Tag: Learning

Isaac Watts and the Improvement of the Mind

What did an 18th-century hymn writer have to contribute to the modern understanding of the world? As it turns out, a lot. Sometimes we forget how useful the old wisdom can be.


One of the most popular and prolific Christian hymn writers of all time — including Joy to the World — was a man named Isaac Watts, who lived in England in the late 17th and early 18th century. Watts was a well educated Nonconformist (in the religious sense, not the modern one) who, along with his hymn writing, published a number of books on logic, science, and the learning process, at a time when these concepts were only just starting to grab hold as a dominant ideology, replacing the central role of religious teaching.

Watts’s book The Improvement of the Mind was an important contribution to the growing body of work emphasizing the importance of critical thinking and rational, balanced inquiry, rather than adhering to centuries of dogma. If, as Alfred North Whitehead once pronounced, modernity’s progress was due to the “invention of the method of invention,” Watts and his books (which became textbooks in English schools, including Oxford) can easily be credited with helping push the world along.

One non-conformist who would later come to be deeply influenced by Watts was the great scientist Michael Faraday. Faraday grew up in a poor area of 18th-century England and received a fairly crude education, and yet would go on to become the Father of Electromagnetism. How?

In part, Faraday credits his own “inventing the method of invention” to reading Watts’s books, particularly The Improvement of the Mind — a self improvement guide a few centuries before the internet. Watts recommended keeping a commonplace book to record facts, and Faraday did. Watts recommended he be guided by observed facts, and Faraday was. Watts recommended finding a great teacher, and Faraday starting attending lectures.

In Watts’s book, Faraday had found a guiding ethos for how to sort out truth and fiction, what we now call the scientific method. And, given his tremendous achievements from a limited starting point, it’s worth asking…what did Faraday find?


We needn’t search far to figure it out. Smack dab in Chapter One of the book, Watts lays out his General Rules for the Improvement of Knowledge.

Watts first lays out the goal of the whole enterprise. The idea is a pretty awesome one, the same ethos we promote constantly here: We all need to make decisions constantly, so why not figure out how to make better ones? You don’t have to be an intellectual to pursue this goal. Everybody has a mind worth cultivating in order to improve the practical outcome of their lives:

No man is obliged to learn and know every thing; this can neither be sought nor required, for it is utterly impossible : yet all persons are under some obligation to improve their own understanding; otherwise it will be a barren desert, or a forest overgrown with weeds and brambles. Universal ignorance or infinite errors will overspread the mind, which is utterly neglected, and lies without any cultivation.

Skill in the sciences is indeed the business and profession but of a small part of mankind; but there are many others placed in such an exalted rank in the world, as allows them much leisure and large opportunities to cultivate their reason, and to beautify and enrich their minds with various knowledge. Even the lower orders of men have particular railings in life, wherein they ought to acquire a just degree of skill; and this is not to be done well, without thinking and reasoning about them.

The common duties and benefits of society, which belong to every man living, as we are social creatures, and even our native and necessary relations to a family, a neighbourhood, or government, oblige all persons whatsoever to use their reasoning powers upon a thousand occasions; every hour of life calls for some regular exercise of our judgment, as to time and things, persons and actions; without a prudent and discreet determination in matters before as, we, shall be plunged into perpetual errors in our conduct. Now that which should always be practised, must at some time be learnt.

We then get into the Rules themselves, an 18th-century guide to becoming smarter, better, and more useful which is just as useful three hundred years later. In the Rules, Watts promotes the idea of becoming wiser, more humble, more hungry, and more broad-thinking. These are as good a guide to improving your mind as you’ll find.

Below as an abridged version of the Rules. Check them all out here or get it in book form here. Watts had a bit of a bent towards solemnity and godliness that need not be emulated (unless you’d like to, of course), but most of the Rules are as useful today as the day they were written.


Rule I. DEEPLY possess your mind with the vast importance of a good judgment, and the rich and inestimable advantage of right reasoning.

Review the instances of your own misconduct in life ; think seriously with yourselves how many follies and sorrows you had escaped, and how much guilt and misery you had prevented, if from your early years you had but taken due paius to judge aright concerning persons, times, and things. This will awaken you with lively vigour to address yourselves to the work of improving your reasoning powers, and seizing every opportunity and advantage for that end.

Rule II. Consider the weaknesses, frailties, and mistakes of human nature in general, which arise from the very constitution of a soul united to an animal body, and subjected to many inconveniences thereby.

Consider the many additional weaknesses, mistakes, and frailties, which are derived from our original apostasy and fall from a state of innocence; how much our powers of understanding are yet more darkened, enfeebled, and imposed upon by our senses, our fancies, and our unruly passions, &c.

Consider the depth and difficulty of many truths, and the flattering appearances of falsehood, whence arises an infinite variety of dangers to which we are exposed in our judgment of things.

