A More Detailed Way of Rating Books

I’m updating my list of short book reviews – it’s slow going, but it’s coming along.

Normally when I finish reading a book, I’ve been rating it out of 10, and then turning that into a 5 star rating for Goodreads. After rating so many books with similar ratings, I’ve concluded that I need to make a more detailed rating system to be a little more objective about rating books. The rating system I’ve made has 5 categories I consider important in books, with 50 total points, and is easily converted to a 5 star rating.


Writing Quality: Is it written well? How often did you put it down, and was it for positive or negative reasons?

  • 0 – The editor had a heart attack
  • 3 – Difficult to get through
  • 5 – Could be better, could be worse
  • 7 – Pretty well written
  • 10 – I couldn’t put it down or didn’t want to stop

Good writing is subjective, but important. Some books have great reasons to read them despite being badly written, but bad writing gets in the way of enjoyment or learning.

Accuracy/Believability/Content: How accurate, usable, or revolutionary is the information? Or how accurate is the book’s setting? How believable is the information – is it too good to be true? Or how believable are the story and characters?

  • 0 – Complete bullshit/What story? What characters?
  • 3 – A lot of misinformation/stretching my suspension of disbelief
  • 5 – Some information could be better/the story could be worse
  • 7 – Learned a few new things/pretty good story
  • 10 – Revolutionary book that changed my life/one of the greatest stories in human literature

A good book isn’t just written well, the content is also amazing. It should teach you something useful, the information should be true, or the story should be brilliant.

Rereading: Do I want to reread this? If this is a reread, has it changed how I feel about the book?

  • 0 – Don’t mention this book to me ever again
  • 3 – I’d rather not reread this
  • 5 – I could reread this if I’m bored
  • 7 – There’s some value in rereading this
  • 10 – I’m going to reread this multiple times in my life

Good books aren’t just read once; the best books get read more than a dozen times. Each reading should teach something different or give a new perspective.

Gifting or Recommending: If an open-minded person with an interest in the genre/topic was looking for their next book, would you gift or recommend this? If the book is controversial or the author is disliked, is there a reason people should read it anyway?

  • 0 – I wouldn’t give this to my worst enemy
  • 3 – It would be better if they read something else
  • 5 – Maybe I’d recommend it, maybe not
  • 7 – I’d consider giving/recommending it
  • 10 – I would be proud to give it to them, and if they’ve already read it I want them to read it again

If a book is really good, I want to recommend it to people – and I want to give the best books to people I care about most, to enrich their lives. If I can’t do that, it’s a problem.

Longevity: Will this book be readable, useful, or interesting to readers in the future? Would it be better for them to read a different book in the same genre/topic?

  • 0 – Dead on arrival
  • 3 – Already has huge issues, and will only get worse in the coming years
  • 5 – A handful of issues, but future readers will still get something out of it
  • 7 – Maybe there’s an issue or two, but still good/useful for the foreseeable future
  • 10 – Timeless, a book people will read/have read for centuries without issue

Every book carries a risk of becoming outdated, or of showing off the ignorance of the times. The best books are timeless, and will be read long after the author has died.


There’s still plenty of room for personal opinion – the point is to make my ratings a little more objective, not spend hours judging punctuation or fact-checking the whole book.

Terrible books will still get a handful of points, and really good books will lose a few points unless they’re perfect – both are better than just saying “That was great/terrible!”

Has anyone done something like this before? Probably, but most people don’t. Then again, most people don’t read as much as I do, and don’t need to be be that detailed.

Changing My Writing Style

I went to college for six years.

The first two years were in high school, taking community college classes to complete a high school degree. The next two years were as a regular community college student, exploring my options for university. The last two years were as a university student.

During that time, I had to write a lot of essays. Some were very good – others not as good. What united most of them was that they were very long.

Academic writing usually prioritizes length, with page and word requirements. Sometimes this is reasonable or necessary, forcing the student to prove they fully understand the topic. Often this isn’t reasonable or necessary – the student is asked to write in 1000 words what could be said in 100, and in 20 pages what could be said in one or two. The length means that something was said, but not necessarily that anything important was said.

Academic writing also emphasizes technical vocabulary – jargon. This is also sometimes reasonable or necessary, since difficult subjects can be hard to talk about otherwise. Often this isn’t reasonable or necessary, creating confusion in the reader, and hiding a lack of understanding from the author.

As you can guess, I’m changing my writing style to avoid length and jargon from now on. Looking back on some of the things I’ve written on this blog in the past, some of them could be half as long and twice as clear. If something can be clearly said in fewer words, I’ll try to do so. If something can be said with simpler words, I’ll replace them.

What does this look like? As an example, it looks like something George Orwell wrote called Politics and the English Language. In the essay Orwell lays out his 6 rules for good writing:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Basically: the opposite of academic writing.

There’s also a tweet thread by Naval Ravikant, about How to Get Rich (without getting lucky). Rather than write a long book, he tweets out about 40 simple principles for getting rich. Also: no jargon.

It’s not just about essays: I’m also going to go over my list of reviews – I call them “short reviews” but most of them are still too long. I’m going rewrite all of them to be less than 50 words – with writing that short, every word counts.

For most writing, being clear and understood is more important than length or jargon. Universities will tell you otherwise.

I’m sure this will take practice to get right.

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.

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.

Final Thought on the June Debates – Why Were There No Candidate Introductions?

Here’s something that’s been bothering me, and the more that I think about it the more it bothers me.

About a week ago, the first round of 2020 Democratic debates were held, featuring 20 different candidates. Even for political junkies, this is a lot of new faces and platforms to keep track of.

So why were there no candidate introductions? You would think that at the first debates, the one thing you would want to do is make sure the audience, at bare minimum, has an even minor idea of who all of these people are.

I’m sure if asked the DNC/MSNBC would have some reason for this (10 people on stage means you want to spend more time on the issues!), but one consequence is likely: the candidates who needed introductions the least (Warren, Sanders, Biden, Harris) are more likely to stay ahead, while unknowns (Yang, Inslee, Swalwell, de Blasio) are more likely to stay behind.

The cynical part of me says that this was an intentional move to thin the field early, forcing the unknowns to drop in favor of focusing on better known candidates. The more realistic part of me says that this was a mere oversight from the DNC/MSNBC, which were freaking out about how to talk about political issues with 10 people in a mere two hours.

Either way, I hope the coming July debates do a better job of introducing the candidates to the audience, especially since so many people are only tuning into the horse race right around now.

Thoughts on the First Round of 2020 Democratic Debates

After many months of anticipation, it’s finally time for the 2020 presidential debates. Since every Democrat and their mom is running for President to challenge Donald Trump (and the DNC doesn’t want face accusations of playing favorites like they faced in 2016), 20 different candidates met the debate criteria to make it into the first round of Democratic primary debates, set across two nights. I watched both debates, and I’ve decided that I’ll give my thoughts while it’s still relevant.

¡Hablamos Español! Several candidates “spontaneously” decided to speak Spanish – most infamously, Beto O’Rourke decided to answer a question about a possible 70% tax rate with 50% Spanish, spawning a meme from the other candidate’s reactions. Cory Booker also spoke Spanish during Night 1, Pete Buttigieg on Night 2, and Julian Castro spoke a little Spanish during his Night 1 closing statement (which implied to me that he has nothing to prove about his Spanish fluency). I can’t fault a person saying that Democrats are pandering to Hispanics, because it sure looks that way.

