He’s the smartest guy I’ve ever met.’

Not to be outdone by his friend and co-founder, Peter Thiel, who offered some reading recommendations, Musk has a few of his own that influenced him.

In an interview with Design and Architecture, Musk said “In terms of sci-fi books, I think Isaac Asimov is really great. I like the Foundation series, probably one of the all-time best. Robert Heinlein, obviously. I like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and I like Stranger in a Strange Land, although it kind of goes off the rails at the end.” He continues “There’s a good book on structural design called Structures: Or Why Things Don’t Fall Down. It is really, really good if you want a primer on structural design.”

Here are some of his other reading recommendations.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
He told the New Yorker that as an “undersized and picked upon smart-aleck,” he turned to reading fantasy and science fiction. “The heroes of the books I read, ‘The Lord of the Rings’ and the ‘Foundation’ series, always felt a duty to save the world.”

Benjamin Franklin: An American Life by Walter Isaacson. “He was an entrepreneur,” Musk says in an interview. “He started from nothing. He was just a runaway kid.”

In that same interview he also recommends Einstein: His Life and Universe, also by Isaacson.

Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future by Peter Thiel
I’ve already said this is required reading for Farnam Streeters. Of this book Musk says: “Peter Thiel has built multiple breakthrough companies, and (this book) shows how.”

Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies by Nick Bostrom
“Worth reading Superintelligence by Bostrom. We need to be super careful with AI. Potentially more dangerous than nukes.” he tweeted. Of course I bought this.

Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele
Recently, in an interview with CNN, he mentioned having just finished this book. Musk calls it a “cautionary tale.”

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Here is an excerpt from an interview where he explains why this was a key book for him:

Alison van Diggelen: I understand Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, that wonderful book by Douglas Adams, that was a key book for you. What was it about that book that fired your imagination?

Elon Musk: I guess when I was around 12 or 15 … I had an existential crisis, and I was reading various books on trying to figure out the meaning of life and what does it all mean? It all seemed quite meaningless and then we happened to have some books by Nietzsche and Schopenhauer in the house, which you should not read at age 14 (laughter). It is bad, it’s really negative. So then I read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which is quite positive I think and it highlighted an important point which is that a lot of times the question is harder than the answer. And if you can properly phrase the question, then the answer is the easy part. So, to the degree that we can better understand the universe, then we can better know what questions to ask. Then whatever the question is that most approximates: what’s the meaning of life? That’s the question we can ultimately get closer to understanding. And so I thought to the degree that we can expand the scope and scale of consciousness and knowledge, then that would be a good thing.”

Finally we get to the rocket science part.

Ignition!: An informal history of liquid rocket propellants by John D. Clark
“There is a good book on rocket stuff called ‘Ignition!’ by John Clark that’s a really fun one,” Musk said in an interview. Becoming a rocket scientist isn’t cheap. This book recommendation from Musk will set you back about 3k for a used copy (it’s also free on the web)

​​(Additional Sources: Business Insider and favobooks)

Andy Warhol on Loneliness

"As soon as you stop waning something you get it. I’ve found that to be absolutely axiomatic."
“As soon as you stop wanting something you get it. I’ve found that to be absolutely axiomatic.”

In his pseudo memoir, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), which is more a collection of his thoughts on various subjects, Andy Warhol writes about the paradox of getting what you don’t want.

I had an incredible number of roommates. To this day almost every night I go out in New York I run into somebody I used to room with who invariably explains to my date, “I used to live with Andy.” I always turn white—I mean whiter. After the same scene happens a few times, my date can’t figure out how I could have lived with so many people, especially since they only know me as the loner I am today. Now, people who imagine me as the 60s media partygoer who traditionally arrived at parties with a minimum six-person “retinue” may wonder how I dare to call myself a “loner,” so let me explain how I really mean that and why it’s true. At the time in my life when I was feeling the most gregarious and looking for bosom friendships, I couldn’t find any takers, so that exactly when I was alone was when I felt the most like not being alone. The moment I decided I’d rather be alone and not have anyone telling me their problems, everybody I’d never even seen before in my life started running after me to tell me things I’d just decided I didn’t think it was a good idea to hear about. As soon as I became a loner in my own mind, that’s when I got what you might call a “following.”

As soon as you stop wanting something you get it. I’ve found that to be absolutely axiomatic.

The Philosophy of Andy Warhol is an examination of things important to him—love, beauty, art, fame, and business

Tiny Beautiful Things

On March 11, 2010, a new writer took over “Dear Sugar,” an advice column on the Web site the Rumpus.

She claimed she would offer a combination of “the by-the-book common sense of Dear Abby and the earnest spiritual cheesiness of Cary Tennis and the butt-pluggy irreverence of Dan Savage and the closeted Upper East Side nymphomania of Miss Manners.”

It became clear after a while that she was an advice columnist unlike others: intimate and frank, dispensing advice built on a foundation drawn of deep personal experience.

Slowly over the next two years, we learned a little more about her until eventually Sugar formally introduced herself as Cheryl Strayed. Strayed is the author behind the book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I remember reading this book cover-to-cover on a flight. When the pilot announced that we’d be circling Heathrow for 20 minutes, I was the only one happy. I only had a few pages left.

In a way Sugar’s advice columns — combined into the amazing collection Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar — represents an ad hoc memoir.

“But it’s a memoir with an agenda,” Strayed’s friend Steve Almond writes in the introduction, “With great patience, and eloquence, (Sugar) assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue.”

Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. … Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters— every sin, every regret, every affliction.

One of my favorite letters, the one for which the book is titled, comes in response to this question.

Dear Sugar,

I read your column religiously. I’m twenty-two. From what I can tell by your writing, you’re in your early forties. My question is short and sweet: What would you tell your twentysomething self if you could talk to her now?

Love, Seeking Wisdom

Think, dear reader, for a moment on what you would respond before continuing. Here is what Sugar, or should I say, Cheryl, had to say.

These words will touch your soul.

Dear Seeking Wisdom,

Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.

In the middle of the night in the middle of your twenties when your best woman friend crawls naked into your bed, straddles you, and says, You should run away from me before I devour you, believe her.

You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.

When that really sweet but fucked-up gay couple invites you over to their cool apartment to do Ecstasy with them, say no.

There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. It’s good you’ve worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.

One evening you will be rolling around on the wooden floor of your apartment with a man who will tell you he doesn’t have a condom. You will smile in this spunky way that you think is hot and tell him to fuck you anyway. This will be a mistake for which you alone will pay.

Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.

You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you’ll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you’ll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.

One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin, you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.

Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.

When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.

The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.

One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.

Say thank you.

Yours,
Sugar

Tiny Beautiful Things will endure as a piece of literary art,” Almond writes, “as will Cheryl’s other books (Torch and Wild), because they do the essential work of literary art: they make us more human than we were before.”