Read with greediness those authors that treat of the doctrine of prejudices, prepossessions, and springs of error, on purpose to make your soul watchful on all sides, that it suffer itself, as far as possible, to be imposed upon by none of them.

Rule III. A slight view of things so momentous is not sufficient.

You should therefore contrive and practise some proper methods to acquaint yourself with your own ignorance, and to impress your mind with a deep and painful sense of the low and imperfect degrees of your present knowledge, that you may be incited with labour and activity to pursue after greater measures. Among others, you may find some such methods as these successful.

1. Take a wide survey now and then of the vast and unlimited regions of learning. […] The worlds of science are immense and endless.

2. Think what a numberless variety of questions and difficulties there are belonging even to that particular science in which you have made the greatest progress, and how few of them there are in which you have arrived at a final and undoubted certainty; excepting only those questions in the pure and simple mathematics, whose theorems are demonstrable, and leave scarce any doubt; and yet, even in the pursuit of some few of these, mankind have been strangely bewildered.

3. Spend a few thoughts sometimes on the puzzling enquiries concerning vacuums and atoms, the doctrine of infinites, indivisibles, and incommensurables in geometry, wherein there appear some insolvable difficulties: do this on purpose to give you a more sensible impression of the poverty of your understanding, and the imperfection of your knowledge. This will teach you what a vain thing it is to fancy that you know all things, and will instruct you to think modestly of your present attainments […]

4. Read the accounts of those vast treasures of knowledge which some of the dead have possessed, and some of the living do possess. Read and be astonished at the almost incredible advances which have been made in science. Acquaint yourself with some persons of great learning, that by converse among them, and comparing yourself with them, you may acquire a mean opinion of your own attainments, and may thereby be animated with new zeal, to equal them as far as possible, or to exceed: thus let your diligence be quickened by a generous and laudable emulation.

Rule IV. Presume not too much upon a bright genius, a ready wit, and good parts; for this, without labour and study, will never make a man of knowledge and wisdom.

This has been an unhappy temptation to persons of a vigorous and gay fancy, to despise learning and study. They have been acknowledged to shine in an assembly, and sparkle in a discourse on common topics, and thence they took it into their heads to abandon reading and labour, and grow old in ignorance; but when they had lost their vivacity of animal nature and youth, they became stupid and sottish even to contempt aud ridicule. Lucidas and Scintillo are young men of this stamp; they shine in conversation; they spread their native riches before the ignorant; they pride themselves in their own lively images of fancy, and imagine themselves wise and learned; but they had best avoid the presence of the skilful, and the test of reasoning; and I would advise them once a day to think forward a little, what a contemptible figure they will make in age.

The witty men sometimes have sense enough to know their own foible; and therefore they craftily shun the attacks of argument, or boldly pretend to despise and renounce them, because they are conscious of their own ignorance, aud inwardly confess their want of acquaintance with the skill of reasoning.

Rule V. As you are not to fancy yourself a learned man because you are blessed with a ready wit; so neither must you imagine that large and laborious reading, and a strong memory, can denominate you truly wise.

What that excellent critic has determined when he decided the question, whether wit or study makes the best poet, may well be applied to every sort of learning:

“Concerning poets there has been contest,
Whether they’re made by art, or nature best;
But if I may presume in this affair,
Among the rest my judgment to declare,
No art without a genius will avail,
And parts without the help of art will fail:
But both ingredients jointly must unite,
Or verse will never shine with a transcendent light.”
– Oldham.

It is meditation and studious thought, it is the exercise of your own reason and judgment upon all you read, that gives good sense even to the best genius, and affords your understanding the truest improvement. A boy of a strong memory may repeat a whole book of Euclid, yet be no geometrician; for he may not be able perhaps to demonstrate one single theorem. Memorino has learnt half the Bible by heart, and is become a living concordance, and a speaking index to theological folios, and yet he understands little of divinity. […]

Rule VII. Let the hope of new discoveries, as well as the satisfaction and pleasure of known trains, animate your daily industry.

Do not think learning in general is arrived at its perfection, or that the knowledge of any particular subject in any science cannot be improved, merely because it has lain five hundred or a thousand years without improvement. The present age, by the blessing of God on the ingenuity and diligence of men, has brought to light such truths in natural philosophy, and such discoveries in the heavens and the earth, as seemed to be beyond the reach of man. But may there not be Sir Isaac Newtons in every science? You should never despair therefore of finding out that which has never yet been found, unless you see something in the nature of it which renders it unsearchable, and above the reach of our faculties. […]

Rule VIII. Do not hover always on the surface of things, nor take up suddenly with mere appearances; but penetrate into the depth of matters, as far as your time and circumstances allow, especially in those things which relate to your own profession.