There are too many candidates. With 20 candidates, and 10 candidates in each debate, it can be challenging just to keep track of who each candidate is, let alone their proposed policies. Even at a length of two hours per debate, it’s difficult for a candidate to fully describe what they believe. The most successful candidates were either those willing to interrupt others, or were able to use the subject at hand to manufacture a moment where they could speak longer than 60 seconds (more on that later). The least successful candidates were those who were polite, those who had complex ideas that take longer than 60 seconds to explain, and anyone who couldn’t find a way to jump into the conversation (more on that later too).

There are several zombie candidates. Not literal zombies though (that would have been more entertaining). The reason a record 20 candidates qualified for this first round of debates is because the DNC set relatively low debate qualifications – 65,000 unique donors OR 1% in three qualifying polls. Even with those lowish standards, several legitimate candidates (Steve Bullock, Mike Gravel, Wayne Messam, Seth Moulton, and Joe Sestak) still didn’t qualify – meaning their campaigns are pretty much dead in the water. If you couldn’t even make it into the first debate, what are the chances that you’ll make it into later debates, let alone become the nominee? While this is bad news for all of them, this is especially bad news for Governor Bullock of Montana – he’s one of a handful of Democratic governors of red states, who has a case to make for how Democrats can win in red states (and win back blue/purple states that were essential to Donald Trump winning).

Several candidates have better alternatives. Disregarding the candidates who didn’t make it into the debates, there are several candidates who are most likely not going to make it past the second debate next month. Michael Bennet, John Delaney, and John Hickenlooper are some form of centrist or moderate who probably would have made good candidates 20 years ago – in 2020 they have no chance. If you’re looking for a centrist or a moderate, you’re probably already supporting Amy Klobuchar or Joe Biden. Frankly, Bennet and Delaney aren’t very interesting compared to the other cast of characters, and Hickenlooper is interesting in ways that don’t help him.

Eric Swalwell had a somewhat memorable moment where he quoted Joe Biden at the 1988 DNC about “passing the torch” to a new generation – but I don’t know how much that will help him. Swalwell is trying to make himself out as the face of that inspiring new generation, but Pete Buttigieg is a year younger than Swalwell, has a more interesting background, and is polling much better than him.

O’Rourke and Ryan are both going to suffer in the polls. Beto O’Rourke got pummeled. First he was challenged by Bill de Blasio about whether it’s worth keeping the private health insurance system in *any* form when it doesn’t work for millions of people. Then, he was challenged by Julian Castro on immigration law, and came out looking like he hadn’t done his homework (literally a phrase from Castro). Commentary I saw after the debate suggested that Castro specifically went after his fellow-Texan in order to try to improve his chance of winning the Texas primary, while de Blasio was just trying to get airtime from what I can tell.

Tim Ryan was challenged by Tulsi Gabbard about the idea that America needs to be “engaged” in Afghanistan, and during the argument Ryan accidentally said (or looked like he said) that the Taliban attacked the U.S. on 9/11. Commentary I saw afterward suggested that this played very well with the anti-war crowd. Time will tell whether Gabbard’s star will rise while Ryan’s falls.

The candidates I wanted to hear from the most ending up speaking the least. Gov. Jay Inslee – my home state governor – has dedicated his entire career to fighting climate change, and is running a campaign dedicated to the same. Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is running for President to enact Universal Basic Income and prepare the U.S. for the ongoing effects of automation/A.I. (and several other futuristic problems). Unfortunately, Inslee only spoke for 5 minutes, and Yang for 3 minutes, making them the least heard from candidates in both nights. Some of that comes from temperament – Washingtonians are what you’d call “laid back,” and Yang is probably the most introverted guy up there – but there’s also a brewing conspiracy that Yang’s microphone was off for much of the debate.

“That little girl was me.” I think it’s undeniable that the biggest moment of either debate came from Kamala Harris’ indictment of Joe Biden. Whether you thought it was a vulnerable and emotional moment from Harris (which it sure sounded like), or a calculated move on Harris’ part to steal black voters from Biden (which it probably also was), it received the biggest reaction both during and after the debate. This will probably go down in presidential debate history, even if neither Harris or Biden become president.

Who won the debate(s)? Elizabeth Warren had the best performance on Night 1, with Cory Booker and Julian Castro also performing well. Pete Buttigieg on Night 2 had a few memorable moments that will either improve or maintain his place in the polls. Clearly the candidate who will gain the most is Kamala Harris for challenging Biden on race – this isn’t the death of Biden’s campaign like some commenters have exclaimed, but the general consensus is that Harris hurt him. Early polls suggest that Harris drew blood and has nearly doubled her support.

A meme icon is born. Oh my God. I was not going to write something about this debate without talking about Marianne Williamson. Everything about her is incredible. The inexplicable mid-Atlantic accent. The tirade against plans. Calling the Prime Minister of New Zealand. The closing statement about the power of love that sounds like something out of Sailor Moon. The jokes write themselves. Of course, there are those who say that the more you make fun a candidate, the more likely they are to become president.

It’s going to be an interesting 12 months.

24 Life Lessons from the Past Year (and a Half)

It’s safe to say that the past year and a half has been some of the most eventful months of my life. I paid off my student loan debt in full. I began an intensive course of self-education. I quit my job. I’m planning to start a business by the end of the year, or at the very beginning of next year.

During this time I’ve reflected on past events in my life and done some self-examination – both by choice, and out of necessity. I’ve done a lot of reading, in an attempt to do all of the above. I’m doing even more reading in the future.

This isn’t every lesson from the past 18 months, but I’ve tried to pull together the most interesting/significant ones. Some of these lessons reflect my own actions, actions of someone towards me, or are simply based on observing other people. Some of these are relatively minor lessons, others are major themes that have a lot to unpack. I’ve tried to be concise wherever I can – each lesson will be true or false regardless of whether you know the full backstory behind it.

A final note: these life lessons reflect my outlook right now, at 23. I’m sure some of these principles will have been revised in future years.

24 Life Lessons

Every day, every interaction, and every person carries the possibility of a life lesson.

But only if you’re willing to learn.

This is one of the major things I pulled out of Principles: Life and Work by Ray Dalio. I don’t agree with him on everything (let alone any other author), but I value a lot of the same things he does: Embrace reality. Be radically open-minded. Pursue meaningful work and meaningful relationships. Debate a person’s ideas on merit, not just on status.

Most importantly: Pain + Reflection = Progress.

We all have goals, and we all have strategies for achieving those goals. Sometimes, those strategies don’t work, and we fail. This failure is likely to be painful and frustrating – in response, we can feel sorry for ourselves, or we can learn from our failures. We can reflect on what went wrong, and figure out a better strategy for achieving our goals.

Every failure and setback holds the possibility of a life lesson. But I say it’s not just failures we can learn from – every interaction, and every person we encounter, has the possibility of holding a life lesson. The key is to be open to whatever life has to teach you, and have enough humility to know that you don’t know everything (and never will).

People will limit themselves according to roles and stories they came up with years (or decades) ago.

Most people have stories in their heads about who they are, what they’re capable of, and most importantly, what they’re allowed to do. “I’m just a mom, I could never start a business.” “I’m an artist, I don’t need to vote.” “I’m a scientist, why would I support the arts?” “I’m not a reader, and books aren’t for me.” “I’m a nerd, and women aren’t attracted to nerds.” “All of the richest people are [group I’m not a part of], it’s impossible for someone like me to be successful.”

