What Philosophers Read

Twenty-eight of the world’s “most important philosophers” were asked which three books influenced them the most while undergraduate students.

The three most popular answers were:

  1. Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein
  2. Critique of Pure Reason by Kant
  3. Dialogues by Plato

Some notable responses were:

Daniel Dennett (Tufts University):

“That’s easy:

Word and Object, Quine.

The concept of mind, Gilbert Ryle

Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein

“I got to study with Quine and Ryle, but Wittgenstein had died before I encountered his work”.

Shelly Kagan (Yale University):

Catch 22, Joseph Heller: “This is a novel, a work of fiction. It is a humorous book, though it is very dark humor, and the perspective gets progressively darker as the novel moves along. It is set in World War II, and portrays an American soldier who is desperately trying to stay alive while dealing with the insane military bureaucracy and the impossible-to-satisfy demands it makes upon him. But the book speaks to something larger that we all face from time to time, in that it portrays the difficulty and importance of staying whole and sane in a job–or society, or world–that is often both hostile and irrational”.

Night, Elie Wiesel: “This is a work of nonfiction, a memoir, though it is written in a highly terse almost poetic literary style. It recounts the author’s experiences during the Holocaust, when as a young Jewish teen he was shipped to the concentration camp in Auschwitz. This book is haunting and at times unbearably sad, and for me it serves as a unforgettable lesson in how appallingly cruel people can be –and continue to be– to one another”. (Man’s Search for Meaning was better.)

Critique of Religion and Philosophy, Walter Kaufmann: “This is a work of philosophy, written by one of my teachers in graduate school, although I first read it as an undergraduate several years earlier. The book offers unusually penetrating accounts of both philosophy and of religion, and most centrally it criticizes the common tendency to give lip service to one’s religion without taking its various teachings and claims seriously. Kaufmann was not himself a religious man, but he was a serious student of religion, and he knew it was too important to treat in the typical superficial manner”.

Dialogues, Plato: “This is a cheat, because of course this isn’t a single book, but a collection of books, or more properly, dialogues, by the first great philosopher of the western tradition. What I have in mind in particular are the early Socratic dialogues and those that portray Socrates’ last days (like the Apology, or the Crito or Phaedo). In these works, Plato paints a breathtaking portrait of his own teacher, Socrates, as someone who cared about philosophy so completely that he was willing to die for it, rather than give it up. It was this portrait that first persuaded me that the life of the philosopher was both noble and admirable, and something to which I could aspire”.

Derek Parfit (Oxford University):

Methods of Ethics, Henry Sidwick
Utilitarianism, J. S. Mill
The View from Nowhere, Thomas Nagel: “my favourite book published in the 20th Century, and which seems to me to make many very interesting claims about fundamental philosophical questions”.

The Eulogy Test: How to Live a Life of Small Kindnesses

Give Give give

“It’s easy to miss the real point of our lives even as we’re living them,” writes Arianna Huffington in her book Thrive. “And it is very telling what we don’t hear in eulogies.”

You never hear, ‘George increased market share by 30 percent,’” Huffington said at a recent event at Soho House in New York City. What you do hear in eulogies, she says, are stories of “small kindnesses.” Interestingly that’s also how to get ahead in the workplace.

In Make Your Mark: The Creative’s Guide to Building a Business with Impact Shane Snow, Chief Creative Officer at Contently, picks up this thread:

It’s well known that details make good art great. Subtle word choices separate great poets from amateurs. Small flourishes define superlative architecture. Tiny considerations make products world-class (“Jobs spent days agonizing over just how rounded the corners should be,” writes Walter Isaacson about the Apple II in Steve Jobs).

I think the same can be said about building a great business. Tiny considerations in the interactions companies have with their customers are all about focusing on people before profits—and, paradoxically, this can yield huge returns. This is the mentality that Wharton professor Adam Grant talks about in his research on corporate “givers” versus “takers.” In various now-famous studies in his book Give and Take, Grant has shown that the most successful people in the workplace tend to be the ones who give selflessly to others without expectation of returned favors. Research by Jim Stengel, former global marketing head at Procter & Gamble, shows that this also works at a corporate level. Businesses “center[ed] on improving people’s lives outperform their competitors,” he writes, after studying a decade of market performance of fifty thousand brands.

In Thrive, Huffington argues that power and money have too long been life’s main yardsticks of success, and that we should measure our achievements instead by four new metrics: Wisdom, Wonder, Well-Being, and Giving. If the eulogy test is an indication, Giving is likely the most memorable of the four.

“It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi, but being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice,” Grant writes in Give and Take. “It just involves a focus on acting in the interests of others.”

[…]

When I look at other fast-growing companies with voracious users, I see small kindnesses everywhere. Uber recently upped the ante for me on car services when I got into one of its town cars in San Francisco. The driver had placed fancy jars of candies in the console for passengers. It was a small thing, but somehow it made me feel like the most important customer in the world. I gave him five stars. Tumblr’s terms of service reflect a culture of fun and user-centeredness: they use plain English and colloquialisms and throw in humor to make the read bearable. Few people read terms of service, and Tumblr doesn’t have to do this; they do it because they care about the little things. Google has famously kept its home page to a minimum number of words (currently I see sixteen, mostly the header and footer) in order to respect users’ time and not distract from the one thing they want: search. And Google periodically brings smiles to our faces by replacing its logo with themed “Doodles” on special occasions, such as the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Who or Frankenstein author Mary Shelley’s birthday.

make your mark

This is a huge departure from the paradigm that’s dominated business for the last century. Instead of focusing on themselves, thoughtful companies are now asking what Eisenberg asks: “How can I put a smile on my audience’s face, in lieu of getting in their face?”

If I had my way, every business would adopt the manifesto that’s painted on the front wall of the Manhattan office of my friends at NextJump.com. The block letters read, “Our Mission: Do all the little things, so that others can do the things they were meant to do.” Free tattoos, fun “About Us” pages and invoices, plainspoken terms of service, and smile-inducing logo hacks are small investments, especially when compared with the costs of customer acquisition through advertising. But these kindnesses pay big dividends and are some of the ways new companies can hack the ladder to credibility and customer success in a short time. As Dr. Grant says, the more they give, the more successful they are. Indeed, a culture of tiny kindnesses isn’t just good for the world. It’s good for business.

Make Your Mark and Thrive add to our wisdom on how to live a meaningful 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.

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.”