Farnam Street http://www.farnamstreetblog.com Thu, 27 Nov 2014 00:01:40 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.0.1 The Powerful Predictor Behind Successful Relationships http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/mind-gym-relationships/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/mind-gym-relationships/#respond Wed, 26 Nov 2014 12:33:56 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19441
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When does a broken relationship start to go wrong?

That’s a question I’ve been asking myself a lot recently.

mindgym

Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.

These seemingly big moments are not the defining ones that make or break relationships. Rather it’s almost always the small things, like that time two weeks ago when your friend asked you if you wanted a cup of coffee. How you responded to that question may have influenced the relationship more than you can imagine.

These apparently inconsequential moments determine the fate of relationships more than arguments. Psychologist John Gottman can determine the fate of a married couple with an accuracy rate in the 90s.

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently, a fascinating new book, explores his research. Gottman looked at those “seemingly meaningless and inconsequential exchanges between people.”

As meaningless as they seemed on the surface, at a deeper level, the exchanges were highly nuanced, emotional signals, …

These emotional signals are what Gottman called “bids.” And it turns out that how we respond to bids is the key to successful relationships.

Sweat the Small Stuff

Picture this scene: Your boss is sitting in front of her computer. She’s working. Or perhaps she’s pretending to work when in fact she’s updating her Facebook page or reading her emails— you know her better than we do, so you choose.

Now imagine yourself entering her office and asking her “Do you want a cup of coffee?” Your boss could choose to respond in one of three ways:

1. She could acknowledge your offer in a positive way: “That’s really nice of you. I’ll have cream and sugar.” Or “Thanks, but I’m okay right now.” In psychologists’ speak, this is called a “turning-toward response” or a “toward bid.”

2. She could acknowledge your offer in a negative way: “Your coffee is disgusting. I’ll get it myself.” Or “You want to get me a cup of coffee? What do you want in return?” This is called an “against bid.”

3. She could just stay silent or change the subject: “There’s this new film out about the life of the flamingo.” This is called a “turning-away bid.” By replying, she acknowledges that you’ve spoken, but she doesn’t engage with what you’ve said. In effect, she ignores your bid.

Whatever response she chooses determines what you do next. Consider this for a second. Only the first, the “toward bid,” is likely to encourage you to make another of your own bids. Faced with an “against bid” or a “turning-away bid,” you’re more likely to make an unconscious mental note not to bother offering her a cup of coffee next time.

Positive bids create a virtuous cycle. When you respond to someone with a toward bid, the person feels good about him- or herself. As a result, that person is more likely to make more positive bids, which, in turn, lead to more positive interactions (and more offers of coffee).

When you use plenty of bids that move you toward one another, research shows that you laugh more, support each other more, dramatically reduce the odds of divorce, and you get more sex. (That alone makes this post worth reading, right?).

Couples that make more bids toward each other, rather than against or turning away are more likely to stay together.

Gottman discovered that there is a magic ratio: Couples who manage a ratio of five positive (toward) responses to one negative (turning away or against) response are more likely to have a healthy, long-lasting partnership.

Men who ended up divorced generally turned away from their wives’ bids 82 percent of the time, “whereas men in ultimately stable relationships only ignored their wives bids 19 percent of the time.”

Women use turning-away responses slightly less often. The women who ended up divorced had ignored their husbands’ bids 50 percent of the time, as opposed to those in ultimately stable relationships, who had ignored their husbands’ bids 14 percent of the time.

Bids are present in every relationship.

At work, the ratio of positive to negative bids will affect the quality of your relationship with your boss, your peers, and those you manage. The bid ratio is likely to reflect the difference between those customers or suppliers you look forward to seeing and those you don’t. If you’ve ever had a customer who didn’t seem to care, you know exactly the feeling of a turning-away bid.

How can we make more effective toward bids?
Positive bids could be as simple as a laugh, a smile, a touch. The point is acknowledging.

[W]hatever form it takes, this positive response reassures the initial bidder that you have heard and accepted what they say (even if you don’t necessarily agree with it).

Psychologists have identified four types of positive bids. Healthy relationships have a mixture of these.