People made these stories years or even decades ago, often in early childhood. These beliefs might have made sense at the time, if they ever made sense at all. They’re how the person has made sense of the world, and they’ll have a hard time believing or doing anything that contradicts these stories.

When dealing with another person, and you want to persuade them to your point of view or tell them about your ideas, you can’t just talk to them logically – you need to work with, or work around, their stories.

When dealing with yourself, you need to ask – what are my stories? What are the roles and self-concepts I’ve had for years, and are they limiting my growth as a human being? When did I decide what I was and wasn’t allowed to do? What trauma have I been holding onto?

Unresolved trauma is the greatest barrier to open-mindedness and concern for others.

People can have a shocking amount of trauma in their past – trauma that feeds their stories. This trauma can, depending on the severity, influence everything they say and do. Under certain circumstances, a person with unresolved trauma will lash out at the people around them, in an effort to protect themselves from threats (real and perceived). They become incapable of understanding complex ideas, or caring about the challenges facing other people, due to the self-protection that their trauma demands. Talking logically to someone in the middle of trauma isn’t possible, their trauma is causing them too much pain.

When a person reliving their trauma lashes out, this can range from something minor like insulting you, to something far more serious like threatening you with violence. The episode passes – the memory of their behavior doesn’t pass so easily. They may want empathy or understanding – that’s the easy part. But any amount of understanding you provide won’t make their behavior ethically justified, or make their trauma-based arguments logically justified.

There is a difference between something being understandable, and that same thing being justified.

An action or attitude being understandable is a matter of empathy. That action or attitude being justified is a matter of ethics or logic.

It’s understandable that you flipped someone off on the highway for cutting you off – that doesn’t make it justified. It’s understandable that you distrust or hate [large group of people] because individuals from that group bullied, harassed, or discriminated against you – that doesn’t make it justified. It’s understandable that after your breakup you think all women are cheating whores, or all men are abusive misogynists – that doesn’t make it justified. It’s understandable that you lost your temper at someone and called them names – that doesn’t make it justified. It’s understandable that something reminded you of a past trauma, you lost control of yourself, and threatened someone with violence – that doesn’t make it justified.

When people do unethical things, it’s possible to be empathetic and understanding – we’re all human beings, and we all make mistakes. But if a person does something unethical, it will remain unethical no matter how many “understandable” reasons they have for it. We all have reasons for our poor behavior – it’s a question of whether we will rise above the temptation to do unethical things, and instead do the things we would want to do as our ideal selves.

But in the end: there are a lot of people in the world who are going to behave unethically. Deal with it. Make a plan, and move on.

A bad plan is better than no plan.

This is something that was going through my mind when I started this blog, and it’s something that was further reinforced by reading Zero to One by Peter Thiel.

Just start. Whatever it is you want to do, whatever your ambition is, just start. Make the best possible plan that you can, and only abandon it once it’s clear that the situation has radically changed – if you can’t make the best possible plan, a bad plan is better than no plan. Whatever things that could go wrong with your venture, you can deal with it – mistakes can be fixed, skills can be learned, and methods can be changed.

If you fail, you can figure out what went wrong with your plan and try again. If you fail, but don’t have a plan to reevaluate, you know why you failed.

If you don’t have time, you don’t have priorities.

Or put another way: if you want to know what your priorities are, look at what you’re spending the most time on.

Every human being has the same 24 hours in the day – and unless you work 18 hour days, you probably have at least some control over how you spend your time. You can choose to educate yourself. You can choose to watch TV. You can choose to exercise. You can choose to play video games. You can choose to plan for the future. You can choose to watch anime. You can choose to volunteer your time. You can choose to smoke weed and go clubbing. Most of these aren’t either/or – you can do some or all of these things, prioritizing a mix of things that you know will (mostly) improve your life, or things that will (mostly) waste it. Even if you’re tired at the end of the day and can’t focus on anything “difficult,” you can still choose a better option – such as watching podcasts or educational interviews rather than game shows.

You can choose your priorities, and act in ways that fulfill them… or make daily choices that aren’t as good, and have your priorities revealed to you.

The choice is yours.

You can have anything you want – but not everything you want.

All ambition requires discipline and sacrifice.

Having ambitions and goals is the easy part. Anyone can write down goals, or think up a big ambition that will take years to accomplish. You can literally dream up millions of goals, and choose to pursue any of them.

But you can’t pursue them all.

On a smaller level, in every moment you have a million possible actions you can take, to pursue any of the million possible goals.

But you can’t choose them all.

If you want to do anything – at least, anything that matters – you need to prioritize. You need to make some hard choices about what you’re going to do, or not do. You need to have the discipline necessary to avoid making choices you know are bad for you. In order to have the freedom to make the choices that are actually important, you need to sacrifice every other choice that is limiting you.

Choosing weakness and hedonism is easy. Ambition, virtue, strength of character – all of these things are hard, and require intentionally limiting the things that you know will distract and destroy you.

You’re free to do anything – but you can’t do everything.

Leaders are readers – literally.

It doesn’t take long to realize that many of the most intelligent and successful people you’ve ever heard of are voracious readers.

Elon Musk learned rocket science from textbooks, and spent his childhood reading sci-fi books for ten hours a day. Oprah Winfrey escaped poverty in part through the power of reading. Alexander Hamilton was a voracious reader as a child, and used his literacy to escape the Caribbean island of Nevis where he was born. Napoleon Bonaparte was also a voracious reader, especially of warfare and military history – that put him on the path to conquering Europe. Barack Obama was a prolific reader in his 20s, and even while President still read more books a year than most people read in several. Warren Buffett is a famously voracious reader, to the point where people claim that he reads 500 pages a day. Bill Gates spends his vacations reading books, and is widely claimed to read 50 books a year. Mark Cuban reads for three hours a day. Tony Robbins read 700 books on human psychology at the start of his career.

Obviously, not every leader is a dedicated bibliophile – Genghis Khan was an illiterate barbarian who nearly conquered the planet. I’m going to say he’s the exception to the rule – leaders are readers.

One of the most destructive things you can do to someone is convince them it would be a bad idea to have children.

Note the wording here: it’s not about telling them to not have children, or making them unable to have children, or persuading a person that there are benefits to being child-free. I’m talking about a person being convinced that they wouldn’t be able to give a child a good life, or that the future is bleak enough that their future children would inevitably suffer.

Having children is an optimistic act. It’s an act that simultaneously says that the future is good enough that your children will prosper, and (to a lesser degree) that your genes are good enough for your child to have a fighting chance in that prosperous future. And while there are people who genuinely don’t want children, and choose to be child-free, children provide a huge amount of meaning to most people.

Convincing someone that the future would be bleak for their children – whether from poverty, discrimination, or environmental catastrophe – is an inherently pessimistic outlook. When a person becomes convinced that the future is so bad that their hypothetical children would suffer, depression and nihilism become easy. If the future is so bad you shouldn’t have children, what’s the point of anything? What’s the point of doing anything useful or good? Why not just smoke weed and get laid before civilization collapses?

This isn’t a hypothetical concern of mine. I’m the guy who did my final university presentation on human extinction – and I’m an optimist compared to many of my peers! My generation is being told that either we’ll be too poor to support our future children, or climate change will get so bad it might be unethical to reproduce either way. In addition to my regular worries about the future, I’m very worried about the effect that a generation/multiple generations of depressed and nihilistic people are going to have on America – and the world.

People exist on a spectrum of how likely they will support you, like you, agree with you, or be persuaded by your ideas.

