Best Books of 2015

I read a lot, at least a book a week, and get asked for recommendations. Rather than continuing to respond privately to emails, I have semi-regularly posted my recommendations here. Below are my favorite reads from 2015, not in any particular order.  For anyone looking to read just one book, I would recommend The Fish That Ate the Whale.

The Fish That Ate the Whale – Rich Cohen

One of the best biographies I’ve ever read, Cohen weaves together the incredible story of Sam Zemmuray, a penniless Russian immigrant who became one of the richest men in the world, the history of the banana, the history and politics of Central America, WWII, and more. Starting as a banana peddler, Zemmuray transformed the fruit business, toppled governments, and changed the course of Central American history. This is a slice of history you’ve never heard before, a business course, and a dramatic story all rolled into one.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger – Marc Levinson

This might sound dry, but it’s a fascinating history of global shipping and how the simple and now-ubiquitous shipping container changed the world. Not only did containerization reduce the cost of shipping by roughly 95%, it directly led to the crushing of many of America’s unions, decimated established port cities (like Brooklyn), and transformed formerly backwater areas like Oakland, CA and the New Jersey ports on the Hudson. It also led directly to the modern global economy. Highly recommend this one.

Shadow Divers – Robert Kurson

This is narrative non-fiction at its finest.  Kurson tells the story of John Chatterton and Richie Kohler’s 1991 discovery of a sunken U-boat just 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey and the subsequent six-year investigation to determine exactly which boat it was. This one also might sound dry, but it’s actually a harrowing tale.  Scuba technology in 1991 wasn’t exactly great, and trying to navigate the cramped confines of a U-boat, in the dark, 230 feet under water, not only isn’t easy, it proves to be deadly on more than one occasion.

Pirate Hunters – Robert Kurson

Honestly, Shadow Divers was so good I immediately had to read the follow up. This time Chatterton is in the Dominican Republic, searching for a sunken pirate ship loaded with treasure.  Like its predecessor, this one is heavy on history and interesting characters (this time of the English navy, the golden age of piracy, and the Caribbean), but it also features some pretty wild adventures in the modern DR, complete with bandits and gun battles. I found this one more fun than Shadow Divers.

The Power of Full Engagement – Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz

“Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance.” So if you focus on managing your energy better, your productivity (and happiness, and overall wellbeing) will increase. This book shows you how.

When I Stop Talking, You’ll Know I’m Dead – Jerry Weintraub

This isn’t a great book in the traditional sense.  Instead, its a great collection of almost-unbelievable and usually hilarious stories from the man who discovered John Denver, essentially created the industry of nationwide stadium concert tours, promoted tours for Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Led Zeppelin, and the Beach Boys, and eventually became a Hollywood studio head and producer of films including The Karate Kid and the Ocean’s 11 trilogy. More than just fun, reading about how a poor, small Jewish kid from the Bronx turned himself into one of the most powerful people in Hollywood is pretty inspiring.

10% Happier – Dan Harris

Partly a recounting of how a news anchor’s on-air panic attack led him to investigate and ultimately start practicing meditation, and partly an investigation of how everyone from CEOs to U.S. Marines have begun to use mediation, 10% happier is a wonderfully compelling argument for why you should start meditating.  As Harris’ title suggests, just a few minutes of regular mediation each day didn’t revolutionize his life, but it did make him 10% happier.  If you’re already meditating, you can definitely skip this.  If not, you should definitely read it.

In the Kingdom of Ice – Hampton Sides

Endurance, the story of Shackleton’s unbelievable escape from the Antarctic ice is one of the most unbelievable tales of survival I’ve ever heard. In the Kingdom of Ice tells the story of the USS Jeannette’s hunt for the North Pole, which is undoubtedly an even more brutal ordeal than that faced by Shackleton’s crew. The first half of the book can be slow, as there’s a lot of time spent on characters that aren’t central to the story, but there’s a lot of interesting information about life in the late 1800s (e.g. When the ship left port in 1879, no one had any idea what was at the North Pole; Many thought there was a warm polar sea and a garden of eden beyond the ice).  Even if this doesn’t sound interesting, the central story is so good that the book is worth the full read.

The Dog Stars – Peter Heller

My favorite piece of fiction that I read last year, this is a post-apocalyptic tale unlike any I had read before. Instead of zombies or aliens or a hellish atomic wasteland, Heller tells the story of three companions trying to survive in a quiet, beautiful world only sometimes punctuated by violence. Similar to McCarthy’s The Road, but far less brutal and depressing, Heller’s story feels like what might actually happen if a pandemic wiped out most of the human race and you and some clever friends were trying to survive.

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Momentum Creates the Ability to Seize Opportunity

Keep yourself as busy as possible.  Good opportunities are going to come up along side you.  It’s a lot easier to steer into one when you’re already moving than it is to try to catch up to one when you’re stationary.

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Showing Up

As you go through life, you’ll meet the people who have it all figured out. The girl who, in 8th grade, starting taking zoology classes at the local junior college because she knew she wanted to be a Giraffe veterinarian. The kid who practiced the clarinet for 8 hours a day since 3rd grade, not because his parents made him, but because he loved it and knew he wanted to be in the New York Philharmonic.  The college freshman with a 20-year plan to become a senator. The guy in the next cubicle who has mapped out every step to become the next CEO.

This can be debilitatingly intimidating. It can make you feel like a failure just because you don’t have your entire life planned out. But the truth is, almost nobody knows what they want to do with their life. Even fewer people have any idea what steps they should take to accomplish their goals. So how do successful people end up being successful, without having some grand plan for their lives?

Successful People Show Up

Woody Allen said 80% of success is showing up ( This never really made sense to me. Doesn’t everyone show up? Well, no. They don’t.

At the most basic level, some people never show up at all. They don’t show up for school. They take dead end jobs. They lose those jobs, or get stuck in them, because they literally fail to show up for work. If you’re reading this, you’re hopefully beyond this.

But a lot of intelligent, educated people still aren’t showing up in the way Woody Allen meant. They’re taking “gap years” and traveling the world. They’re taking jobs as bartenders and waitresses, while they “figure out what their passion is” or what they “really want to do with their lives.” These people look like they’re having WAY more fun. They post photos of themselves on the beach at noon on a Tuesday.

Why is this a problem? What’s wrong with taking some time to “find yourself” or figure out what you want to do with your life? First, it’s ass-backwards since it assumes your “true self” or your “passion” is out there in the world somewhere, just waiting to be found. (It’s not.)

