Monthly Archives: April 2020

Why We Read

I believe reading is a priority – it’s not just a hobby, or a nice thing to do.

I believe everyone, you and me included, should read as much as possible.

Here is why.

We read to improve ourselves.

You are not perfect, and it is very unlikely you’re anywhere close to fulfilling your potential. You, like every other person, have a collection of flaws and deficiencies that you can fix or work around. Reading is the path to improvement – learning skills, becoming more creative, becoming better at writing and speaking, improving character, gaining focus – the path to becoming more than you are.

We read to learn about the world, and learn what is possible.

The world is a big place, and it’s a daunting task to learn what’s already out there. There are billions of people, millions of places, thousands of philosophies, and hundreds of branches on the tree of knowledge that you know nothing about – it’s impossible to see, meet, or know all of these things. Half of your time learning could easily be spent learning what exists, even before you dig into the details. Even once you get over learning what currently exists, you have the even more daunting task of figuring out what could exist. When you read fiction, especially science fiction, expands your beliefs about what is possible. When you read history, it shows you what has already happened, and could happen again. As the saying goes, “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.”

We read to improve our empathy.

By empathy, I don’t mean tribalism, where you only identify with people close by or similar to you. By empathy, I mean your ability to understand your fellow human beings, to see things from their perspective, and understand their motivations. When you meet someone, it’s dangerous to assume you already understand their beliefs, their experiences, and what kind of relationship is possible between the two of you. Reading about the people of the past, and reading hundreds of stories with hundreds of characters, will give you the tools necessary to understand the people you meet.

We read to learn from past mistakes.

Thankfully, they don’t have to be your own past mistakes. While average people end up learning from their mistakes, above-average people learn from their mistakes and the mistakes of others. Below-average people never learn from anyone’s mistakes, theirs or other people’s. The study of history, and even reading fiction, helps with this a lot.

We read to gain perspective, reduce stress, and get away from the pettiness of life.

It is easier than ever to get caught up in pointless things – social media drama, office politics, national news that won’t matter next week or even tomorrow – the list goes on. It’s easy to stress and obsess over these things. Pay attention to these things the absolute bare minimum (or even not at all) and then turn your attention to what matters. Philosophy, ethics, history, science, the highest ideals and ideas. When you think about the highest ideals, and consider the scope and scale of the universe, the small dramas and daily stresses simply don’t matter as much.

We read to access the collective wisdom and knowledge of humanity.

“What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” says Ecclesiastes 1:9. For every problem that exists, chances are someone has solved it or solved a problem like it. For every thing that happens, someone else has experienced something similar. For every challenge or obstacle, someone has insight for how to overcome it. 99% of problems are not unique, and more often than not the solution simply needs to be found.

We read to improve our thinking.

Your mind is filled with all kinds of instincts, biases, fallacies, and cognitive distortions – all of which make you not just irrational, but predictably irrational. These errors in thinking lead to false beliefs, leading to unwise actions. If we can overcome errors in thinking, it becomes easier to update our beliefs, and easier to take better actions. Plus, as we get older our memories get worse, and our ability to think starts to decline – reading regularly, and challenging your brain with new ideas and new information, will slow this decline well into old age.

We read to be more like the people we admire.

Think of your heroes, and the people you idolize. Think of them, and realize it’s possible to become more like them through reading. Read about their life. Read about their ideas. If possible, find a list of books they’ve read and loved. Don’t just admire this person from afar, immerse yourself in their life and way of thinking. There’s a common saying that you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with – make sure those five people are heroes.

We read because we’re (probably) not going to live forever.

There are hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of good books out there. Think of all the stories you haven’t read, ideas you haven’t considered, and histories you’ve never heard of. You could spend your finite life reading the best books written in all of human history – or you could spend it watching TV, playing video games, and browsing social media. Time can be well spent, or it can be wasted, but it can never be gained back once it’s gone.

What will you read today?

The Dead Simple Way of Rating Books

If you’re like me, you read a lot of books.

If you’re even more like me, you make things more complicated than they need to be.

Late last year, I got the idea that I needed a more detailed and more objective way of rating books. I had read a lot of books (or at least, I had read more books in two years than the previous decade combined), and was getting to the point where I had rated many books 10/10, 9/10, and so on. I wondered whether I was rating them correctly, whether I was being too critical with some books or too lenient with others.

