And sometimes panic sets in

Inspired by a reader’s question to me, I thought I’d ask our followers on Facebook and Twitter for an answer to the question: What books would you recommend someone read to improve their general knowledge of the world.

I must say the number and quality of the responses overwhelmed me. The box Amazon just delivered reminds me that I ordered 9 books off this list.

~ Farnam Street from,

I know there are too many books—old books, new books, red books, blue books … A friend of mine just published a book, Before You Say Anything, and Jiminy Cricket I’d love to read it— I hovered on the add-to-cart button. But I paused, managing to trigger my habit-change “wedge” of repeating: “simplfiy. simplify. simplify.” I digress.

I skimmed that list of books from Farnam Street and felt I should probably read every one of them. Instead—simplify. simplify. simplify.—I noted I’ve read several, have several more already in my possession, and several others on the wishlist. With a life-is-short shrug, I’m passing it along to you and moving on with my morning.


If it’s good enough for Faraday

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.

~ Farnam Street from,

Yes, that Michael Faraday. And book ordered.

I’m a vigorous agreer with Will Smith’s comments about reading, (and I believe him regarding running but my body is not yet on board.) I hope that reading this book is a wonderful exercise in, “I already knew that. And that. And also that.” However, my current traipsing through, A College Manual of Rhetoric has proven to be a font of—apparently—long forgotten by most everyone, gems. As such, I’m willing to bet my hoped-for reading of, The Improvement of the Mind will turn out similarly.


Who’s using whom

The problem is that our New Tools are winning the battle of attention. We’ve gotten to the point where the tools use us as much as we use them. This new reality means we need to re-examine our relationship with our New Tools.

~ Farnam Street from,

Also see, Jaron Lanier‘s comments about the Internet in general and social networks in particular. I consider myself fully innoculated against information overload and against my tools using me.

And yet, my mind wanders. I sit down to try to write out a blog post or three, and I find myself doing other things. The majority of my disruptions these days are simply ducking into my various projects and messaging platforms. The problem is that when I do, there’s always something to do. It’s not some inifite scroll that catches my eye, but rather a new message—from one of dozens of ongoing conversations—or something I spot which can be improved.

It’s not enough to simply do only productive things. No rather, I actually do far too many different productive things. A minute here replying to this person, two minutes there improving this little feature, 5 minutes writing a bug report, 10 minutes responding to a product vendor, … where was I? Right, trying to write this blog post.


Last vestiges

It can be hard to say no. It means refusing someone, and often it means denying yourself instant gratification. The rewards of doing this are uncertain and less tangible. I call decisions like this “first-order negative, second-order positive.” Most people don’t take the time to think through the second-order effects of their choices. If they did, they’d realize that freedom comes from the ability to say no.

~ Farnam Street from,

I think the “slavery” [to things, to money, to “more”] metaphor is inappropriate, but philosophers from Epictetus and earlier have been using it, so it’s entrenched. “Freedom” is mentioned in the pull-quote, and the metaphor also appears in the article. None the less, it connects a few different ideas together and gives good guidance if you’re new to the ideas. (Or if you could use a wee refresher.)

For me, the last vestiges of the yearning—as Wu Hsin put it—is the yearning for experiences. I am quite often restless. I often joke: “I do not idle well.” In my series on parkour-travel I even mentioned the idea of, when spare time exists, move towards the next scheduled-thing, and kill time there. I believe this yearning springs from my bias to action. As a counter-practice, I like to pause—often seemingly randomly—to remind myself: If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.

That phrase can get tossed around lightly, but there’s deep wisdom in it. Once I understand that this is in fact nice, right now, then when I realize that I wasn’t—just then, in the moment—feeling how nice it is… then the second part of the phrase has power: I don’t know what is. Put another way:

If I know what is nice, then this is.



Informed Simplicity is an enlightened view of reality. It is founded on ability to discern or create clarifying patterns with complex mixtures. Pattern recognition is a crucial skill for an architect, who must create a highly ordered building amid many competing and frequently nebulous design considerations.

~ Matthew Frederick from,

As you’ve no doubt discovered, getting to the level of informed simpicity is difficult. It requires deep understanding of a field, and that requires significant time investment. In my opinion, a hallmarks of subject mastery is demonstrating a level of understanding that reaches informed simplicity.

If I think something is simple, either I’m a beginner or the subject isn’t complex enough to be a mastery practice. If I think something is complex, then I know I’m a beginner. And if when asked about the subject, I find myself looking up a little with my eyes, while making that lopsided, slight smile… suddenly lost in thought? Then I know things are getting easy.


What if I just did the thing a bunch more times?

7. Consistent and repeatable results come from a process. “True style does not come from a conscious effort to create a particular look. It results obliquely—even accidentally—out of a holistic process.”

~ From

That Farnam Street articlette is about a book, 101 Things Things I Learned in Architecture School. The 7th point, in bold, is the penultimate of a best-of-the-best selection from the book. The inner-quoted part is Matthew Frederick, the book’s author.

This point about a holistic process—the idea that mastery isn’t some higgledy-piggledy mish-mash of throwing things together—is an idea I’ve held dearly for a long time. Every time I see it, like in this articlette, I want leap up, flipping my desk over and scream, “Hear! Hear! …and again, louder, for those in the back staring at their handheld devices.”