Nearly Passive
A friendly grunt, an affirming “uh-huh,” or a gesture of acknowledgment: a nod or a smile. (Note: This is a friendly grunt, not the “Go away and leave me alone” grunt favored by moody teenagers.)

Low Energy
A few words of acknowledgment—“okay” or “sure”— or a question to clarify the bid: “Sorry, what did you say?”

Attentive
Now you’re getting involved. These responses indicate sharing opinions, thoughts, and feelings. They include an offer of empathy, insight, a joke, or a question. Actions like a good-night kiss or a handshake are also attentive responses.

High Energy
Attentive responses, but even bigger— with more energy, complete attention, and full eye contact. These are usually enthusiastic responses (“Wow, congratulations!”). High-energy responses are often physical (big hugs, sloppy kisses) and loud (hearty laughs, giggles). They also have the most positive impact— when you get this kind of reaction, you really know you’ve been heard. But remember the experience of being greeted by a sloppy dog: too much of this kind of positive attention can be exhausting, particularly if the recipient is a rather shy person.

Most healthy relationships have a ratio of five positive to one negative response. There are three simple tips for keeping your approach moving toward, rather than away, from someone.

1. Always respond by showing that you’ve heard what has been said, even if you want to change the subject: “I’m so glad that you’ve found a flat that you like. That must be a weight off your mind. I’ve just finished a new draft of the report, so if you have a moment . . .”

2. Open every conversation with a positive bid. In his research, remember, Gottman found that he could predict, with over 90 percent accuracy, the outcome of a relationship based on what he heard in the first fifteen minutes of a conversation. In many cases, the first three minutes gave a strong sense of whether the relationship was going to survive. If those first minutes are full of negativity, blame, and criticism, the outcome will be negative as well.

3. Even when you vehemently disagree with a person’s suggestions, say what you like about those suggestions first. Establish common ground (e.g., “I like the fact you’re being totally up front”; “I appreciate how passionately you feel about this issue”) before presenting your case.

Against Bids
This is when people respond to you but you wish they hadn’t. Responses in this category include “mocking, ridiculing, belittling, and making sarcastic comments about a bid or bidder.” These are the responses that make the other person feel bad and they are the virus of poor relationships.

Here are six against responses. If you’re like me you winced reading these, with my last relationship in mind.

Contemptuous
A contemptuous response to “Shall we ask for directions?” would be “We wouldn’t need to if you could just read the map.” Ouch.

Belligerent
Someone is spoiling for a fight. If a person asks “Do you want to see a film?” and the response is “Do you really think I have time for a movie? Don’t you realize how busy I am?” it’s pretty obvious where the conversation is going.

Contradictory
These responses are designed to get a reaction— ideally “I’m sorry; you’re right” but usually something rather less savory. The following are all contradictory responses: “I think you’ll find there’s a better way to tie a garbage bag,” “Leave it alone; let me do it,” or the supremely irritating “Actually, I think you’ll find it’s pronounced . . .”

Domineering
These responses assert authority and attempt to force the other person to withdraw, retreat, or submit. For example, a daughter might say, “My dream is to be on America’s Got Talent.” A mother might respond, “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not nearly talented enough.”

Character Attack
“I didn’t quite understand what Michael meant in the meeting today” gets the against response “Of course not. You weren’t paying attention, as usual.” “You always,” “you shouldn’t have,” or “you never” are early warning signals that a load of negative bids is on its way.

Defensive
Me: “I can’t find my book.” My spouse: “Well, don’t look at me!” Here, the respondent— even though no blame was being apportioned— is on the defensive.

What happens when someone moves away from you with one of these responses is that you feel undervalued and unappreciated. If you stay in the relationship for years, it sows the seeds of resentment and eventually you stop making toward bids.

If the other person is in a position of power (like an aggressive boss), you may suppress your emotions to avoid conflict, and the relationship will become one based on fear. But if you are the one responding against others, understand that these negative bids seriously undermine your relationships. It’s critical that you change your bids to positive ones.

