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Ryan Holiday’s Question to Change Your Reading Life

Ryan Holiday, writes about a question, he purports will change your reading life.

And this was somehow surprising to me, because as a bookworm, I have been slipping this question (or a variant of it) into casual conversations with folks all my life.
If I need my reading queue to be always full, I need to always be closing :)

And since it has helped me so much, it’s only fair, I share it with you :)

Here’s Ryan,

Every time I would meet a successful or important person I admired, I would ask them:

What’s a book that changed your life?

And then I would read that book.

[…]

Which books should I read? Should I read books about physics or books about history or books about self-improvement? And even if I knew the genre I preferred, which authors should I read and why? Should I read new books or old books? The books getting rave reviews or the classics or the ones on the featured table in the front of the store?

I didn’t know.

If a book changed someone’s life — whatever the topic or style — it was probably worth the investment. If it changed them, I thought, it might at least help me.

This style of reading, might appear chaotic.
But in my experience, it has brought me the best books with the best lessons, at just the right time.

When I was neck deep in debt, I learnt about money, because I asked people who were good with theirs, on how they did it and what they read.
I learnt about computers, because my vocational teacher at the time (I was learning to fix televisions) thought it apt to shove copies of Tim Ramteke’s Networks, Malvino’s Digital Electronics and Jon Stoke’s Inside the Machine into my greedy little hands. (really expensive books which were way beyond my means.
I went in there to learn to fix televisions and came out learning to fix computer hardware.
I went to my grandpa to learn religion and he taught me the value of being open to good, universal values across all faiths, by giving me copies of both the Bible and the Upanishads. (It’s another matter that I haven’t learnt a thing from either set of books :P but I’ve learnt that kindness, being good, doing good, is universal)
I looked online to see how people dealt with unbearable stress and grief, and I learnt about the stoicism of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.
I wanted to have an intentional outlook to life, and I found Shane and his mental models, and through him I found Munger and Taleb.

Each of those moments and authors and books, I listed above, changed my life in fundamental ways, moulding me into what I am today.

It did not matter if the book was contemporary or ancient. (actually, the older the better)

And that brings me to another part of the post I love. To make the ancients and the dead greats your teachers and confidants!

Here’s old man Munger himself,

I think you learn economics better if you make Adam Smith your friend. That sounds funny, making friends among the eminent dead, but if you go through life making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas, I think it will work better in life and work better in education. It's way better than just being given the basic concepts.

And here’s Ryan,

We should seek out the literature that has shaped the people we admire and respect — we can cut down even on the discovery costs of looking for those books. They’ve given us a shortcut to the treasure map.
Everybody seems to want a mentor. Meanwhile, they’re passing up the opportunity to learn directly from the people who taught the people you aspire to be like. When someone like John McCain spends his whole life raving about For Whom The Bell Tolls, why would you not check it out? Clearly, it got him through some shit. Peter Thiel credits Rene Girard and Things Hidden Since The Foundation Of The World with shaping his worldview. Clearly, it’s made him some money—you’re not going to pick that up? Angela Merkel—Forbes’ number 1 most powerful women twelve of the last thirteen years—lists Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov as her favorite reads. Add them to the list!

And of course, the ancients had already figured this out :)

Seneca writes,

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them. […]
We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts!

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

So, go on then.
Ask folks what books changed their lives.
And then go read them and be transformed!


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Doing the Verb, is Enough

This week’s message is stolen, lock stock and barrel from an old Austin Kleon post.
I’ve often wanted to riff off this message, ever since I read it in his book and it changed my life.
But it is perfect and short as it is.


do the verb

Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work.

“Forget about being a Writer,” says novelist Ann Packer. “Follow the impulse to write.”

Let go of the thing that you’re trying to be (the noun), and focus on the actual work you need to be doing (the verb).

Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.


Hat tip to this awesome Ryan Holiday post, which sent me to Austin’s delightful post.
Ryan’s post spoke to what you’d feel like, once you gotten it all. (spoiler alert: nothing at all)

Which is why you need to know your enough.

Quoting a quote from the post,

There is a story I wrote about in Stillness is the Key in which Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, the authors of Slaughterhouse Five and Catch-22, respectively, were once at a fancy party in New York. As they stood in the home of some billionaire, Vonnegut needled his friend.

“Joe,” he said, “how does it feel that our host only yesterday may have made more money than your novel has earned in its entire history?”

“I’ve got something he can never have,” Heller replied.

“And what on earth could that be?” Vonnegut asked.

“The knowledge that I’ve got enough.”

Enough.

This is actually the best place to work from, to live from.

