June 4th, 2015 · 73 comments
My friend Dale Davidson runs the excellent Ancient Wisdom Project blog, where he chronicles his experience with 30-day experiments, each dedicated toward living a practice from an ancient religion or philosophy, pursued in the service of deep personal growth. I’m always impressed by Dale’s thinking, so I asked if he would provide me something provocative to post for graduation season.
Fortunately for us, he obliged. Below is an open letter Dale wrote to the graduating class of 2015.
Don’t Trust Anyone Under 500
By Dale Davidson
To the class of 2015,
With graduation season upon us, you have likely been hearing a lot of advice about how to live your life. Regardless of what anyone tells you, I ask that you do one thing: consider how old it is.
I graduated college in 2009 fully intending to become a Navy SEAL. I was accepted into SEAL training, and several months later, for reasons I’m still not sure about, I quit.
I was thrust back into “civilian life” and felt aimless. What should I do now? I first turned to the Internet in search of wisdom (always a risky endeavor). I read The Four Hour Work Week, a book by lifestyle designer Tim Ferriss who advocates becoming incredibly productive and minimizing doing work you dislike and spending most of your time doing only things you enjoy. I followed travel bloggers who quit their jobs to spend a year traveling around the world and fantasized about doing the same. I discovered the pop psychology advice genre that turns psychological research into advice on becoming happy.
This advice didn’t work. I ended up more confused and lost about what I should be doing with my life.
So last year I decided to try something different. I decided to look to ancient sources of wisdom for advice on how to live a good and meaningful life and created what I call The Ancient Wisdom Project.
The rules of the project are simple:
- Choose one ancient religion or philosophy that is 500 years old and that stills exist in some form today
- Select one practice from the religion or philosophy that would help cultivate a desirable virtue (compassion, humility, etc.)
- Perform the practice for thirty days and write about it
The results of these experiments were powerful, certainly far more powerful than anything I found in modern self-help literature. Here are just a few of the lessons I learned that I hope will encourage you to take a similar approach to evaluating the advice you receive in the coming months.
Pursue virtue, not success
The core belief in our meritocratic culture is that you can achieve great success if you work hard enough. The risk of this thinking is we become too attached to our desire for success, rather than the cultivation of a coherent and virtuous moral character.
Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, is premised on the idea that there are certain things within your control, and far more things that are not.
My practice and study of Stoicism, which included daily ice baths and negative visualization exercises, confirmed that this ancient insight is still relevant to our modern lives.
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
You can control how hard you work and how virtuously you behave; you cannot control how fast you receive promotions. You can control how you treat others; you can’t control how well others treat you. They knew the rewards for cultivating strength in heart and mind are far greater than the rewards of pursuing worldly success, which will always remain just outside of your control.
Modern advice tells us to pursue accomplishments.
Ancient wisdom tells us to live virtuously.
Last year, I wanted to quit my job. It wasn’t that it was particularly hard, rather, it was incredibly boring and seemingly meaningless. Though it was tempting to follow modern career advice and quit to do something more interesting, I resisted, and dived into my Catholic month.
My experiment with Catholicism, which included Jesuit spiritual exercises and daily attendance at Mass, taught me that giving oneself to the service of others is far more gratifying than pursuing self-interest. I came away acknowledging how much energy I was spending on obsessing on my own desires for the perfect job, energy that could be better spent, perhaps, thinking of ways to serve others.
A few weeks later I started volunteering at Miriam’s Kitchen. A few hours per month serving breakfast to the homeless, while certainly a small contribution, has made me feel like at least some of my work is doing some good in the world. More importantly, doing something for others lets your forget your own desires, which is a relief! Thinking about what you want all the time is exhausting.
You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.
– Galatians 5:13
It’s also important to not think too highly of yourself. During my Islam month, I practiced Salat, or prayer, five times per day with the goal of cultivating humility. These prayers, inconvenient by design, acted as a sort of check against my arrogant tendencies. I became aware of how much I resented my co-workers as idiots or sheep. Though I can’t say that those feelings are gone, I find that simply acknowledging them allows me to be more open and less frustrated with others.
Bring anger and pride under your feet, turn them into a ladder and climb higher…
Don’t become its victim you need humility to climb to freedom.
A commitment to humility and service requires a systematic emptying of the self, a practice in which ancient religions excel.
Modern advice tells us to enlarge the self.
Ancient wisdom tells us diminish the self for others.
Get a real life
As new graduates, you will have to work hard as you start your careers. But at some point you will realize that work can’t fulfill all your needs. You might think you need more “work-life balance,” but simply reducing the amount of time you spend at work is not sufficient for creating a life.
During my Judaism month, I attended daily Minyan services (a type of prayer service) at a local synagogue. The Minyan was mostly filled with retired people (it was a 7:30 AM service, after all), and it mostly consisted of regulars.
While they all began attending for different reasons, they all found that actively setting aside time each week to communally study and pray added a layer of depth to their lives that is increasingly rare in a rushed society that promotes passive rest rather than spiritual recovery.