I’ve been working hard recently on changing my against bids. I find that sometimes, especially when I’m busy, my default is to reply with a negative bid. To counteract this I’ve been doing a few things. First, I try to count to 3 before responding. This helps me ensure the other person is done speaking and gives me more of a chance to consider the impact of what I’m thinking of saying. Along the same lines, active listening is a great tool to help ensure you’re understanding what other people are saying. Finally the book recommends one that I’ve just implemented, which is basically trying to step out of the situation and name what’s going on. Something along the lines of “I notice we’re not having a productive conversation right now and we’re both raising our voices, how can we approach this in a better way?”

Turning-Away Bids
This is when you ignore someone outright or act uninterested.

There may be a reason why you are being unresponsive; you might feel irritated or your attention may be elsewhere. But whatever your conscious motivation, turning away from a bid indicates that you have disengaged from the relationship. The outcome is not going to be good.

When you repeatedly ignore or dismiss the bids of another person the situation escalates. They often become hostile and defensive. Most of us turn away without even knowing that’s what we’re doing.

What do turning away responses look like?

Silence
Let’s say you’re searching the Internet or cooking or driving. You’re engrossed and, to be honest, you’re not really interested in whatever’s going on around you. So, you zone out and try to ignore any bids coming your way. No one wants the “silent treatment”; if someone is with you, that person may feel this is a snub. The trouble is that if this person keeps trying to interact with you, you’re just as likely to respond against (“Can’t you see I’m busy?”) as toward (“Sorry, I was completely away there; what did you say?”).

Dismissiveness
You ignore the substance of what the other person is saying and either focus on some incidental detail (“She had nice fingernails”), reframe the issue (“Yes, yes, but the real issue is . . .”), or minimize the importance of what’s being said (“Does it matter?”).

Changing Lanes
In the middle of a conversation, you change the subject, either by announcing a new and irrelevant piece of information (“It says here that penguins can do elementary algebra”; “I feel like going for a walk”) or with a deliberate non sequitur (Dad: “Did you finish your homework?” Son: “What are you cooking for supper?”).

Gottman’s research indicates that turning away bids are more prevalent than against bids. The effects of both are disastrous.

Gottman found that during a conversation at dinner, stable couples engaged each other as many as a hundred times in ten minutes, whereas those headed for divorce engaged each other only sixty-five times.

What happens in stable relationships when one person is met with a turning-away response is that they rebid about 20% of the time. In couples headed for a divorce, re-bids were rarely attempted. It should come as no surprise that turning away bids increase conflict.

If a bidder is repeatedly ignored, he or she is likely to become angry and critical of the respondent. As a result, the emotional temperature goes up and small incidents become big issues. A small dismissal today can lead to a relationship meltdown next year.

A lot of us stonewall. We turn away and disengage, which has a disastrous effect on relationships. A better way to handle the situation is to accept the bid and “explain to the other person that you feel the need for space.”

Here are three ways to help you avoid turning away:

1. Observe yourself for a day and find out how many bids you ignore—accidentally or deliberately. Most of us turn away more than we think (though we are much better at judging how many times others turn away from us). Once you’ve learned to spot your turning-away behavior, you’ll almost certainly reduce it.

2. Are you turning away to avoid an argument? It’s often the case. We don’t want to attack (in effect, to turn against), so we avoid or deny the situation by turning away instead. Unfortunately, the impact is not so very different. You might try to discuss the issue or even just acknowledge the issue and delay a deep conversation until later, so you eventually understand more about the other person’s underlying concerns. Simply say, “I know this is on your mind, but I’m worried it’s going to lead to an argument now. Can we discuss it another time?”

3. Fill the silence. A good proportion of our bids that involve turning away happen when we feel we can’t be bothered to make the effort to listen fully. A genuine “uh-huh” will usually be enough to do the trick.

If you’re like me you’ll spend a bit of time reflecting on past relationships and think about your bid patterns. “With a little mindfulness and attention, you can change your patterns and get the relationship back on track, usually without the other person even noticing.”

Mind Gym: Achieve More by Thinking Differently is designed to give your brain a workout.


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Books for Schools That Need Them http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/books-for-schools-that-need-them/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/books-for-schools-that-need-them/#respond Tue, 25 Nov 2014 11:00:56 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19432
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This might surprise you but I was never a big reader as a kid. In fact, I wouldn’t be caught dead with a book. This lasted all the way to university.

While never lazy, I was ignorant to the infinite possibility that books opened up. Once I realized what I’d been missing I made a point to never make money an issue when it came to reading (time to read on the other hand is harder to come by.)