Second, this is the exact worst time to not show up. The most important time to show up is when you don’t know what the fuck is going on. Nobody that’s graduating from Harvard and Yale knows what the fuck is going on. They’re just as scared and clueless as you are. The difference is, they look around and say “Well, I don’t know what the fuck is going on. I might as well make some money and learn a skill until I do know what’s going on.” So they take a consulting job. They show up. They earn a living, even though they have no fucking clue what’s going on. But they keep showing up. They might be miserable. They’re probably miserable for a few years. But because they show up every day, they start to figure out what the fuck is going on, and life goes from kinda miserable to kinda great. All because they showed up and did their job.

One of the reasons this isn’t talked about more is because it feels embarrassing. Many people who got successful without planning out their lives feel like their success must have been the result of dumb luck. Their success feels like an accident. But it’s not. They didn’t hit the lottery. They showed up. Even when they had no fucking clue what was going on. Even when it sucked. Even when it looked like their friends were having more fun. They decided to show up, and they kept showing up, until they got good.

So show up. Then, when you get good at something, move on to a new area where you have no idea what the fuck is going on. Keep showing up until until you figure it out and get good. Repeat this over and over, and you are guaranteed to be successful.

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Creating v. Finding

The problem, often not discovered until late in life, is that when you look for things like love, meaning, motivation, it implies they are sitting behind a tree or under a rock. The most successful people recognize, that in life they create their own love, they manufacture their own meaning, they generate their own motivation.

– Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Once you obtain a certain level of success, some people start to act strangely.  They wonder aloud why you’re not content with what you’ve already achieved.  Whether it stems from a desire to see you not get further ahead or something else, they begin see the ambition that got you to this point as a flaw.  Now that you’re at their level, or slightly above, they become angry that you’re not stopping.  That you’re not content.

But there’s a difference between being satisfied and being content.  Satisfaction is about looking behind you and seeing work that you’re proud to have accomplished.  Contentment is about looking forward and seeing nothing that needs doing.  Content people don’t change the world.  They don’t need to.  They’re already content.

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First Principles: Internalization

As a 10 year old, I was barely taller than a washing machine and I weighed less than half as much.  But I was fast, so I played on a competitive soccer team.  Or, more accurately, I played when the bigger, stronger, more skilled kids needed a breather.  Why didn’t I get more playing time?  Obviously, my coach just didn’t like me, I told myself.  I couldn’t even convincingly lie to myself.  Even before my mom gently pointed it out, I knew I wasn’t playing as much as I wanted to because I wasn’t as good and didn’t practice as much as the best kids on the team.  It had nothing to do with my coach, and everything to do with me.  Ouch.  But realizing it was my fault made me practice more.  As a result, I got better and I played more.

Part of developing the mindset that’s crucial for success is learning to internalize rather than externalize.  How many successful people do you know that blame every one of their failures on someone or something else?  None.  Why?  Because it’s impossible to become good at anything by doing so.

Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.  But this is only true if you take the time to learn from your mistakes, which is impossible if you externalize by blaming someone else.  What lesson can you learn if you know that the only reason you don’t get to play more is because your coach doesn’t like you?  Why would you ever work to improve your skills if you really believed that?  You wouldn’t.  You’d think your coach was an asshole and then eventually you’d quit.

Internalizing is difficult.  It stings to admit that you alone are the reason something failed, and to examine what you could have done differently.  It’s much easier to blame.

As a newly admitted attorney, one of the first papers I ever filed with the court was rejected by the clerk.  Why?  BECAUSE THE CLERK WAS A COMPLETE IDIOT!  I did everything right!  Okay, the facts of the case made the papers a little complicated, but they complied with every rule.  Nothing was technically wrong.  So what did I do?  I blamed the clerk, of course!  But then I paused.  Getting pissed off at the clerk isn’t going to solve anything.  Instead, I focused on what I did.  After all, the only way I could gain anything from the experience was by examining what I had control over and internalizing it.  So I thought about it.  I could have called the clerk to ask what she wanted the papers to look like before I submitted them.  I could have included a cover letter, explaining the complicated facts.  I could have done more to avoid the result I got.

Notice that I’m not castigating myself, I’m not judging, I’m not saying I’m a horrible human being or that I’m lazy.  But I am focusing on what I could have done.  I’m turning the experience into something I did (or didn’t do) rather than something that someone did to me.

Forming this habit of internalizing experiences is a painful, ongoing process.  It’s always tempting to blame others.  But habitually internalizing is crucial to success in any field.  There’s simply no way to become skilled at anything without failing, and there’s no way to learn from failure without accepting that the failure was a result of my actions, examining what I could have done differently, and trying something different next time.


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Reading Recommendations – 2014Q1

In school, we read a lot of fiction.  We are instructed to look for similes and metaphors, to search for the hidden meaning in the text, to guess at what the author was really implying or thinking about.  Because of this, even the captivating books can become stifling.  The books that start out that way are almost unbearable.  This is why I quickly stopped reading fiction after high school, instead preferring non-fiction that could teach me something about the world.  That’s a shame though.  As they say, non-fiction can teach you something about the world, and fiction can teach you something about yourself.   Good fiction can do both.   With that in mind, I make a conscious effort to read more fiction.  This quarter, I read two great works of fiction, which prompted me to finally dig into my Africa-related stack of books that had been on my “to-read” list for years.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing

In 1914, with two previous Antarctic expeditions under his belt, Ernest Shackleton, his hand-picked crew, and one stow-away, boarded the Endurance and set sail with hopes to make the first land cross of Antarctica.  Upon arriving on the Antarctic coast, the Endurance was trapped in an ice floe for nearly nine months.  Despite all efforts to free the ship, the ice eventually demolished her, leaving the men with the provisions they could salvage from the ship and three lifeboats.  After a torturous march that yielded almost no progress, Shackleton decided the best course was to set up camp on the ice for three months until conditions improved.  They didn’t.  The ice they built the camp upon broke up, forcing their departure by lifeboat.  The crew traveled to Elephant Island, a brutal piece of land that offered no shelter and no hope of rescue.  Their only chance of survival was for someone to make the 800 mile journey over the most treacherous ocean on Earth in a 22.5 foot long lifeboat.  From here, the story gets even better.  Shackleton’s journey is one of the most insane feats of courage, endurance, navigation, and survival I’ve ever read.  You simply could not be disappointed by this book.

Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Holy shit.  Tarzan is nothing like the Disney portrayal you’ve seen.  Tarzan, orphaned son of an English Lord, is raised by an ape whose baby has just died.  Tarzan’s ape mother protects him from the other apes in the tribe until her own brutal death, just as Tarzan begins to mature.  Despite his comparative lack of strength, Tarzan’s intelligence eventually allows him to slay fearsome jungle predators and dominate his adopted ape family.  When four Englishmen are stranded in Tarzan’s territory after their ship’s crew mutinies, Tarzan learns what it is to be human, helps them escape the jungle, and goes on additional adventures in French Africa, Europe, and America.  Burrough’s work is not only compelling and shockingly almost believable, it is fascinating for its European portrayal of turn of the century Africa, its savages, and its colonizers.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver

A wildly ambitious novel that vividly portrays the Belgian Congo in 1959 due to Kingsolver’s own childhood experiences there.  Told from the alternating perspectives of the wife and four daughters of an oppressive Baptist preacher, this book is absolutely incredible for several hundred pages.  Every aspect of small-village life is explored, from the everyday patter of rain on tin and thatch roofs to the seasonal miles-long columns of driver ants that demolish everything in their path and ford rivers while villagers flee.  Grinding poverty, corruption, and betrayal are juxtaposed with tenderness and generosity.    You will experience the places, know the characters, and actually learn some history in this book.  In contrast to a book like Tarzan, the African voices and experiences are deep and human.

While a good chunk of the book deals with just one year in the pre-revolutionary Belgian Congo, the second half of the book deals with life after the revolution and spreads the characters throughout the Congo, South Africa, and the U.S.  Kingsolver gets a bit political towards the end, but it never takes away from the experience.  The first few chapters are a bit slow, but its worth getting through them.  This book was so good it forced me to finally dive into my pile of books about Africa.

King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild

The perfect follow-up to The Poisonwood Bible, King Leopold’s Ghost explains how the Belgian Congo came into existence, what led to the 1960’s revolution, and how someone like Mobutu turned the richest section of land on the planet into one of the poorest and bloodiest.  It’s a fascinating account of how Leopold transformed himself from an unlikable, petty ruler of a state whose independence was only really recognized to serve as a buffer between Germany and France, into a political force who did anything and everything to get his way.  Obsessed with securing a colony, Leopold let England, France, Portugal, and Germany divvy up the coastal regions that were thought to be more valuable, securing for Belgium a huge swath of land rich in minerals, ivory, and most importantly in the short term, rubber.  Leopold then convinced the Belgium government to turn over the Congo to him personally, making him the unchallenged owner and despot of one of the wealthiest regions on Earth at the time.  His exploitation of the region produced fabulous personal wealth at the cost of millions of native lives, and forever changed the course central Africa.  This is a must read for anyone interested in statecraft, war, 20th century politics and history, or Africa in general.

Into Africa: The Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone by Martin Dugard

By the mid-1800’s, the oceans and the outlines of the continents had been mapped.  The next great geographic mystery lay in the heart of Africa.  This book recounts the expeditions of two of central Africa’s greatest explorers, David Livingstone, a missionary and anti-slavery crusader, and Henry Morton Stanley, an accomplished but ruthless explorer who eventually ended up as the man King Leopold II chose to open up his Congo empire to trade.  Though in most ways the two men couldn’t be more different, they were both consummate explorers who exported a wealth of geographic information back to Europe, including the long-debated source of the Nile.  Thoroughly researched, Dugard manages to make this book a page-turner, especially when detailing the almost incomprehensibly grueling travel across the dark continent.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

The more I learn about Victorian-era central Africa, the more haunting Conrad’s most famous work becomes.  Since I am clearly on an Africa kick, I decided to read Heart of Darkness again.  Though technically fiction, it borrows heavily from Conrad’s experiences, and bases numerous characters (including the famous Kurtz) on officers in Leopold’s Congo.  This is probably the most realistic, and damning, account of life as a trader in the Belgian Congo at that time.

Canoeing the Congo by Phil Harwood

Surprisingly, no one had canoed the length of the Congo, more than 3,000 miles, before Phil Harwood did it in 2008.  The retelling of the journey is fast-paced, interesting, and replete with wildlife, scenery, hardship, and even cannibals.  It gives a great sense of just how little has changed in many parts of the Congo in the last 150 years.

Between Man and Beast by Monte Reel

Paul Du Chaillu, like Stanley, was typical of many 19th century African explorers: unknown background, missing father, poor, and a desire to make something out of himself.  While the west coast of Africa was well explored by the mid 1800’s, Du Chaillu was one of the first westerners to venture into the West African interior.  Du Chaillu gained fame for bringing back the first intact gorilla specimens, which had been little more than myth before.  This book is a bit uneven, devoting as much time to the political squabbling within the Royal Geographic Society about Du Chaillu’s accomplishments as to the actual accomplishments.  Despite this, it’s a good overview of not only some very interesting African exploration, but the European side of the exploration business.

Burton by Byron Farwell

Sir Richard Francis Burton is one of the most interesting people who ever lived.  He was a poet, a swordsman, a troublemaker, a linguist, a diplomat, and, above all, a traveler.  I say “traveler” rather than “explorer” because he wasn’t a scientist at heart, though he did make important geographic discoveries, such as the great Lake Tanganyika in central Africa.  Burton didn’t take detailed measurements and copious notes about everything he came across, like Barth did.  Instead, he learned dozens of languages, ingratiated himself with natives, traveled in disguise for months, and saw sights that no westerner had seen before, like Mecca and Medina.  He also made the first complete translation of The Arabian Nights and The Kama Sutra.  Though never as successful as he should of been due to his stubbornness and his refusal to play by society’s rules, he lived a hell of a life.

A Labyrinth of Kingdoms: 10,000 Miles Through Islamic Africa by Steve Kemper

Heinrich Barth is surely the greatest African explorer you’ve never heard of.  Like Burton, Barth was hardy man who could handle the physical challenges of African travel and was proficient in numerous African and Arab dialects.  Unlike Burton, Barth was a scholar, fascinated by just about everything.  He kept such detailed records that his volumes are considered indispensable by modern scholars.   This book follows Barth on his journey into the Sahara.  As members of his small expedition succumb to death one by one, Barth continues on, covering more than 10,000 miles and reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu.

Diamonds, Gold, and War: The British, the Boers, and the Making of South Africa by Martin Meredith

It’s almost shocking what a young state South Africa is.  Less than two hundred years ago, it was a hodgepodge of British and Boer colonies and African chiefdoms.  Other than having farmable land and being centrally located on the voyage from India to Europe, nobody paid it much attention.  Then a farmer discovered diamonds.  Then gold.  Soon, the region became the richest and most fought over piece of land in centuries.  Diamonds, Gold, and War gives a great overview of the complicated history, and gives enough attention to Cecil Rhodes and his partners that you could read just a third of the book and consider it a good biography.  But the book goes far beyond Rhodes, touching on all sides of the conflicts, spanning decades, and helps the reader understand how the groundwork was laid for apartheid and modern South Africa.

