5 Books That Will Change Your Life

Reading is important to me. Not only is it one way to fill in the gaps left by my formal education but it is a meaningful way to better myself. Reading alone, however, isn’t enough. What you read and how you apply it matters. In the past year, I started reading over 300 books and finished 161 of them.

Reading what everyone else reads is good for conversation, perhaps, but it’s not going to help you to think differently. And if you can’t think differently, you’re always going to be a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.

With that in mind, here are 5 books that you’ve (probably) never heard of that will help you see things in a new light.

1. Collected Maxims and Other Reflections by La Rochefoucauld
Deceptively brief and easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s unflattering analysis of human behavior will stay with you for a lifetime. His maxims and reflections influenced people like Nietzsche, Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, and Conan Doyle. “The reader’s best policy,” Rochefoucauld suggests, “is to assume that none of these maxims is directed at him, and that he is the sole exception. …. After that, I guarantee that he will be the first to subscribe to them.”

2. The 48 Laws of Power, by Robert Greene
I’ve never read this book in a cover-to-cover sense but I’ve read each of the laws. More than that, I’ve broken each of the laws. I’ll give you an example. The first law is “Never outshine the master.” Once I worked directly for a CEO. I worked as hard as I ever have to show off my talents and skills and at every turn it backfired over and over again. The lesson — “make your masters appear more brilliant than they are and you will attain the heights of power.” I wish I read this book earlier in my career, it certainly would have been helpful.

3. Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great: The Arts of Leadership and War by Xenophon
This book sat on my shelf for a year before I picked it up recently. This is the biography of Cyrus the Great, also known as Cyrus the Elder, who made the oldest known declaration of human rights. The book is full of leadership lessons. Here’s an example. “Brevity is the soul of command. Too much talking suggests desperation on the part of the leader. Speak shortly, decisively and to the point–and couch your desires in such natural logic that no one can raise objections. Then move on.”

4. Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son
This no nonsense collection of 20 letters from a self-made man to his son are nothing short of brilliant as far as I’m concerned. This is a great example of timeless wisdom. The broad theme is how to raise your children in a world where they have plenty but the lessons apply to parents and non-parents alike.

5. Models of my Life by Herbert Simon
An autobiography of Nobel laureate Herbert A. Simon, a remarkable polymath who more people should know about. In an age of increasing specializing, he’s a rare generalist — applying what he learned as a scientist to other aspects of his life. Crossing disciplines, he was at the intersection of “information sciences.” He won the Nobel for his theory of “bounded rationality,” and is perhaps best known for his insightful quote “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.”

And one more… just for good luck.

6. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Ok, this is a bonus pick as I figured a many of you might have read this already. It was, after all, on the 2013 Farnam Street reader’s choice list. If you bought it and haven’t read it, consider this a nudge. The best way to sum up this book is: A simple and powerful guide to life. This book was never intended for publication it was for himself. How many people write a book of epigrams to themselves? Get it. Read it. Live it.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son
“College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool.“

With wisdom and lessons seeping off every page, Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son is a must read. The letters, from John Graham, Head of the House of Graham & Company, to his son Pierrepont were collected and bound by American Journalist George Horace Lorimer in the early 1900s. The Letters were quite well known in the early 20th century. I’m not sure why they are not well known today, but they should be.

***

Writing to his son, Pierrepont, at Harvard University, a Freshman, Graham offers advice on the eduction he is about to receive inside and outside of the classroom.

What we’re really sending you to Harvard for is to get a little of the education that’s so good and plenty there. When it’s passed around you don’t want to be bashful, but reach right out and take a big helping every time, for I want you to get your share. You’ll find that education’s about the only thing lying around loose in this world, and that it’s about the only thing a fellow can have as much of as he’s willing to haul away. Everything else is screwed down tight and the screw-driver lost.

Some men learn the value of money by not having any and starting out to pry a few dollars loose from the odd millions that are lying around; and some learn it by having fifty thousand or so left to them and starting out to spend it as if it were fifty thousand a year. Some men learn the value of truth by having to do business with liars; and some by going to Sunday School. Some men learn the cussedness of whiskey by having a drunken father; and some by having a good mother. Some men get an education from other men and newspapers and public libraries; and some get it from professors and parchments—it doesn’t make any special difference how you get a half-nelson on the right thing, just so you get it and freeze on to it.

The first thing that any education ought to give a man is character, and the second thing is education. That is where I’m a little skittish about this college business. I’m not starting in to preach to you, because I know a young fellow with the right sort of stuff in him preaches to himself harder than any one else can, and that he’s mighty often switched off the right path by having it pointed out to him in the wrong way.

There are two parts of a college education—the part that you get in the schoolroom from the professors, and the part that you get outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man.

Education’s a good deal like eating—a fellow can’t always tell which particular thing did him good, but he can usually tell which one did him harm.

Does a College education pay? … You bet it pays. Anything that trains a boy to think and to think quick pays; anything that teaches a boy to get the answer before the other fellow gets through biting the pencil, pays.