So I made a more detailed book rating system based on five qualities I think are important for books:

  • Writing Quality
  • Accuracy/Believability/Content
  • Rereading Value
  • Gifting or Recommending Value
  • Longevity

Or… WARGL. A perfect book could earn a max score of 50 points, which then easily translated into a score out of 10 or a 5 star rating.

This was unnecessary – and counterproductive. Even when I quickly rated the book on each quality, I would overthink my own ratings, trying to figure out whether the book was really 7/10 on rereading value, or the slightly higher 8/10. Worse yet, sometimes the resulting final score out of 50 wouldn’t “look right,” and I would start making minor changes to each quality until I was happy with the final score.

I’ve retired this system, and I’m probably not going to make another like it. While you’ll sometimes see professional book reviewers breaking down a book like this, I’m not a professional book reviewer. For most people, a 10 point system or 5 star system works just fine. When you’re done with a book, just think about everything in the book, everything you liked or disliked, and figure out what you think of the book overall. A 10/10 book is one of the greatest books you’ve ever read, and a 1/10 book is one of the worst books you’ve ever read. Every other rating is on a sliding scale between those two points.

You don’t need to make it complicated. You don’t even need to make it objective. This is one of the areas where it’s not only hard to be objective, but the value is mixed at best. Even when you do figure out an “objective” rating for a book, that’s not going to change your feelings about it. You’ll either love it and want to reread it, or you won’t. You’ll either recommend it to your friends and family, or you won’t. Even if a book is “objectively” good according to your rating system, you’ll still feel like you’ve wasted your time if your high expectations weren’t met. Focus less on how you rate books, and more on finding the great books that will change your life.

The moral of the story? K.I.S.S.: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Now, get back to reading!

The Ugly Truth

[Something I want to make very clear: I don’t endorse what I talk about here. I don’t think this is necessarily good, right, or fair. But I do think what I talk about here is true, at least most of the time.]

What is the most powerful way to improve how people treat you? What is the most powerful way to make more friends, date more people, have more career success, and have people treat you nicely wherever you go?

Maybe you should improve your social skills? Social skills are incredibly valuable, and they will improve your interactions with people – but there is an even more powerful way to improve how people treat you, one that allows people with terrible social skills to be treated well.

Maybe you should build and master skills in general? Mastering a skill (especially a popular or admirable skill) will earn respect from many people – but there is an even more powerful way to improve how people treat you, one that allows people with no skills at all to be treated well.

Maybe you should make more money, and have people admire you for your wealth? Money can make you (superficially) more popular – but there is an even more powerful way to improve how people treat you, one that doesn’t require being wealthy (even if being wealthy makes it easier).

Most of these methods are hard. Most of them aren’t fast. But there is a way to improve how people treat you that is incredibly powerful, can be much faster than other ways, and works even if you have little money, bad social skills, or no skills of any kind.

Here’s the ugly truth:

The most powerful way to improve how people treat you is to become more physically attractive.

The Halo Effect

Maybe you’ve heard of the Halo Effect (No, not that Halo. Not that Halo either). It’s a cognitive bias where positive opinions about one area of something tend to lead to positive opinions about other areas of that thing. With people, it means that the more attractive a person is, the more likely the people around them will assume they have other positive qualities.

Based on what I’ve seen, it means that attractive people have advantages in life, in areas that have nothing to do with being attractive.

Attractive people will get more dates – not just due to sex appeal (that part’s obvious), but also due to people assuming they have qualities of a great partner, even thought there’s no reason to believe that.

Attractive people will make more friends – not just from people who value attractive friends or secretly want to date them, but from people assuming they are better people.

Attractive people will be more likely to get a job offer – not just in jobs that require being attractive, but also in jobs that have nothing to do with appearance, due to the employer assuming they are more intelligent or a hard worker. On top of that, jobs that require being attractive will ignore negative qualities to get the most attractive candidate.

Attractive people will have their social skills be less of an issue – to a degree. Attractive people are more likely to be frequently approached by others (women especially, but men too), meaning they’ll meet new people regardless of their actual social skills. Also, attractive people will be forgiven more often for any social mistakes they make.

