Books Proteus Read in August 2019

Here’s something new I’m going to be doing on the blog. Every month at the end of the month, I’m going to make a dedicated post for reviewing every book I read that month. Those reviews then get posted to my page of short book reviews. Simple enough.


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He: Understanding Masculine Psychology by Robert A. Johnson:

Rating: 4/10

A man must consent to look to a foolish, innocent, adolescent part of himself for his cure. The inner fool is the only one who can touch his Fisher King wound.” A book by Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson exploring masculine psychology, primarily through the the Camelot myth. It starts off with an interesting discussion of childhood psychological wounds (the “Fisher King” wound) before getting bogged down by weird interpretations (not to mention unsupported assertions and free-association) of old meanings of words, comparative mythology, and numbers. This really put into perspective what I find frustrating about Jungianism: lots of interesting concepts, but too often it relies so heavily on myth and interpretation that it eventually gives up on logic or rules of evidence.

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The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden:

Rating: 9/10

“The tragedy of many people’s lives is that they look for self-esteem in every direction except within, and so they fail in their search. The ultimate source of self-esteem is, and can only be, internal. In what we do, not what others do. When we seek in the externals, we invite tragedy.” Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden explores the nature of self-esteem, its two key foundations, and the six pillars for building and supporting self-esteem. In addition, he covers external factors that can affect self-esteem, such as parents, teachers, workplaces, religion, and the relationship between self-esteem and tribalism. You don’t have to agree with Branden’s libertarian politics to appreciate the message: you are enough, you have the right to exist, and you have value. For me the best part of this book wasn’t just the content, but the fact that the content echoed a lot of other great books I’ve read (especially Models by Mark Manson). If you’ve ever struggled with self-esteem, confidence, or self-love, I highly recommend this book.

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Way of the Superior Man by David Deida:

Rating: 6/10

“As long as life continues, the creative challenge is to tussle, play, and make love with the present moment while giving your unique gift.” A book about sexual polarity between men and women, and how to become a spiritually aware superior man. I have mixed thoughts. On the one hand, there are some interesting ideas, mirroring other books I’ve read, and I can see why this was recommended to me. On the other hand, this book is far more spiritual and poetic/flowery than books I usually read. Plus there are some parts that are just… weird. Parts where you’ll go “Huh? Where’d that come from?” or “Why is he even talking about that?” With all that said, here’s my overall take: if you’re a man interested in relationships with feminine women, there’s going to be some value for you, even if some parts are kind of weird (I’d also suggest checking out Models by Mark Manson if you’re looking for rock solid men’s advice).

Stop Outsourcing Your Existence

Modern life is defined by services, products, and trends designed to outsource critical parts of your existence – to people, products, and things outside of your direct experience. If you want to live up to your full potential, you need to resist these things as much as possible or necessary.

Stop outsourcing your social life to social media. It’s good to keep up with friends, family, and people you admire – but don’t replace real experience of these people with a screen. You are a human being who needs friends, family, and community – in person.

Stop outsourcing your pursuit of competition and adventure to video games. There’s an argument to be made for video games as literature or creative medium, but most video games are not like this. Most video games are packaged superstimuli designed to addict you and drain your energy. Compete in the real world. Explore the real world. Seek adventure in the real world. Learn how the real world works. Don’t conquer video games – conquer reality.

Stop outsourcing your sexuality to pornography. There might be a difference between erotica (sexuality in the form of creative expression) and pornography (media designed to fulfill a base urge), but you’re not going to know the difference if your primary (or exclusive) experience with sexuality is through a screen.

Stop outsourcing your desire for positive emotions to drugs (including alcohol). By positive emotions I don’t just mean happiness, I also mean transcendence, inner peace, extroversion, and even creativity. Learn how to find and create these things without drugging yourself. If you’re going to use drugs to achieve altered states, use them in ways that enhance your normal life, rather than distract you from your daily nightmare.

Stop outsourcing your thinking to influencers, teachers, experts, and gurus. Learn from these people, take from them what you can, but don’t replace your own thinking with simply being a follower. Think about what others tell you. Learn from multiple sources. Do your own research. Think critically about credibility. Don’t merely follow the crowd or what’s popular, consider other possibilities and alternative ideas (including ones that seem crazy, or will likely get you ostracized from popular culture).

I’ve sometimes said that the most radical act in the world is to think for yourself – I’m starting to wonder if the actual most radical act is to live a life of direct experience rather than an outsourced life.

Tribalism and Self-Esteem: Excerpt from “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden

This is an excerpt (or really three excerpts) from the book “The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem” by Nathaniel Branden. If you’re like me, and you’re very disturbed by growing tribalism in America and other countries, you’ll find this interesting.

Throughout human history, most societies and cultures have been dominated by the tribal mentality. This was true in primitive times, in the Middle Ages, and in socialist (and some nonsocialist) countries in the twentieth century. Japan is a contemporary example of a nonsocialist nation still heavily tribal in its cultural orientation, although it may now be in the process of becoming less so.