College doesn’t make fools; it develops them. It doesn’t make bright men; it develops them. A fool will turn out a fool, whether he goes to college or not, though he’ll probably turn out a different sort of a fool. And a good, strong boy will turn out a bright, strong man whether he’s worn smooth in the grab-what-you-want-and-eat-standing-with-one-eye-skinned-for-the-dog school of the streets and stores, or polished up and slicked down in the give-your-order-to-the-waiter-and-get-a-sixteen-course-dinner school of the professors. But while the lack of a college education can’t keep No. 1 down, having it boosts No. 2 up.


Of course, some men are like pigs, the more you educate them, the more amusing little cusses they become, and the funnier capers they cut when they show off their tricks. Naturally, the place to send a boy of that breed is to the circus, not to college.

… it isn’t so much knowing a whole lot, as knowing a little and how to use it that counts.

***

When Pierrepont—still at Harvard—submits his expense account to his father, he receives some plain-spoken advice to smarten up.

I have noticed for the last two years that your accounts have been growing heavier every month, but I haven’t seen any signs of your taking honors to justify the increased operating expenses; and that is bad business—a good deal like feeding his weight in corn to a scalawag steer that won’t fat up.

The sooner you adjust your spending to what your earning capacity will be, the easier they will find it to live together.

The only sure way that a man can get rich quick is to have it given to him or to inherit it. You are not going to get rich that way—at least, not until after you have proved your ability to hold a pretty important position with the firm; and, of course, there is just one place from which a man can start for that position with Graham & Co. It doesn’t make any difference whether he is the son of the old man or of the cellar boss—that place is the bottom. And the bottom in the office end of this business is a seat at the mailing-desk, with eight dollars every Saturday night.

I can’t hand out any ready-made success to you. It would do you no good, and it would do the house harm. There is plenty of room at the top here, but there is no elevator in the building. Starting, as you do, with a good education, you should be able to climb quicker than the fellow who hasn’t got it; but there’s going to be a time when you begin at the factory when you won’t be able to lick stamps so fast as the other boys at the desk. Yet the man who hasn’t licked stamps isn’t fit to write letters. Naturally, that is the time when knowing whether the pie comes before the ice-cream, and how to run an automobile isn’t going to be of any real use to you.

I simply mention these things because I am afraid your ideas as to the basis on which you are coming with the house have swelled up a little in the East. I can give you a start, but after that you will have to dynamite your way to the front by yourself.

You know how I began—I was started off with a kick, but that proved a kick up, and in the end every one since has lifted me a little bit higher. I got two dollars a week, and slept under the counter, and you can bet I knew just how many pennies there were in each of those dollars, and how hard the floor was. That is what you have got to learn.

The Bills ain’t all in the butcher business. I’ve got some of them right now in my office, but they will never climb over the railing that separates the clerks from the executives. Yet if they would put in half the time thinking for the house that they give up to hatching out reasons why they ought to be allowed to overdraw their salary accounts, I couldn’t keep them out of our private offices with a pole-ax, and I wouldn’t want to; for they could double their salaries and my profits in a year. But I always lay it down as a safe proposition that the fellow who has to break open the baby’s bank toward the last of the week for car-fare isn’t going to be any Russell Sage when it comes to trading with the old man’s money. He’d punch my bank account as full of holes as a carload of wild Texans would a fool stockman that they’d got in a corner.

Now I know you’ll say that I don’t understand how it is; that you’ve got to do as the other fellows do; and that things have changed since I was a boy. There’s nothing in it. Adam invented all the different ways in which a young man can make a fool of himself, and the college yell at the end of them is just a frill that doesn’t change essentials. The boy who does anything just because the other fellows do it is apt to scratch a poor man’s back all his life. He’s the chap that’s buying wheat at ninety-seven cents the day before the market breaks. They call him “the country” in the market reports, but the city’s full of him. It’s the fellow who has the spunk to think and act for himself, and sells short when prices hit the high C and the house is standing on its hind legs yelling for more, that sits in the directors’ meetings when he gets on toward forty.

There are times when it’s safest to be lonesome. Use a little common-sense, caution and conscience. You can stock a store with those three commodities, when you get enough of them. But you’ve got to begin getting them young. They ain’t catching after you toughen up a bit.

You needn’t write me if you feel yourself getting them. The symptoms will show in your expense account. Good-by; life’s too short to write letters and New York’s calling me on the wire.

***

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son contains 20 letters of practical advice for parents— looking for some no nonsense advice on raising children—and wisdom seekers alike. This is one of the best books you’ve never heard about.

A Few General Principles Associated With Wise Behavior

Paul Baltes, once described wisdom as “a topic at the interface between several disciplines: philosophy, sociology, theology, psychology, political science, and literature, to name a few.” Farnam Street aims to be at the crossroad of these disciplines.

What does it mean to be wise? What is Wisdom?

One of the more interesting aspects to wisdom is self-awareness. “Thinking about wisdom,” writes Stephen Hall in his book Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, “almost inevitably inspires you to think about yourself and your relationship with the larger world.” The book is an investigation into fuzzy questions such as how can it help us shed light on the process by which we deal with big decisions and dilemmas.

