We should acknowledge some other predispositions. We’re sticklers on fact. Nonfiction means much more than accuracy, but it begins with not making things up. If it happened on Tuesday, that’s when it happened, even if Thursday would make for a tidier story. (And in our experience, at least, Tuesday usually turns out to make for a more interesting story.) This is not to confuse facts with the truth, a subject we will deal with. We also believe in the
To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them—by imagining for the reader an intelligence at least equal to the intelligence you imagine for yourself. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not know (why else presume to write?), but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge
Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting. What you “know” isn’t something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best of conversations with a friend—as if you and the reader do the discovering together. Writers are told that they must “grab” or “hook” or “capture” the reader. But think about these metaphors. Their theme is violence and compulsion. They suggest the relationship you might want to have with a criminal, not a reader. Montaigne writes: “I do not want a man to use his strength to get my attention.” Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don’t expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning. The most memorable first line in American literature is “Call me Ishmael.”
The “mystery and surprise” can be genuine, shared
I tend to worry now when a story is easily summarized and in summary sounds interesting or, even worse, exciting. This may be superstition, but I believe there is one sure dictum about judging one’s material, a cocktail party rule so to speak: it isn’t always a bad sign when a potential story doesn’t talk well.
It is a misleading truism that drama comes from conflict. Conflict in stories is generally understood as an external contest between good guys and bad guys. But to say that Hamlet depicts the conflict between a prince and usurper king is (obviously) to oversimplify that rich, mysterious drama, indeed to misunderstand it completely. The most important conflict often happens within a character, or within the narrator. The story begins with an inscrutable character and ends with a person the author and reader understand better than before, a series of events that yields, however quietly, a dramatic truth. One might call this kind of story a narrative of revelation.
Revelation, someone’s learning something, is what transforms event into story. Without revelation, a story of high excitement leaves us asking, “Is that all?”
For a story to have a chance to live, it is essential only that there be something important at stake, a problem that confronts the characters or confronts the reader in trying to understand them. The unfolding of the problem and its resolution are the real payoff. A car chase is not required.
In Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” for example, the nominal subject is the writer’s errand in the early evening, a stroll to a stationer’s store in search of a pencil. The stroll becomes the occasion for thought about the nature of solitude, and about the consolidation of self in the home versus the dissolution of self in the city. The small experience keeps ramifying into something else. She remembers standing on the doorstep of the stationer’s and thinks, “It is always an adventure to enter a new room, for the lives and characters of its owners have distilled their atmosphere into it, and directly we enter it we taste some new wave of emotion.”
All the genres blur, but none is blurrier than the essay,
The line between essay and memoir is particularly porous.
Although many are simplistic, all rules of writing share a worthy goal: clear and vigorous prose. Most writers want to achieve that. And most want to achieve something more, the distinction that is called a style. It’s an elusive goal, but the surest way to approach it is by avoiding the many styles that offer themselves to you. The world brims over with temptations for the writer, modish words, unexamined phrases, borrowed tones, and the habits of thought they all represent. The creation of a style often begins with a negative achievement. Only by rejecting what comes too easily can you clear a space for yourself.
That’s the real problem with these sentences filled with nouns as adjectives—not that they violate a grammatical rule, but that they violate normal rhythms of speech. Good readers and good writers use both eyes and ears. And for a reader who hears the words, the shorter sentence actually takes longer to register. It is hard to hear, and thus the reader resists it. Sometimes longer is shorter. The habit of compression,
Breeziness has become for many the literary mode of first resort, a ready-to-wear means to seeming fresh and authentic. The style is catchy, and catching, like any other fashion. Writers should be cautious with this or any other stylized jauntiness—especially young writers, to whom the tone tends to come easily. The colloquial writer seeks intimacy, but the discerning reader, resisting that friendly hand on the shoulder, that winning grin, is apt to back away.
The initial dependent clause is a dubious construction under the best of circumstances. A sentence built on it is usually weaker than a straightforward declarative sentence. A devoted husband, he bought her a diamond
Yet it is undeniable that good writing must have a human sound. Maybe that is the more modest word to keep in mind: sound. You try to attune yourself to the sound of your own writing. If you can’t imagine yourself saying something aloud, then you probably shouldn’t write it. That is not the same as saying, “Write the way you talk.” If we all did that, civilization would be in even worse shape than it is. This is closer: Write the way you talk on your best day. Write the way you would like to talk. Sometimes it will happen, in the middle
A writer who wants to write and to be published successfully has to try to cultivate a certain doubleness of being. When you are writing, you have to think of yourself as a writer and not as a commodity. But when your book is published, it becomes a product. Over the years publishers and agents have become increasingly sophisticated at promoting books, and to let pride keep you from cooperating in their efforts would be churlish and self-destructive.
Every book has to be in part its own reward. In happy moments one realizes that the best work is done when one’s eye is simply on the work, not on its consequences, or on oneself. It is something done for its own sake. It is, in Lewis Hyde’s term, a gift.
dispiriting place. David Foster Wallace was admired by many of his fellow writers, and though his own highest ambitions may have been reserved for his fiction, some admired him as much for the witty, compulsively intelligent prose of his essays and reportage. At the New York memorial service for him, the novelist Zadie Smith quoted him as having said, “… the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies somewhere in the art’s heart’s purpose: the agenda of the consciousness behind the text. It’s got something to do with love. With having the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love, instead of the part that just wants to be loved.” 8
I remember in college reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon and studying a note that he left in the manuscript: “Rewrite from mood. Has become stilted with rewriting. Don’t look—rewrite from mood.” I reread those lines so often, trying to understand them, that they stuck in my memory.