When I got a job, I offered to buy my brothers as many books as they wanted as long as they read them.

Well my brothers are all grown up now. They can afford their own books but not everyone is that fortunate.

Last year on twitter, I asked a simple question.

I wanted to know if there were any parents out there struggling to buy a book for their kids for Christmas. If so, I’d take care of the first 20.

I wasn’t sending 20 random books or trying to get rid of anything. Rather, I wanted to know what book the kids wanted — that’s the book I’d send them. Who wants to read a book they don’t want?

Once people realized I was serious, things got a bit out of control for the rest of the night. Generous Farnam Street readers, like you, chipped in offering to take the next ten or the next twenty.

All in we purchased over 170 books. I lost count at that point but I’m pretty sure we were north of 200 when it stopped. Together we did an awesome thing.

Just thinking about it makes my eyes water a little.

In addition to hearing from parents, I heard from teachers who couldn’t afford to buy books for their classrooms.

This year I want to do it again but I need your help — I want to make it easier to participate and easier for me to organize.

Here is what I need from you….
If you know of any teachers or schools struggling with budget cuts to buy the books the kids want and need to learn from, tell them to email me their Amazon wishlist today. Any that I can easily verify, will get posted below. I’ll update this page a few times today.

If you want to buy a book for a school that needs one, that’s awesome. Simply, click on a link, purchase a book, and it will go right to one of the schools that need them. I’d only ask that you send me an email with your Amazon order number and the number of books you purchased so I can keep a final tally. The first 30 are on me.

And, hey, Thanks.

***

United States

Laurie Hughes class at Jefferson Elementary, Schenectady, NY.

Mila Boucheva 6th grade teacher at Kamaile Academy Charter School in Waianae, Oahu, Hawaii. My school is a Tier 1 school on the West Coast of Oahu. Although to most mainlanders Hawaii seems like paradise – it isn’t. About 40% of the students at my school are either homeless or are in transitional housing. The school doesn’t have enough money to supply students with sufficient material, much of which, students only have access to at school.

Luke Neff’s class in Newberg, OR

Global Village Project 2014-2015 Wish List, “an absolutely amazing place for girls that either have never been to school or have had interrupted education in refugee camps before arriving in the U.S.”

Clark Elementary School in Paducah, KY

Libri Foundation (The Libri Foundation is a nationwide nonprofit organization that has donated over $6,200,000 worth of new, hardcover children’s books to more than 3,000 rural public libraries in the United States. )

Canada

Red Lake Madsen Public School Library in Red Lake, Ontario, Canada “This list contains requests from students or teachers and /or replacement copies of previously owned books.”

Midland Secondary School in Midland, Ontario, Canada


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Charles Darwin — Natural Selection was like Confessing a Murder http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/charles-darwin-letter-joseph-hooker/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/charles-darwin-letter-joseph-hooker/#respond Mon, 24 Nov 2014 13:00:49 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=18096
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Darwin to Hooker

On this day in 1859, Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published.

In Letters of Note we find an interesting letter from him to Joseph Hooker 15 years before what would later be called natural selection, he mentions his theory and likens it to “confessing a murder.”

Down.
Bromley Kent Thursday

My dear Sir

I must write to thank you for your last letter; I to tell you how much all your views and facts interest me.— I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”— which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector.— I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil—

What limit shall you take on the Patagonian side— has d’Orbigny published, I believe he made a large collection at the R. Negro, where Patagonia retains its usual forlorn appearance; at Bahia Blanca & northward the features of Patagonia insensibly blend into the savannahs of La Plata.— The Botany of S. Patagonia (& I collected every plant in flower at the season when there) would be worth comparison with the N. Patagonian collection by d’Orbigny.— I do not know anything about King’s plants, but his birds were so inaccurately habitated, that I have seen specimen from Brazil, Tierra del & the Cape de Verde Isd all said to come from the St. Magellan.— What you say of Mr Brown is humiliating; I had suspected it, but cd not allow myself to believe in such heresy.— FitzRoy gave him a rap in his Preface, & made me very indignant, but it seems a much harder one wd not have been wasted. My crptogamic collection was sent to Berkeley; it was not large; I do not believe he has yet published an account, but he wrote to me some year ago that he had described & mislaid all his descriptions. Wd it not be well for you to put yourself in communication with him; as otherwise some things will perhaps be twice laboured over.— My best (though poor) collection of the Crptogam. was from the Chonos Islands.—