One of the things I learned about in my reading these past 18 months is something called “The Law of Diffusion of Innovations.” For any innovation – any new idea, concept, or technology – it will go through different stages of acceptance with different groups of people, and it is pointless to target the majority before your innovation is widely accepted by the first groups. You might not have heard of the law, or know these groups, but you probably intuitively understand them:

1920px-Diffusion_of_ideas.svg

For any innovation…

2.5% of people are Innovators. They are the ones developing this innovation, and investing the most in its success.

13.5% of people are Early Adopters. They may not be actively developing the innovation, but they are the most excited about it, and will accept huge risks at the beginning that no one else will.

68% of people are either Early Majority or Late Majority. The 34% in the Early Majority are a bit more open-minded, but both groups are highly practical-minded and won’t take risks that Early Adopters would.

The last 16% are Laggards. They don’t like your innovation. They don’t want it. They don’t need it. It scares them. They will either avoid your innovation until it’s risk-free, or oppose your innovation until there’s no other option. (“The only reason these people buy touch tone phones is because you can’t buy rotary phones anymore.” – Simon Sinek)

Different people are in different groups for different areas. Some people are Innovators in technology, but Laggards in fashion. Someone else might be the opposite. The important thing to remember is this: if you’re presenting new ideas to people, or trying to persuade someone to your point of view, you need to be aware of this spectrum. Some people will be in the 10-20% who immediately “get it.” Some people in the majority just need a little convincing to sign on. Others in the majority need to see more popular acceptance.

…and then there is 10-20% of the population who will never accept your ideas, or not for a very long time. Don’t focus your efforts on these people at all, let alone the majority. Focus on that 10-20% who immediately understand you, and who will do far more to convince the majority then you probably could by yourself.

It’s not enough to be nice, honest, and ethical – you need to be high-status and powerful.

I have been living my life under a delusion.

I have been living under the delusion that the only things I needed to be concerned about were being a good person – being an ethical person, an honest person, and a person who acts ethically toward others regardless of their status/power. I’ve been living under the delusion that I could ignore things like social intelligence, power dynamics, and status games while still achieving my goals.

When put like that, it really does sound delusional. How in the world did I maintain this delusion for so long? I’m not sure – I think part of the issue is that for a very long time, I’ve been searching for some sub-culture or group where petty status/power games aren’t played. I could then join this group, and work with them to create a world where people are judged by their merits and ethics, rather than their status and power.

Humans, for all of their “civilized” tendencies, are still fundamentally cavemen playing tribal power games. The vast majority of people are very concerned about their status – and saying that you don’t care is itself an incredible power move.

While there are a few kinds of people that claim to either not care or be actively opposed to status/power games, there are four major ones:

  1. Highly developed moral individuals, who have taken incredible efforts to resist status/power concerns and treat people ethically regardless of status. The only reason you hear about them is because oftentimes these people are already high-status, and can afford to lose a little status if their principles require it. This group is very rare (I’d love to claim I’m part of this group, but I’m really not – not yet anyway).
  2. High-status people who aren’t primarily motivated by ethics, but are playing the status/power game. Not only can they afford to lose a little status by behaving ethically towards low-status people, but they do it in such a way that they actually gain status by being seen as ethical. This group is fairly common.
  3. Autistic people who reject status/power games because they don’t understand them to begin with. This group is somewhat common.
  4. Low-status people whose only chance at gaining resources/power/etc. is either (claiming) to be against power hierarchies in general, or by specifically opposing power hierarchies they find themselves at the bottom of. If they can, this group will replace current power hierarchies with ones where they are at the top. This group is extremely common.

I want to be an ethical person. I want to live by my principles, and create a better world for all people regardless of race and nation. But changing anything in the world requires working with other people (social intelligence), and requires that people consider you important enough to listen to (power/status). You need to know how things like social intelligence, power, status, and social hierarchies work in order to get anything done.

That doesn’t mean becoming an amoral power-seeker in the name of your goals. If anything, I say it means becoming a moral power-seeker in the name of your goals, in whatever ways that’s possible.

Arguments aren’t about ideas for most people – they are about status.

I’ve been aware of this, but it became clearer this year. The vast majority of people are not evaluating arguments or ideas based on their logical merit – they are evaluating them based mostly on the status of the person arguing for the idea. Most people will happily ignore the arguments of “low-status” people, even if understanding that person’s argument would give them a more accurate picture of reality. In fact, I’ve come to believe that most people don’t want an accurate picture of reality if it would require associating themselves with the arguments and ideas of a lower-status person – that would lower their own status, and status is more important than truth.

By status, I don’t just mean social respect, money, celebrity, etc. I also mean group status. Most people have a list of groups or identities that they are a part of, and a running list of arguments that they must support to continue being a part of those groups or identities. Most people also have a list of low-status groups in their mind, whose ideas and arguments are to be systematically condescended to, rejected, or ignored. This list of groups is different for every person – it might mean religious people, atheists, black people, white people, liberals, conservatives. It won’t necessarily help if someone of a higher-status group then supports that same idea or argument – the argument has already been “tainted” by the low-status group, and the high-status person will have had their status lowered for supporting the low-status idea.

What’s the revelation here? This isn’t a problem specific to one group of people. This isn’t a problem specific to any race, gender, religious group, political group, or economic class. This is a human problem. No matter what argument you have, and no matter what group you’re sharing your ideas with, you will run into this problem over and over. Having the right ideas is half the battle – the other half is persuading people that accepting your ideas either won’t lower their status, or persuading them that accepting your ideas is more important than their status concerns.

Since most arguments are about status rather than ideas…

Most arguments aren’t worth it.

You need to pick your battles.

There are a lot of things people can potentially disagree about. Every word someone says has a potential premise to argue about, and every action has an implicit justification. There are people who literally spend every hour of every day arguing with the people around them. Some do it because they’re fundamentally disagreeable people, some do it for sport.

Whatever your reasons for wanting to argue, they probably aren’t worth it. By all means, disagree and argue, especially about the important things – but if you do disagree with someone, you need to be prepared for the consequences. Disagreement carries inherent risks, ranging from dislike to outright violence – some people are that close-minded, or find disagreement that traumatic. While there are ways of mitigating the risks of disagreement – persuasion, diplomacy, the skills of winning friends and influencing people – the risk never truly goes away.

Most arguments aren’t worth it, especially if you’re not skilled in persuasion, your status isn’t high enough in their eyes, or the other person isn’t skilled in open-mindedness. Most arguments aren’t that important, having marginally positive effects at best, and radically negative effects quite frequently.

If you’re going to argue, you need to pick your battles, fight them carefully, and only argue with people you can productively argue with. Many people are too closed-minded to productively argue with – similarly, many people find disagreement too traumatic, or don’t have the tools that philosophers (professional arguers) use to argue productively.

…and that’s if the person doesn’t believe that Philosophy, logic, science, or epistemology are conspiracies to serve the powerful. Or something.

On the other hand, there is a case for not going with the flow…

Don’t be popular – be controversial.

This was a recurring theme in a lot of the books I’ve read these past months.

The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss talks a lot about something called the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 Principle – 80% of one thing is often caused by 20% of something else (80% of sales come from 20% of customers, 80% of peas come from 20% of pea pods, etc.). Sometimes the number is 90/10, sometimes it’s 75/25. The point is: the majority of your results come from the minority of your efforts.

Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss introduced me to the idea of “1000 True Fans” – to be an individual success, you don’t need everyone to like what you’re selling. Instead, you need a small group of dedicated fans who absolutely LOVE you, and are willing to purchase anything you produce.