These voluntary obligations outside of work are necessary and difficult. I attempted to observe Shabbat (the Sabbath), which begins at sundown on Friday and ends at sundown on Saturday. Shabbat advocates a powerful combination of removing the profane distractions of everyday life and adding active participation in sacred rituals that allow us to connect more deeply with our humanity.
Ban yourself from using your laptop or phone during Shabbat and you will find time to read, take long walks, and contemplate. If you make the necessary preparations to host a Shabbat dinner, you will renew your relationships with your friends and family over food and wine without the distractions of a noisy bar.
The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. ‘Last in creation, first in intention,’ the Sabbath is ‘the end of the creation of heaven and earth
— Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath
While not as easy as ordering a pizza and turning on Netflix on a Friday night, committing to this ancient system of sacred rest and spiritual renewal is far more rewarding.
Modern advice encourages us to achieve work-life balance.
Ancient wisdom tells us to work hard at building a life.
I chose the 500 years criterion somewhat arbitrarily. I figured if a particular philosophy or religion has survived at least five centuries there must be some value to it. It’s not perfect, but after a year of experimenting with this heuristic I find it works remarkably well for evaluating the advice I receive.
So the next time you are looking for advice on the way forward, you might turn to a theologian, prophet, philosopher, or saint before any modern-day blogger (except for me, of course).
Don’t trust anyone under 500.
(Photo by Hartwig HKD)
May 19th, 2015 · 37 comments
The Inspiring Story: A Brilliant Mind “Thinks Different”
In a pivotal scene in the Stephen Hawking biopic, The Theory of Everything, the physicist is staring into the embers of a dying fire when he has an epiphany: black holes emit heat!
The next scene shows Hawking triumphantly announcing his result to a stunned audience — and just like that, his insight vaults him into the ranks of scientific stardom.
This story is inspirational. But as the physicist Leonard Mlodinow points out in a recent New York Times op-ed, it’s not at all how Hawking’s breakthrough actually happened…
The Stubborn Reality: A Highly-Trained Mathematician Works Hard
In reality, Hawking had encountered a theory by two Russian physicists that argued rotating black holes should emit energy until they slowed to a stationary configuration.
Hawking, who at the time was a promising young scientist who had not yet made his mark, was intrigued, but also skeptical.
So he decided to look deeper .
In the (many) months that followed, Hawking trained his preternatural analytical skill to investigate the validity of the Russians’ claims. This task required any number of minor breakthroughs, all orbiting the need to somehow reconcile (in a targeted way) both quantum theory and relativity.
This was really hard work.
The number of physicists at the time with enough specialized training and grit to follow through this investigation probably wouldn’t have filled a moderate size classroom.
But Hawking persisted.
And to his eventual “surprise and annoyance,” his mathematics confirmed an even more shocking conclusion: even stationary black holes can emit heat.
There was no fireside eureka moment, but instead a growing awareness that gained traction as the mathematics were refined and checked again and again.
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May 4th, 2015 · 36 comments
The Annoyed Rhodes Scholar
To research my first book, I interviewed several Rhodes Scholars. During this process, I noticed they tended to be touchy about their press coverage.
When you win a Rhodes, not surprisingly, reporters will seek you out and write articles about you. Most of these articles follow the same shock and awe template of listing the student’s accomplishments, one after another, in an attempt to overwhelm the reader.
It was this article format that annoyed winners.
To understand why, you must first understand that most Rhodes Scholars follow a similar path: they invest a large amount of energy in doing a small number of things (usually two) extremely well (for someone their age).
Over time, as they get better and better at their core points of focus, related opportunities and accomplishments start to come along for free (see my third book for more on this phenomenon, sometimes called The Matthew Effect). It’s these freebies that ultimately extend their CV’s to a head-spinning length.
Consider, for example, the following lines from a profile of 2015 Rhodes Scholar Noam Angrist:
While at M.I.T., he did economic research for the World Bank, The White House, and on the Affordable Care Act…As a Fulbright Scholar in Botswana, Noam founded an NGO for HIV education designed to discourage intergenerational sex (“sugar daddy awareness”). Its success led him to raise the money to extend the program to 340 schools, and he now plans to launch it in four other southern African countries.
This list can appear inexplicable at first read, but a closer examination makes it clear that all of these accomplishments flow from a single deep focus: mastering the intersection between economics and program evaluation (a field being innovated at MIT, where Noam is a student).
The internships at the World Bank and White House, as well as the Fulbright Scholarship (which led to the HIV prevention program) are all side effects of Noam proving unambiguously that he was really good at this one type of academic research.
The reason Rhode Scholars get upset by volume-centric, over-hyped, shock and awe press coverage is that it obscures what they’re really proud about: doing professional quality work in a field that they respect and want respect from.
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April 24th, 2015 · 21 comments
The Four Hour Consensus
In 2007, Tim Ferriss published a hit book that suggested “work,” in the traditional money-making sense of the term, could and should be reduced to as little as four hours per week — freeing time for more fulfilling pursuits.