Do not indulge yourselves to judge of things by the first glimpse, or a short and superficial view of them; for this will fill the mind with errors and prejudices, and give it a wrong turn and ill habit of thinking, and make much work for retractation. Subito is carried away with title pages, so that he ventures to pronounce upon a large octavo at once, and to recommend it wonderfully when he had read half the preface. Another volume of controversies, of equal size, was discarded by him at once, because it pretended to treat of the Trinity, and yet he could neither find the word essence nor subsistences in the twelve first pages; but Subito changes his opinions of men and books and things so often, that nobody regards him.

As for those sciences, or those parts of knowledge, which either your profession, your leisure, your inclination, or your incapacity, forbid you to pursue with much application, or to search far into them, you must be contented with an historical and superficial knowledge of them, and not pretend to form any judgments of your own on those subjects which you understand very imperfectly.

Rule IX. Once a day, especially in the early years of life and study, call yourselves to an account what new ideas, what new proposition or truth you have gained, what further confirmation of known truths, and what advances you have made in any part of knowledge;

And let no day, if possible, pass away without some intellectual gain: such a course, well pursued, must certainly advance us in useful knowledge. It is a wise proverb among the learned, borrowed from the lips and practice of a celebrated painter,

“Let no day pass without one line at least.”

…and it was a sacred rule among the Pythagoreans, That they should every evening thrice run over the actions and affairs of the day, and examine what their conduct had been, what they had done, or what they had neglected: and they assured their pupils, that by this method they would make a noble progress on the path of virtue.

Rule X. Maintain a constant watch at all times against a dogmatical spirit;

Fix not your assent to any proposition in a firm and unalterable manner, till you have some firm and unalterable ground for it, and till you have arrived at some clear and sure evidence; till you have turned the proposition on all sides, and searched the matter through and through, so that you cannot be mistaken.

And even where you may think you have full grounds of assurance, be not too early, nor too frequent, in expressing this assurance in too peremptory and positive a manner, remembering that human nature is always liable to mistake in this corrupt and feeble state. A dogmatical spirit has man; inconveniences attending it: as

1. It stops the ear against all further reasoning upon that subject, and shuts up the mind from all farther improvements of knowledge. If you have resolutely fixed your opinion, though it be upon too slight and insufficient grounds, yet you will stand determined to renounce the strongest reason brought for the contrary opinion, and grow obstinate against the force of the clearest argument. Positive is a man of this character; and has often pronounced his assurance of the Cartesian vortexes: last year some further light broke in upon his understanding, with uncontrollable force, by reading something of mathematical philosophy; yet having asserted his former opinions in a most confident manner, be is tempted now to wink a little against the truth, or to prevaricate in his discourse upon that subject, lest by admitting conviction, he should expose himself to the necessity of confessing his former folly and mistake: and he has not humility enough for that.

2. A dogmatical spirit naturally leads us to arrogance of mind, and gives a man some airs in conversation which are too haughty and assuming. Audens is a man of learning, and very good company ; but his infallible assurance renders his carriage sometimes insupportable.


Rule XI. Though caution and slow assent will guard you against frequent mistakes and retractions; yet you should get humility and courage enough to retract any mistake, and confess an error.

Frequent changes are tokens of levity in our first determinations; yet you should never be too proud to change your opinion, nor frighted at the name of a changeling. Learn to scorn those vulgar bugbears, which confirm foolish man in his old mistakes, for fear of being charged with inconstancy. I confess it is better not to judge, than judge falsely; it is wiser to withhold our assent till we see complete evidence; but if we have too suddenly given up our assent, as the wisest man does sometimes, if we have professed what we find afterwards to be false, we should never be ashamed nor afraid to renounce a mistake. That is a noble essay which is found among the occasional papers ‘ to encourage the world to repractise retractations;’ and I would recommend it to the perusal of every scholar and every Christian.

Rule XV. Watch against the pride of your own reason, and a vain conceit of your own intellectual powers, with the neglect of divine aid and blessing.

Presume not upon great attainments in knowledge by your own self-sufficiency: those who trust to their own understandings entirely, are pronounced fools in the word of God; and it is the wisest of men gives them this character,

‘ He that trusteth in his own heart is a fool/ Prov. xxviii. 26. And the same divine writer advises us to ‘ trust in the Lord with all our heart, and not to lean to our understandings, nor to be wise in our own eyes,’ chap. iii. 5, 7*

Those who, with a neglect of religion and dependence on God, apply themselves to search out every article in the things of God by the mere dint of their own reason, have been suffered to run into wild excesses of foolery, and strange extravagance of opinions. Every one who pursues this vain course, and will not ask for the conduct of God in the study of religion, has just reason to fear he shall be left of God, and given up a prey to a thousand prejudices ; that he shall be consigned over to the follies of his own heart, and pursue his own temporal and eternal ruin. And even in common studies we should, by humility and dependence, engage the God of truth on our side. (Transcribers Note: This talk of God, pure nonsense that it is, does not diminish the value of his other rules.)