Would you kindly observe one little fact for me, whether any species of plant, peculiar to any isld, as Galapagos, St. Helena or New Zealand, where there are no large quadrupeds, have hooked seeds,—such hooks as if observed here would be thought with justness to be adapted to catch into wool of animals.—

Would you further oblige me some time by informing me (though I forget this will certainly appear in your Antarctic Flora) whether in isld like St. Helena, Galapagos, & New Zealand, the number of families & genera are large compared with the number of species, as happens in coral-isld, & as I believe? in the extreme Arctic land. Certainly this is case with Marine shells in extreme Arctic seas.—Do you suppose the fewness of species in proportion to number of large groups in Coral-islets., is owing to the chance of seeds from all orders, getting drifted to such new spots? as I have supposed.—

Did you collect sea-shells in Kerguelen land, I shd like to know their character.? Your interesting letters tempt me to be very unreasonable in asking you questions; but you must not give yourself any trouble about them, for I know how fully & worthily you are employed.

Besides a general interest about the Southern lands, I have been now ever since my return engaged in a very presumptuous work & which I know no one individual who wd not say a very foolish one.— I was so struck with distribution of Galapagos organisms &c &c & with the character of the American fossil mammifers, &c &c that I determined to collect blindly every sort of fact, which cd bear any way on what are species.— I have read heaps of agricultural & horticultural books, & have never ceased collecting facts— At last gleams of light have come, & I am almost convinced (quite contrary to opinion I started with) that species are not (it is like confessing a murder) immutable. Heaven forfend me from Lamarck nonsense of a “tendency to progression” “adaptations from the slow willing of animals” &c,— but the conclusions I am led to are not widely different from his— though the means of change are wholly so— I think I have found out (here’s presumption!) the simple way by which species become exquisitely adapted to various ends.— You will now groan, & think to yourself ‘on what a man have I been wasting my time in writing to.’— I shd, five years ago, have thought so.— I fear you will also groan at the length of this letter— excuse me, I did not begin with malice prepense.

Believe me my dear Sir
Very truly your’s
C. Darwin


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Eight Ways to Say No With Grace and Style http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/eight-ways-to-say-no/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/eight-ways-to-say-no/#respond Sun, 23 Nov 2014 13:00:26 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19461
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Half of the troubles of this life can be traced to saying yes too quickly and not saying no soon enough.”  — Josh Billings

In a world of more requests than we can possibly fulfill, learning to say no with grace and style is a skill we all need.

We should be saying no more than we say yes, although the opposite is usually true. We say yes too quickly and no too slowly.

To consistently say no with grace and clarity, we need a variety of responses. To some people this comes naturally. Others, however, offer noncommittal answers like “I’ll try to fit that in,” or “I might be able to” when they know full well they can’t.

It’s far better, however, to offer a clear “no” than string someone along or give them a “slow no.”

In Greg McKeown’s book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, there is a great section called “The No Repertoire.”

Saying no is its own leadership capability. It is not just a peripheral skill. As with any ability, we start with limited experience.

He offers eight responses you can put into your repertoire.

1. The awkward pause. Instead of being controlled by the threat of an awkward silence, own it. Use it as a tool. When a request comes to you (obviously this works only in person), just pause for a moment. Count to three before delivering your verdict. Or if you get a bit more bold, simply wait for the other person to fill the void.

2. The soft “no” (or the “no but”). I recently received an e-mail inviting me to coffee. I replied: “I am consumed with writing my book right now :) But I would love to get together once the book is finished. Let me know if we can get together towards the end of the summer.”

E-mail is also a good way to start practicing saying “no but” because it gives you the chance to draft and redraft your “no” to make it as graceful as possible. Plus, many people find that the distance of e-mail reduces the fear of awkwardness.