He writes:

Wisdom requires an experience-based knowledge of the world (including, especially, the world of human nature). It requires mental focus, reflecting the ability to analyze and discern the most important aspects of acquired knowledge, knowing what to use and what to discard, almost on a case by case basis (put another way, it requires knowing when to follow rules, but also when the usual rules no longer apply). It requires mediating, refereeing, between the frequently conflicting inputs of emotion and reason, of narrow self-interest and broader social interest, of instant rewards or future gains. Moreover, it expresses itself through an insistently social vocabulary of interactive behavior: a fundamental sense of justice (which is sometimes described as an innate form of morality, of knowing right from wrong), a commitment to welfare of social (and, for that matter, genetic) units that extend beyond the self, and the ability to defer immediate self-gratification in order to achieve the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people.

On his “wisdom tour,” after an encounter with a politician, Socrates concluded that he “thinks that he knows something which he does not know, whereas I am quite conscious of my ignorance. At any rate it seems that I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think that I know what I do not know.”

So one of the most essential aspects to wisdom is knowing the limits of one’s own knowledge. Charlie Munger offered this simple prescription: “If you play games where other people have the aptitudes and you don’t, you’re going to lose. And that’s as close to certain as any prediction that you can make. You have to figure out where you’ve got an edge. And you’ve got to play within your own circle of competence.”

The Dangers of Certainty

"Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty."
“Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty.”

Simon Critchley, reflecting upon the lessons Auschwitz teaches us about the dangers of aspiring to absolute knowledge.

In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction.

The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.

The pursuit of scientific knowledge is as personal an act as lifting a paintbrush or writing a poem, and they are both profoundly human. If the human condition is defined by limitedness, then this is a glorious fact because it is a moral limitedness rooted in a faith in the power of the imagination, our sense of responsibility and our acceptance of our fallibility. We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen.

The Best Books of 2013: Your 10 Overall Favorites

From philosophy and friendship to idea creation and building daily routines.

You are a well read bunch so I was looking forward to compiling the second annual look at your favorite reads featured on Farnam Street in 2013.

While I never had any doubt that Farnam Streeters are the smartest people on the internet, the data once again tells that story too.

1. Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, Peter Bevelin

Peter Bevelin begins his fascinating book with Confucius’ great wisdom: “A man who has committed a mistake and doesn’t correct it, is committing another mistake.”

This book is for those who love the constant search for knowledge. It is in the spirit of Charles Munger, who says, “All I want to know is where I’m going to die so I’ll never go there.” There are roads that lead to unhappiness. An understanding of how and why we can “die” should help us avoid them. We can’t eliminate mistakes, but we can prevent those that can really hurt us. Using exemplars of clear thinking and attained wisdom, Bevelin focuses on how our thoughts are influenced, why we make misjudgments and tools to improve our thinking. Bevelin tackles such eternal questions as: Why do we behave like we do? What do we want out of life? What interferes with our goals? Read and study this wonderful multidisciplinary exploration of wisdom. It may change the way you think and act in business and in life.

2. It’s Not All About Me

It’s Not All About Me

I’m not quite sure how I came across Robin Dreeke’s It’s Not All About Me but I’m glad I did.

Dreeke is the lead instructor at the FBI’s Counterintelligence Training Center in all behavioral and interpersonal skills training. And he wrote an awesome book on how to master the skills of communication.

This is a modern version of the timeless How to Win Friends and Influence People.

3. How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

How to read a book

How to Read a Book, originally published in 1940, has become a rare phenomenon, a living classic. It is the best and most successful guide to reading comprehension for the general reader. And now it has been completely rewritten and updated.

You are told about the various levels of reading and how to achieve them — from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading, you learn how to pigeonhole a book, X-ray it, extract the author’s message, criticize. You are taught the different reading techniques for reading practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science.

Finally, the authors offer a recommended reading list and supply reading tests whereby you can measure your own progress in reading skills, comprehension and speed.

4. Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

Manage your day-to-day

Are you over-extended, over-distracted, and overwhelmed? Do you work at a breakneck pace all day, only to find that you haven’t accomplished the most important things on your agenda when you leave the office?

The world has changed and the way we work has to change, too. With wisdom from 20 leading creative minds, Manage Your Day-to-Day will give you a toolkit for tackling the new challenges of a 24/7, always-on workplace.

5. The Moral Sayings Of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave

A Syrian slave, Syrus is full of timeless wisdom. Want an example? “From the errors of others, a wise man corrects his own.” Here is another “It is not every question that deserves an answer.” Ok, one more? “To do two things at once is to do neither.” And he didn’t even know of Facebook and Twitter. You can read this book in under an hour but spend the rest of your life trying to learn and apply his wisdom.

6. Letters from a Stoic

I came to Seneca a few years ago. It’s clear from reading Seneca that he’s full of wisdom. His letters deal with everything we deal with today: success, failure, wealth, poverty, grief. His philosophy is practical. Not only will reading this book help equip you for what comes in life but it’ll help you communicate with others.

A philosophy that saw self-possession as the key to an existence lived ‘in accordance with nature’, Stoicism called for the restraint of animal instincts and the severing of emotional ties. These beliefs were formulated by the Athenian followers of Zeno in the fourth century BC, but it was in Seneca (c. 4 BC – AD 65) that the Stoics found their most eloquent advocate. Stoicism, as expressed in the Letters, helped ease pagan Rome’s transition to Christianity, for it upholds upright ethical ideals and extols virtuous living, as well as expressing disgust for the harsh treatment of slaves and the inhumane slaughters witnessed in the Roman arenas. Seneca’s major contribution to a seemingly unsympathetic creed was to transform it into a powerfully moving and inspiring declaration of the dignity of the individual mind.