The essence of the tribal mentality is that it makes the tribe as such the supreme good and denigrates the importance of the individual. It tends to view individuals as interchangeable units and to ignore or minimize the significance of differences between one human being and another. At its extreme, it sees the individual as hardly existing except in the network of tribal relationships; the individual by him- or herself is nothing.

Plato, the father of collectivism, captures the essence of this perspective in the Laws, when he states, “My law will be made with a general view of the best interests of society at large … as I rightly hold the single person and his affairs as of minor importance.” He speaks enthusiastically of “the habit of never so much as thinking to do one single act apart from one’s fellows, of making life, to the very uttermost, an unbroken concert, society, and community of all with all.” In ancient times, we think of this vision as embodied in the militaristic society of Sparta. In modern times, its monuments were Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Between the ancient and the modern, we think of the feudal civilization of the Middle Ages, in which each person was defined by his or her place in the social hierarchy, apart from which personal identity could hardly be said to exist.

Tribal societies can be totalitarian but they need not be. They can be relatively free. Control of the individual can be more cultural than political, although the political is always a factor. What I wish to point out here is that the tribal premise is intrinsically anti-self-esteem.

It is a premise and an orientation that disempowers the individual qua individual. Its implicit message is: You don’t count. By yourself, you are nothing. Only as part of us can you be something. Thus, any society, to the extent that it is dominated by the tribal premise, is inherently unsupportive of self-esteem and more: it is actively inimical. In such a society the individual is socialized to hold him- or herself in low esteem relative to the group. Self-assertiveness is suppressed (except through highly ritualized channels). Pride tends to be labeled a vice. Self-sacrifice is enjoined.”

One encounters the tribal mentality again in the technologically advanced society of George Orwell’s 1984, where the full power and authority of a totalitarian state is aimed at crushing the self-assertive individualism of romantic love. The contempt of twentieth-century dictatorships for a citizen’s desire to have “a personal life,” the characterization of such a desire as “petty bourgeois selfishness,” is too well known to require documentation. Modern dictatorships may have a better grasp of individuality than did primitive tribes, but the result is that the hostility is more virulent. When I attended the First International Conference on Self-Esteem in Norway in 1990, a Soviet scholar remarked, “As Americans, you can’t possibly grasp the extent to which the idea of self-esteem is absent in our country. It’s not understood. And if it were, it would be condemned as politically subversive.”

The United States of America is a culture with the greatest number of subcultures of any country in the world. It is a society characterized by an extraordinary diversity of values and beliefs in virtually every sphere of life. And yet, if we understand that we will be speaking only of dominant trends to which there are any number of countervailing forces, there is a sense in which we may legitimately speak of “American culture.”

What was so historically extraordinary about the creation of the United States of America was its conscious rejection of the tribal premise. The Declaration of Independence proclaimed the revolutionary doctrine of individual, inalienable rights and asserted that the government exists for the individual, not the individual for the government. Although our political leaders have betrayed this vision many ways and many times, it still contains the essence of what the abstraction-America-stands for. Freedom. Individualism. The right to the pursuit of happiness. Self-ownership. The individual as an end in him- or herself, not a means to the ends of others; not the property of family or church or state or society. These ideas were radical at the time they were proclaimed, and I do not believe they are fully understood or accepted yet; not by most people.”

Morrill’s Law

You may have heard of Murphy’s Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. It might take a while, especially for rarer events, but any disaster that potentially can happen will happen eventually.

You may have heard of Moore’s Law: The highest possible number of transistors that can be put in a CPU, at minimum cost, doubles about every two years (many variants and misquotes of the law can be found on the internet, possibly including this one). While there are some caveats (including rising R&D costs, and Moore himself stating that the Law would stop being true sometime between 2015-25), the Law has held for the past 50 years.

If I ever become famous enough to have an adage like Murphy’s Law or Moore’s Law named after me, I’d like to propose my own “Morrill’s Law”:

Any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.

It’s basically a more specific version of Murphy’s Law, applied to the communication of ideas – particularly new or controversial ideas.

Misunderstandings are Easy

If something you say while communicating an idea has vague, ambiguous, or multiple meanings, oftentimes the worst possible meaning will be assumed. The worse the implications are about you, the less likely you are to be given the benefit of the doubt that you were misunderstood.

If you’re trying to tell someone about your complex idea, your idea will be reduced to a (somewhat) related but simpler idea. The more complex an idea is, the harder it will be to have that idea stick in someone’s mind or have that idea faithfully reproduced.

If your idea is somewhat close or adjacent to a taboo idea, your idea will be assumed to be the taboo idea in disguise. Clear differences will be ignored, and confirmation bias will go into effect as the person looks for evidence that you secretly support the taboo idea. This will be worse if recent events (personal or political) have primed them to look for secret supporters of the taboo idea.

If your idea is outright controversial, your motives will be assumed to match those of the worst proponents of the idea. Even if there are stark or extreme differences between you and those proponents, you will be grouped together regardless.

If there is an extreme historical example of your idea (or a somewhat related idea) being put into practice, and having disastrous consequences, your idea will be assumed to result in the same exact consequences. Even if your idea is unrelated, distinct, or was designed specifically to correct or avoid those flaws, all of this will be ignored in the face of the extreme historical example.

