Into thin air – the Everest disaster

There are actually two things that brought me onto this book. First, or what chronically actually is second as I will explain shortly, it showed as related content on Amazon when I was looking for Into the wild, which I have written about here as Jon Krakauer is the author of both.

But actually I heard about the book about a year earlier, but then forgot about it. A week in to my month long trip to Myanmar I was doing a 3 day trek with 7-8 others. One of the guys who I ended up getting to know rather well, was in the midst of reading it and gave it quite a lot of praise. His descriptions made it seem like a rather interesting but also grueling story. As he had just spend some weeks in Nepal trekking, he was really able to relate to the descriptions in the book. Sadly I totally forgot about it, but was luckily reminded later.

I won’t give the entire story away, but it describes the run-up to the expedition and all that happens on the mountain, from the authors point of view and at some points also accounts from others who were on the mountain either as part of the same expedition or one of the other that made a summit attempt at the same time.

Having basically no prior knowledge about what it takes to climb Everest, it was really interesting how much work goes into it. How many weeks you spend on the mountain in preparation for the final stint to the summit. I was very surprised at how hard climbing Everest actually must be. My ignorant impression was that just about anyone with relatively good health could just pay a good amount of money and then within a couple of weeks find themselves at the top of Everest.

There is a lot of discussion about guided tours, use of supplemental oxygen etc. but I am left with quite a bit of respect for people who reach the summit, and just as much for those who choose to turn around just before the summit. Having spend so much time on preparation, dealt with grueling weather for weeks, having told everyone you are going to climb Everest and spend quite a fortune on it – only to turn around close to the top for health or safety concerns – what a brave decision!

The very last part of the book is used to somewhat defend some of the content. There is a guide from another expedition, who’s not described as having made the best decisions based on his function as a guide. Apparently he later wrote a book called The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest that strikes back at Jon Krakauer and challenges his projection of him (the guide). As totally unaware of this beef between the two, it seems rather unnecessary, and you could easily skip it.

Finally, what will perhaps answer a question a reader of my blog post on Into the wild asked. You do hear quite a lot about the author himself. I agree that in Into the wild, it’s perhaps not that relevant to add the content describing his own accomplishments, but given the fact that this book describes an expedition that he himself was a part of from his point of view, though as well as others – it’s quite fair that we hear quite a lot about him. You can’t say he misses the opportunity to mention him being in front of the other climbers on numerous occasions, but in my opinion you can easily ignore it and just be inspired by an incredible story of what it takes to climb this amazing mountain and especially the risks involved. I learned so much about the sacrifices people make in order to stand on top of the world and how climbing it has not changed all that much since the first climbers reached the summit. Very much worth a read.

You can grab your copy here: Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster

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Into the wild – Christopher McCandless aka. Alexander Supertramp

I stumbled upon this story in a quite unusual way. Usually I find interesting documentaries, movies and content in general from blogs, people I follow etc. I almost never watch TV or consume, what could be called random content – it’s almost always a deliberate choice, which has both up- and downsides, but that’s a topic/discussion for another day. But this story I surprisingly bumped into some random night watching TV.

The story about Christopher McCandless or Alexander Supertramp as he called himself, is described both in a motion picture and a book by the same name: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. As described above, I first encountered the motion picture version. And I was almost blown away by it. It may have something to do with the fact, that I at the time, had just returned from my month of Solo-travel in Myanmar and here I was back in Denmark watching a movie that described a lot of the same feeling I had both before and during my trip. It made quite an impact on me.

I started a little research about the guy Christopher McCandless, which the movie was based on and soon found out that there was a book written about his endeavor as well. I had to read it.

Without spoiling too much, the story in short is about a young guy who sells all his belongings to pursue a dream of living in the wild, without any help from modern day conveniences. It could be just another naive, semi-stupid guy getting lost in his own identity, but he is a very inspiring young guy with so much energy and passion for living.

You can surely get away with reading the book or watching the movie in any order, but the book includes a lot more details than the movie and has a lot of references to people who has or could have inspired Christopher McCandless. If you like the thought of leaving everything behind, maybe just for a short while the story sure will make an impact on you.