Ego is the Enemy: The Legend of Genghis Khan

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, Ryan Holiday tells the story of Genghis Khan and how his openness to learning was the foundation of his success.

By Ryan Holiday

The legend of Genghis Khan has echoed through history: A barbarian conqueror, fueled by bloodlust, terrorizing the civilized world. We have him and his Mongol horde traveling across Asia and Europe, insatiable, stopping at nothing to plunder, rape, and kill not just the people who stood in their way, but the cultures they had built. Then, not unlike his nomadic band of warriors, this terrible cloud simply disappeared from history, because the Mongols built nothing that could last. Like all reactionary, emotional assessments, this could not be more wrong. For not only was Genghis Khan one of the greatest military minds who ever lived, he was a perpetual student, whose stunning victories were often the result of his ability to absorb the best technologies, practices, and innovations of each new culture his empire touched. In fact, if there is one theme in his reign and in the several centuries of dynastic rule that followed, it’s this: appropriation.

Under Genghis Khan’s direction, the Mongols were as ruthless about stealing and absorbing the best of each culture they encountered as they were about conquest itself. Though there were essentially no technological inventions, no beautiful buildings or even great Mongol art, with each battle and enemy, their culture learned and absorbed something new. Genghis Khan was not born a genius. Instead, as one biographer put it, his was “a persistent cycle of pragmatic learning, experimental adaptation, and constant revision driven by his uniquely disciplined and focused will.”

He was the greatest conqueror the world ever knew because he was more open to learning than any other conqueror has ever been.

Khan’s first powerful victories came from the reorganization of his military units, splitting his soldiers into groups of ten. This he stole from neighboring Turkic tribes, and unknowingly converted the Mongols to the decimal system. Soon enough, their expanding empire brought them into contact with another “technology” they’d never experienced before: walled cities. In the Tangut raids, Khan first learned the ins and outs of war against fortified cities and the strategies critical to laying siege, and quickly became an expert. Later, with help from Chinese engineers, he taught his soldiers how to build siege machines that could knock down city walls. In his campaigns against the Jurched, Khan learned the importance of winning hearts and minds. By working with the scholars and royal family of the lands he conquered, Khan was able to hold on to and manage these territories in ways that most empires could not. Afterward, in every country or city he held, Khan would call for the smartest astrologers, scribes, doctors, thinkers, and advisers—anyone who could aid his troops and their efforts. His troops traveled with interrogators and translators for precisely this purpose.

It was a habit that would survive his death. While the Mongols themselves seemed dedicated almost solely to the art of war, they put to good use every craftsman, merchant, scholar, entertainer, cook, and skilled worker they came in contact with. The Mongol Empire was remarkable for its religious freedoms, and most of all, for its love of ideas and convergence of cultures. It brought lemons to China for the first time, and Chinese noodles to the West. It spread Persian carpets, German mining technology, French metalworking, and Islam. The cannon, which revolutionized warfare, was said to be the resulting fusion of Chinese gunpowder, Muslim flamethrowers, and European metalwork. It was Mongol openness to learning and new ideas that brought them together.

As we first succeed, we will find ourselves in new situations, facing new problems. The freshly promoted soldier must learn the art of politics. The salesman, how to manage. The founder, how to delegate. The writer, how to edit others. The comedian, how to act. The chef turned restaurateur, how to run the other side of the house.

This is not a harmless conceit. The physicist John Wheeler, who helped develop the hydrogen bomb, once observed that “as our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance.” In other words, each victory and advancement that made Khan smarter also bumped him against new situations he’d never encountered before. It takes a special kind of humility to grasp that you know less, even as you know and grasp more and more. It’s remembering Socrates’ wisdom lay in the fact that he knew that he knew next to nothing.

With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk—thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.

The nine-time Grammy– and Pulitzer Prize–winning jazz musician Wynton Marsalis once advised a promising young musician on the mind-set required in the lifelong study of music: “Humility engenders learning because it beats back the arrogance that puts blinders on. It leaves you open for truths to reveal themselves. You don’t stand in your own way. . . . Do you know how you can tell when someone is truly humble? I believe there’s one simple test: because they consistently observe and listen, the humble improve. They don’t assume, ‘I know the way.’”

No matter what you’ve done up to this point, you better still be a student. If you’re not still learning, you’re already dying.

It is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let ego block us from hearing it again.

Too often, convinced of our own intelligence, we stay in a comfort zone that ensures that we never feel stupid (and are never challenged to learn or reconsider what we know). It obscures from view various weaknesses in our understanding, until eventually it’s too late to change course. This is where the silent toll is taken.

Each of us faces a threat as we pursue our craft. Like sirens on the rocks, ego sings a soothing, validating song— which can lead to a wreck. The second we let the ego tell us  we have graduated, learning grinds to a halt. That’s why Frank Shamrock said, “Always stay a student.” As in, it never ends.