Models: Attract Women Through Honesty by Mark Manson describes how the most attractive men don’t fall into the pickup-artist fantasy of trying to be attractive to all women. Instead, they express themselves authentically and honestly to the point of being controversial; they don’t attract all women, but are extremely attractive to the minority of women that they’re most compatible with.

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder introduced something similar from the opposite angle. Women on dating sites who get the most attention (not to mention dates and sex) aren’t those who are universally attractive and appealing. Instead it’s women who have massive disagreement over how attractive they are – she’ll have a rating of 3/5 or even 2/5, because the consensus is split between men who absolutely HATE her and men who absolutely LOVE her (and therefore send her lots of messages). (“Beauty is looks you can never forget. A face should jolt, not soothe.” – John Waters)

Zero to One by Peter Thiel talks about a lot of things, but spends some time on founders of startups, and other people who create innovative things. They tend to have extreme personalities, extreme traits, and tend to get extreme reactions from people (think about Elon Musk, or Steve Jobs). We need founders – and we need to be tolerant of just how extreme and controversial they can be.

Most people want to be popular – but being successful often requires being controversial, in action or belief. It can require being disliked, even hated, by large groups of people. In return, you have the possibility of receiving support and loyalty from people who love what you’re offering – regardless of the the people who hate you.

Besides, boring people have never changed the world.

Getting upset is natural – and pointless.

Things are going to go wrong. People will accuse you of things that are unfair, don’t make sense, are clearly projection, and more. Your life will change, sometimes for the worse. People will reveal that they are not the person you originally became friends or partners with. Your plans will sometimes not work out. People will be unreasonable or act in unethical ways. You will sometimes fail. People will leave your life through no fault of your own. “Black swans” and other disasters will happen far more often than you think you deserve. People will reject you, or insult you, or misunderstand you (sometimes intentionally). One day you might wake up, look at your life, and say “This isn’t what I wanted! I’m entitled to more!”

Get over it.

Getting upset over setbacks in life is completely natural – but getting upset over any of these things will not improve the situation. In fact, it will most likely make things worse. Stop. Look forward rather than behind. Make a plan to improve your situation. At the very least, don’t make it worse. Stay calm, cool, and collected. The world might be trying to destroy you, but your emotions will strike the final blow.

Empathy can be bad, and selfishness can be good.

I wrote a few essays related to this topic this year.

Obviously there are huge benefits from empathy, and huge drawbacks from selfishness. You know them just as well as I do. But the downsides of empathy and upsides of selfishness need to be acknowledged.

There are lots of people looking to hijack your empathy; they want to use your empathy, your concern for others, and your ethical principles for their own benefit. They don’t need to lie about their problems – just use them in a way that benefits them at the expense of you and your family. After gaining your empathy, the next step is to gain your agreeableness – your support, loyalty, and resources they wouldn’t be able to gain otherwise.

These people are not victims, even if they pose as one. They are vampires, looking to drain you (or people close to you) of everything you value. At best they are people without integrity, demanding your empathy and offering none in return…

…while finding creative ways to justify exploiting you.

Help those who need your aid. Help those with integrity, who will treat you with the same kindness you have given them. Help those who will work with you to create a better world for both of you.

Don’t give sociopaths and abusers an inch – they will take a mile. Don’t enable them. Recognize that although people like this might be identical to people who genuinely need help – due to trauma, discrimination, or injustice – abusers deserve nothing. Exploiters deserve nothing. Sociopaths deserve nothing.

Look out for your own well being. Take care of yourself, and those closest to you. Recognize that your ability to help others is dependent on your ability to help yourself. Train yourself, and improve your skills. Put on your own oxygen mask first.

In the face of a world filled with people looking to drain you dry, you need to be selfish – at least partially. Selfishness, even more than empathy, is a double-edged sword. Selfishness has motivated acts of destruction the world over – but also motivates incredible acts of creation. What unites these contradictions is that selfishness, at its root, is about prioritizing your vision of the world over someone else’s – even if that world is simply you getting the parking space at the mall.

Selfishness as a drive for creation is incredibly good – many billions of people have been helped by those who prioritized their visions of the world over others. They didn’t need to have pro-social motives either – just the desire to see their innovation, their technology, or their ideas in the hands of more people than someone else’s innovations or ideas. There’s a saying I picked up sometime in the past 18 months: If you want to make a billion dollars, solve a problem for a billion people.

The key to persuasion is describing your views in ways the person already agrees with.

Chances are that there a dozen ways you can describe one of your beliefs – some will come more naturally to you than others. Some of the descriptions will give you a ping! of good feelings. “Yeah! That sounds right to me!” Others will be technically correct, but you’d never be convinced by that, let alone choose to emphasize that.

But people are different from you. They have different priorities. They have different backgrounds. They have different beliefs. You need to match your ideas to the person as much as you can without outright lying. Don’t lie – but be smart about it. State your ideas in the context of things they already believe, things they already value, or ideas they already understand. You’ll have a much easier time persuading people than if you just used the arguments that convinced you.

People will resent you if you’re late to arrive, or late to deliver.

“Calvin Coolidge once said that nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent; I would add that the second most common is smart people who think their IQ or resume justifies delivering late.” – Tim Ferriss

I need to get this quote engraved on a plaque or something.

There is a difference between playing the game and winning.

When attempting to do anything with one winner, don’t do it to “compete.”

You’re not here to compete. You’re here to win.

You’re not here to fight. You’re here to win.

You’re not here to “do your best.” You’re here to win.

Not every competition has one winner. For those that do, recognize the objective. Don’t fight. Don’t compete. Don’t play. Don’t try.

You’re here to win.

Making enemies is easier than making friends.

Making friends, influencing people, gaining cooperation – these things are essential for doing anything requiring multiple people, and each of them is hard. They often require careful thought, patience, keeping your emotions in check, working with people who might (initially) disagree with or even hate you, and avoiding saying things that will make the other person dislike you (especially if they have no reason to dislike you at first).

Making enemies is easy – especially if there is already some preexisting difference to build animosity off of. Insult the person – especially their intelligence, but just about anything else will do. Insult the group they are a part of, and do it repeatedly. Vocalize your mistrust of them, especially due to the group they are a part of. Use guilt by association to blame them for actions they did not commit, or actions that cannot possibly be their fault. Use your own feelings of insecurity (psychological, financial, or physical) to justify making them feel unsafe. Stereotype them, and find creative ways of justifying your stereotyping. Accuse them of various kinds of unethical behavior, and then hypocritically engage in those same behaviors towards them. Reject their attempts at friendliness and cooperation due to your own insecurities, prejudices, and stereotypes. Hold them (and any groups they are a part of) to a much higher standard than you would ever hold yourself (or your own group) to. Be unwilling or unable to recognize your own mistakes. Blame the other person for their mistakes in your interactions, while taking little-to-no responsibility for your own mistakes. Regularly forgive yourself (or people similar to you) for mistakes that you would never forgive in this other person. Declare them your enemy. Threaten them with violence. So on and so forth.

The above isn’t based on any one person – it’s based on far too many examples of people I’ve observed over the past year or so. When you see this kind of behavior, don’t model it. Don’t use it to justify your own poor behavior. Respond appropriately to however people treat you, but aim to be a better person than them. Take the high road, if the high right still exists in the future.

If you don’t have anything nice to say…

…you have a couple options.