7. Meditations

meditations

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style. In Gregory Hays’s new translation—the first in a generation—Marcus’s thoughts speak with a new immediacy: never before have they been so directly and powerfully presented.

8. The Art of Worldly Wisdom

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle is a book of three hundred aphorisms for making one’s way in the world and achieving distinction.

It provides advice not only for modern “image makers” and “spin doctors,” but also for the candid: for those who insist that substance, not image, is what really matters. “Do, but also seem,” is Gracián’s pithy advice

The book was imitated by La Rochefoucauld, cherished by Friedrich Nietzsche, and translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche observed that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”

9. A Technique for Producing Ideas

A Technique for Producing Ideas

This short but powerful book has helped thousands of writers, artists, scientists, and engineers to solve problems and generate ideas. Now let James Webb Young’s unique insights help you be more creative in every area of life. Advertising mogul William Bernbach wrote, “James Webb Young is in the tradition of some of our greatest thinkers when he describes the workings of the creative process. The results of many years in advertising have proved to him that the key element in communications success is the production of relevant and dramatic ideas. He not only makes this point vividly for us but shows us the road to that goal.”

10. Poor Charlie’s Almanack: The Wit and Wisdom of Charles T. Munger

poor charlie's almanack

Pound for pound one of the most important books I’ve ever read. To those of you who claim this book is too expensive I say ignorance is even costlier.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom

The Art of Wordly Wisdom

The Art of Worldly Wisdom: A Pocket Oracle is a book of three hundred aphorisms for making one’s way in the world and achieving distinction.

It provides advice not only for modern “image makers” and “spin doctors,” but also for the candid: for those who insist that substance, not image, is what really matters. “Do, but also seem,” is Gracián’s pithy advice

The book was imitated by La Rochefoucauld, cherished by Friedrich Nietzsche, and translated into German by Arthur Schopenhauer. Nietzsche observed that “Europe has never produced anything finer or more complicated in matters of moral subtlety.”

Baltasar Gracián

What sort of person composed these strategies for life?

The voice that emerges from the Oracle is not, as some have argued, an entirely cynical, Machiavellian one. Baltasar Gracián (1601-1658), a worldly Jesuit priest, felt undying hatred for human folly.

He was born in 1601 in Belmonte, a village in Aragón, not far from the birthplace of the great Latin satirist Martial, a coincidence which must have delighted him. As an adolescent he studied philosophy and letters in Toledo and Zaragoza and in 1619, at the age of 18, entered the novitiate of the Jesuit order. For the remaining fifty years of his life Gracián labored as chaplain and confessor, preacher, professor, and administrator (he was rector and vice-rector of several Jesuit colleges). Though he never held an important position in public life, he kept company with those who did, and his aphorisms draw on long and careful observation of human behavior, both in peace and in warfare.

Gracián subordinated ethics to strategy.

Moral generalizations, the immutable “hard rules” of ethics, yield, in these pages, to the conviction that to reach perfection one must adapt to circumstance.

So let’s take a look at some of his aphorisms.

Don’t outshine your boss.

Being defeated is hateful, and besting one’s boss is either foolish or fatal. Superiority is always odious, especially to superiors and sovereigns. The common sort of advantages can be cautiously hidden, as beauty is hidden with a touch of artful neglect. Most people do not mind being surpassed in good fortune, character, or temperament, but no one, especially not a sovereign, likes to be surpassed in intelligence. For this is the king of attributes, and any crime against it is lèse-majesté. Sovereigns want to be so in what is most important. Princes like to be helped, but not surpassed. When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see. It is the stars who teach us this subtlety. They are brilliant sons, but they never dare to outshine the sun.

Work Hard

Application and capacity. Eminence requires both. When both are present, eminence outdoes itself. The mediocre people who apply themselves go further than the superior people who don’t. Work makes worth.

Low Expectations

When you start something, don’t raise other people’s expectations. What is highly praised seldom measures up to expectation. Reality never catches up to imagination. It is easy to imagine something is perfect, and difficult to achieve it. Imagination marries desire, and conceives much more than things really are. No matter how excellent something is, it never satisfies our preconceptions. The imagination feels cheated, and excellence leads more often to disappointment than to admiration. Hope is a great falsifier. Let good judgment bridle her, so that enjoyment will surpass desire. Honorable beginnings should serve to awaken curiosity, not to heighten people’s expectations. We are much better off when reality surpasses our expectations, and something turns out better than we thought it would.

The Art of Success

Good fortune has its rules, and to the wise not everything depends upon chance. Fortune is helped along by effort.

Checkmate Will

Find each person’s “handle,” his weak point. The art of moving people’s wills involves more skill than determination. You must know how to get inside the other person. Each will has its own special object of delight; they vary according to taste. Everyone idolizes something. Some want to be well thought of, others idolize profit, and most people idolize pleasure. The trick is to identify the idols that can set people in motion. It is like having the key to someone else’s desires. Go for the “prime mover,” which isn’t always something lofty and important. Usually it is something low, for the unruly outnumber the well ruled. First size up someone’s character and then touch on his weak point. Tempt him with his particular pleasure, and you’ll checkmate his will.