I would like to just bring a quote from the book, which is actually not by Christopher McCandless but by a guy called Everett Ruess. He lived way before McCandless even was born, but as McCandless he was a young guy who went out into the wild to explore both nature and himself. This is a letter he wrote to his brother that is just so incredibly philosophical:

As to when I shall visit civilization, it will not be soon, I think. I have not tired of the wilderness; rather I enjoy its beauty and the vagrant life I lead, more keenly all the time. I prefer the saddle to the streetcar and star-sprinkled sky to a roof, the obscure and difficult trail, leading into the unknown, to any paved highway, and the deep peace of the wild to the discontent bred by cities. Do you blame me then for staying here, where I feel that I belong and am one with the world around me? It is true that I miss intelligent companionship, but there are so few with whom I can share the things that mean so much to me that I have learned to contain myself. It is enough that I am surrounded with beauty…

Even from your scant description, I know that I could not bear the routine and humdrum of the life that you are forced to lead. I don’t think I could ever settle down. I have known too much of the depths of life already, and I would prefer anything to an anticlimax.

The book is filled with interesting people who pursued the dream of a more ”natural” and simple life. And the story about Christopher McCandless is just so inspiring. Some people write him of as being a naive young kid with a death-wish. But read or watch and judge for yourself – it’s definitely not the impression I ended up with. Whether you pick up the bookor watch the movie I can’t ever imagine you being disappointed about the story.

After having finished it I picked up another book by the same author called Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster, about an Everest expedition that went terribly wrong, as with Into The Wild, this is a very interesting read – but I will save the final verdict and details to another blog post.

Doing what you love, productivity, procrastination and social media

When you follow your dreams and work with what you love and feel really will do an impact, then you’re never hit by procrastination – right? I can’t recall how many times I have been met with that assumption. Hey it must be so awesome to work with what you love, then it probably never feels like work. You won’t ever do something that you don’t like doing or do boring tasks. Ehm – where to start…

I actually on a number of occasions, felt rather ashamed of the fact that; here I was working with what I love, going after a dream and still I found myself getting distracted by all sorts of unimportant rubbish – thereby failing to put in sufficient work on what really matters.

The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish.

Procrastination. Oh yes – even though you work with what you love, the long term goal is totally in line with what you are working on, you can still be hit by procrastination. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. You just need to take steps in the right direction to try and minimize it. I don’t think you can totally avoid it, since it is so deeply rooted in human nature. But if you become aware of signs as to when you’re really procrastinating instead of getting stuff done, then you can take action to move yourself in the right direction.

There are probably very few endeavors or long term goals which you can accomplish without a lot of time spent on things you really would have preferred to be without. Especially when you are starting from scratch. There will be times when the task ahead of you will have you checking e-mail compulsively, getting coffee 4 times in an hour, updating your twitter, facebook and instagram feed all just to look for some distraction that can pull you away from the task at hand. But this is where you can separate yourself from the crowd.

Lots and lots of people are creative when they feel like it, but you are only going to become a professional if you do it when you don’t feel like it.

I recently had a rather bad streak of not really getting anything important accomplished. Just running around trying to look busy. The only thing I could really get my mind to concentrate on was reading. Having realized this, which is kind of the first step, I went to the bookshelf and pulled out a book that before has helped me regain my productivity: Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind (The 99U Book Series)

This is a little short book, filled with tips and productivity hacks by 99U. If you have followed them on their website or youtube you will recognize a lot of the people and advice given in the book. It is basically just a lot of short chapters on productivity by some of the most knowing people on the topic. I dare you to read this book without going away with something really useful. Given the short chapters it is a very good go-to book if you just need a short reminder to keep your shit together or you can sit down and read the entire book in a day, without having to be an avid speed-reader.