Seventy-five years earlier, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell, in an essay titled In Praise of Idleness, suggested this same number of working hours as a worthy goal, explaining…
In a world where no one is compelled to work more than four hours a day, every person possessed of scientific curiosity will be able to indulge it, and every painter will be able to paint without starving…Young writers will not be obliged to draw attention to themselves by sensational pot-boilers…Men who, in their professional work, have become interested in some phase of economics or government, will be able to develop their ideas…
Russell and Ferriss propose wildly different paths to this goal: while the former believed a radically reduced workweek requires socialism to realize, Ferriss argues that the productivity tools of the Internet Age suffice.
But both writers hit on a deeper idea that has remained as intriguing today as in the 1930s: the notion that industry (what we might now call “busyness”) is intrinsically virtuous is suspect. It’s worth instead working backwards from a more general confrontation with the question of what matters and deciding how best to act on the answers.
I don’t have a specific point of view here (I know Russell mainly from his work on mathematical philosophy), I just thought the coincidence was cool, and the ideas interesting…
On an unrelated note, my friends over at the exceptional 80,000 Hours organization have recently released a (free) career guide that is among one of the most thoughtful and grounded I’ve seen. If you read SO GOOD, you’ll probably appreciate their technical take on cultivating (not finding) passion.
April 20th, 2015 · 49 comments
The Watch to Watch
A couple weeks ago, the New York Times reviewed the Apple Watch. A paragraph early in the article caught my attention:
First there was a day to learn the device’s initially complex user interface. Then another to determine how it could best fit it into my life. And still one more to figure out exactly what Apple’s first major new product in five years is trying to do — and, crucially, what it isn’t.
It’s worth taking a moment to recognize what’s strange here. If it takes three days to figure out why something might be useful to you, then you probably don’t need it!
In any other market, a product without a clear use case would be impossible to sell. But in the cultural distortion field of Silicon Valley, this is the new normal. They provide the hot new thing, and it’s up to you to figure out why you need it.
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April 11th, 2015 · 35 comments
Distracted in the Dugout
Last week, the Washington Post featured a front page story about the declining number of kids who play organized baseball. There are various reasons for this decline, but the story emphasized the sport’s lack of action.
Here’s an articulate 15-year old, as quoted in the article, explaining his reasons for quitting baseball:
Baseball is a bunch of thinking, and I live a different lifestyle than baseball. In basketball and football, you live in the moment. You got to be quick. Everything I do, I do with urgency.
This teenager is right. Baseball, undoubtedly, is a slow sport: even more so for spectators than the players.
But while this might be bad news for those hoping to attract the allegiance of the iPhone generation, I’ve found it to be quite useful in my own quest to sharpen my deep work skills.
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April 5th, 2015 · 25 comments
What Steve Said
I opened my last book with Steve Jobs’s 2005 commencement address at Stanford University. Toward the end of the speech, I noted, Jobs said:
And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
Many people interpreted this suggestion simplistically, assuming that Jobs was telling them to follow their passion and everything would work out.
I argued in my book that this interpretation conflicted with Jobs’s own story. During the period leading up to Apple’s founding, there was no indication that Jobs felt any particular passion for technology entrepreneurship.
His company was, in many ways, a happy accident that evolved into a calling.
What, then, explains the mismatch between what Steve Jobs did and what Steve Jobs said?
Fortunately, we gain new insight into this question from Brent Schlender and Rick Tetzeli’s excellent new biography, Becoming Steve Jobs. In this book, the authors (one of whom had a long term personal relationship with Jobs) devote a full chapter to dissecting the Stanford address, taking specific aim at his “follow your heart” line.
Not only do Schlender and Tetzeli provide needed nuance to Jobs’s advice, but they also end up providing one of the more sophisticated and useful interpretations of professional passion that I’ve heard…
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April 1st, 2015 · 37 comments
Bound Gaps Solved
Last year, Yitang (Tom) Zhang published a paper in the Annals of Mathematics titled “Bounded Gaps Between Primes.” The abstract for the paper is simple enough for a non-mathematician to understand. It states that there are infinitely many pairs of consecutive prime numbers that are no more than 70,000,000 apart.
Don’t let the simplicity of the claim fool you: people have being trying to prove something like this for over 150 years.
At the time when Zhang submitted his result he held a “tenuous” temporary position in the mathematics department at the University of New Hampshire. As reported in Alec Wilkinson’s elegant New Yorker profile, before a friend set Zhang up with the New Hampshire position, he bounced around odd jobs, including a stint keeping the books at a Subway franchise.
Soon after his result was published, everything changed. His employer (wisely and with haste) made him a professor. He was invited to spend six months at the Institute for Advanced Study and accepted lecture invitations across the country. That same year, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius” grant.
What caught my attention about Zhang, however, was not the elegance of his result (which, as a lowly applied mathematician, I cannot come close to understanding) but the elegance of his work habits.
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