The solution is as straightforward as it is initially uncomfortable: Pick up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind. Change your surroundings

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

Most military cultures—and people in general—seek to impose values and control over what they encounter. What made the Mongols different was their ability to weigh each situation objectively, and if need be, swap out previous practices for new ones. All great businesses start this way, but then something happens. Take the theory of disruption, which posits that at some point in time, every industry will be disrupted by some trend or innovation that, despite all the resources in the world, the incumbent interests will be incapable of responding to. Why is this? Why can’t businesses change and adapt?

A large part of it is because they lost the ability to learn. They stopped being students. The second this happens to you, your knowledge becomes fragile.

The great manager and business thinker Peter Drucker says that it’s not enough simply to want to learn. As people progress, they must also understand how they learn and then set up processes to facilitate this continual education. Otherwise, we are dooming ourselves to a sort of self-imposed ignorance.

Source: Ego is the Enemy and used with permission from the author.

Seneca on Letting the Eminent Dead Guide You

“One who can so revere another, will soon himself be worthy of reverence.”

— Seneca

There’s a core part of Charlie Munger’s operating system for life that we adhere to: Learn deeply from the eminent dead. Bathe in the wisdom of great people who lived before you. He calls it a form of love:

A second idea that I got very early was that there is no love that’s so right as admiration-based love, and that love should include the instructive dead. Somehow, I got that idea and I lived with it all my life; and it’s been very, very useful to me.

Munger has commented that he’ll frequently be in a room with live people while mentally conversing with the dead. While you might not want to pick up on that particular habit unless you’re a 90-year-old billionaire (and perhaps not even then), the point still stands.

This advice is, of course, not new. Munger echoes the Stoic philosopher Seneca, who echoes Epicurus in recommending his pupil Lucilius learn from the best as well. Only Seneca takes it a step further. In his classic Letters Seneca instructs Lucilius not only to study the greats, but to keep them in front of him at all times, as a way to strengthen his nature. To let the eminent dead watch over his actions.

Cherish some man of high character, and keep him ever before your eyes, living as if he were watching you, and ordering all your actions as if he beheld them.” Such, my dear Lucilius, is the counsel of Epicurus; he has quite properly given us a guardian and an attendant. We can get rid of most sins, if we have a witness who stands near us when we are likely to go wrong. The soul should have someone whom it can respect, – one by whose authority it may make even its inner shrine more hallowed. Happy is the man who can make others better, not merely when he is in their company, but even when he is in their thoughts! And happy also is he who can so revere a man as to calm and regulate himself by calling him to mind! One who can so revere another, will soon be himself worthy of reverence.

Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.

Munger himself seems to have done this very thing with Ben Franklin, using him as a model of honesty, thriftiness, self-improvement, business savvy, and wit. Heck, the book of his speeches was titled Poor Charlie’s Almanack, in homage to Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack.

One might ask what use there is living in the shadow of others: Why not forge your own path? We can use a bit of simple algebra to solve this one. If (A) is [Direct life experience] and (B) is [Learning through the experience of others], and both have a positive value, then is A+B not greater than A alone? How could it be otherwise?

Seneca address this well in the same letter to Lucilius:

“Epicurus,” you reply, “uttered these words; what are you doing with another’s property?” Any truth, I maintain, is my own property. I shall continue to heap quotations from Epicurus upon you, so that all persons who swear by the words of another, and put a value upon the speaker and not upon the thing spoken, may understand that the best ideas are common property.

His final words echo our mantra: Don’t be ashamed to pay heed to the best of what other people have already figured out. We don’t need to think up all the wisdom of the world ourselves. Master the best of what the world has figured out.

Still Interested? Check out the mental models approach, or check out some of our posts on Seneca.

Nick Hornby Reminds us Why We Love Books (Sometimes)

“All the books we own, both read and unread, are the fullest expression of self we have at our disposal…With each passing year, and with each whimsical purchase, our libraries become more and more able to articulate who we are, whether we read the books or not.”  –  Nick Hornby


I’m not sure how I missed Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books when it was released a few years ago. If you don’t know him, Hornby is the English author of novels like About a Boy, Fever Pitch, and High Fidelity. (All three became movies — Fever Pitch twice.) The book is a collection of ten years of Hornby’s columns for the magazine The Believer. Once a month, Hornby would list all the books he bought and all of the books he managed to read that month, then he’d write about the ones he’d read. By my count, he read about 60 in the first year alone, so he was active.

Hornby is everything you want in someone writing about books: cheeky, wry humor; self-aware, non-nerdy. Ten Years in the Tub is a fun read precisely because it’s a window into a book lover’s soul. A funny book lover. And if you’re reading Farnam Street, you’re probably a book lover, or at least a liker.

