“A guide to the good life” – and notes

*Notes on the book towards the end

As mentioned before I can’t really remember when I was first introduced to stoicism, but I think some of the first stoic texts I read was from Seneca. Shortly after being introduced to stoicism I stumbled upon A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joyand if I remember correctly I probably bough it together with Letters from a Stoic.

First time I read “A guide to the good life” I liked it, but for some reason not much more than that. It was a good book with good practical advice, but somehow it did not really have the impact I had expected. Too high expectations? – Perhaps.

In the following years I read and re-read a lot of stoic books. Loved Meditations, Ryan Holiday’s book on stoicism and as mentioned above “Letters from a Stoic”. But did not re-read “A guide to the good life” because of my first impressions of it. Then hearing a guest on Tim Ferriss’ podcast praise it, I finally re-read it.

And I am very glad I did. Because this time it really hit something inside of me, it really resonated and I absolutely loved it. It’s really full of practical applications of stoic principles and very actionable. It spend a little too much time on philosophical discussion of stoic principles, but as the author is a philosopher this is not unexpected – even though it seems somewhat going against the exact principles of stoic philosophers; philosophy should be practical applicable in everyday life. But those passages are easily overshadowed by the majority of content that is really top notch.

As I have mentioned in this post: Read and remember – make it stick I always underline passages that resonate with me or perhaps I find worthy of some more digging. Then actually starting with this book, I waited a few days and then went through my highlights writing down notes for most of them.

They are probably very subjective to my head and understanding, but if someone might find them useful they will come below. So as final comment I will highly recommend the book to anyone interested in stoic philosophy and interested in practical advice on how to live like a stoic or perhaps just implement some of their advice.

And now the notes:


 

Notes on “A guide to the good life”

To be virtuous is to live in accordance with nature – if we do this well we live a good life according to the Stoics.

We are social creatures and therefore have duties to our fellow men. Honor friends, parents and countrymen.

Stoic tranquility is the absence of  negative thoughts and the pretense of positive ones.

Unlike Cynicism Stoicism does not require adoption of ascetic lifestyle. We can enjoy money, luxury etc. but should do so while being willing to give it all up. We should not cling to these things.

The obstacle is the way. Hardship and set-backs build character like strength training builds muscle and hormesis builds up our immune system.

Negative visualization. All we have is on loan from “fortune” – cherish it, enjoy it but be prepared to lose it.

Memento mori. Reflect upon each day as if it was your last. Don’t take anything for granted – in an instant it can be gone.

Reflect and be grateful upon the people and things you have in your life and contemplate how sad it would be to lose them. This counteracts hedonic adaptation.

A stoic will not spend all his time thinking about catastrophes and visualizing all things being taken away from him, but a few times a day or week, spend some time contemplating loss of things dear to him in order to make him value them higher.

To practice negative visualization is to contemplate the impermanence of the world around us.

There will be – or already has been! – a last time in your life that you brush your teeth, cut your hair, drive a car, mow the lawn or go for a run. There will be a last time you hear rain or see snow falling, smell newly baked bread or feel the warmth of your child or spouse fall in sleep in your arms. Or a last time you make love. You will someday eat your last meal and soon thereafter you will take your last breath.

Learn to want the things that are easy to obtain or better yet, the things you already have.

Trichotomy of control; things we have full control over, things we have some control over, and things we have no control over. Do not worry over things that you have no control over.

We should periodically cause ourselves to experience discomfort – cold exposure, hunger etc. This rehearses the “what if” and further more builds character and self confidence.

The more pleasures a man captures, the more masters he will have to serve. We must learn to resist pleasures – else we spend our lives twitching in each pleasurable way.

Avoid high expectations – both of people, events and things. Having high expectations set you up for disappointment.

Take responsibility for your reactions to events, a stranger might cut you off in traffic, a colleague may say something insulting – what you can control is your reaction. If you don’t feel insulted – then you weren’t.

In the morning, rather than lazily lying in bed, we need to get up and get to work on the thing that we were created to do. The first resistance of pleasure starts with getting out of bed first thing upon waking.

Avoid melancholy people and negative people – they will upset your tranquility.

