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.

Accelerate global learning with XPRIZE

Heard about this project a few weeks ago. The XPRIZE organization is a non-profit organization that creates public competitions to tackle big world problems. They are usually backed by very big checks to the winners of each competition.

This specific competition is their global learning competition. In short and completely stolen of their site:

The Global Learning XPRIZE is a competition to build Open Source software to teach a child to read, write, and perform arithmetic, by themselves, without a teacher. Teams will compete to win a $15 million reward to build this revolutionary technology.

I totally love these initiatives – they really fire the entrepreneurial spirit inside of me. Taken on big world problems and really making a difference. Whether you are a entrepreneur and wants to join the competition, wants to back one of the competitions or simply share the message, you should go visit their site.

http://www.xprize.org/

Identity diversification

When you have figured out what your goal is, you should spend all your energy on reaching that goal, right? Yes and No. You should always strive to move towards it, but activities that may not seem to move you closer in the short run, may keep you from stumbling and rolling backwards in the long run. Let me explain.

If your goal is to travel around the world, you of course need some money, but what you do not need is to buy a house or get a full time job, apart from the latter being a means to get your money. You probably do not need to look for a steady relationship, unless you plan on bringing him/her along or loves to dilute all your experiences with a constant longing for your significant other and counting down the days until you are reunited.

If your goal on the other hand is to start a company or try to reach a certain position within your current one, then traveling the world for half a year may certainly not bring you any closer to that goal. A significant other may keep you sane at times, but may also limit your drive or ”hunting instinct.”

But let’s stay with the last example where you strive to build a company – that is what I can most easily relate to at the moment.

You could argue that in order to be successful you need to spend all your waking hours working on your idea. This is the goal you want to achieve – so more time and energy invested must equal more achieved – well not always. If you are building a pyramid and laying bricks, then yes – the more bricks you lay each day, the closer you will get to completion. But most endeavors are not that straight forward. Must are somewhat one step forward – then two back, two steps in the other direction – then one back etc. etc. This is where identity diversification comes into play.

If you derive all your happiness and feeling of achievement from one source, you could potentially dig yourself into a very deep hole, at times where your company are struggling. If you have given up all your leisure activities in order to spend 16 hours a day on your start-up, then you are signing up for some very dark days when things go bad – coupled with having getting rid of all your non-startup friends, then you can really sit in a depressing circle with similar friends all discussing how bad and hard you feel.

What you should do on the other hand is not only be Mr. Startup, but also be Mr. Fitness, Ms. Dancer, or whatever you may have of interests. These may seem like distractions when everything go according to plan, but once things start to get hard and against the plan they can keep you somewhat sane.

Let’s say you have had a very bad day because all the sales you tried this day failed, you feel somewhat down but still go out the door to join the weekly swim-session and your mates there. You are not that much in the mood for talking, because of this burning feeling inside of failure. Then comes the timing of your 50 meter crawl. You just propel all your anger out in each stroke and low and behold you end up beating your lifetime best, which you have tried to do all year. Now this is a good day! What before looked to be a bad day ends up being a good one. Your business-ego may have taken a beating, but as your swimming is completely un-related it does not in anyway dilute the awesome feeling of reaching a personal best.

The above could have been anything from you being a good spouse, sprinter, weightlifter or whatever. Then entire point is to not derive all your sense of worth from one source.

I nearly wrote of my gymnastics, because the cost would take a few weeks of cash away in a time where we were running on empty in my start-up and had no direct source for future income. But as I thought about it, it just made me so sad to think of all the good times and people I would miss by saying no to gymnastics. I luckily came to the conclusion that a happy and sane version of myself would out-work and out-smart a slightly depressed version of me, by way more than what I would save by saying no. The people I am around during gymnastics is by no means going to help my company – but that is somehow part of the point. It makes me relax and think of other things which makes me way more productive when I return.

Your main priority, whether you are a CEO, a father or an athlete is keeping yourself sane and feeling great – once you do that, you can perform at your best.

You evolve – so do your goals

Goals – you have got to have goals – right!? Especially in this century of self-improvement. You can’t be drifting along figuring out what to do as you go along.

I do not think goals are the big solution to all your problems or that they are the universal solution to all your problems – but a few years ago I went from no real goals to set some rather clear goals and this will be about how they have sort of evolved.

Probably 4-5 years ago I started altering my way of life in a direction I had been absolutely sure I was not going in. I had told both myself and others that I was absolutely comfortable working a good paying job without to many obligations in order to earn money I could spend in my spare time. In other words work 8 hours a day 5 times a week to enable myself to do pretty much what I wanted in my spare time.

I worked as a computer programmer at a very large company, had done so for quite a few years and made enough money, to not really worry about normal living. My day job allowed me to do the things I wanted in my spare time – and I felt great about it. Or I did not love my job, I just saw it as a means to and end. I had no aspirations to end up becoming a leader or anything that would give me more responsibility. And further more I regularly said that I had absolutely no plan on doing anything that would take away my spare time, leave me with a lot of responsibility or long days at work. I held this belief until somewhere in my mid-twenties.

Trying to look back, I am not really sure what lead me in the opposite direction. It might be a quite hard break-up with a girl that led me down a trail of self-improvement or maybe its a natural part of what, if I remember correctly is named as the ”odyssey age”. Nevertheless I started a journey that led me just about a totally 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

I started thinking about goals for the future – not as goals for my training – but for what I wanted to do with my life. I got quite inspired by stoicism, read numerous self help books and finally had what I scribbled down on a piece of paper as my goals for the next 5 years. I had originally 3 goals written on that piece of paper I always carried around with me. Within a year or two is was down to 2 goals.