Most heavy readers can, for instance, pretty well relate to Hornby’s ranging between despair and cheeriness over the fact that he can’t seem to remember what he reads:

I don’t reread books very often; I’m too conscious of both my ignorance and my mortality. But when I tried to recall anything about [the book Stop-Time] other than its excellence, I failed. Maybe there was something about a peculiar stepfather? Or was that This Boy’s Life? And I realized that, as this is true of just about every book I consumed between the ages of say, fifteen and forty, I haven’t even read the books I think I’ve read. I can’t tell you how depressing this is. What’s the fucking point?

Then, just a few months later:

A couple of months ago, I became depressed by the realization that I’d forgotten pretty much everything I’ve ever read. I have, however, bounced back: I am now cheered by the realization that, if I’ve forgotten everything I’ve ever read, then I can read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time. I remember the punch line of The Sirens of Titan, but everything else was as fresh as a daisy…I’m beginning to see that our appetite for books is the same as our appetite for food, that our brain tells us when we need the literary equivalent of salads, or chocolate, or meat and potatoes. 

Hornby’s pugilistic description of a struggle to read the Victorian novel No Name by Wilkie Collins is a classic; he heartily recommends it when he’s about 200 pages through, and then quickly reverses course in the following month’s column as he realizes the book is an absolute slog for the final 400 or so. This reminded me of my attempts to read Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky years ago. (Hornby seems to have competed the task, I gave up.)

We fought, Wilkie Collins and I. We fought bitterly, and with all our might, to a standstill, over a period of about three weeks, on trains and airplanes and by hotel swimming pools. Sometimes–usually late at night in bed–he could put me out cold with a single paragraph; every time I got through twenty or thirty pages, it felt to me as though I’d socked him good, but it took a lot out of me, and I had to retire to my corner to wipe the blood and sweat off my reading glasses. And still he kept coming back for more. Only in the past fifty-odd pages, after I’d landed several of these blows, did old Wilkie show any signs of buckling under the assault. He was pretty tough for a man of nearly one hundred and eighty. Hats off to him.

He then goes on to offer a refund to any readers who bought the book on his recommendation. (Like I said, cheeky.)

Hornby struggles, as we all do, with the long-versus-short book conundrum. It’s hard to commit to the long ones, especially if you know reading it will take work, but at least they tend to stick because of the commitment needed. Not always so with the lighter reads. (The best solution to the long books, of course, is to commit with discipline to a digestible volume amount every day.)

The truth is, I’ve been reading more short books recently because I need to bump up the numbers in the Books Read column–six of this month’s were really pretty scrawny…But the problem with short novels is that you can take liberties with them: you know you’re going to get through them no matter what, so you never set aside the time or commitment that a bigger book requires. I fucked Old School up; I should have read it in a sitting, but I didn’t, and I never gave it a chance to leave its mark. We are never allowed to forget that some books are badly written; we should remember that sometimes they’re badly read too. 

For any parents out there, Hornby hits a familiar note in a passage about trying to get some reading done over a Christmas holiday…a seemingly modest goal…

So this last month was, as I believe you people say, a bust. I had high hopes for it, too; it was Christmas-time in England, and I was intending to do a little holiday comfort reading–David Copperfield and a couple of John Buchan novels, say, while sipping an eggnog and heroically ploughing my way through some enormous animal carcass or other. I’ve been a father for ten years now, and not once have I been able to sit down and read several hundred pages of Dickens during the Christmas holidays. Why I thought it might be possible this year, now that I have twice as many children, is probably a question best discussed with an analyst: somewhere along the line, I have failed to take something on board. (Hey, great idea: if you have kids, give your partner reading vouchers next Christmas. Each voucher entitles the bearer to two hours’ reading-time while kids are awake. It might look like a cheapskate present, but parents will appreciate that it costs more in real terms than a Lamborghini.)

And finally, Hornby reminds us, the challenge and frustration of being a book-lover trying to cover a lot of ground is that the best laid plans often go awry(For those of us who don’t get books sent to us for free, substitute an Amazon addiction, or, say, a Farnam Street membership as the culprits of having too many books coming down the funnel.)

Francis Wheen’s book and Paul Collins’ Not Even Wrong were advance reading copies that arrived through the post. I’m never going to complain about receiving free early copies of books, because quite clearly there’s nothing to complain about, but it does introduce a rogue element into one’s otherwise carefully plotted reading schedule. I had no idea I wanted to read Wheen’s book until it arrived, and it was because of Wheen that I read Lewis, and then Not Even Wrong turned up and I wanted to read that too, and Buchan’s Greenmantle got put to one side, I suspect forever. Being a reader is sort of like being president, except reading involves fewer state dinners, usually. You have the agenda you want to get through, but you get distracted by life events, e.g., books arriving in the mail/World War III, and you are temporarily deflected from your chosen path. 