Know When To Put Something Aside

Know when to put something aside. One of life’s great lessons lies in knowing how to refuse, and it is even more important to refuse yourself, both to business and to others. There are certain inessential activities—moths of precious time—and it is worse to busy yourself with the trivial than to do nothing. To be prudent, it isn’t enough not to meddle in other people’s business: you must also keep them from meddling in yours. Don’t belong so much to others that you stop belonging to yourself. You shouldn’t abuse your friends, or ask them for more than they give on their own initiative. All excess is a vice, especially in your dealings with others. With this judicious moderation you will stay in the good graces of others and keep their esteem; and propriety, which is precious, will not be worn away. Retain your freedom to care passionately about the best, and never testify against your own good taste.

Be Diligent and Intelligent

Diligence is quick to carry out what intelligence has lingered over. Fools are fond of hurry: they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously. The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything. Sometimes things are judged correctly but go wrong out of inefficiency and neglect. Readiness is the mother of luck. It is a great deed to leave nothing for the morrow. A lofty motto: make haste slowly.

Act Only When Prudent

If the person doing something suspects he will fail, it will be evident to the person watching, even more so when he is a rival. If your judgment wavers in the heat of emotion, you’ll be thought a fool when things cool down. It is dangerous to undertake something when you doubt its wisdom. It would be safer not to act at all. Prudence refuses to deal in probability: it always walks under the midday sun of reason. How can something turn out well when caution started to condemn it the moment it was conceived? Even resolutions that passed the inner examination nemine discrepante* often turn out badly; so what can we expect from those that reason

Appearances Matter

Things pass for what they seem, not for what they are. Only rarely do people look into them, and many are satisfied with appearances. It isn’t enough to be right if your face looks malicious and wrong.

Much Ado About Nothing

Some take nothing into account, and others want to account for everything. They are always talking importance, always taking things too seriously, turning them into debate and mystery. Few bothersome things are important enough to bother with. It is folly to take to heart what you should turn your back on. Many things that were something are nothing if left alone, and others that were nothing turn into much because we pay attention to them. In the beginning it is easy to put an end to problems, but not later. Sometimes the cure causes the disease. Not the least of life’s rules is to leave well enough alone.

Do and Seem

Things do not pass for what they are, but for what they seem. To excel and to know how to show it is to excel twice. What is invisible might as well not exist. Reason itself is not venerated when it does not wear a reasonable face. Those easily duped outnumber the prudent. Deceit reigns, and things are judged from without, and are seldom what they seem. A fine exterior is the best recommendation of inner perfection.

Size Things Up

Take the pulse of the business at hand. Many see the trees but not the forest, or bark up the wrong tree, speaking endlessly, reasoning uselessly, without going to the pith of the matter. They go round and round, tiring themselves and us, and never get to what is important. This happens to people with confused minds who do not know how to clear away the brambles. They waste time and patience on what it would be better to leave alone, and later there is no time for what they left.

Do Something Syndrome

Remedies often worsen evils. Let nature take its course, and morality. The wise physician knows when to prescribe and when not to, and sometimes it takes skill not to apply remedies. Throwing up your hands is sometimes a good way to put down vulgar storms. If you bow to time for the present, you will conquer in the future. It takes little to muddy a stream. You can’t make it grow clear by trying to, only by leaving it alone. There is no better remedy for disorder than to leave it alone to correct itself.

Know How to Suffer Fools

The wise are the least tolerant, for learning has diminished their patience. Wide knowledge is hard to please. Epictetus tells us that the most important rule for living lies in knowing how to bear all things: to this he reduced half of wisdom. To tolerate foolishness much patience is needed. Sometimes we suffer most from those we most depend upon, and this helps us conquer ourselves. Patience leads to an inestimable inner peace, which is bliss on earth. And the person who does not know how to put up with others should retire into himself, if indeed he can suffer even himself.

Never Compete With Someone who has Nothing to Lose

The struggle will be unequal. One of the contestants enters the fray unencumbered, for he has already lost everything, even his shame. He has cast off everything, has nothing further to lose, and throws himself headlong into all sorts of insolence. Never risk your precious reputation on such a person. It took many years to win it, and it can be lost in a moment, on something far from momentous. One breath of scandal freezes much honorable sweat. The righteous person knows how much is at stake. He knows what can damage his reputation, and, because he commits himself prudently, he proceeds slowly, so that prudence has ample time to retreat. Not even if he triumphs will he win back what he lost by exposing himself to the risk of losing.

Never Govern Yourself by What Your Enemy Ought to do

The fool never does what the prudent person thinks he will, for he cannot understand that it is to his advantage. Nor will he do it if he is wise, for he will want to dissimulate his intent, which you may have discovered and planned for. Examine both sides of things; go back and forth between them. Try to remain impartial. Don’t think about what will happen; think about what could.

Truth

Don’t lie, but don’t tell the whole truth. Nothing requires more skill than the truth, which is like a letting of blood from the heart. It takes skill both to speak it and to withhold it. A single lie can destroy your reputation for honesty. The man deceived seems faulty, and the deceiver seems false, which is worse. Not all truths can be spoken: some should be silenced for your own sake, others for the sake of someone else.