The Heart and the Fist by Eric Greitens

Greitens spent his teens and college years volunteering around the world.  While pursuing his Rhodes scholarship and continuing to do humanitarian work, he finally got frustrated enough at his inability to create lasting change.  So, like loads of other Rhodes scholars, he of course decided to become a Navy SEAL.  Greitens takes us along on his ride, from his travels around the world through his grueling SEAL training.  It’s an inspiring memoir that leaves you understanding why Greitens concluded that sometimes you need to be strong to do good.

Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq’s Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran

In The Heart and the Fist, Navy Seal Eric Greitens gives specific examples of why America’s foreign policy is failing to win friends, despite the money we throw at those we want as allies, and how we could do better.  Chandrasekaran’s account of life inside Iraq’s Green Zone shows that nobody in power is listening to people like Greitens.  This is one of the most frustrating reads I’ve come across because it makes it so clear that things could have been done so much better.  Chandrasekaran’s analysis is basically a blueprint for how not to rebuild a country after invading it.

Stealing the General: The Great Locomotive Chase and the First Medal of Honor by Russell Bonds

In April 1862, a spy/smuggler who sold to both sides led 20 Union soldiers behind Confederate lines in an attempt to steal a locomotive called the General and destroy a critical Confederate supply line.  The plan was mostly a failure: almost the entire party was caught, half were executed, some made daring escapes, and some received America’s First Medal of Honor.  This book reads like a novel, and its amazing that this story isn’t known widely known.


I got in some fun fiction during a ski trip in January, including the highly entertaining Blood Work by Michael Connelly, Dust and Shadow by Lyndsay Faye, a very well done modern mashup of Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, an interesting take on dystopia, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, and a very fun thriller called Brilliance by Marcus Sakey.

I hope you enjoy one or more of these books and that you’ll learn as much as I did.   You’re welcome to email me questions or raise issues for discussion.  If you know of a good book on a related topic, please pass it along.  If one of these books comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.



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First Principles: Mindset

The worst thing my parents ever told me was that I was smart.  When they bought me a toy piano when I was four, my dad tried to teach me to peck out the notes of Mary Had A Little Lamb.  When I couldn’t to do it after about 90 seconds, I didn’t even try to play an instrument for another 10 years, convinced that I just didn’t have the talent to do it.  In first grade, my class wasn’t taught how to do long division. The next year the school put me into the combined second/third grade class.  I was too embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know how to do long division and fell months behind the rest of the class.

I thought if I was smart, that meant I knew the answers, that I was capable.  If I didn’t know the answer or didn’t know how to do something, that was evidence that I wasn’t smart. If I had to put effort into something, it was a sign of my own shortcomings.  Anything that I didn’t know or wasn’t immediately good at was a threat to my identity as a smart kid.  Unsurprisingly, this attitude didn’t make me the most enjoyable kid to be around.

What was my problem?  How did I start to fix it?

Carol Dweck has researched this field more extensively than anyone else during the last 30 years.  While her findings may at first appear simple or even obvious, they are profound and can be life changing.  She has now published a book for the masses, Mindset, which is much easier to digest than her academic papers.  I don’t think I’ve bought more copies or recommended a book more often than this one.  This is an important book that everyone should read.

Fixed Mindset v. Growth Mindset

Dweck’s research has shown that people hold two mindsets, which she terms the “fixed mindset” and the “growth mindset”.  Those with a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence, character, or other abilities are inherent or fixed, and can’t be changed in any meaningful way.  Those with a growth mindset believe their intelligence, character, or other abilities are not inherent or fixed, and can be changed in a meaningful way.

Presented like this, you may think the fixed mindset is silly.  Who really believes that qualities aren’t meaningfully changeable?  As a kid, I did.  Most people do.  And, even though you’re reading this, I bet you do too, at least in some respects.  Most people honestly think they can’t do math, or can’t sing or dance.  Many people think they aren’t creative or can’t make relationships work because they aren’t good with people (or believe relationships that aren’t effortless are somehow broken and should be abandoned).  These are all preposterous ideas that stem from a fixed mindset.  Math, dancing, singing, and interpersonal skills are all learned abilities developed through practice.  Yes, some people are born a bit more coordinated, or have a better ear for tone.  But nobody becomes good at anything, including math, without loads of practice.

Ok, but Dweck’s “fixed mindset” and “growth mindset” idea still doesn’t seem terribly revolutionary, does it?  In some respects, no.  Philosophers have acknowledged for millennia that self-improvement is possible.  But actually identifying these two mindsets is crucial.  If you’ve always assumed intelligence is fixed, or charisma is just something you’re born with, you may have never considered that a subset of the population knows this to be false.  Likewise, if you’ve known your entire life that your characteristics depend on the amount of effort you put into building them, you may have never thought that most of the world simply doesn’t believe that a person’s abilities or characteristics can be changed.  But even more importantly, your mindset profoundly affects how willing you are to work hard, learn, and ultimately succeed and be happy.

Mindset and Motivation

If you believe your qualities are set in stone, you will constantly limit yourself, just like I did as a kid.  My fixed mindset and my self-applied “smart kid” label severely limited me.  The choices I faced became about proving to myself and others that I really was a smart kid.

Dweck’s research shows that children praised for being smart consistently shun challenging activities, instead of choosing easier activities that they know they won’t fail at.  After experiments where kids took IQ tests, the children who were told they were smart consistently lied about their scores, reporting that they did better than they actually did.  In the fixed mindset, every situation becomes about success or failure.

Since my successes were a result of my innate intelligence, then my failures were the result of my lack of intelligence.  Anything I couldn’t immediately understand or do well, like long division or piano playing, was a threat to my status as a smart kid.  Anything that requires effort was evidence of my inferiority.  Unsurprisingly, this caused me to avoid challenges that stretched my abilities, since those challenges might result in failure, and even lying about my abilities and accomplishments.  With a fixed mindset, failure was a reflection of who I was as a person.

Those with the growth mindset don’t believe anything like this.  Those with the growth mindset know that their traits aren’t fixed.  With a growth mindset, you know that the proverbial hand you’re dealt in life is just the starting point.  Whatever your baseline intelligence, abilities, or character, you can change and improve those baselines through effort and experience.  In the growth mindset, success or failure is not a reflection of who you are as a person.  Failure simply means you must put forth more effort to succeed.  Thus in the growth mindset, every situation is not about success or failure.  Challenges are to be embraced as opportunities to get smarter, or stronger, or more personable, rather than opportunities where someone might discover you’re not as smart, or strong, or charming as you think you are.  Those with the growth mindset appreciate failure, because each different failure is evidence that they’re getting better or smarter; each new failure is one more mistake they’ve learned not to make the next time.