Attractive people will have their negative qualities forgiven in general. An attractive person can potentially be selfish, unintelligent, bigoted, violent, lazy, or a number of other negative qualities, and there will still be people who want to be around them. Obviously there are limits to how much being attractive will make people forgive your negative qualities – that said, if being attractive can make people ignore the fact that you’re a violent convicted felon, who knows what the limits really are?

What Now?

I want to be clear here: I’m not saying this is fair, or the way things should be – I’m trying to say that this is how it is, without justifying or resenting it. In a perfect world, attractive people wouldn’t be assumed to be more intelligent, hard working, or ethical than less attractive people.

But we don’t live in a perfect world.

If you want to be a high quality person (things like virtue, intelligence, and other merits) you should absolutely become one – just be aware that having your positive qualities recognized will be harder if you’re less attractive. If you’re less attractive, many people will ignore your positive qualities, and may even accentuate your negative qualities due to the Horn Effect (the opposite of the Halo Effect).

Maybe you’re in my boat – not a model or a saint/genius, but you still want to be treated well and have your positive qualities recognized. The way I see it, you have three options:

  1. Keep being less attractive (or just not a model), even if it means people won’t recognize your great qualities as often.
  2. Hope that all humans become enlightened in the near future, overcoming biases like the Halo Effect.
  3. Become more attractive.

The first is what most people do. The second isn’t happening anytime soon. The third is proactive, trying to improve your life rather than reacting or hoping.

I can’t really give advice on being more attractive, beyond generic advice. It’s not that I’m ugly (maybe I am, who knows?), I’m just not an expert. Honestly, you probably have a better idea of what you can do to make yourself more attractive – and which ways of changing your appearance are consistent with your culture or identity.

Again: in a perfect world, being attractive would only matter to a few specific areas, and attractive people wouldn’t be seen as smarter or more ethical just because they look nice. I am NOT saying you should ignore every aspect of your self-development in favor of making yourself more attractive.

I’m saying this: if you become more attractive, life will be easier, and more people will recognize your good qualities more often.

“I want to go home and rethink my life.”

There’s a small scene in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones where Obi-Wan and Anakin are in a club, looking for the bounty hunter Zam Wesell. A drug dealer starts a conversation with Kenobi.

Death Sticks

Dealer: You wanna buy some death sticks?

Kenobi: [Mind Trick] You don’t want to sell me death sticks.

Dealer: I don’t wanna sell you death sticks…

Kenobi: [Mind Trick] You want to go home and rethink your life.

Dealer: I want to go home and rethink my life…

[It turns out that the death stick dealer is named Elan Sleazebaggano. Yes, really.]

It’s a small scene played for laughs. Usually Jedi aren’t supposed to use their force powers on random citizens (even drug dealers), and the Jedi Council probably wouldn’t approve. However, I think it’s worth examining this interaction a little bit, even if it’s just an anti-drug gag in between lightsaber action.

This man’s life has taken a turn for the worse. Whatever potential he had when he was younger, whatever dreams he might have had, it probably wasn’t being a death stick dealer in a seedy club. Who knows what terrible impact he’s had on the people around him – and who knows if he could have been one of the main characters in this story, if a few things had gone differently.

And then he runs into Obi-Wan Kenobi, who uses Jedi mind control on him without a second thought. With a small wave of Kenobi’s hand, the least likely Black Swan, this man has been forced to stop what he’s doing, go home, and rethink his life. Mind control aside, I’ll call that a positive.

Sometimes the world forces you to rethink your life. Sometimes the world gives you the opportunity to do so, and you can choose to take it.

Pandemic and Opportunity

Right now, COVID-19 is sweeping across the world. With billions under shelter-in-place orders, and only the most essential businesses open, life has basically stopped in several countries. People in countries that haven’t stopped completely have had their daily routine dramatically changed.

This is a crisis – and a rare opportunity.

Specifically, this is your opportunity to stop everything you’re doing, stay home, and rethink your life.

  • Who are you, at your core?
  • Are you happy with your career?
  • What kind of impact do you want to have on the world?
  • Are you happy with your relationships?
  • Is there anything you regret not doing, or putting off?
  • What do you want to accomplish in your life?
  • What changes do you know you need to make?

You have the opportunity to ask those questions, come up with some answers, and start walking in a different direction. Everyone is too busy with the pandemic to stop you.

This kind of change is hard, so let me try something to help you get started:

[Hand Wave] You want to stay home, and rethink your life.