Every single time that I’ve decided to take a process, and repeat it in search of understanding, (for example, my 10,000 rep’s project,) the learning and personal growth has paid off beyond my wildest dreams. At this point, I’ve done nearly 200 recorded conversations—I’m not stretching the truth, it’s actually hard to figure out exactly how many I’ve done. I’ve started another show recently as part of the Podcaster Community (25+ episodes and counting) and I’ve set up all the moving parts for yet another show as part of Movers Mindset “shorts”. And I keep wondering…

What would happen if I did 500, 1000? …what about 10,000? Not because I want to be famous and whine, “but I did 1,000 episodes why doesn’t anyone love me?!” But because I can see, in myself, how much I’ve learned and grown after 200. What would happen if I did a lot more?


Epochs of problems

Avoiding problems avoids the opportunity for growth. Most of the time, problems don’t go away, instead they grow.

~ Farnam Street from ,

It seems to me that there are epochs of problems. In the early days of my journey, I made dumb mistakes. Slowly I learned through stubbed toes, hurt feelings, expensive mistakes and bridges burned that life is hard, yes. But it’s much harder if you’re stoopid. More time passed.

I resolved the internal issues that led to bad impulses and choices. I learned the Kastanza Lesson of opposite day; If every instinct you have is wrong and causes things to turn out badly, one should at least trying doing the opposite. In short, I intentionally crafted a moral compass. Effectively gone—unless I just jinxed it—are any problems which are my fault. I’m not talking about errors here; I drop things, make wrong turns and forget things, of course. More time passed

And I’m left wondering how I move beyond my current problem: The setting of unrealistic expectations for myself, and of setting expectations [of any sort] of other people. I’m reminded of my thoughts on Discovery, Reflection and Efficacy. Perhaps if some more time passes? That seems to have worked twice now.


The hive mind

Few working scientists can give a ground-up explanation of the phenomenon they study; they rely on information and techniques borrowed from other scientists. Knowledge and the virtues of the scientific orientation live far more in the community than the individual. When we talk of a “scientific community,” we are pointing to something critical: that advanced science is a social enterprise, characterized by an intricate division of cognitive labor. Individual scientists, no less than the quacks, can be famously bull-headed, overly enamored of pet theories, dismissive of new evidence, and heedless of their fallibility. (Hence Max Planck’s observation that science advances one funeral at a time.) But as a community endeavor, it is beautifully self-correcting.

Beautifully organized, however, it is not. Seen up close, the scientific community—with its muddled peer-review process, badly written journal articles, subtly contemptuous letters to the editor, overtly contemptuous subreddit threads, and pompous pronouncements of the academy— looks like a rickety vehicle for getting to truth. Yet the hive mind swarms ever forward. It now advances knowledge in almost every realm of existence—even the humanities, where neuroscience and computerization are shaping understanding of everything from free will to how art and literature have evolved over time.

~ Atul Gawande from,

I can’t add to that. I only wanted to be sure that others see it too.

Meanwhile, I never bothered to read Gawande’s hit book, The Checklist Manifesto. (To be candid, bordering on obnoxious: Time is limited, and I don’t need to seek more information about processes. I’ve got that sorted.) But it has hovered in my awareness none the less. Recently, two unrelated sources gave over-the-top praise for Gawande’s newer book, Being Mortal. On those recommendations alone it’s now in my reading queue. I’ve cracked it open, and done the preliminary reading… Have you read it? Do you have any thoughts on it?


What’s the point?

I think many people assume, wrongly, that a company exists simply to make money. While this is an important result of a company’s existence, we have to go deeper and find the real reasons for our being. As we investigate this, we inevitably come to the conclusion that a group of people get together and exist as an institution that we call a company so they are able to accomplish something collectively which they could not accomplish separately. They are able to do something worthwhile— they make a contribution to society (a phrase which sounds trite but is fundamental).

~ David Packard Jr. from,

“Important result,” as in: One way to measure value created is to use accounting, and money is a wonderfully well-understood thing with which to keep account. There are other ways to measure value creation, obviously. But even a not-for-profit company has to keep account of it’s balance; if its income doesn’t balance expense, eventually the creditors will cease extending their services. Everything—people, companies, communities—is somewhere on the spectrum from consumption thru creation, via accounting of value. The magic sauce is our minds. We each use our minds to create value, and we each find a vehicle for taking our ideas to fruition.

Anyway, that’s how I see it.


Word words werds

It begins to look, more and more disturbingly, as if the gift of language is the single human trait that marks us all genetically, setting us apart from all the rest of life. Language is, like nest building or hive making, the universal and biologically specific activity of human beings. We engage in it communally, compulsively, and automatically. We cannot be human without it; if we were to be separated from it our minds would die, as surely as bees lost from the hive.

~ Lewis Thomas from,

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua. Ut enim ad minim veniam, quis nostrud exercitation ullamco laboris nisi ut aliquip ex ea commodo consequat. Duis aute irure dolor in reprehenderit in voluptate velit esse cillum dolore eu fugiat nulla pariatur. Excepteur sint occaecat cupidatat non proident, sunt in culpa qui officia deserunt mollit anim id est laborum.

I’m going to guess you just spent some time trying to work out what I mean to convey through this assembly of: my title, that pull-quote, who might Thomas be, and that bit of vaguely familiar Latin. Interesting.