Know How to Contradict

It is a great way to provoke others: they commit themselves and you commit nothing. You can use contradiction to pry loose the passions of others. Showing disbelief makes people vomit up their secrets; it is the key to tightly closed breasts. With great subtlety you can test the will and judgment of others. Shrewdly scorn the word that someone else has cloaked in mystery, and you will hunt down his deepest secrets and make them come little by little to his tongue, where they can be trapped in the nets of subtle deceit. The prudent person’s reserve makes others lose theirs. It discovers their feelings when their hearts should have been inscrutable. A feigned doubt is the best skeleton key your curiosity can have: it will find out all it wants. Even when it comes to learning, the good student contradicts his teacher and makes him more eager to explain and defend the truth. Challenge someone discreetly and his teaching will be more perfect.

Reason with Uncommon Sense

Don’t think highly of the person who never opposes you. It doesn’t show that he loves you, it shows he loves himself. Don’t be fooled by flattery: don’t reward it, condemn it. Consider it an honor to be criticized, especially by those who speak ill of good people. You should be pained when your things please everyone; it is a sign that they are not good, for perfection belongs to only a few.

Don’t Express Your Ideas Too Clearly

Most people think little of what they understand, and venerate what they do not. To be valued, things must be difficult: if they can’t understand you, people will think more highly of you. To win respect, make yourself seem wiser and more prudent than is required by the person you are dealing with. But do so with moderation. Intelligent people value brains, but most people demand a certain elevation. Keep them guessing at your meaning, and don’t give them a chance to criticize you. Many praise without being able to say why. They venerate anything hidden or mysterious, and they praise it because they hear it praised.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom is well worth a read (and there is a .99 cent kindle edition). It pairs well with La Rochefoucauld’s collected maxims.

Karl Pillemer, Interview No. 2

Karl Pillemer is the author of 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans.

I posted some of the key lessons from his book last week.

As part of my ongoing series of interviews with authors and experts, I had the chance to speak with Karl about the most important lessons that should be passed on to the younger generations, whether happiness is a choice, the keys to a happy marriage, and the biggest regrets.

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INTERVIEWER

Can you tell me about yourself? This was a fascinating project, how did this project come about?

PILLEMER

As a gerontologist – someone who studies older people – I realized that I had focused much of my research over the past 25 years on problems of aging: nursing homes, Alzheimer’s disease, elder abuse. And that’s how our society also often looks at old people: as frail, needy, and about to bust our federal budget. But in my work, I kept meeting older people – many of whom had lost loved ones, been through tremendous difficulties, and had serious health problems – but who nevertheless were happy, fulfilled, and deeply enjoying life. I found myself asking: “What’s that all about?”

And I started seeing some fascinating research in the field of positive psychology. Study after study has shown that older people – in their 70s, 80s, and beyond – are actually happier than younger people.

One day it hit me: Maybe older people know things that younger people don’t about living a happy, healthy, fulfilling life. To my surprise I found that no one had actually done a study to answer the question: What practical advice do older people have for the younger generation? That set me off on a quest for knowledge – for the practical wisdom of older people – that lasted seven years.

So two of the main reasons for doing the project are these:

First, the fundamental hypothesis of this project and the book is that older people are the most credible experts we have on how to live happy and fulfilled lives during hard times. They have experienced extraordinarily historical events that tested their limits – and they have learned how to cope with them, to survive and to thrive. They have also been through the kinds of personal challenges and tragedies that younger people lie awake at night worrying about: loss of parents and spouses, even children; the ups and downs of marriage, child-rearing problems, bad jobs and unemployment. And they have come through them, and often are happier than younger people, as research shows us. What better source of advice for living for the rest of us?

Second, it was absolutely urgent to do a project like this now. Because this precious resource – the wisdom for living from this greatest generation – is about to disappear. In 10 years, most of this extraordinary generation – who lived through poverty in the Depression, who fought or held families together in WW II – will almost all be gone. And their advice for living would be lost forever.

That’s what I was able to capture in the Legacy Project: Not clichés or platitudes – like you see in some self-help books – but real, practical advice and tips for living better, on things like how to find a mate and stay happily married, how to raise kids, how to find a great job and succeed at it, how to avoid regrets, and how to age successfully. I wanted to take it and make it easy and fun to read for younger people – and older as well.

INTERVIEWER

You interviewed a diverse group of over 1,000 seniors. A group you call “the experts” because they’ve done something we haven’t, that is, they’ve lived a long life. What is the most important lesson they want to pass along to the young?

PILLEMER

At the core of their lessons for younger people is one major insight. And this lesson is a key to understanding their other lessons. It’s a beautiful example, because it shows something older people uniquely know – because of where they stand on life’s road – but that younger people can benefit from.

This lesson is one that almost everyone expressed. And they did it vehemently. It is kind of like one of those nightmares where you are yelling and no one can hear you. What they want younger people to know is this: life is short. The older the respondent, the more likely to say that life passes by in what seems like an instant.

They say this not to depress younger people, but to get them to be more aware and selective about how they use their time. Older people practice what psychologists call ‘socioemotional selectivity” – because their time is limited, they make careful decisions about how to use their time. The discovery of the Legacy Project is that younger people can learn from this and practice it earlier in life. As one man told me: “I wish I’d learned this in my 30s instead of in my 60s; I would have had so much more time to enjoy life.”