Book Review: How to Win Friends and Influence People

If someone has bad social skills, is life easier for them, or harder?

Chances are you said harder. A person can have all kinds of other skills and great qualities – but if they have bad social skills, many people won’t pay attention to their great qualities, or will just avoid them altogether.

“Bad social skills” can mean a lot of things – awkwardness, being self-centered, rudeness, uncontrollable combativeness, etc. There are few careers or paths through life where those qualities help. Maybe they can find a career that doesn’t need social skills – the trouble is that for every career that doesn’t need them, there are nine more that do. I’ve come to believe that improving your own social skills is one of the most helpful things you can do for yourself.

Which brings me to How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.

A Classic for a Reason

Win Friends is one of the best selling self-help books of all time. First published in 1936, it has sold millions of copies over the decades. If you ask anyone who reads lots of self-help books about books to improve social skills, they will almost always mention Win Friends.

It’s a classic for a reason: the principles are timeless, and anyone who wants to improve their social skills should read it.

The title explains the book: How to Win Friends and Influence People. You’ll learn the essential skills for handling people, making people like you, persuading people, and more.

The book has 30 principles for human relations, with what I see as three consistent themes:

  1. Make people feel good. Smile! Give sincere appreciation. Be a good listener. Be understanding, and see things from the other person’s perspective. Be genuinely interested in other people. Make them feel important. And always remember the other person’s name.
  2. Avoid making people feel bad. Begin in a friendly way. Avoid arguments at all cost. Never embarrass someone, and always allow them to save their pride. If a person makes a mistake, make it seem easy to fix. And above all, never criticize, condemn, or complain.
  3. Be indirect wherever possible. Ask questions rather than giving orders. Talk in terms of other people’s interests. Admit your mistakes easily, and talk about other’s mistakes indirectly. Let the other person think the idea is theirs, and let them do most of the talking.

If you’re like most people, you’ll read these principles and remember all of the times you broke them (I certainly did!). Even better, you’ll make plans to stop breaking them.

That doesn’t mean it will be easy. These principles are hard to master – however, time spent doing so will pay you back a thousand fold in business, and in life.

Using the Principles

I’m going to acknowledge that many people criticize this book – some people say that the principles are only for manipulators, that sometimes you need open honesty rather than politeness, or that the robber barons (Scwab, Rockefeller, etc.) don’t deserve the praise that Dale Carnegie expresses for them. Many of the critics make interesting points, and other reviewers address these critiques well. I do address one important criticism at the end of this review.

The most important thing to realize about Win Friends is that these principles are tools – tools that can be used in all kinds of ways. Used at their best, you can use Win Friends to be a better friend, partner, and neighbor. You could use these principles with the mindset “I like this person, and want to treat them well.” That’s going to include things like being a good listener, and seeing things from their perspective. When you like someone, all of these principles are principles of how to be a good friend.

On the other hand, let’s be honest: Win Friends was written with executives, businessmen, and salespeople in mind. Warren Buffet credits much of his success to the teachings of Dale Carnegie. Win Friends has special advice for people in business, and anyone else trying to win a promotion or promote their career should pay attention.

It’s also possible to use these principles for awful purposes. If someone sets their mind to it, these principles can be used to manipulate, abuse, and harm untold numbers of people. Charles Manson also credits much of his “success” to the teachings of Dale Carnegie – who knows how many master manipulators also say the same?

Use these principles well, and use them ethically – towards others, and towards yourself.

A Final Caution

I believe these principles are incredibly valuable – however, there is a possible downside. It’s possible someone could follow these principles, and end up becoming overly agreeable in the process, or developing a weak sense of self – something that most people don’t want happening to them.

If you’re reading this, we probably value many of the same things: ethics, rationality, self-esteem, and being an excellent judge of character. We all want to win friends – does that mean tolerating unethical people, or people who are bad for you? We all want to influence people – how can we do it without forgetting who we are or what we believe? How can we follow these principles, while allowing for necessary rejection: rejection of people who don’t meet our ethical standards, and rejection from being open and honest about who we are?

Let me be clear: wanting to improve your social skills, win friends, and influence people? All good things! Just don’t forget your most important values in the process.

I recommend reading this book in the spirit of an old saying: “Learn the rules like a pro, so that you can break them like an artist.” Learn the principles of this book, and apply them everywhere you can – so that you break them if a higher reason demands it.