I have made a lot of notes and will implement them the coming weeks to get me back on track productivity wise. Short term it sure has helped. My guess is that I have got more accomplished in the last two days, that the entire last week…

But I would like to end by sharing a few notes from the book on social media. It is a chapter focusing on all the distractions fighting for our attention. All the social media platforms that makes us feel good short term, but do not bring us any closer to our long term goals. The overall advice is that we set certain times for accessing social media and ask ourselves key questions once we feel drawn towards them outside these slots:

  • Is it necessary to share this? Will it add value to my life and for other people?
  • Can I share this experience later so I can focus on living right now?
  • Am I looking for validation? Is there something I could do to validate myself?
  • Am I avoiding something I need to do instead of adressing why I don’t want to do it?
  • Am I feeling bored? Is there something else I could do to feel more purposeful and engaged in my day?
  • Am I feeling lonely? Have I created opportunities for meaningful connection in my day?
  • Am I afraid of missing out? Is the gratification of giving in to that fear worth missing out on what’s in front of me?
  • Am I overwhelming myself, trying to catch up? Can I let go of yesterdays conversation and join today’s instead?
  • Can I use this time to simply be instead of looking for something to do to fill it?
  • Do I just want to have mindless fun for a while?

All are valid question, and all can be answered with a valid yes – but the mere awareness might keep you grinding at what you’re trying to avoid, instead of giving in to a quick fix.

As said earlier, this book is filled with good little productivity hacks, focusing on anything from energy to your surroundings. It is a very good book both for reading in entirety as well as browsing a few chapters every once in a while.

Experience vs. Memory – duration neglect and peak-end rule

Just finished Thinking, Fast and Slow – and what an awesome book! I have already written a bit about the book in old posts and my previous post compares it to a couple of other popular behavioral science books. But if you find behavioral science and psychology the least bit exciting, you’ll probably love this book. As written before, it is not a book you just sprint through as one quote on the back of it states: “Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think!”

But just wanted to share a last anecdote from the book before moving on. Towards the end of the book there are chapters outlining the two selves; the experiencing and the remembering. Rather self explanatory, meaning the difference between what you actually experienced in the moment versus what you remember the experience as.

There have been some rather interesting studies in this area. For example people who have undergone different types of surgery has been equipped with devices that lets them rate the pain of the experience in small intervals during the surgery on a scale from 1-10. This is the experiencing self. Then afterwards they are asked to rate the pain of the experience as a whole again on a scale from 1-10. That is the remembering self.

What seemed to emerge from those studies was that it was not the total amount of pain – meaning the surgery with most pain during the experience that was rated as the most painful by the remembering self. Neither was it the total time under pain that emerged as the most painful, but instead it seemed to be the surgery where the pain towards the end was highest. If the pain tapered off towards the end of the surgery – people generally remembered it as less painful than they actually experienced it to be. This is to be known as the peak-end rule. The duration of the pain did not matter for the remembering self – known as duration neglect – the only real determining factor seemed to be how the surgery felt towards the end.

To test this Daniel Kahneman made a study where they subjected the participants hands to a very cold ice bath. As the surgery-studies, the subjects were equipped with devices to rate their experience during the trial and then afterwards asked to rate their experience. The first trial was 4 minutes in ice-cold water, then the next trial was the same 4 minutes in ice-cold water but then another 3-4 minutes where a little warmer water was released into the bowl without the subject knowing, so the temperature rose just slightly making the end less uncomfortable. Then finally they were asked for the third trial to choose whether to repeat trial 1 or 2 – and as you have probably figured, the vast majority chose to go with trial number 2 even though any rational observer would have chosen number 1.

This is peak-end rule and duration neglect at work. I find it so fascinating and amusing how these completely irrational factors plays into our lives. It also raises some interesting questions, for instance; should you prolong some surgeries artificially to taper off the pain towards the end thereby giving the patient a more pleasant memory of the surgery? Or in the less serious department; was your entire experience of a concert really ruined because it started raining at the end?

Trying to be aware of peak-end rule and duration neglect can make you less likely to get fooled by them. But as Daniel Kahneman writes somewhere; even though he has studied all these factors for decades, he still gets fooled by them from time to time – we just have to acknowledge and live with our irrational selves to the best of our abilities.

Books on psychology, our irrational mind, thinking and decisions

DSC_0008There are several books on the topic of decision-making, a lot more than I will ever read, but here are a couple of recommendations if the topic is of interest to you.

If you aren’t interested – maybe you should be. “Surprisingly” we are not as rational as we might think. Our feelings, perceptions and mood along with other factors plays a far greater role than we would like them to. In a “perfect” world we would not have two opposing stands on the same topic just because of different wording. Or be “tricked” into making a different choice just because of a simple marketing trick.