Simultaneous Mindsets

Many people hold both fixed mindsets and growth mindsets about different topics.  For example, some people believe intelligence is more or less innate and cannot be changed in any meaningful way, but acknowledge that musical ability is something that can be meaningfully changed through effort and practice.  Some people acknowledge that physical attributes like strength or endurance can be improved through training, but simultaneously believe that people are either innately creative or they’re not.  This is, as I’m sure you can guess, fairly silly.  If things like musical ability or athletic endurance can be improved, why do people believe you can’t learn to be more creative?

Changing Mindsets

One of Dweck’s most fascinating discoveries is that it takes very little to temporarily change someone’s mindset.  Language is extremely powerful.  In the same puzzle experiments mentioned above, when one group of kids was praised for the effort they expended solving the easy puzzles, 90% of them wanted to try the more challenging puzzles when given the option.  Less than half of the kids praised for their intelligence wanted to try the harder puzzles.

But this is good news.  Since mere suggestion has such a powerful effect on people, you can use this on yourself. Praise for effort, not ability.  Discuss the effort you put in to accomplish things, not merely the accomplishments themselves. Remind yourself that expending effort simply means you’re making yourself smarter, stronger, or more skilled.  Appreciate failure and setbacks by reminding yourself specifically what those failures and setbacks taught you (writing these lessons down can be incredibly useful).

Redefining Success

When you change your mindset, your idea of success generally changes as well.  In the growth mindset, success becomes about trying your hardest and doing your best.  When you do these things, success follows, regardless of whether someone around you accomplishes more.  Because success and failure are no longer reflections of your innate worthiness, you no longer define success as asserting your superiority over others.  Not only will this make you happier and more successful, everyone around you will be happier and more successful as well.

For much more about the growth mindset, including some now hilariously uncomfortable quotes from Alex Rodriguez and Tiger Woods, I really can’t recommend Mindset enough.

Posted in Advice, Books, Creativity, Food For Thought | 3 Comments

Best Books I Read In 2013

I read a lot and am often asked for recommendations.  Rather than continuing to respond privately to emails, I decided to post my recommendations from 2013 here. I’ll continue to post recommendations, either in separate posts or under some consolidated archive.  These are roughly in the order I read these throughout the year, not in order of my favorites.  For anyone looking to read just one book, the best book I read in 2013 was probably Matterhorn.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China  by Paul French

1937 Peking is colonial China on its last legs.  Still, remnants survive of the opulent enclave the Brits managed to carve out, complete with old-world drinking parlors and opium dens, even while the Japanese surround the city.  This is the backdrop for Paul French’s investigation of the brutal murder of Pamela Werner, daughter of a British consul.  You get to explore not only the underworld, and literal back-alleys, of what would become Beijing, but the psyches of those who lived there during the city’s last days.  For those reasons alone, the book is well worth reading.  As a true-crime murder mystery, the book is generally engrossing, although it can get a little repetitive towards the end when it tells the same story from a number of different perspectives.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

A classic piece of short fiction about a young man’s trip up an African river to find a fabled ivory trader.  Not a load of detail about colonial Britain, but you get a deep sense of what it must have felt like to be there.  Plus, there’s fantastic language throughout.  Some people seem to HATE this story, but it’s definitely worth the hour or two it will take you to read it.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

How did an illiterate slave conquer more land than any empire in history, in less than 25 years?  In one of the best biographies I’ve ever read, Weatherford explains.  Khan constantly adapted strategies and techniques and truly revolutionized warfare.  But, far from being the bloodthirsty, brutal rapist that he is generally portrayed as, Khan created an empire that promoted religious tolerance, banned torture, and granted rights for women that were nearly unprecedented at the time.  Khan promoted free trade and intellectual and scientific advancement, even abolishing taxes for those classes like doctors and teachers that he wished to promote.  Virtually unheard of for rulers at the time, Khan limited nepotism in favor of advancement based on merit.  Khan and his progeny also established the first regular census, created a trans-continental postal system, established an advanced banking network that included paper-based money.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough.  There’s enough strategy and philosophy here to make it worthy of recommendation even if the book were dry, but it’s not.  It reads like a novel and is constantly engrossing.

Sol Price Retail Revolutionary & Social Innovator by Robert E. Price

Sam Walton said he learned more about retail from Sol Price than nearly everyone else combined.  In the 1950’s, Sol Price founded FedMart, an early discount retailer where he pioneered the warehouse-style of retailing.  (Walton is said to have named his store “Wal-Mart” because he liked the FedMart name so much.)  Twenty years later, he founded the Price Club, which eventually merged with Costco.  This book, written by his son, offers insights into not only how Sol did it and what made him so successful, but his private life and philosophy as well.

Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Frankl is one of the most profound modern thinkers on how to find meaning and purpose in life.  The father of logotherapy and a survivor of Auschwitz, among other concentration camps, Frankl’s little book combines his own life story with the foundations of his psychiatric theory.  Frankl, through his own experiences, examines Nietzsche’s maxim that “He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how'” and concludes that finding meaning is what sustains us.  A fascinating read, if for Frankl’s story of survival alone, and it can be read in one sitting.

Hannibal: One Man Against Rome by Harold Lamb

A good overview of the life and strategy of one of the greatest generals of all time.  Marching war elephants over the Alps is his feat most well-known by school children, but both the lead-up to this brash feat and the decades that followed are actually more interesting.  Lamb spends a good deal of time on how Hannibal won his most famous victories, including at Trebia, Lake Trasimene, and Cannae, but does an even better job explaining how Hannibal used statecraft, alliances, and marriage to avoid war, which he disliked intensely.  Constantly undermanned and short of funds, Hannibal’s accomplishments against Rome were impressive.  Still, he was a man who wandered the countryside for most of his life.  He had no home, and lived much of his life merely trying to stave off Roman conquest for a few more years.  There may be as much to learn from Hannibal’s shortfalls as there are from his triumphs.  Note that the book itself is now out of print and difficult to find, but the audiobook is great.

Augustus: The Life of Rome’s First Emperor by Anthony Everitt

One of the best books about Rome that I’ve read.  Here, Everitt, a meticulous researcher, develops a wonderful narrative about Julius Caesar’s delicate grand-nephew, who schemed his way to hold ultimate power over the Roman Empire for nearly half a century.  The book is also an expansive look at not only the foundation of what we know as the Roman Empire, but also the foundation of the city of Rome as we know it today, which prior to Augustus’ reformation was a rather horrible place to live. The book does a good job describing Augustus’ life, from his early life in a small village outside Rome to his introduction into politics by his great-uncle, his crucial friendships with Agrippa and Maecenas, his campaigns to expand the empire and consolidate political control over it, his responses to crises both personal and of the state, his plans for succession, his ultimate death, and his legacy.