So they tell young people to stop wasting time and instead to use it more carefully. Some implications of this insight are to say things now to people you care about, whether it is expressing gratitude, asking forgiveness, or getting information; spending the maximum amount of time with children; and savoring daily pleasures instead of waiting for “big-ticket items” to make you happy.

Another piece of advice comes from this idea that life is much shorter than you realize: Take a chance. People in their 70s, 80s, 90s and beyond endorse taking risks when you’re young, contrary to a stereotype that elders are conservative. Their message to young people starting out is “Go for it!” They say that you are much more likely to regret what you didn’t do than what you did. As one 80-year old, successful entrepreneur told me: ‘Unless you have a compelling reason to say no, always say yes to opportunities.”

INTERVIEWER

One of the things I took away from the book is that a lot of the people you interviewed believed that happiness is a choice, that we can just choose to be happy. Some people are skeptical of the claim happiness is a choice. Can you elaborate on that?

PILLEMER

One of my first interviewees made me aware of this core piece of elder wisdom. I asked her to help me to understand the sources of her happiness. She thought for a moment and then offered the explanation that could serve as a motto for the elders: “In my 89 years, I’ve learned that happiness is a choice – not a condition.”

Most of the elders said that taking charge of one’s own happiness simply must happen at some point if one is going to live a fulfilling life, and especially in old age. Not trying to assume control over everything that happens to us – they laughed at that idea – but over our own conscious attitude toward happiness.

Another elder told me: “My single best piece of advice is to take responsibility for your own happiness throughout your life.”

The elders make the key distinction between events that happen to us on the one hand, and our internal attitude toward happiness on the other. Happy in spite of. Happiness is not a passive condition dependent on external events, nor is it the result of our personalities – just being born a happy person. Instead, happiness requires a conscious shift in outlook, in which one chooses – daily – optimism over pessimism, hope over despair.

Another of the elders described this idea as a revelation to her: “The biggest light bulb over my head came to me when I saw I could move away from painful situations by using my choices. I didn’t have to stay and take the pain. I could initiate change. This was a turning point in my life.”

You can choose to be happy, the Experts tell us, in spite of financial hardship, illness and loss. And it’s not an empty cliché, because so many are doing it right now.

INTERVIEWER

What do the experts say is most important for a long and happy marriage?

PILLEMER

Their number one lesson is: Choose your mate carefully! The key is not to rush the decision, taking all the time needed to get to know the prospective partner and to determine your compatibility with them. Said one respondent: “Don’t rush in without knowing each other deeply. That’s very dangerous, but people do it all the time.” Also make sure you like his or her family.

INTERVIEWER

One of the tips was to work in a job you love. They were essentially saying life is short, choose a job for intrinsic not monetary rewards. Can you expand on that and maybe touch on any tips they had on making the best of a bad job?

PILLEMER

The elders are unanimous on that one point: Choose a career for its intrinsic value rather than how much money you will make. Our elders are keenly aware of how short life is, and they think it’s a mistake to waste precious lifetime in work you don’t like. They tell you to avoid statements like: ‘I’d really love to do ___, but I think I can make more money doing ___.’ According to our elders, you need to be able to get up on the morning excited about work, so choose your career with that in mind.

And it’s true that the older generation has this advice for work: Make the most of a bad job. Remember that many of these folks who grew up in the Great Depression had bad jobs early on – in fact, their bad jobs make our bad jobs look like good jobs! They found, however, that they learned invaluable lessons from these less-than-ideal work situations. You can learn how the industry works, about communicating with other employees, about customer service. As one man told me: ‘You can even learn from a bad boss – how not to be a bad boss!’ All this is useful in your future career.

I would add that when asked about what makes a job truly rewarding, the oldest Americans stress autonomy. They suggest that you look for a job that offers you as much self-direction as possible – and that taking a lower salary for a job that offers you greater freedom is worth it. An 82-year old successful entrepreneur told me: “The autonomy – most people never understand that. They’re slaves to somebody. The feeling that when you have this freedom –– there’s no money that can pay for it. You can’t buy it. You have to earn it, you have to feel it, and you know something? It doesn’t get better!’”

INTERVIEWER

What were their biggest regrets?

PILLEMER

When asked what they regret in life, many of the oldest Americans said: ‘I wish I’d traveled more.’ They recommend that people embrace travel, and especially when they are young. So if young people right now are wondering what to do with those graduation gifts, elder wisdom says to look into some travel (and low budget is fine) before you begin that first job.

Another of their biggest regrets made a real impression on me. I need to admit that I’m a world-class worrier. So for me a particularly striking lesson for avoiding regret – and a nearly unanimous one – was this: Stop worrying. The elders deeply regret time wasted worrying about things that never happened. So looking back from the end of life, they take a radical view of worry. As one elder told me: “Worry wastes your life.” In the book, I give readers specific tips offered by the elders for breaking the worry habit – and they work!

INTERVIEWER

What’s changed in your life — what do you do differently now — after writing this book?