So, here’s our recommendation: First, learn How to Read a Book. Then pick up Hornby’s charming book for some inspiration. As you watch Hornby flit from David Copperfield, to Moneyball, to literary biographies of obscure early 20th century novelists, you realize it’s a book that reminds you why you love books. And it’s a reminder that people who love books are in a certain kooky fraternity for life.

E.O. Wilson on Becoming a Great Scientist

The biologist E.O. Wilson, now of Harvard University, made his first and largest splash by releasing his book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, which made the controversial claim (at the time) that human nature has a strong biological basis.

His work brought into public consciousness the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, where Steven Pinker, Robert Trivers, and others have made huge strides in contributing to our understanding of why we are who we are.

Wilson’s newest book is a slim volume called Letters to a Young Scientist. I picked it up off the bookshelf blindly, and after reading it, I was struck by its unusual tone: It’s part memoir, part advice journal, part pop-science (in the good, “effectively explains things to lesser mortals” way, not the derogatory way), which means the book works on multiple levels.

Science Isn’t Just Lab Coats and Blackboards 

One of the triumphs of the book is Wilson’s ability to explain to a non-scientist (or, as he intended, a future scientist) the way science is actually conducted, and what it takes to be a good scientist. Some of these explanations are counterintuitive to our popular understanding:

Most of the stereotypical photographs of scientists studying rows of equations written on blackboards are instructors explaining discoveries already made. Real progress comes in the field writing notes, at the office amid a litter of doodle paper, in the corridor struggling to explain something to a friend, at lunchtime, eating alone, or in a garden while walking. To have a eureka moment requires hard work. And focus. A distinguished researcher once commented to me that a real scientist is someone who can think about a subject while talking to his or her spouse about something else.

Because of the need for extreme focus over a long period (or as William Deresiewicz put it — “concentrating and sticking to the problem“), there’s a lot of grinding in scientific work. But Wilson describes it as a treasure hunt:

To reach and stay at the frontier (of scientific thought), a strong work ethic is absolutely essential. There must be an ability to pass long hours in study and research with pleasure even though some of the effort will inevitably lead to dead ends. Such is the price of admission to the first rank of research scientists. They are like treasure hunters of older times in an uncharted land, these elite men and women.

Echoing Charlie Munger, Wilson posits that outside of the day-to-day work required to become an expert, big opportunities in science and life must be seized:

Once deeply engaged, a steady stream of small discoveries is guaranteed. But stay alert for the main chance that lies to the side. There will always be the possibility of a major strike, some wholly unexpected find, some little detail that catches your peripheral attention that might very well, if followed, enlarge or even transform the subject you have chosen. If you sense such a possibility, seize it. In science, gold fever is a good thing.

Think Like a Poet

Later, Wilson expands on this idea of deep expertise combined with imagination and playfulness being the essential features of great scientific thought. This idea of deep focus plus playfulness leads to new connections and innovative thought, an idea we’ve come across before as combinatorial creativity.

One way to cultivate this, says Wilson, is to think like a poet.

Make it a practice to indulge in fantasy about science. Make it more than just an occasional exercise. Daydream a lot. Make talking to yourself silently a relaxing pastime. Give lectures to yourself about important topics you need to understand. Talk with others of like mind. By their dreams you shall know them…The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and only later works as a bookkeeper. Keep in mind that innovators in both literature and science are basically dreamers and storytellers.

Use Ignorance 

Echoing thoughts by Richard Feynman, Wilson says we need to spot and harness our ignorance to make scientific progress:

To make important discoveries anywhere in science, it is necessary not only to acquire a broad knowledge of the subject that interests you, but also the ability to spot blank spaces in that knowledge. Deep ignorance, when properly handled, is also a superb opportunity…To search for unasked questions, plus questions to put to already acquired but unsought answers, it is vital to give full play to the imagination. That is the way to create truly original science.

No Genius Needed

One problem that makes young people afraid of getting into a scientific field, even though they are interested in making discoveries about the world, is they feel they aren’t that good at math, or even that smart. But Wilson tackles both of these.

If your level of mathematical competence is low, plan on raising it, but meanwhile know that you can do outstanding work with what you have. Such is markedly true in fields built largely upon the amassing of data, including, for example, taxonomy, ecology, biogeography, geology, and archaeology. At the same time, think twice about specializing in fields that require a close alternation of experiment and quantitative analysis. These include the greater part of physics and chemistry, as well as a few specialties within molecular biology. Learn the basics of improving your mathematical literacy as you go along, but if you remain weak in mathematics, seek happiness elsewhere among the vast array of scientific specialties.

Wilson says he himself only started learning calculus at the age of 32 when he was already a well known and practicing scientist, and although it wasn’t easy, he did it. He points out that his IQ was measured at 123, and he knows two Nobel prize winners who scored in the 120s. Charles Darwin was roughly 130. It doesn’t take genius to make scientific progress:

Work accomplished on the frontier defines genius, not just getting there. In fact, both accomplishments along the frontier and the final eureka moment are achieved more by entrepreneurship and hard work than by native intelligence. This is so much the case that in most fields, most of the time, extreme brightness may be a detriment…

Passion Above All

When it comes to choosing what to study and what to pursue, Wilson makes a familiar recommendation: go where the competition is low. (This principle works in much of life.)