Augustus was able to grab and maintain power based almost exclusively on the support of the military and the people of Rome.  This is rather surprising, given how relatively unremarkable August was.  He was short and frail, with a lifelong disposition to bouts of prolonged stress-induced illnesses.  He was also a poor general who relied chiefly on Agrippa’s brilliance to succeed in battles.  However, he made up for these shortfalls by being supremely patient and thoughtful.  He sought long-term solutions and avoided easy fixes, often taking years to arrive at a decision.  And his decision-making was generally excellent.  His greatest strength was knowing his own limitations, coupled with his inventiveness at making the best use of the human material at hand.  In short, he was a superb manager.  He was ruthless when he needed to be, often executing or exiling his close family members, and exceedingly generous when he need to be, such as with his troop’s pay, and granting citizenship to non-Romans, which made them citizens and stakeholders rather than victims of the empire.

Civilization: The West and the Rest by Niall Ferguson

In the 1400’s, the East contained the most advanced civilizations on Earth and the West was basically a dump.  What happened?  Ferguson argues that six ideas ultimately caused the West to dominate: competition, science, democracy, medicine, consumerism and the Protestant work ethic.  While China, cultures of the Middle East like the Ottomans, and even the Aztecs and Incas were once far ahead of the West, each failed to implement one or more of the six key ideas and thus stagnated and ultimately failed.  Ferguson is often hectic, jumping from one example and topic to the next, trying to cram 600 years worth of history about a topic into a few dozen pages.  But, what the book lacks in rigor it makes up for in breadth and provocation.

Flawless: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History by Scott Selby and Greg Campbell

Antwerp, Belgium is the center of the diamond trade, where 84% of all rough diamonds and half of all cut diamonds are traded.  Most of the big diamond traders are located on a street that’s barricaded at both ends,  manned by a Belgium police outpost, and blanketed by security cameras.  Diamonds are stored in underground vaults patrolled by private security guards.  Despite all this, six men managed to empty one of the biggest vaults in the diamond district, making off with somewhere between $100 and $400 million worth of jewels, metal, cash, and jewelry.  None of the loot was ever found, and only 5 of 6 believed conspirators were ever caught.  Flawless is an entertaining retelling of the biggest diamond theft in history.

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Michael B. Oren

The definitive account of the Six Day War.  Exhaustively detailed, the book is tense throughout its 460 pages.  If you want an understanding of the genesis of many of the issues currently plaguing the Middle East, read this book.

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Like all of of Hitchens’ work, this one is worth reading and contains many gems, not least of which is his summation in the epilogue: “Beware the irrational, however seductive.  Shun the transcendent and all who invite you to subordinate or annihilate yourself.  Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.  Don’t be afraid to be thought arrogant or selfish.  Picture all experts as if they were mammals.  Never be a spectator of unfairness or stupidity.  Seek out argument and disputation for their own sake: the grave will supply plenty of time for silence.  Suspect your own motives and all excuses.  Do not live for others any more than you would expect others to live for you.”

The Demon Under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor’s Heroic Search for the World’s First Miracle Drug by Thomas Hager

Less than 100 years ago, cutting age medicine wasn’t much better for the average citizen than what could have been had 2000 years ago in ancient rome.  The Demon Under The Microscope is a well written story about German and French development of sulfa drugs, the world’s first antibiotics, in the 1920’s, 30’s, and 40’s, and the resulting medical renaissance that catapulted us into the modern era.  Because of the time period, there is  quite a bit of discussion about the development of modern science, medical testing, and germ theory, as well as some interesting medical and science aspects of WWI and particularly WWII.  Parts of the book delve deeply into the lives of scientists behind the key discoveries, some of which can be skipped over, and the book only briefly mentions  the concurrent discovery of penicillin.  Despite this, the book is a great read.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

As one would expect from Richard Dawkins, the book is heavy on the evolutionary arguments against an omnipotent and omniscient god who intimately involves himself in the lives of humans.  While the prose doesn’t compare to Hitchens, the scientific discussions are thoughtful and far more fully developed.  Definitely recommended.

Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion by Janet Reitman

A sometimes fascinating account of how L. Ron Hubbard, an uneducated conman, founded one of the world’s most successful new religions.  It’s particularly worth reading for anyone interested in marketing and leadership.  The tactics Hubbard and the church used to recruit and keep paying customers, especially in the internet age when information about the cult is widely available, are remarkable.

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday

A must read for anyone who creates.  Also a must read for anyone who consumes modern news or media.  Holliday reveals in horrifying detail exactly what drives modern media and how anyone can use this understanding to easily manipulate what millions of people around the world accept as truth.

The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism by Olivia Fox Cabane

A must read, period.  Charisma isn’t something you’re born with.  Some people intuitively figure out how to be charismatic when they’re very young, while most people don’t and simply assume it’s something they’ll never have.  Here, Cabane examines the recent research that breaks down the various aspects that make up “charisma” and how to apply them to your own life.

The Great Siege: Malta 1565 by Ernle Bradford

The story of the Knights of St. John, a multi-national group of nationless soldiers who fortified the strategically important Mediterranean island of Malta.  With no real purpose, other than to survive and serve their god, the small group of Knights fought off the massive might of the Ottoman fleet, who laid siege to the island for months.  Bradford, unlike other authors of long-ago battles, actually explains the brutality of war in the middle ages and the hardships that a months-long siege imposes.  The book is also an interesting look at life, duty, and honor in the 1500’s.

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi

A fantastic, almost unbelievable story of a art forger without remorse.  It’s not terribly well written, but the sometimes-clumsy prose doesn’t really get in the way of the story.  A great read for anyone interested in art.  The book is light on painting technique, though explains in detail how to age new canvases to look old and swindle unsuspecting victims.  Perenyi certainly isn’t worthy of admiration, but his story is hard to put down.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Published almost two decades before Orwell’s 1984, Brave New World is one of the first popular dystopian novels.  Unlike Orwell, Huxley’s Brave New World predicts that people would be subjugated by constant satisfaction of their most base desires, rather than through censorship and repressive control schemes.  (Or, in Huxley’s own words, “the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience.”)

Huxley gets so much right about our modern society that its fairly terrifying.  While Brave New World feels a bit dated due to Huxley’s understandable failure to imagine just how quickly technology would advance, and while it really drags a bit in the middle, it remains satire of the highest order, and just as relevant as ever.  This should be required reading

Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing, and Advertising by Ryan Holiday

A followup to Holiday’s first book (Trust Me, I’m Lying), this short e-book explains why traditional marketing is dead, and how startups have gone from dorm rooms to multi-billion dollar companies without billboards, ad-buys, or PR firms.  Just as interesting, and much more useful, than his first book.