PILLEMER

I can genuinely say that the six years I spent talking to older people all over the country about their lessons for living changed my own life. I have tried to put into practice what they told me as much as I can. One thing just about every elder advises is this: “Live like your life is short.” That’s one thing they know from the vantage point at the end of the life course. They say this not to depress us, but to help us make better decisions, to savor daily life, and to say things to people that need to be said (while they are still around). I have developed more of a “carpe diem” mentality since doing this project, and I think people who read the book will too.

Probably the most extraordinary thing I learned was this: Old age is much better than we think it will be. For a lot of people who read the book, I think they will wind up being a lot less fearful about the last third of life, and much more optimistic. As one person told me: “My advice about growing old? I’d tell them to find the magic.” Despite their problems, most of the people I interviewed feel that they are happier in some ways, freer, clearer in their priorities than they were when they were younger.

If anything comes out of this book, I hope it’s this: Making people aware of the source of wisdom that’s right in front of them: America’s elders. We’re going through economic upheavals and families are struggling: Who better to ask than people who survived the Great Depression? Families are struggling with our military involvements: Why not ask people who supported families through World War II? Struggling in your marriage? Why not ask people who have been happily married for 50 or 60 years? I’d love to see these kinds of conversations going on in every family – how about starting with family holidays like Thanksgiving?

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Still curious? Buy 30 Lessons for Living.

30 Lessons For Living

30 Lessons For Living

Who are the wisest Americans and what can they teach us?

We’re all interested in finding the right partner, staying with them, and (maybe even) raising children who turn out well.

Karl Pillemer wrote 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans to provide us with practical advice from the experts about how to make the most out of life. (I had the chance to interview Karl as well.)

A self described “advice junkie,” Pillemer wanted answers to some of life’s more complicated questions. He wanted practical advice that is “based in lived reality, has stood the test of time, and offers a chance of genuinely helping us make the most of our lives.” So he turned to the experts: the oldest Americans.

“Could we,” he asks, “look at the oldest Americans as experts on how to live our lives?”

I went on a quest for wisdom. I didn’t search in the usual way, by traveling the world, finding a therapist, or taking up an esoteric religious practice. To find practical guidance for living, my answer was to search for the life wisdom of older people.

And when you put together well over a thousand older people,who have lived “rich and fulfilling lives,” you have a source of unique gidence.

Their unique perspective provides a much-needed antidote to conventional wisdom about the “good life” in contemporary American society.

So what did they have to say?

Happiness is Your Responsibility

“Young man,” she said “you will learn, I hope, that happiness is what you make it, where you are. Why in the world would I be unhappy? People here complain all the time, but not me. It’s my responsibility to be as happy as I can, right here, today.”

The Single Most Important Component of a Long and Satisfying Marriage

No matter their socioeconomic background, their religious heritage, their race or ethnicity, or their political leanings, they agree: finding someone who is similar in upbringing, general orientation, and values is the single most important component of a long and satisfying marriage. On the other hand, we live in a pluralistic society that increasingly values diversity, breaking down old barriers, and understanding and appreciation of differences. Is there a conflict here?

The message to take away from this lesson allows for both perspectives. The experts (like the social scientists) don’t tell you unconditionally not to marry someone who is different from you but with whom you are deeply in love. They simply want everyone to recognize that if we marry people very dissimilar to ourselves, and in particular with divergent values, we are much more likely to face complex challenges in married life.

When you wake up in the morning ask what you can do for your partner

Neither one of us is waking up in the morning and saying, “Am I getting what I need out of this?” Instead we’re waking up saying, “What can I do for him?” or “What can I do for her?” …

When you wake up in the morning, think, “What can I do to make her day or his day just a little happier?”

Don’t Keep Score

Don’t keep score. Don’t take the attitude that marriage must always be a fifty-fifty proposition; you can’t get out exactly what you put in. The key to success is having both partners try to give more than they get out of the relationship.

Find Happiness at Work

One of the most striking points is what the thousand-plus experts didn’t say.

No one— not a single person out of a thousand— said that to be happy you should try to work as hard as you can to make money to buy the things you want.

No one— not a single person— said it’s important to be at least as wealthy as the people around you, and if you have more than they do it’s real success.

No one— not a single person— said you should choose your work based on your desired future earning power.

You need Interpersonal Skills

Their consensus: no matter how talented you are, no matter how brilliant— you must have interpersonal skills to succeed.

Everyone Needs Autonomy

Career satisfaction is often dependent on how much autonomy you have on the job. Look for the freedom to make decisions and move in directions that interest you, without too much control from the top.

Family Life

America’s elders tell you that what you will regret at their age is not having spent more time with your children. … The experts who missed out on spending time with their children regret it, and those who creatively manufactured time together regard it as the best decision they ever made.

Three Key Points

First, it’s your time that kids want, and they will look back on the hours you spend together with fondness and nostalgia. The experts remember this from their own families— indeed it is the source of most of their pleasant memories about childhood. Second, what counts the most are shared activities— time spent on hobbies, sports, camping, hunting, or fishing (it’s extraordinary how many of the male experts cherish memories of hunting or fishing trips with their fathers) or in seeking out a new interest together. Third, the experts agree that we should be willing to make sacrifices to have that kind of time.

What The Experts Say About Getting Older

The experts’ basic message about aging is one of the most counterintuitive recommendations in this entire book: don’t waste your time worrying about getting old.