3. “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” One leader I know found her time being hijacked by other people all day. A classic Nonessentialist, she was capable and smart and unable to say no, and as a result she soon became a “go to” person. People would run up to her and say, “Could you help with X project?” Meaning to be a good citizen, she said yes. But soon she felt burdened with all of these different agendas. Things changed for her when she learned to use a new phrase: “Let me check my calendar and get back to you.” It gave her the time to pause and reflect and ultimately reply that she was regretfully unavailable. It enabled her to take back control of her own decisions rather than be rushed into a “yes” when she was asked.

4. Use e-mail bouncebacks. It is totally natural and expected to get an autoresponse when someone is traveling or out of the office. Really, this is the most socially acceptable “no” there is. People aren’t saying they don’t want to reply to your e-mail, they’re just saying they can’t get back to you for a period of time. So why limit these to vacations and holidays? When I was writing this book I set an e-mail bounceback with the subject line “In Monk Mode.” The e-mail said: “Dear Friends, I am currently working on a new book which has put enormous burdens on my time. Unfortunately, I am unable to respond in the manner I would like. For this, I apologize.—Greg.” And guess what? People seemed to adapt to my temporary absence and nonresponsiveness just fine.

5. Say, “Yes. What should I deprioritize?” Saying no to a senior leader at work is almost unthinkable, even laughable, for many people. However, when saying yes is going to compromise your ability to make the highest level of contribution to your work, it is also your obligation. In this case it is not only reasonable to say no, it is essential. One effective way to do that is to remind your superiors what you would be neglecting if you said yes and force them to grapple with the trade-off.

For example, if your manager comes to you and asks you to do X, you can respond with “Yes, I’m happy to make this the priority. Which of these other projects should I deprioritize to pay attention to this new project?” Or simply say, “I would want to do a great job, and given my other commitments I wouldn’t be able to do a job I was proud of if I took this on.”

I know a leader who received this response from a subordinate. There was no way he wanted to be responsible for disrupting this productive and organized employee, so he took the nonessential work project back and gave it to someone else who was less organized!

6. Say it with humor. I recently was asked by a friend to join him in training for a marathon. My response was simple: “Nope!” He laughed a little and said, “Ah, you practice what you preach.” Just goes to show how useful it is to have a reputation as an Essentialist!

7. Use the words “You are welcome to X. I am willing to Y.” For example, “You are welcome to borrow my car. I am willing to make sure the keys are here for you.” By this you are also saying, “I won’t be able to drive you.” You are saying what you will not do, but you are couching it in terms of what you are willing to do. This is a particularly good way to navigate a request you would like to support somewhat but cannot throw your full weight behind. I particularly like this construct because it also expresses a respect for the other person’s ability to choose, as well as your own. It reminds both parties of the choices they have.

8. “I can’t do it, but X might be interested.” It is tempting to think that our help is uniquely invaluable, but often people requesting something don’t really care if we’re the ones who help them— as long as they get the help.

Tom Friel, the former CEO of Heidrick & Struggles, once said, “We need to learn the slow ‘yes’ and the quick ‘no.’”

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less isn’t about doing more with less but rather the disciplined pursuit of focusing on the right things.


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How Do People Get New Ideas? http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/how-do-people-get-new-ideas/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/how-do-people-get-new-ideas/#respond Thu, 20 Nov 2014 13:00:19 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19392
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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.


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Simplify Your Life http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/simplify-your-life/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/simplify-your-life/#respond Wed, 19 Nov 2014 13:00:11 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19424
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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.


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Building a Business and Making Your Mark http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/make-your-mark/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/make-your-mark/#respond Tue, 18 Nov 2014 13:00:24 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19401
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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.


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Ideas are not singular http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/creativity-inc-ed-catmull/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/creativity-inc-ed-catmull/#respond Mon, 17 Nov 2014 13:00:33 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19388
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“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.


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Charles Dickens to The Times — I Stand Astounded and Appalled http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/charles-dickens-to-the-times/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/charles-dickens-to-the-times/#respond Thu, 13 Nov 2014 13:00:55 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=18015
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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.


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Elon Musk Recommends 12 Books http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/elon-musk-book-recommendations/ http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/2014/11/elon-musk-book-recommendations/#respond Wed, 12 Nov 2014 13:00:24 +0000 http://www.farnamstreetblog.com/?p=19321
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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)


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