I agree.
As I age, I’m kind of falling in love with the craftsman’s approach.
The work, the process, the action, the doing, the joy of discovery, the building of grit; all of this is the reward.
And to me, that is enough.


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Wasting Time

This is a short, punch-to-the-gut Seth post.
So I am just stealing it wholesale, for you and me. (mostly for me :))

When you bought your first smartphone, did you know you would spend more than 1,000 hours a year looking at it?

Months later, can you remember how you spent those hours?

When you upgraded to a new smartphone, so you could spend more hours on it, did you think about how you had spent so much of your ‘free’ time the year before?

If we wasted money the way we waste time, we’d all be bankrupt.

Pair with, How to Stop Checking Your (My) Phone.

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Free! Not Cheap.

free, not cheap


I found this image on Austin Kleon’s blog a few days ago, and it set me to thinking about these newsletters of mine.

I would love to think of them, the same way.
They are free, but definitely not cheap :)
Not to toot my own horn, but for all their recent brevity, it still is a process that involves a lot of reading, and thinking and curating and writing. (and a whole lot of slogging)

So yes, in that sense, it’s an expensive labour of love.
I’d like to think of it as something more than free, definitely not cheap but a gift, my gift to you.
Like Seth writes,

A gift costs the giver something real. It might be cash (enough that we feel the pinch) but more likely it involves a sacrifice or a risk or an emotional exposure. A true gift is a heartfelt connection, something that changes both the giver and the recipient.

So true! It works because you accept my gift with grace.
Like our traditional “Namaste” or the Zulu, “Sawubona”, you truly see me.
You acknowledge me and give of your time and your attention and your insight.

And most importantly, you push me to do more.

More Seth,

The key is that the gift must be freely and gladly accepted. Sending someone a gift over the transom isn't a gift, it’s marketing. Gifts have to be truly given, not given in anticipation of a repayment. True gifts are part of being in a community (willingly paying taxes for a school you will never again send your grown kids to) and part of being an artist (because the giving motivates you to do ever better work).

Plus, giving a gift feels good.

Yes, it does. And I’m grateful you choose to love this craft of mine.


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Some Words on Reading

Books
image courtesy, Suzy Hazelwood


Austin Kleon, quoting Octavia Butler on reading more than a book at a time.

I generally have four or five books open around the house—I live alone; I can do this—and they are not books on the same subject. They don’t relate to each other in any particular way, and the ideas they present bounce off one another. And I like this effect. I also listen to audio-books, and I’ll go out for my morning walk with tapes from two very different audio-books, and let those ideas bounce off each other, simmer, reproduce in some odd way, so that I come up with ideas that I might not have come up with if I had simply stuck to one book until I was done with it and then gone and picked up another.

Ryan Holiday meanwhile, extols the virtues of reading a page a day, books.

Although I certainly read on some days more than others, I work hard to make sure I read something everyday.

That means I am spending time each day with whatever book I am trying to get through, but it means I spend time, daily, with a few specific books (and authors) that I benefit from each time I pick them up. Which is why I am sending this special Reading List Email with some recommendations of books (and sites) I try to look at every single morning.

A Calendar of Wisdom by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy believed his most essential work was not his novels but his daily read, A Calendar of Wisdom. As Tolstoy wrote in his diary, the continual study of one text, reading one page at the start of each day, was critical to personal growth. “Daily study,” Tolstoy wrote in 1884, is “necessary for all people.” So Tolstoy dreamed of creating a book comprised of “a wise thought for every day of the year, from the greatest philosophers of all times and all people…Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Lao-Tzu, Buddha, Pascal.” As he wrote to his assistant, “I know that it gives one great inner force, calmness, and happiness to communicate with such great thinkers as Socrates, Epictetus, Arnold, Parker… They tell us about what is most important for humanity, about the meaning of life and about virtue.” It would take seventeen years for this book to be published, then ninety-three more for the English translation, titled A Calendar of Wisdom.

The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Of course, I don’t actually read my own book each morning, but I did design that book to mimic a ritual I have, which is to pick up and read one passage from the Stoics each morning. Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, I want to put something from them in my brain each morning. Unfortunately, there was no book that put them all together until we made The Daily Stoic (which has now sold 500,000 copies and is translated in more than 30 languages). We also put out an email version (and a podcast) for DailyStoic.com that has continued the same service. More than 250,000 people check in with these texts this morning because it’s important. You want to start your day off with wisdom and when it comes to wisdom, there is nobody better than the Stoics.

Amongst other things Ryan also recommends James Clear’s, 3-2-1 Thursday & Maria Popova’s, Brain Pickings.


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