How to Get Rich: One of the World’s Greatest Entrepreneurs Shares His Secrets by Felix Dennis

A must read book for anyone who thinks they want to get rich.  Part Meditations, part memoir, part how-to book, part kick-in-the-ass, Dennis’ book is an easy read that’s far more insightful than you’d think.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Unlike most dystopian novels, this, as the title suggests, is focused on society’s treatment of women.  In the near future, a Christian totalitarian society with declining birthrates has taken over at least part of the U.S.  Women are stripped of all rights and the specially chosen “handmades” are forced to procreate with society’s elite.  The protagonist, who was an adult with a husband and child prior to the revolution, loses everything and becomes one of these handmaids.  The story is supposed to be her memoir, recorded after the events take place.  This seems to be a book people either love or hate.   Many people seem to think the book is dated and that it’s outlandish that society could change so dramatically in such a short period of time.  I would point to Afghanistan as a perfect example of why those people are dead wrong.

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

This is, unquestionably, one of the best books I’ve ever read.  A harrowing account of everyday life in the southeast Asian jungle during the Vietnam war, the somewhat fictionalized retelling of Marlantes’ experiences is tragic, hilarious, and terrifying.  You truly get a feeling of what it must have been like to be not just in the Vietnam war, but in any war.  You also understand that unless you’ve been there, even Marlantes’ wonderful prose can’t possibly fully explain what war is like.  Every politician should be required to read this book before taking office.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout

As much as 4% of the population are sociopaths, meaning they have no conscience.  Sociopaths do not empathize with others, do not care how others feel, and feel no remorse, shame, or guilt.  They are often intelligent and extremely charming.  Imagine if your therapist or psychologist was a sociopath.  Terrifying.

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

A genre-defining novel that is supposedly Clarke’s best work, this is now, after decades of imitations, pretty standard sci-fi.  Until you get to the second half of the book, where things get weird, existential, and pretty heady.  If you’re into sci-fi, you should put this on your list of books to read.

The Guns of August: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Classic About the Outbreak of World War I by Barbara Tuchman

This is the polar opposite of a book like Matterhorn.  Instead of details about what it was like for a soldier to go to war, this book is a comprehensive history of the who, what, when, where, and why of World War I.  Fascinating in its own way, this book focuses on the decision makers (of both sides) and their strategies before and during the war.  One of the most interesting parts for me was learning just how closely related the leaders of nearly every european country were, and how convinced they were that the interconnectedness of their economies meant the war couldn’t possibly last more than a few months.

George Carlin Reads to You: New Expanded Edition – Brain Droppings, Napalm & Silly Putty, and More Napalm & Silly Putty by George Carlin

As the title suggests, this is an audio compilation of three books, narrated by Carlin.  Like most of Carlin’s work, it’s usually thought-provoking, often silly, and sometimes laugh-out-loud hysterical.  As usual, his strongest material focuses on his observations and gripes about our use of the English language.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

I had somehow never read this book in school and thought I should give it a try.  It’s a simple story, clearly written for children, about a very young Tom Sawyer and his adventures along the Mississippi River in the late 1800’s.  While I would probably recommend this for no other reason than to understand modern references to the tale, it actually provides a fairly interesting account of life in the late 19th century.

Dark Summit: The True Story of Everest’s Most Controversial Season by Nick Heil

Prior to reading this, climbing Everest had always been something I had hazily considered doing before dying.  Sure, it would be windy and cold, but how hard could it be with modern technology and a small army of sherpas to get you up the mountain.  This book immediately dissuaded me of these thoughts.  While the main focus of the book is the deadly 2006 climbing season on the mountain, Heil covers the British discovery of the peak, the first attempts to climb it, the history of recent climbs, and even gets into the 1996 climbing season made famous by Krakauer’s Into Thin Air.  But Heil’s harrowing descriptions of the effects of altitude are the most powerful sections of the book.  These include exhausted climbers who simply decide to sit down and die and hallucinating climbers unable to take another step, left to die on the mountain.  Heil’s account of the Himalayan conditions, and the choices those conditions force on climbers, including when to leave fellow climbers to die, is hard to put down.

The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking by Brendan Koerner

A fascinating account of the skyjacking epidemic that gripped America during late sixties and early seventies.  From 1968 to 1973, roughly one plane was hijacked each week, at first by those demanding passage to Cuba, then to those demanding ransom, and then to those motivated by politics.  This book touches on many of the hijackings during that period, including those accomplished by automatic weapons, jars of acid, bombs real and imagined, and nitroglycerin.  But the crux of the story is about a black, dishonorably discharged Vietnam vet and his young, beautiful, white lover and their outlandish plan to free Angela Davis, fly to North Vietnam, and then live out their days homesteading in the Australian Outback.  While that plan obviously goes awry, the tale of their exploits in Algeria and France, and of life, race, and politics in 1970’s is almost unbelievable, even if you lived through those times.

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“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.”

– Ernest Hemingway

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Declare Victory or Failure

Whenever you start a project, you should have a plan for finishing it.

One outcome is to declare victory, to find that moment when you have satisfied your objectives and reached a goal.

The other outcome, which feels like a downer but is almost as good, is to declare failure, to realize that you’ve run out of useful string and it’s time to move on. I think the intentional act of declaring becomes an essential moment of learning, a spot in time where you consider inputs and outputs and adjust your strategy for next time.

If you are unable to declare, then you’re going to slog, and instead of starting new projects based on what you’ve learned, you’ll merely end up trapped. I’m not suggesting that you flit. A project might last a decade or a generation, but if it is to be a project, it must have an end.

Seth Godin

This is the 500th post on this site.  Nearly a year and a half ago, I started this blog to as a way to explore creativity, art, work, and life.  As life changed dramatically during that time, with less and less of my time spent on art and more and more of my time spent on law, this blog quickly turned into a repository for all of the great advice I’ve been given and lessons I’ve learned over the years.

Seth’s advice, quoted above, is one of the pieces that I didn’t take to heart.  I didn’t define in advance what would make this endeavor a success or a failure.  I just went.  Some good things have definitely come as a result, but we could have accomplished more here if I had a clearer focus from the outset, if I had defined what victory meant.

So today I’m declaring failure, in a sense.  The blog’s not going anywhere, but I will be monkeying with some things.  Announcements will follow, but exciting times are ahead.  Thanks for joining me.



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The Greatest Enemy of Knowledge

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.

Stephen Hawking

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Perspective, Pt 2

A Jewish man was sitting in a Starbucks reading an Arab newspaper. A friend of his, who happened to be in the same store, noticed this strange phenomenon.

Very upset, he approached him and said: ‘Moshe, have you lost your mind? Why are you reading an Arab newspaper?’ Moshe replied, ‘I used to read the Jewish newspapers, but what did I find? Jews being persecuted, Israel being attacked, Jews disappearing through assimilation and inter marriage, Jews living in poverty… I got so depressed!