You have heard the military rule for the summoning of troops to the battlefield: “March to the sound of the guns.” In science the opposite is the one for you…

March away from the sound of the guns. Observe the fray at a distance, and while you are at it, consider making your own fray.

And above all, you need to love what you study. If you start with that principle, your odds of success are best:

It is quite simple: put passion ahead of training. Feel out in any way you can what you most want to do in science, or technology, or some other science-related profession. Obey that passion as long as it lasts. Feed it with the knowledge the mind needs to grow. Sample other subjects, acquire a general education in science, and be smart enough to switch to a greater love if one appears….Decision and hard work based on enduring passion will never fail you.

Check out Letters to a Young Scientist – you can read it in an afternoon but you’ll probably think about it for a lot longer.

Albert Bandura on Acquiring Self-Efficacy and Personal Agency

Albert Bandura

Psychologist Albert Bandura is famous for his social learning theory which is really more of a model than a theory.

He stresses the importance of observational learning. Who you spend time with matters. “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do,” Bandura explains.

There is an excerpt in Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed that explains how we can acquire and maintain the factors of personal resilience.

1. Seek to successfully demonstrate and repeatedly practice each of our five factors of personal resilience. Success is a powerful learning tool—Just do it! If the challenge is too large or complex at first, start by taking small steps in the desired direction. Don’t try to achieve too much at first. And keep trying until you succeed. The first success is the hardest.

2. Observe resilient people. Use them as role models. Human beings learn largely by observation. Frequent venues where you can watch people exhibiting the skills you wish to acquire. Read books about people who have overcome obstacles similar to those you face. Call or write them. Ask them to share their lessons learned. Their successes will be contagious.

3. Vigorously pursue the encouragement and support of others. Affiliate with supportive and compassionate people who are willing to give of themselves to be supportive of you.

4. Practice self-control. In highly stressful times, myriad physiological and behavioral reactions occur. Physiologically, people experience the fight-or-flight response we mentioned in Chapter One. This cascade of hormones such as adrenalin better prepares you to fight or to flee a threat. They increase your heart rate, muscle strength, and tension. They dramatically improve your memory for certain things while decreasing your ability to remember others, and they cause your blood vessels to shift their priorities. This often results in headaches, cold hands and feet, and even an upset gastrointestinal system. The most significant problem, however, is that this very basic survival mechanism also tends to interfere with rational judgment and problem solving.

According to Bandura we need to control the stress around us so that it doesn’t become excessive, in part because we often act without thinking in stressful situations.

People often act impulsively in reaction to stressful events, sometimes running away from them. Remember the 1999 movie Runaway Bride, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts? It was the fictional story of a woman who had a penchant for falling in love and getting engaged, then developing cold feet and leaving her fiances at the altars. On a more somber note, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, many veterans chose to retreat to lives of isolation and solitude. The stress of war and the lack of social support motivated many to simply withdraw from society.

Similarly, over many years of clinical practice, we have seen individuals who have great difficulty establishing meaningful relationships after surviving a traumatic or vitriolic divorce. It’s hard for them to trust another person after having been “betrayed.” They exhibit approach-avoidance behaviors—engaging in a relationship initially but backing away when it intensifies.

Contrary to these patterns of escape and avoidance, sometimes people will impulsively act aggressively in response to stressful situations. Chronic irritability is often an early warning sign of subsequent escalating aggressive behavior. Rarely, although sometimes catastrophically, people will choose to lie, cheat, or steal in highly stressful situations. For years, psychologists have tried to predict dishonesty using psychological testing. The results have been uninspiring. The reason is that the best predictor of dishonesty is finding oneself in a highly stressful situation. So in highly stressful times, resist the impulsive urges to take the easy way out.

Also, remember to take care of yourself, physically as well as psychologically. Maladaptive self-medication is a common pattern of behavior for people who find themselves in the abyss. Alcohol has long been observed as a chemical crutch. Others that have only recently emerged are the myriad energy drinks on the market. Both of these crutches have been linked to numerous physical ailments and even deaths. If you are looking for the best single physical mechanism to aid you in your ascent from the abyss, it’s establishing healthy patterns of rest and sleep.

But note the distinction between controlling and suppressing. Often controlling is impossible so we suppress and fool ourselves into thinking we’re controlling. And suppressing volatility is often a horrible idea, especially in the long-run.

Instead of what’s intended, we create a coiled spring that most often leads to negative leaping emergent effects. In the end this moves us toward fragility and away from robustness and resiliency.


If you’re still curious, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind discusses a bit of this topic as well.