Check this example from Predictably Irrational.

The Economist runs a campaign with the following options:

  1. Internet-only subscription $59
  2. Print-only subscription $125
  3. Print-and-Internet subscription $125

Dan Ariely(the author) runs an experiment on 100 students at MIT and this is what they opted for:

  1. Internet-only subscription $59 – 16 students
  2. Print-only subscription $125 – 0 students
  3. Print-and-Internet subscription $125 – 84 students

You would most likely also have chosen the 3. option and with good reason. That seems the best deal. But were you somehow influenced by the mere presence of the Print-only option, which of course no one with a sane mind would choose? If that option did not influence the selection, the removal of it would of course yield somewhat the same spread of selections. He then ran the same experiment, but without the Print-only option and this is how people opted:

  1. Internet-only $59 – 68 students
  2. Print-and-Internet $125 – 32 students

If people chose rationally this would of course not be the case, but as the example clearly shows a presence of an option that no one would consider, totally alters the decisions and trust me marketers knows this!

But why do we do this? The “decoy” acts as something to compare option 3 with. We are not sure whether we want internet or print, but with the Print-only option we have a comparison that makes Print-and-Internet a good deal.

This can be deployed by real estate agents trying to sell you a house showing you 3 houses; first one a bit out of town, second one in the city and third another one in the city but who needs some repair done and is in poorer condition than the other house – this would as our example shows, make you more likely to opt in for the good condition city-house. And the applications are numerous; vacations, cars, computers etc.

So if you want to be a bit more aware of how your decisions are shaped and make more rational decisions, you should definitely give one of these books a read. But which one?

How We Decideis by far the one of them who made the least impression on me. Not that it is a bad book, there are some good examples in it, but not just as many “aha” moments or “I could have done that” as in the others. It just did not engage me quite as much as the others. I read it first and found it interesting but with the other options available I would go for one of those.

Predictably Irrational(PI) is by far the most entertaining and engaging. It is so easy to relate to most examples and it is very well written. It is a hard-to-put-down type of book. It is not as thorough as Thinking fast and slow. But if you are not really sure how entertaining it is to read about psychology and your own mind, I would highly recommend to start with Predictably Irrational.

Thinking, Fast and Slowis, as mentioned above, the most thorough. It is not as easy readable as PI in the way that it makes you think so much harder and sometimes presents rather complex theories and ideas. It digs a lot deeper than PI, and has way more material. PI even quotes some of Daniel Kahneman’s discoveries. My recommendation would be to start with PI and if you are hungry for the hardcore stuff go buy Thinking fast and slow. You could read it as your first psychology book on decisions, but then you should be very very curious otherwise it might seem a little to theoretical. PI is an engaging read for almost everyone – Thinking fast and slow is an engaging read if you find the topic engaging I would say.

I am always open to new book recommendations, so please let me know if you have any or if you have comments about the books mentioned.

Happy reading!

Ryan Holiday’s book on stoicism

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Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle is the Way

To start with – it’s actually not really about stoicism – but about overcoming obstacles. But along with other preconceptions that I held it was one of those that originally kept my away from the book.

Yes to start with I thought the book was about stoicism. Since I had read quite a lot of the original stoics, I was not that compelled to read someones thoughts about them or their works. I was quite capable of forming my own opinion.

It was not that I did not like Ryan Holiday, I actually read quite a large amount of his posts and articles and really liked what I read. They resonated with me and actually also lead me to look at the book on amazon around the time when it was released. But boy was I disappointed! Only about 200 pages long – I knew the guy was a master of marketing, this to me made it seem like quite an easy attempt to make money. Write a bit about stoicism(which I thought it was about), – a topic that is gaining in popularity and then sell a lot of books based on a huge following. In other words I thought it was quite a cheap shot.

I was certainly not going to buy that book.

Fast forward to Ryan appearance on Tim Ferriss’ podcast. What an amazing episode! If you haven’t listened to it and have the slightest interest in philosophy, productivity or life in general – please treat yourself to that episode. You can find it here: The Tim Ferriss Podcast Ep. 4

But for me, apart from being an extremely interesting podcast, it sparked my interest in actually reading Ryan’s book. It seemed to be so much more than what I had originally thought. So I went against my original thoughts and ordered it from Amazon.