Don’t say it at all (the safe and polite option). Say it as a question (the implied option, might come across as merely curious, might come across as passive-aggressive). Say it indirectly (the socially intelligent option, good for making them think the critique is their idea, but this depends on the person). Or bite the bullet, say it directly (the option that implies you’re either principled-but-foolish, or powerful/confident enough to not have to care about the consequences).

Each carries risks, and each says something different about you.

The most important things take the longest to build.

This applies to many things: writing books, starting a company, building a lasting relationship. These things take time. You need patience. You need a long-term vision. You need to be willing to put off short-term rewards, even if it doesn’t seem worthwhile.

But it is worthwhile. Every human being has the potential to build something that will not only last a lifetime, but in some cases last far beyond their lifetime. Earlier I talked about the view of founders in Zero to One, who are often extreme, bizarre, controversial figures who end up changing the world.

Maybe you’re not an extreme, bizarre, controversial person. But every human being (unless they’re in the deepest poverty or the bottom 15% of intelligence) has the potential to be a founder of something. Maybe you’ll found a company, or a school, or a new way of looking at the world. Or maybe you’ll found something in your community that will outlive you. Or maybe you’ll just found an excellent, loving relationship with an amazing human being.

Don’t just passively consume the products of others. Go be founder. Try to create something. Build something. Make the world reflect your vision, even just a tiny bit.

Maintain a sense of humor.

Laugh. Embrace absurdity. Find the irony in the situation. If you don’t, especially in the face of all of life’s twists and turns, you’re going to have a rough time dealing with life.

Keep a journal.

This is more of a revelation from the past days and weeks that I’ve been putting together this essay. While I was writing this, I looked through things I’ve posted on social media, book notes I’ve written, and reflected on some of the major events over the past 18 months. However, making this post would have been far easier if I had a central place where I had written reflections on what has happened and what I’ve learned. Therefore: start a journal, and write in it regularly. Reflect on the things you’ve learned, the problems you’re facing, your goals, and everything else.

It’s safe to say that I’ve learned a lot these past 18 months. It’s also safe to say it’s time to close this chapter of my life.

I wonder what I’ll learn in the next chapter?

Aligning Your Internal Values – Empathy, Selfishness, and the Future

[Previous: Turning Inward – Politics, Empathy, Selfishness, and Human Destiny]

The easiest way to go through life is to not have any values. Instead of having guiding principles that limit your possible actions to the best ones, you just do “whatever” or let someone else decide for you.

The harder thing is to have values and principles – but they can end up being conflicting, or you’re not sure how to follow all of them. You end up feeling pulled in different directions, act like a hypocrite, have double standards for yourself (and your friends) vs everyone else, and other similar things.

The hardest thing of all is to have values and principles – but then, actually sit down and figure out how to align all of your different values in the same direction.

For myself, one of the things I’ve been trying to figure out for nearly a year now is how to deal with the conflicting motives of self-interest vs altruism – selfishness vs empathy.

Empathy, as far as I’m concerned, is about understanding. It’s the mental process that humans use to understand one another, and when turned inwards, to understand yourself. You’re trying to imagine what it would be like to have the thoughts and feelings of another person, to relate to them, relate to their experiences, to put yourself in their shoes and briefly experience what those shoes feel like. It’s what leads to altruism, and helping others.

But it’s clear that empathy has limits, and can be abused. It’s clear that there are a lot of people who demand empathy from the world, while offering none in return. They find ways (mostly unintentionally, sometimes intentional) of making you relate to them, their negative experiences, even their trauma – which they then use to justify a simple narrative of them vs huge groups of “enemies.” Of course, if they had any empathy for these “enemies,” they’d find that many of them aren’t enemies at all (they might even be trying to solve the same problems that you are), and even when they are enemies, have been pushed by historical events (and failures of human nature common in all of us) towards them becoming your “enemy.”

Selfishness seems obvious – it’s putting the self, and self-interest, first. But more than being about self-interest, I’d say that selfishness and creation are heavily linked. What do I mean by creation? I don’t mean when you’re working for someone else “creating” what they tell you to. That’s working on someone else’s vision, which is quite the opposite of selfishness. But if you have a vision of the world, a vision so compelling that you have to alter the world towards your vision – that is selfish. You’re putting a priority on your own idea of what the world should look like, rather than someone else’s. The world is changed and made better (or worse) by visionary people placing a priority on their own visions.

The drawbacks of selfishness are more obvious. Refusing aid to those who need it. Refusing to cooperate with others, even if together you’d build something even more self-benefiting than you could build alone. Selfishness plays a part in the outlook that your interests and the interests of another person (or group) are fundamentally in conflict, leading to conflict and often violence.

Empathy is basically good. It’s what allows two different people or groups, who on paper have nothing in common, to work together for something bigger than themselves. The problem isn’t necessarily empathy. The problem is that there are a lot of people who demand empathy for themselves and people like them, while offering no empathy in return. The problem isn’t empathy – the problem is that these people are hypocrites who wouldn’t understand integrity if it threw a beer mug in their face.

It’s easy to call selfishness bad (unless you’re a huge Ayn Rand fan). The downsides of selfishness are easy to name. That said, if selfishness is evil, it’s a necessary evil – or even neutral. Selfishness, and the drive to benefit yourself, is what has pushed many thousands of history’s greatest figures to accomplish their amazing feats – they wanted fame, glory, wealth, and status for themselves.

But really, selfishness and empathy aren’t necessarily in conflict. With work, they can be aligned in the same direction.

There are lots of problems out there – problems that inspire a person to try and change them, help people, make the world a better place. Concern for others exists on a scale of lots of concern to almost none, and unless you’ve been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, is normal. The trouble comes, especially if you’re a person particularly motivated by helping people, is that if you help people too much, you won’t have enough of what you need to support yourself.

There is a saying though: if you want to make a billion dollars, solve a problem for a billion people.

Everyone has at least a little self-interest – things you want, and want only for yourself. Power, fame, wealth, love, admiration, and so on. Wanting these things isn’t bad, and I’d say it’s completely natural. That said, no one cares what you want. They care about what they want. Everyone is leading their own little lives, with their own personal goals and desires, and most of the time don’t have time to worry about anyone else unless someone else’s interests conflict with theirs.

The thing is: if you tell people about a goal and they believe that you completing the goal will help them, they won’t just like your goal – they will actively support your goal. If you have the right goal, work for it in the right ways, and tell enough people who want you to have that, achieving the goal becomes a whole lot easier. Having a selfish goal that other people love is how you make sure you don’t end up working alone – when isolation is so ineffective, even dangerous.

Wanting to help people is easy, and completely normal. Wanting to bend the world to your will, even in small ways, is completely normal. What isn’t normal is finding a way of bending the world to your will in ways that end up helping other people. Aligning these values, of wanting to help others, and wanting to help yourself, can be hard. It can be so hard that it’s tempting to give up entirely and just go live a life of hedonism – anime, video games, smoking pot, going clubbing, whatever floats your boat – all to ignore both the problems of the world, and your hardest to achieve desires.

But if you do align them, that’s how you become powerful or influential enough to help the most people. That’s how you benefit yourself the most, with people actively trying to help you achieve your goals.

That’s how you build a legacy – something that will last, and keep making an impact, far after you are gone.

You’ll have built a legacy for yourself – and you won’t have to do it alone.

The Descendant’s List – What it is and How to Make One

When most people read books, they don’t bother reviewing the book. When they do, they might talk about what they liked or disliked, and give a number out of five or ten for how much they liked it.