Avoiding Misunderstandings

Supposing this law is true – that any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood – how do you avoid this? I’m not sure, however based on the above I can come up with some potential guidelines:

Be specific.

Be as specific and unambiguous as possible while communicating ideas, and be equally attentive to communicating what the idea is not.

Recognize personal barriers to understanding.

Recognize that many misunderstandings come down to differences in background, communication style, and life experiences. Work around this or with these, whenever possible.

Reduce complexity.

Reduce your complex ideas to the simplest version before other people do it for you – if you can’t control your idea being simplified, you can at least try to control what simplistic version is remembered.

Break apart your idea.

Alternatively, if your complex idea is composed of several smaller ideas, communicate the smaller/simpler ideas clearly before communicating the larger/complex idea.

Compare and contrast.

Find ways of comparing your idea to the taboo or controversial idea, in ways that very clearly demonstrate how your idea is distinct or opposing.

Demonstrate that you are not evil.

If you risk being grouped together with very unpopular, low-status, or evil people, find ways of communicating that you are not part of these groups – without arguing against these groups so fervently that you accidentally make yourself look like a secret member. “I’m not a spy!” said the spy in disguise.

Talk about historical changes.

If your idea is being compared to a historical idea that had negative consequences, note what has changed – in society, economics, technology, etc. – that would make these consequences unlikely or impossible.

Remember what you can and can’t control.

Lastly, recognize that you can only control your own actions – you cannot control people’s reactions. You can do everything possible to try and communicate your idea clearly, correct for possible misunderstandings, and still have people not understand your idea. Alternatively, they understand you, and still hate your idea for reasons you obviously don’t agree with. There are many more factors like this you cannot control – influence, but not control.

TL;DR: Any way you can be misunderstood, you will be misunderstood.

Intro³: The Two Priorities

I have written two previous introductions for this blog.

The first involved using this blog to talk about self-improvement, talk about critical issues in culture and politics with “courageous empathy,” and making a list of the 100 most important books to give to my children.

While I still want to do many of those things (especially the book list), that introduction post was way too long, and has been archived.

The second involved refocusing the blog into writing a book “Julie and Julia” style (short essays which get turned into a larger book), specifically about using biotech to make astronauts healthier while living in space (and the issues attached to that).

While I still think it would be a good idea to write that book, and it needs to be written, it’s a book that will take 10 years or more to write – so that post has been archived as well.

In light of August 1st being the 1 year anniversary of starting this blog, I’ve recently reevaluated my priorities – as of right now I have two priorities, and two priorities only. With every other issue I could pay attention to, it is either being de-prioritized or ignored entirely.

The First Priority: Self-Improvement

If you wish to rule a nation, you must first rule yourself.

Put another way for those uninterested in ruling: the mastery of anything first begins with the mastery of self.

I want to be healthy, wealthy, and wise. I want to be a strong person, in both mind and body. I want a life that is long, meaningful, fulfilling, and has a positive impact on the world. I want to be productive, effective, and above all competent. It doesn’t matter if I lack skills or resources for my goals – the most important skill is the ability to learn skills, and the most important resource is resourcefulness.

In my quest for self-improvement, I’m going to be reading (and have read) dozens of books – rather than write a long review that helps few, I write short reviews, which you can find here.

The Second Priority: Stopping the Climate Crisis

If climate change continues unabated for the next several decades, life on Earth will be radically altered and radically diminished.

Sea level rise. Increases in droughts, heat waves, monsoons, and other extreme weather. Melted permafrost and ice sheets. Radically changed boundaries of ecosystems. Desertification. Mass extinction of plants and animals. Ocean acidification. Climate refugees traveling to cooler ground. Resource wars and food shortages created from all of the above. The list of effects goes on an on.

There are lots of problems in the world, but you can’t solve all of them. You need to prioritize. Climate change might not kill or harm the most people in absolute numbers, but it has the most potential to make every other problem worse. Climate change won’t kill you directly, but it’s a force multiplier for any other problem that will.

As far as I can tell, climate change is only getting worse, and there’s only a few decades to stop it at most.

Right now, I have a potential solution in mind – one that works with “technology” we already have, can be deployed at scale, and at minimum will give humans more time to solve climate change (if not reverse it entirely). It’s just a matter of learning to use technologies that are exponentially decreasing in cost – and being willing to take a bold risk on a moonshot solution.

If that path doesn’t work, I’ll try something else until something does work.

What I’m De-Prioritizing

Like I said earlier, I’m de-prioritizing writing that book about making astronauts healthier. Astronauts don’t matter if Florida is underwater.

I love politics. I got a degree in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and consider myself a political junkie. From now on I’m only going to pay attention to political issues to the extent that they affect me – unless some political issue rises to the level of nuclear war (or is otherwise about to lead to my death), I’m most likely going to ignore it. The latest tweet from the President matters for today’s news cycle, but not in the long run.

I love video games – I’m not going to give up video games entirely, but they’re being scheduled in as a “minor hobby” rather than a big part of my day or identity. Virtual piles of gold don’t matter if wars are being fought over something as basic as water.

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes from Tim Ferriss:

“Doing the uncommon requires uncommon behavior.”