When I got it I was actually already in the midst of two books. I usually read two different types of books depending on what time of day I am reading, but more on that another time. But as soon as I got the book out of the box it came in, I was so positively surprised. I had expected some small slim booklet, given my knowledge of the page-count. This was an absolutely beautiful example of a hardcover book! I know this is partially unimportant, but I cannot overemphasize how positively surprised I was. This almost pulled a Apple/iPhone trick on me – even the packaging was ace.

I started reading right away and was amazed from chapter one. This book is filled with good sound advice – clearly taking a lot from stoic thinkers, especially their way of presenting actionable advice. The amount of research that has gone into writing this book is crazy, it is just filled with examples of world leaders, game changers in all aspects and fun anecdotes. It is so concentrated, clear and thought-provoking that you find yourself stopping after each short chapter to make sure you really understand what you just read.

I can only think of one sentence to capture the essence, which is actually from the back of Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow:

Buy it fast. Read it slowly. It will change the way you think.

It really proved my original preconceptions false. And how irrational it is to look at a books page-count and say “it can’t be that good if it is only 200 pages”. Quantity is such a bad measure if not combined with quality.

I am really glad that I finally gave in and bought the book. It is a certainly one of the best books I read this year and I cannot recommend it enough.

Law of small numbers in statistics

I’m in the midst of reading “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. An extremely interesting book, if you have any interest in how you and others form their decisions. I will not discuss the entire book here, as obviously I haven’t finished it yet, but I would like to write a thing or two about a recent chapter I read, since it really resonated with me as something I, first of all; should have known – but certainly should remember moving forward. And one of the best ways of remembering, for me, seems to be trying to explain it to others.

As the title suggests, this has to do with something called the “law of small numbers”. Most people seem to acknowledge that statistics based on large samples produce more accurate results, but fail to recognise that statistics based on smaller samples not only are more inaccurate, but also produce more extreme outcomes.

Why is this important? I thought I was fully aware of the pitfalls, at least the inaccuracy part  – but having read this chapter I realized I wasn’t.

My reasoning, and probably a lot of other people’s, recognise that if you take a small sample of a larger whole, then the small sample of course won’t be as accurate – but it will show a tendency. This CAN be absolutely false. Danish media even slipped big time, failing to recognise this, during a recent election, when their early exit poll claimed the wrong victor.

But why is this? How can statistics on small numbers show the complete opposite as statistics performed on the full sample? It has to do with the fact that small samples produce more extreme outcomes. I will use Daniel Kahneman’s example as it made it really clear for me to understand.

From the same urn, two very patient marble counters take turns. Jack draws 4 marbles on each trial, Jill draws 7. They both record each time they observe a homogeneous sample – all white or all red. If they go on long enough, Jack will observe such extreme outcomes more often than Jill – by a factor of 8 (the expected percentages are 12.5% and 1.56%) Again no hammer, no causation, but a mathematical fact: samples of 4 marbles yield extreme results more often than samples of 7 marbles do.

This really made it “click” for me. Of course they do. Small samples are not only more inaccurate but – and this is the very important part – they yield more extreme outcomes.

But as the book so beautifully describes, almost everyone can miss this fact. The Gates foundation made a huge $1.7 billion investment, based on findings that had tried to pinpoint which schools produced the best grades. One of the findings was that the small schools seemed to outperform the larger by a factor of 4. This lead to splitting of larger schools into smaller units. The only problem was that the size of the school had nothing to do with the grades. If they had asked which schools produced the lowest grades – once again it would have been the small schools. But the size of the school had nothing to do with the grades. The larger schools produced more “average” results, simply by the fact that they had more students – thereby larger sample sizes. Small schools on the other hand had fewer students – thereby smaller sample, which as we have learned can produce more extreme outcomes.

Correlation does not equal causation.

This knowledge has given me a whole new perspective on statistics. I am amazed at how often media, marketing or even politicians use statistics based on very small samples as “proof” for their claims. And for the most part they totally get away with it. But moving forward I hope to be more observant and aware of this fallacy, to keep me from making bad decisions, on what I, in the past, might have considered good valid information.