When I review books, I’m not just reviewing the overall quality; I’m also looking at whether the book would fit onto a hypothetical list. I’m calling it the Descendant’s List.

What is a Descendant’s List? Why should you make one? How do you make one? I’ll be answering these questions and more.

What is a Descendant’s List?

A Descendant’s List is a list of books that, in your opinion, form the best and most important resources for success in life. Reading these books (especially these books, rather than the alternatives) would give the reader the essential resources for success in as many fields as possible. Whatever their goal in life is – billionaire, Olympian, Nobel laureate, President of the United States, bestselling author, or anything else – reading these books would lead whoever reads them to an increased chance of success.

Whenever I finish a book, I ask myself question:

If I created a list of the 100 most useful books of all time, and my descendants read that list to have the greatest possible chance of success in life, would this book be on that list?

This isn’t just a list of “books you like” – if it was, it would only be books you gave 5 stars to (and sometimes, the best book available on a topic isn’t perfect). It’s not just a list of good books either – for any subject, there are lots of good books, while this list is for the best possible book on the subject. And it’s not just a list of books that are useful right now – the future is uncertain, and a book that’s useful today might be outdated or even useless tomorrow.

The key thing about the books that appear on this hypothetical list is that they will be useful for your descendants. They will be useful for your children, and their children, and their children. Including a book on this list implies that it’s not just useful now, but you predict it will be useful for multiple generations into the future. You’re not just trying to help yourself (though you obviously should) – you’re also trying to help your children, grandchildren, and other descendants.

And because you’re trying to help your descendants, it’s especially important for this list to not just be books that you like. You have no idea what your descendants will be like, what problems they’ll run into, what their ambitions will be, and so on. That said, you can make some educated guesses, based on 1. your predictions for the future, 2. common experiences most people have, 3. problems that people from your culture/background face. The more a book deals with one or more of these areas, the more helpful it will be to your descendants.

Why 100 books? The number is honestly pretty arbitrary – you could make arguments for a very exclusive list (25 or less), or for a more expansive list of every good book a person should read in their lifetime (250? 500? 1000?). But 100 has some advantages – it’s large enough to include a moderate number of extremely good books, while also being small enough to force a choice about whether the book you’re reading is not just good, but one of the most important books of all time.

Why should I make a Descendant’s List?

I’ve come to believe the following: while there is specific knowledge about how to succeed in specific areas, there is a body of knowledge, skills, and mindsets that enable success in all areas of life.

If you wanted to go full-on Napoleon Hill, you’d say that there was a philosophy of success. I’m not saying that. But I am saying that there are certain ideas or mindsets that won’t just enable a person to be successful at one field, but enable them to be successful at multiple fields or any field. Better yet, those ideas would enable two different people, with very different goals, to both achieve success in completely different areas of life.

So, assuming this is at all the case, how would you learn this body of knowledge, skills, and mindsets?

My answer is pretty obvious: Books. Lots of books. But which books? Out of the literal millions of books that have been published, which books are most likely to teach you these essential ideas, skills, and mindsets?

How do you make a Descendant’s List?

The first step is the unstated one: Read. Read lots of books. Read as much as you can. Read to expand your mind, expand your skills, and expand your life.

But again, which books should you choose to read?

Part of my answer comes from one of the best books I read in 2018: Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers by Tim Ferriss. Tools of Titans is made from the interviews Tim Ferriss has done with over a hundred mega-successful people (such as billionaires, icons, and world-class performers…). One of the questions he asks is “What book have you gifted most to others, and why?,” creating this huge list of books.

What’s the big deal about a list of books? The big deal is that 1. the people Tim Ferriss interviews are the best of the best from wildly different fields (sports, politics, academia, entertainment, etc.), and 2. many of these books get recommended multiple times, by different people – implying that they’re useful across fields.

That’s one place to start – but don’t just stop there. Look at the books recommended by other successful people. Start creating a mega-list of books to read. The more often a book gets recommended, the more likely that it’s an essential book to read.

You’ll end up with a huge list of books to read, possibly 1000 or more (if you’re like me, several thousand). But you don’t have to read all of them. Over the years, you’ll get a better sense of which books are actually helpful, and which ones aren’t. And also over time, you’ll pick out the most essential books that aren’t just good for you to read, but also good for your descendants.

What does a finished Descendant’s List look like? I don’t know. Many people throughout history have made recommended book lists – but as far as I can tell, a “Descendant’s List” specifically is an original concept created by me, and I just started the quest to make it last year. It takes a lifetime to make, constantly adjusting it as you go.

But creating this list doesn’t end with picking the 100th book. That’s the beginning. The next step is the one taken by the descendants this list is gifted to.

Let’s say that I successfully make this list. I give this list of books to my children, along with me giving these books credit for my success in life. Assuming I have a moderate or even high amount of success (and assuming my children are as curious as I am), they read these books earlier than I did, such as in their teenage and college years. If I’ve chosen correctly, these books will also lead them to a moderate or high level of success in their chosen fields.

Further, if my children are anything like me, they won’t just stop reading with those 100 books – they’ll read more books, including books from two groups I will logically never be able to include in my original list: 1. books that I didn’t read yet, and 2. books that haven’t been published yet. They’ll take the least useful or most outdated books from my original list, remove them, and include even better books in their place. Over time, each of my descendants will make improvements on my list to make their own Descendant’s List – which they will give to their children, who if they’re anything like their parents, will also improve on the list they were given.

That’s an optimistic scenario – I give my original list to each of my children, and they each make an individual improved Descendant’s List to give to their children, who repeat the process. This ends up creating many varied lists, each claiming to be the list of 100 most essential books.

The Collaborative List

But there’s an even better scenario, one that’s even more optimistic – but possible with the right incentives.

I give my original list to my children, who then read the books on the list – my children then start exploring which books are even better that they can add. But rather than each of my children making their own improvements, they come together to make a single list that they improve together. They democratically decide which current book on the list is least useful or most outdated, and then vote on what book to include in its place. The idea would be to do this slowly – maybe once a year, and only one book a year – keeping the list at at total of 100 books.

Books that get voted off or almost included aren’t just forgotten. Instead, the voted off or almost include books get put on an extended list (“Extended List”) of books that almost made it, noting why they’re not on the main list (voted off and when, how many votes they received short of the required number, so on). Over time the main list evolves slowly, to prevent any malevolent descendant from ruining the list. The extended list is used not only as a record, but also as list of suggestions for which books could be included in the future (or re-included if a book was removed by mistake).

Further, as the number of descendants grows, they bring their own priorities and knowledge about the modern life to this decision process. For example, while my immediate children might be determined to include Tools of Titans on the list, my grandchildren might decide that the book isn’t that useful anymore, instead wanting to include Human-Android Communication or something else suitably futuristic. The list improves with each generation – and with each version of the list, the chance that the reader will be successful at life grows with it.

Closing Thoughts

This is a difficult idea to make work. There are multiple points of failure, even before the collaborative list idea. I’ve never heard of anyone else doing anything like this (at least publicly), and I can’t be sure if it’s because it’s completely new… or because it’s hard to make it work. Whatever the answer is, I’m going to attempt it – not just for my own success, but for the success of every single one of my future descendants.

Turning Inward – Politics, Empathy, Selfishness, and Human Destiny

[Previous: Becoming a Political Indepenent in the Age of Trump]

In light of the recent Kavanaugh slow motion train wreck hearings, this might be incredibly poorly timed.