I removed ”Location Independent” from my goal card. It was probably somewhat spawned from reading The 4-Hour Workweek, and resonated well with me in the beginning. I always loved traveling and still do. But what came to my realization was that I may have a fun time living in Burma, but if all my best friends and family are in back in Denmark, then I will not be happy. I have a huge network of friends from almost all periods of my life and they just meant to much for me to have location independence as a definite goal. Money and freedom to travel – YES. Location independence – not really needed.

The last two goals are totally materialistic. One is an amount I have set as a goal for yearly income and the other is a ”specific object” that I really want to try and own. But come very lately these goals were somewhat moved to the side or at least pushed down.

For the last almost 3 years I have worked on a startup together with my dad. We have developed some software that can give a totally unique overview of the combined effects of any number of drugs. The last 2 years have been full time and so far we are bootstrapped and working hard.

As you can probably imagine this is like the total opposite of what I wanted earlier in life. It is just about exactly what I said I would never want – and now I love it. The prospects are rather promising and would totally enable the fulfillment of the two goals I had left on my goal card. So no need to change them.

But then recently I had to or at least chose to do an consulting assignment to secure a little more capital for our company. No apparent diverging away from my goal on that part – but what surprised me a little, was the hourly wage they were willing to pay for my time. If I totally focused on my two goals – I could obtain them by working as a consultant – and probably with more certainty than working on my startup.

This could be a sign that I needed to reconsider my involvement in the startup – because is it really the best way to reach my goals – OR – are have my goals really evolved so much that they need to be changed once again.

Luckily for me, it is quite easy to answer. I am so certain that I want to spend all my energy and money on trying to succeed with my startup. It needs to be on the top of my goal-card. The other two goals still apply, but they are of less importance than successfully building a company from the ground up – and a company that will have a huge impact on a lot of peoples lives once successful. I therefore had a quite obvious reason to change my goals.

But everyone changes, and the goals you had yesterday may not be the most important goals for you today. Changing your goals is not giving up – you need to be very true to yourself about what your top priorities are and then move towards them. As Neil Gaiman said in his amazing commencement speech(which if you have not seen – you should!) Keep moving towards your mountain – measure your decisions up against whether they move you closer to that mountain.

Constraint inspires creativity – tiny houses documentary

Saw this documentary the other night. Apart from a lot of racing towards the smallest space to live in, I think it was quite inspirational. Of course as the title suggests it preaches minimalism and simple living. The easy part is just to wave them of the table as crazy individuals, but if you stray from that initial impression, I think they are somewhat on to something. The tiny spaces means that they are forced to think quite creatively. It is quite fun to see exactly how creative solutions some of these people have come up with.

My personal favorites is the french guy who lives in an old garage – that solution is just pure genius! I am really impressed by people who can look at such an old and on the face of it; useless place and see those possibilities. Perhaps a close second is the old Spanish tool shed. But just living in those surroundings would make a lot of people happy.

Apart from a lot of people wanting to live more minimalistic, a lot of people are forced to live in rather small spaces because of cost of living in big cities etc. I myself live in a 12 square meter room in Copenhagen in a shared apartment. Before I lived in a 10 times as big house with a 2 story garage of the same size – but I miss absolutely nothing of it. Living small and minimalistic is just as nice with the added upside of less cleaning and less stuff, you are somewhat forced to consider most of your belongings, which I really like. Moving out of that big house and garage was such a nightmare with all the stuff I had managed to gather – without really trying actually, but there was always room for whatever I seemed to stumble upon. Deciding to get rid of it sure was worse than if I had been constrained to not acquire it in the first place.

I would really encourage you to watch the documentary, there are so many fun solutions to storage, that I will almost promise you that you’ll end up inspired to change something at home.

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.

On the shortness of life – Seneca

I can’t really remember whether this actually was the first philosophical text I read out of own will. It’s at the very least among the first and the one that lead me down the path of stoicism. You may already know this essay by Seneca. But if you don’t, you should seriously consider spending the 30-45min reading it in its entirety.

Just to give you a little taste of what Seneca says in this essay, I will give you a few quotes that really struck me when I read it.

It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.

And along the same lines:

Consider how much of your time was taken up with a moneylender, how much with a mistress, how much with a patron, how much with a client, how much in wrangling with your wife, how much in punishing your slaves, how much in rushing about the city on social duties. Add the diseases which we have caused by our own acts, add, too, the time that has lain idle and unused; you will see that you have fewer years to your credit than you count.

My suggestion would be that if you do not want to read the entire essay, then read part 1 and part 3. That’s where the above quotes are from and that’s in my opinion the most easily digested and actionable of the entire essay. I read it here for the second time in the morning and it was a sure kick in the butt for me to get shit done.

You can find the entire essay here: On the shortness of life but as the formatting is really horrible, I would suggest that you save it to Instapaper or some other readability app.

If you enjoy what you read, I would strongly suggest to purchase Letters from a Stoic. That was exactly what I did after the first time I encountered “On the shortness of life”. The essay really resonated with me and I had to read some more from this Seneca – and I wasn’t disappointed!

I actually think I am in the midst of reading Letters from a stoic for the third time. I remember having it with me on my month of solo travel in Myanmar, where I really loved it and especially its style with short easy to read chapters. But I may very well have read it once before that.

All is to say; I can honestly can’t recommend that book enough. If you like what you read in “On the shortness of life” you’ll love the book.