Don’t be insulted by things that are objectively right – being bald and then being told that you are bald is not an insult – it is just a fact.

Grief: Grieving for a short period of time is OK. But then move on. If you grieve the loss of a child then after a period get on with your life. Be happy that you had that child in your life in the period you had. And your child most definitely did not want you to suffer so why go against the will of your own child and become a sad and unhappy person?

Anger: Should a stoic that has seen his wife and children be raped and murdered not do anything about it. Indeed he should – but he should remain as calm as possible while doing it. Success in doing so will make for a much better and thoughtful revenge than just resorting to outright anger.

If we seek social status we are at the mercy of other people trying to have them see us in as positive a light as possible. Our goal should be to become indifferent to other peoples opinion of us.

Realize that many other people, perhaps even your closest friend do not want you to succeed. By doing so they may see themselves as being put down, because if you can succeed then why can’t they.

Acknowledge that the exposure to luxury might lose us our ability to enjoy the simple things in life.

Eat to live instead of live to eat. Eat to nourish the body and fill its basic needs not to gain pleasure.

If a stoic finds himself well of, then he should enjoy his wealth but never cling to it. He should contemplate losing it all again. If he clings to his wealth and new lifestyle then he becomes a slave to it. Because then suddenly he might fear losing his high income and therefore becomes limited in his freedom.

Stoics not being afraid of public ridicule, exile or even death often held and stood up for unpopular beliefs. People today often go out of their way to steer clear of trouble, where as the stoics would ask whether a life where nothing is worth dying for is worth living?

A man is as wretched as he convinces himself he is.

The stoics was convinced that what stand between ourselves and happiness is not the government or the society we live in, but the lack of a life philosophy.

Never categorize yourself as a victim. Always take responsibility.

Thanks to hedonic adaptation a pursuit of novel things will always leave us in want and unhappy. We should instead use negative visualization to learn to want the things we have.

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Steve Jobs – an evil character

Some months have passed since I read this book: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson. I can’t really tell why I haven’t felt the urge to write about it yet though. Perhaps more because of the impression about Steve Jobs I was left with after reading it, than the book in itself.

I have read Walter Isaacson’s biography about Benjamin Franklin before, and found it really good and entertaining. I will at some point also read his biography about Albert Einstein – so nothing bad to say about the author or his style of writing – I really like that.

But what really stands in your way as a speed bump the size of Everest is the personality of Steve Jobs. You can try and go around it, look over it, but it is still in your way. Walter Isaacson’s writing is as good in this as in his Benjamin Franklin book, he engages the reader and paints a very telling picture of the man Steve Jobs. But struggle as I might I can’t say that it is a very good book. It is fascinating, shocking and revealing but good – just somehow not.

You can’t argue what Jobs have accomplished. He in many ways have changed the world. But reading the book really made me lose respect for him. And that is not coming from one who did not or still don’t like Apple products – I really am a big fan of them.

The point some people will make however is that he can be forgiven for how he behaved because of what he accomplished – or that you need to be that way to accomplish what he did. I simply just do not buy into that narrative.

There are so many instances where he just acts pure evil! Nothing else to describe it. And it has absolutely nothing to do with being goal-oriented, ruthless business man or anything of the like – he just acts evil. These projections of him can of course be false or projected in a more negative light – but my impressions of Isaacson in general and the book as a whole, is that he tries to be as objective as possible. And this fact just stayed with me for the entirety of the book. People who does so many acts of unnecessary evil and unkindness just cannot be given any respect.

I did finish the book and almost let my guards down a little towards the end, where if you have a really bad short time memory, you may have a slight breeze of compassion towards him. I just couldn’t let go off the evil picture painted of the man. He lost my respect and never won it back again.

Of course your mileage may vary – I almost wish I hadn’t read it. I did not have a positive image of Steve Jobs before, just as slightly unsympathetic at times – but this book really pushed the needle as far towards evil as it goes without physically harming people.

If you somehow feel compelled to read it you can get here: Amazon

 

Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some while. I actually started reading it while in Dublin on a business trip some 6-8 months ago – got very amused by it, but at the time I was in the midst of two other books so had to leave it for some while and finish the others first.