4 out of 5 stars. You can read more about this book on Amazon.

Writing Consistently No Matter What

The point of a blog is to create. Produce. Write. I talked about this a little bit in the Intro, but I’m not very good at writing consistently.

Barriers to Writing

Procrastination. Perfectionism. Writer’s Block. Disorganization. I’ve encountered my fair share of barriers to writing. I’m still trying to overcome those, and I bet I’ll encounter more in the future. None of them are fun. And I know there are even more barriers to writing – like deep poverty – that I haven’t experienced, but I’d rather not add them to the list if I can avoid them.

I’m trying not to approach this blog with some ambitious goal at the moment, but it’s hard not to imagine the grander possibilities of what a blog can lead to: millions of readers. Book deals. International fame and fortune. Groupies.

None of that happens if you don’t write consistently, and build up your skill as a writer. Even if you do build up your skill as a writer, that’s no guarantee that writing a blog will lead to fortune or fame. Or groupies.

The Goal of Writing Consistently

Like I said in the Intro, this blog doesn’t have any grand ambitious goals right now, only a few modest goals:

  1. Write.
  2. Write consistently.
  3. Write about whatever is interesting or important right now.
  4. Write in order to clearly communicate what I think and believe.

If anything big or important develops from that, fantastic. If I only build up writing skill, and apply it to something else, awesome. And even if the ultimate path I take through life doesn’t involve writing in any way, at least I’ll take some time to figure out (in detail!) what I think and believe.

The most important thing to do, no matter the outcome, is to write consistently.

As much as possible.

Everyday, if possible.

That’s hard. Really hard. In The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, he calls all of the barriers to writing, and all of the barriers to creativity, Resistance. It comes in many forms, and if you want to produce good work, you need to find the methods of defeating it.

Advice for Myself on How to Write Consistently

I’m not an expert on writing, or productivity. Take any advice I give with a grain of salt. But right now, as I’m in the beginning stages of this blog, I’ve tried to come up with advice for myself on how to write consistently:

Set a writing schedule for finishing each piece or section of writing. Stick to it as much as possible. Right now I’m trying to always post something on this blog three times a week. As my own ability as a writer grows (and I find ways of fitting more writing into the day), I want to increase that.

Figure out when to write, and not just when to finish. People are productive at different times, and you may need to experiment to find when (and under what conditions) you’re most productive. To be honest, I’m writing this section very early in the morning. I’m not a morning person, but somehow I’ve written more in the past hour than I did the entire day before. Writing productively, or doing anything productively, can be tricky to figure out.

Have multiple projects that you’re working on at any time. If you just have one, and encounter writer’s block for that single project, you’ll get nothing done. But if you have multiple projects, you can just work on something else whenever writer’s block happens. I have no problem having multiple projects, since I…

Have lots of ideas to work with. Lots of ideas. Have dedicated brainstorming sessions. Choose the best ideas. If you have too many ideas, either stop brainstorming as much, or figure out a way to sort your ideas by quality and priority. Let’s just say I have no problem coming up with ideas.

Focus on quantity until you get quality. The writing advice I’ve heard again and again is that you need to write a million bad words to become a great writer. A million. At 500 words a page, that’s 2000 pages. If you wrote 1000 words everyday, consistently, it would take you nearly 3 years to get to a million words. Sometimes it’s not exactly a million words, or there’s ways of cutting the number down. But for now, it’s the number I’m going to strive for until I have reason not to.

Don’t worry if your first pieces of writing suck. Chances are they will suck. A lot. But you’ll get better. And over time, you’ll produce so much work that no one will even want to read your early writing. Not only will no one care about your early writing, but chances are the works people love will be the ones you’d never expect. Which is why I’m trying to…

Write about multiple topics. At least until you find the one topic that gives you the most bang for your buck. Write about different things. Write about what’s on your mind. Write about current events. Write the worst short story ever. Write a book review for a book you love. Write about things you would never usually write about to expand your writing ability. And then once you have the one topic or one kind of writing that has the most potential, write everything you possibly can about that.

There’s lots of other writing advice I could come up with. If any of this advice is misguided, I can’t tell you which – but that’s what I’m starting with. Only time will tell if that’s enough to write consistently.