So I switched to the Arab newspaper. Now what do I find?
Jews own all the banks, Jews control the media, Jews are all rich and powerful, Jews rule the world. The news is so much better!’

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How to Say Nothing in 500 Words

Paul McHenry Roberts (1917-1967) taught college English for over twenty years, first at San Jose State College and later at Cornell University. He wrote numerous books on linguistics, including Understanding Grammar (1954), Patterns of English (1956), and Understanding English (1958).  Paul also wrote this essay, which is a fantastic read not only for those looking to improve their writing, but for those looking to improve their thinking as well.  Some of my favorite bits:

Avoid the Obvious Content

Say the assignment is college football. Say that you’ve decided to be against it. Begin by putting down the arguments that come to your mind: it is too commercial, it takes the students’ minds off their studies, it is hard on the players, it makes the university a kind of circus instead of an intellectual center, for most schools it is financially ruinous. Can you think of any more arguments, just off hand? All right. Now when you write your paper, make sure that you don’ t use any of the material on this list. If these are the points that leap to your mind, they will leap to everyone else’s too.

Be against college football for some reason or reasons of your own. If they are keen and perceptive ones, that’s splendid. But even if they are trivial or foolish or indefensible, you are still ahead so long as they are not everybody else’s reasons too. Be against it because the colleges don’t spend enough money on it to make it worthwhile, because it is bad for the characters of the spectators, because the players are forced to attend classes, because the football stars hog all the beautiful women, because it competes with baseball and is therefore un-American and possibly Communist-inspired. There are lots of more or less unused reasons for being against college football.

Sometimes it is a good idea to sum up and dispose of the trite and conventional points before going on to your own. This has the advantage of indicating to the reader that you are going to be neither trite nor conventional. Something like this:

We are often told that college football should be abolished because it has become too commercial or because it is bad for the players. These arguments are no doubt very cogent, but they don’t really go to the heart of the matter.

Then you go to the heart of the matter.

Take the Less Usual Side

One rather simple way of getting into your paper is to take the side of the argument that most of the citizens will want to avoid. If the assignment is an essay on dogs, you can, if you choose, explain that dogs are faithful and lovable companions, intelligent, useful as guardians of the house and protectors of children, indispensable in police work — in short, when all is said and done, man’s best friends. Or you can suggest that those big brown eyes conceal, more often than not, a vacuity of mind and an inconstancy of purpose; that the dogs you have known most intimately have been mangy, ill-tempered brutes, incapable of instruction; and that only your nobility of mind and fear of arrest prevent you from kicking the flea-ridden animals when you pass them on the street.

[These] are intellectual exercises, and it is legitimate to argue now one way and now another, as debaters do in similar circumstances. Always take the that looks to you hardest, least defensible. It will almost always turn out to be easier to write interestingly on that side.

Call a Fool a Fool

Some of the padding in freshman themes is to be blamed not on anxiety about the word minimum but on excessive timidity. The student writes, “In my opinion, the principal of my high school acted in ways that I believe every unbiased person would have to call foolish.” This isn’t exactly what he means. What he means is, “My high school principal was a fool.” If he was a fool, call him a fool. Hedging the thing about with “in-my-opinion’s” and “it-seems-to-me’s” and “as-I-see-it’s” and “at-least-from-my-point-of-view’s” gains you nothing. Delete these phrases whenever they creep into your paper.

The student’s tendency to hedge stems from a modesty that in other circumstances would be commendable. He is, he realizes, young and inexperienced, and he half suspects that he is dopey and fuzzyminded beyond the average. Probably only too true. But it doesn’t help to announce your incompetence six times in every paragraph. Decide what you want to say and say it as vigorously as possible, without apology and in plain words.

Linguistic diffidence can take various forms. One is what we call euphemism. This is the tendency to call a spade “a certain garden implement” or women’s underwear “unmentionables.” It is stronger in some eras than others and in some people than others but it always operates more or less in subjects that are touchy or taboo: death, sex, madness, and so on. Thus we shrink from saying “He died last night” but say instead “passed away,” “left us,” “joined his Maker,” “went to his reward.” Or we try to take off the tension with a lighter cliché: “kicked the bucket,” “cashed in his chips,” “handed in his dinner pail.” We have found all sorts of ways to avoid saying mad: “mentally ill,” “touched,” “not quite right upstairs,” “feebleminded,” “innocent,” “simple,” “off his trolley,” “not in his right mind.” Even such a now plain word as insane began as a euphemism with the meaning “not healthy.”

Modern science, particularly psychology, contributes many polysyllables in which we can wrap our thoughts and blunt their force. To many writers there is no such thing as a bad schoolboy. Schoolboys are maladjusted or unoriented or misunderstood or in the need of guidance or lacking in continued success toward satisfactory integration of the personality as a social unit, but they are never bad. Psychology no doubt makes us better men and women, more sympathetic and tolerant, but it doesn’t make writing any easier. Had Shakespeare been confronted with psychology, “To be or not to be” might have come out, “To continue as a social unit or not to do so. That is the personality problem. Whether ’tis a better sign of integration at the conscious level to display a psychic tolerance toward the maladjustments and repressions induced by one’s lack of orientation in one’s environment or — ” But Hamlet would never have finished the soliloquy.

Writing in the modern world, you cannot altogether avoid modern jargon. Nor, in an effort to get away from euphemism, should you salt your paper with four-letter words. But you can do much if you will mount guard against those roundabout phrases, those echoing polysyllables that tend to slip into your writing to rob it of its crispness and force.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

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Systematic Learning

Chris Guillebeau was interested in building a lifestyle business (i.e. something that requires little startup capital and lots of flexibility).  Instead of picking a business at random, Chris did what we should all do.

In The $100 Startup, Chris started by surveying 1500 entrepreneurs about their businesses.  From there, he systematically interviewed several hundred of those entrepreneurs to find out what made their businesses work.

That’s a lot of work.  But if you’re going to invest a big part of your life, and possibly a big part of your bank account, why wouldn’t you do that work?  Why don’t we?

As students, why don’t we study the most successful students to find out what made them successful?

As teachers, or accountants, or doctors, or lawyers, or whatever it is you want to do, why don’t we systematically study the most successful people in our professions to find out why they were successful?

Why don’t we do what Chris did?

A couple thoughts:  (1) This takes a lot of upfront work.  It’s much easier, at least at first, to just go into things and wing it. (2) This also adds a lot of pressure.  It’s easy to have a big idea or a grand plan to dream about.  But, once you break something down to its component parts and figure out exactly what you need to do to succeed, you set yourself up for a lot of work.  If you don’t do that work, you don’t have anyone to blame but yourself.  That’s ultimately pretty scary.

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