A few weeks ago I picked it up again – and what a book! It is very much on course to be the best and most entertaining book I have read all year. There are some hard contenders in the pipeline but in terms of overall entertainment- and take-away-value I think this book is hard to beat.

I think I can describe Mr. Feynman pretty accurately with just one sentence:

The oldest and most knowledgeable child who ever lived

The full title of the book is: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) and especially the subtitle sure does describe Mr. Feynman accurately. His way of looking at the world is just so incredibly inspiring. He really sees the world through the eyes of a newborn child. He can’t encounter anything without having to know how it works. This thirst for knowing how and why things work inspire you to look differently at the world.

He underlines the importance of this several times throughout the book and especially in regards to education. At one point he joins a special advanced biology class, having no prior specific knowledge about biology. He gets a paper assigned which he reads and then has to give a presentation about in front of the class. It’s a paper about muscles, extensors and flexors which uses a cat as an example – there is one problem however; he can’t figure out where they’re located in relation to nerves or the cat itself for that matter. So he finds a “map of the cat” as he calls it and starts his presentation by outlining where all extensors, flexors and nerves are located on the cat. The class interrupts him and says: “Stop, stop – we know that already!” To which he answers:

Oh! – you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had 4 years of biology.

They has wasted time learning and trying to remember facts that they could have looked up in maximum two minutes time… This analogy is just so important! Why waste your time learning things that you can look up in two minutes? Why not save your precious memory space for knowledge that can actually help you understand both problems and the world in general. Later he also highlights a potential error with this type of learning because it makes you remember certain words, but not understand the underlying principles. This is great for passing an exam but bad for actually applying your knowledge to anything useful.

He also spends quite a lot of time explaining the importance of and joy of teaching others which to him was one of the most important activities of his life. He was by no means a guy that wanted to brag about his knowledge but at the same time he wasn’t afraid to speak up and display how knowledgeable he was either. Applying his curiosity of how things worked made him incredibly capable of applying his knowledge across all domains. This philosophy is exactly what he wanted to come across as he taught classes and had students challenge his beliefs. His Lectures on Physics has for a long time been on my wishlist and has just been amplified by the reading of this book – if only they weren’t so damn expensive!

I could write and highlight so many important points from this book. There are invaluable advice on learning, science, living; even entrepreneurship and how to deal with women – which I found especially amusing and surprising to find in this book. There are so many reasons to pick up this book and the fact that it at times makes you laugh out loud just adds to this.

But to finish of, if you are still not convinced, aren’t sure who this Mr. Feynman actually is or just haven’t seen this before, then please watch this interview with him:

Stoic books: Aristotle – The Nichomachean Ethics

I have seen this recommended over and over again, and had kind of been looking forward to getting started with it. Having read book by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, this was going to be my first encounter with Aristotle.

To cut the story kind of short, I was somewhat disappointed. I do not know if this is because I got a ”wrong” edition of it – mine being translated by David Ross. But it was just so extremely hard to read. As I have pointed out in this post I always read these kinds of books with a pen in my hand and underline or mark whenever I stumble upon something useful and then write page-numbers at the back of the book to make it easier to find things I found interesting, when picking up the book at a later occasion.

Judging by the number of page-numbers written in the back I can sort of see the tendency. From page 13 to 24 seems pretty good, then only consistently again from 65-76 and then a long and tedious pause all the way to Book VIII that starts on page 142 where it begins to be really good and remains so pretty much till the end.

But it just keeps nit-picking at little details, shining light on things from so many useless angles that it just get’s so hard to keep reading. It is a really short book, only about 200 pages but, the amount of useless things that are discussed in the middle of the book, just makes it feel like a marathon.

Usually I would abandon ship, if the book keeps being uninteresting after several sittings, but in exactly this case I am rather glad I stayed as the last part, starting from Book VIII is actually really really good.

The Nicomachean Ethics (Oxford World’s Classics)

But as my personal advice, I would probably stick to the start of the book and then jump to Book VIII on friendship and keep with it to the end. If you have had a totally different experience with the book then I would love to hear it, perhaps I was just unlucky with my translation, as I have been before the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.

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.