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:

Dan Ariely on delayed gratification

Predictably Irrational is one of the most entertaining books on psychology you will ever read. I read it several years ago and absolutely loved it. I have even written about it before here: Books on psychology and decisions but just stumbled on this awesome presentation by Dan Ariely from a Ted conference. Please do watch it and see for yourself why you should read his book:

 

Benjamin Franklin biographies – which should you read?

I can’t recall who led me onto Benjamin Franklin(B.F.). It might have been Ryan Holiday or Tim Ferriss, apart from these two however a lot of historical leaders have claimed to either read or always carried along The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. For this reason I bought it several years ago.

I do not know exactly what I had expected, but I know that I felt like it did not deliver. Boy was I disappointed. I think I struggled through the first 10-20 pages, but just could not grasp how so many people could have said good things about this book – I felt like I learned nothing. I aborted mission and put it back on the shelf.

Several years later I once again somehow came across something about B.F., but this time the recommendation was to read the biography by Walter Isaacson Benjamin Franklin: An American Life. I hesitated – having my last encounter with a B.F. book easily recalled it was kind of a struggle to get myself convinced, but after having read quite a lot of reviews i found a used example and bought it.

It could be a combination of lower expectations and perhaps even my own maturity, but this time a B.F. book did not disappoint. Walter Isaacson really writes in an engaging style and makes the reader feel really familiar with this fun, strange and entertaining character. I finished it with ease and was somewhat disappointed of having to put it back on the shelf – it was so engaging.

After having finished it, I picked up the autobiography once again. This time I went through it much more easily. But I also felt far more familiar with the content as much of it had been explained in the Walter Isaacson book.

Having now read both, I would recommend the one by Walter Isaacson. I think the disappointment with the autobiography comes from the fact that I expected more from it. I expected something in the lines of Meditations from Marcus Aurelius – a book full of good advice on how to live your life – but the autobiography is in many ways just what it says on the box – a biography. You can still learn from it, but I honestly believe that you are better of reading Walter Isaacson. I felt like most of what was covered in the autobiography was also covered by Walter Isaacson, only in a more engaging way.

B.F. sure is a colorful character and there are a lot of takeaways from his way of life. And also a lot of strange paradoxes and lessons on how not to live your own life. What you can’t take away from him however is how much value he gave as a “founding father” of America. His cunning way of maneuvering public life and politics is fascinating, while he to some extend could be accused of totally lacking in the private/family life.

Draw your own conclusions, but I can really recommend the biography by Walter Isaacson, whether you know anything about B.F. or not. It’s a fascinating and engaging read. Now I really want to get through Walter Isaacsons biography on Steve Jobs, which I have on the shelf, and will be ordering his biography Einstein: His Life and Universe very soon – his writing style really engages me.

The best book on relationships

I have mentioned The Mastery of Love: A Practical Guide to the Art of Relationship before, back then just referencing almost an entire chapter called The Magical Kitchen and recommending people to read the entire book. But recently I re-read it and realized how much it had actually impacted my view on all types of relationships; friends, family, lovers etc. It dawned on me that this might be one of the most influential book I have ever read, even though, if you have asked me before I re-read it this time, I probably wouldn’t have mentioned it.

But it sure deserves a good shout-out once again. It CAN change the way you view and handle all relationships in your life. It is not a book like Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion  or How to Win Friends & Influence People – which both are amazing books – but they tend to focus on your ability to make an impact on other people, whereas The Mastery Of Love focuses more on yourself, distills feelings and worries into what is your responsibility and more importantly what is not.

From page 66 in the book:

In every relationship there are two halves of the relationship. One half is you, and the other half is your son, your daughter, your father, your mother, your friends, your partner. Of those halves, you are only responsible for your half; you are not responsible for the other half. It doesn’t matter how close you think you are, or how strongly you think you love, there is no way you can be responsible for what is inside another person’s head. You can never know what that person feels, what that person believes, all the assumptions she makes. You don’t know anything about that person. That is the truth, but what do we do? We try to be responsible for the other half, and that is why relationships in hell are based on fear, drama, and the war of control.

 

It can’t be said much more precisely. You can only control your own reactions, never anybody else’s. I can complain all day long that my partner does not do x,y,z but at the end of the day I cannot, and more importantly should not try to control my partner, I can only control my own reactions to her behavior. If x,y,z is something I cannot live with, then guess what – we probably shouldn’t be together. You can easily make the decision way more complicated, which a lot of people do, but at the end of the day it is all up to you. How much self-abuse will you take. If something in one of your relationships nags you so much, then make a decision whether this person should stay in your life. You can and should tell the person how you feel, but you can’t expect them to change anything. In the opposite scenario it works the same way. You can make all the sacrifices you want to please and impress the other person, but you can’t expect them to feel anything special. That is their half of the relationship. If they act selfish, rude or anything else, you can’t expect to change it. What you can do is walk away and respect your own happiness.

I could try to distill the information from the book even more, but I just feel like I will be doing the book a disservice. It is a cheap and short book. You can probably read it in 2-4 hours, and as written above I strongly believe it can change the relationships in your life to the better. It is easily one of the most influential book I ever read! Just started reading another of Don Miguel Ruiz’ books called The Four Agreements and so far it has not disappointed one bit, he just writes in such clear language – at least for me. But that book might find its way into another blog post. For now my advice which of course I cannot expect you to follow is: pick up The Mastery Of Love!

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.

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

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.