When I was fifteen years old, I was in a state of radical open-mindedness. I was in a position where all of my previous beliefs had proven to be false or incomplete, I was reading from multiple conflicting thinkers, examining my own motivations, and looking for ways to improve myself.

Over time, this attitude faded. I accepted one ideology or another, and lowered my priority on self-examination and self-improvement. I went to college, I made friends, I observed the political movements around me and tried to make sense of them.

I’m at a crossroads in my life, and I believe I need to adopt an attitude similar to the one I had at fifteen – hopefully without the emotional volatility of puberty or the risk of being quickly seduced by an ideology. I’ve come to a couple of realizations over the past year or so – about politics, life, and my own motivations, and I’m going to need that attitude of skeptical open-mindedness and concern for self-improvement to get anywhere.

Politics

I’ve said something about this in the political independent essay, but over time I’ve had a realization. I’ve come to the realization that many (if not most) people aren’t advocating for their ideologies or policies out of the pure goodness of their heart, let alone from disinterested careful examination of reality. You’ll also find more dubious or primal motivators: resentment, disgust, fear, embarrassment, pride, and other feelings or biases that most people are smart enough to hide. Alongside those motivators is the king of motivators: pure unadulterated self-interest, whether in the form of self-preservation, maintaining current power/privilege, and support for your tribe (and therefore, yourself).

This isn’t limited to the left or right. The current political climate is full of attacks on the left and left-leaners as being motivated by identity politics and political correctness – supporting policies and laws based on how good they are for specific groups (along lines of race/class/gender etc.), and then shaming anyone who bring up inconvenient facts or alternative policies as wrong. From the perspective of those bringing up unpopular facts/policies, they got rejected not for being wrong, but for being politically incorrect.

Yet as far as I can tell, these exact forces of identity politics and political correctness also exist on the right. In the current political climate, you’ll observe people on the alt-right publicly taking on the mantle of white identity politics, advocating for what they believe are the interests of white people.

Less obviously then that, it’s possible to interpret gun rights activists as those whose identities are centered on being a gun owner (which I don’t mean as an attack on gun owners or gun rights activists). Obviously not every gun owner makes it a part of their identity, but those who do most strongly will join the National Rifle Association, and vote against any politician who isn’t sufficiently opposed to gun restrictions (even if they agree with them on every other issue). So it goes with every other group, to the point where it’s hard to draw the line between “identity politics” and “interest group.”

And if you think conservatives are immune to political correctness, consider how difficult it would be for a modern American conservative to be honestly and publicly concerned about climate change (or any other environmental issue) without being suspected of being a secret liberal. You only have to go back a decade to observe current Republicans talk openly about believing in climate change and the need to do something about it – you don’t see that anymore.

I know. I realize that these probably aren’t radical ideas, and at least one person reading this is rolling their eyes, saying “Wow, look at the top quality galaxy-brain-meme thinking from this guy!” Alternatively, this probably stinks of BOTH-PARTIES-ARE-THE-SAME-WHATABOUTISM that tries to conflate the flaws of both parties, and justify apathy or inaction. But you have to admit: tribalism, and tribal epistemology run rampant in the current American political climate.

Questions

But when all of this comes together – that almost everyone has ulterior motives for their political beliefs, and most people are being influenced by their tribe to support certain people or reject certain ideas – I have to question large parts of my life that may have gone differently if I had realized this earlier.

What ideas have I supported because they were good ideas, and which ones did I support because they were popular at my school?

What groups did I declare my support or allegiance for out of ethics, and which ones were because those groups were the ones my peer group or generation supported?

What ideas, books, schools of thought, or people have I rejected not because those things were wrong, but because my political tribe rejected those things?

Worst of all, I suddenly have to ask a question I really don’t want to ask. I’ve spent about 75% of my political development on the left, in one form or another. On quick reflection, one of the biggest motivators I’ve had for my liberal and left-leaning beliefs has been a sense of empathy and compassion for those in need. But in this moment where I’m questioning the motives of myself and others, I have to ask:

What have I believed because it was true or good… and what have I believed because someone hijacked my empathy?

It sounds like a bizarre question, and I don’t like asking it. I don’t like considering the possibility that someone manipulated me into believing something or supporting something that I otherwise wouldn’t have – even unintentionally, even if the goal or belief itself is noble. I don’t like the idea that I’ve been manipulated to ignore toxic people and ideas on the left, or label any uncomfortable realities as toxic only because the current available solutions to those realities are toxic solutions.

I don’t like being manipulated. I don’t like being lied to, exploited, or influenced to do something I wouldn’t normally do. I don’t know if any of those things have happened during my time on the political left (or currently, for that matter), but if they have, that’s unacceptable – and it’s a possibility I can’t ignore.

A Turn Inward

“Okay, you’re wondering how many of your previous beliefs were your own rather than being influenced into having them, what are you going to do about it? You already said you recently became a political independent, what else are you going to do?”

I’m making an intentional decision to turn inward, and focus on myself for the foreseeable future.

There are a lot of problems in society, and problems in the world. Problems that haven’t been solved because they require complex solutions, or the cooperation of large numbers of people who wouldn’t normally cooperate. Meanwhile, I’ve got my own set of personal problems, faults, weaknesses, and obstacles towards making the world look more like I would like it to look.

How am I supposed to solve the world’s problems, when I can’t even solve my own?

I’m going to focus on understanding myself, and improving my competency as a human being. I’m going to focus on understanding my motivations, my goals, my desires, and my overall psychology. I’m going to focus on improving my skills, improving my health, improving my thinking/decision-making, and improving my overall quality of life as a human being. I’m going to ask “What would it look like if I got everything I need, everything I want, and everything that would be good for me?”

In short, I’m going to be selfish (at least more than I consciously was).

However, as they say: no man is an island. It’s hard to ask what you want for yourself without also stating what you want for the world. It’s hard to understand yourself as a human without understanding humans in general. So I’m also focused on increasing my knowledge about reality, about humans, about society, and about the world at large.

While doing this, I’m prioritizing psychological health over ideological purity, and prioritizing knowledge about reality over social approval. If someone tells me that it’s unacceptable to have a certain belief, then that’s the belief I need to explore. If someone tells me that listening to a toxic person will make me toxic, I’m going to listen to them regardless. If someone tells me that reading a certain book will make me an evil person, then that’s the book I need to read.

In short, becoming a better man is the priority. Everything else is secondary. Any distractions from my own improvement are unacceptable, as are any obstacles to getting the knowledge and perspective that I need.

“Okay, so you’re becoming a better man, but whose side are you on? Are you on my side? Are you on the side of the people who hate me?”

None of the above. I’m on my side.

“You can’t stay neutral on a moving train!”

I’m aware of that. I’m trying to figure out 1. How do I make myself the best train-mover possible? 2. Why is the train moving in the direction it’s going? 3. Where do I want the train to move instead?

Regardless, even as I explore new ideas and taboo ideologies, there is one belief that I doubt is going to change: my belief in the importance of preventing human extinction. It should go without saying that you can’t improve your life if you’re dead, you can’t improve your family’s lives if they are dead, and you can’t improve your society’s political situation if your society no longer exists.

I say that, knowing full well that it’s not enough to just want to avoid complete disaster. When the bar is that low, any outcome is acceptable, even extremely negative futures.

With that in mind, if I wish to avert disasters, I must be capable of averting disasters. If I wish to fix the problems outside of myself, I must fix any and all problems within myself. If I want to believe the best (or least flawed) ideas, I need to be aware of the full spectrum of ideas, and why people support them.

But first: I need to bring home the bacon for myself.