I was twenty-seven and he was only thirty-two, but I recognized him as a member of an older generation, an older generation, that is, of Americans who went to college before the Vietnam War and the matriculation of the baby boomers, whom Todd once described as “a generation of twits.” He liked things that seemed to me old-fashioned, such as farms and, at least hypothetically, farming. He liked old buildings, bucolic landscapes, antiques, and realistic fiction. And it seemed as if a lot of what he liked he liked in opposition to what he didn’t like, and I learned more about the things he didn’t like, many of which were things I did like, such as exercise for its own sake, unrealistic fiction, sunny climates, and cats. He was calm on the surface, and the surface was what he let most people see; whereas I tended to share my thoughts and especially complaints. For about five
A timepasser is one possible means of “making some things big and other things little”—perhaps the most important phrase in our private lexicon. A timepasser can be a means of creating pleasing proportionality,
Things out of place or proportion give rise to a “bump,” a term that I never liked to decipher in the margin of a page, back when Todd still wrote his comments. “A bump is worse than it sounds, isn’t it?” I asked him once. “Yes,” he said. “It’s not just something you drive over. It means these things in a story aren’t connected, they aren’t meshing, they don’t meet. And so it gets you worried about the logic of the structure of the story.”
“Taking the spin off” can be the solution not only to a melodramatic sentence, but to a problem of tone that infects a whole manuscript. A phrase like “someone went mad for blood” has, among its other demerits, a bossy quality. Taking the spin off can be translated roughly as: Don’t try to tell the reader how to feel.
“You have to manage this” means something nearly opposite. Opposite also from the old saw “Show, don’t tell,” of which my college teacher Robert Fitzgerald once said, “It’s a good rule, and it’s meant to be broken.”
To manage something can mean slowing down an important scene to make it bigger than the things that are supposed to be little, and to do that you might try to find one moment in a story that can stand for many others. Or management might require a generalization, a summarizing statement that doesn’t seem didactic. Todd calls this sort of statement “a brilliance,” as in, “We need a brilliance here.” He has supplied me with several over the years, phrases that I transposed a little or even used verbatim. In reference to the life of inmates in a nursing home in my book Old Friends, for instance: “The problem with visitors is they have to be thanked for coming and forgiven for going away.”
Todd told me he didn’t think editors should make up sentences for writers. “I’ve done it, but I don’t like to do it,” he said. “But there are lines I’ve taken from you shamelessly. Ones you gave me in conversation.” “Well, conversation is one thing.” “What’s the difference?” “I don’t know,” he said. “Something mystical.”
It was clear from the start that he was going to be a writer. Successful or not, who can ever tell? But a writer. Over the years people have sometimes asked me what it “takes” to be a writer. When I answer this I start sounding like a basketball coach speaking of “desire.” But, really, the answer is that it seems to take an inability to imagine yourself doing anything else—because anything else is so much easier. It would have been impossible to discourage Kidder, and heartless to try.
Seth Godin is a force in the marketing world. He’s a topsy-turvy brain with a largely straight, businessman audience, which makes his blend of exaggeration and passion even more surprising. He’s written a ton of books that overlap heavily in their ideas, so I’ve just chosen Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? to highlight here. Hopefully you get a sense of this man’s passion and intellectual rigor from these.
The cause of the suffering is the desire of organizations to turn employees into replaceable cogs in a vast machine. The easier people are to replace, the less they need to be paid. And so far, workers have been complicit in this commoditization. This is your opportunity. The indispensable employee brings humanity and connection and art to her organization. She is the key player, the one who’s difficult to live without, the person you can build something around.
If your organization wanted to replace you with someone far better at your job than you, what would they look for?
No, the competitive advantage the marketplace demands is someone more human, connected, and mature. Someone with passion and energy, capable of seeing things as they are and negotiating multiple priorities as she makes useful decisions without angst. Flexible in the face of change, resilient in the face of confusion. All of these attributes are choices, not talents, and all of them are available to you.
You could do Richard Branson’s job. Most of the time, anyway. I spent some time with Sir Richard, and I can tell you that you could certainly do most of what he does, perhaps better than he does it. Except for what he does for about five minutes a day. In those five minutes, he creates billions of dollars’ worth of value every few years, and neither you nor I would have a prayer of doing what he does. Branson’s real job is seeing new opportunities, making decisions that work, and understanding the connection between his audience, his brand, and his ventures.
The law of linchpin leverage: The more value you create in your job, the fewer clock minutes of labor you actually spend creating that value. In other words, most of the time, you’re not being brilliant. Most of the time, you do stuff that ordinary people could do. A brilliant author or businesswoman or senator or software engineer is brilliant only in tiny bursts. The rest of the time, they’re doing work that most any trained person could do.
One of the most powerful essays in the book describes how Ben changes the lives of his hyperstressed music students by challenging each of them to “give yourself an A.” His point is that announcing in advance that you’re going to do great—embracing your effort and visualizing an outcome—is far more productive than struggling to beat the curve. I want to go farther than that. I say you should give yourself a D (unless you’re lucky enough to be in Ben’s class). Assume before you start that you’re going to create something that the teacher, the boss, or some other nitpicking critic is going to dislike. Of course, they need to dislike it for all the wrong reasons. You can’t abandon technique merely because you’re not good at it or unwilling to do the work. But if the reason you’re going to get a D is that you’re challenging structure and expectation and the status quo, then YES! Give yourself a D. A well-earned D.
Being as charming as Julia Roberts or as direct as Marlon Brando or as provocative as Danny Boyle—that’s way easier than playing cricket better than anyone who ever lived. Emotional labor is available to all of us, but is rarely exploited as a competitive advantage. We spend our time and energy trying to perfect our craft, but we don’t focus on the skills and interactions that will allow us to stand out and become indispensable to our organization.
Why do so many handmade luxury goods come from France? It’s not an accident. It’s the work of one man, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. He served under Louis XIV of France in the 1600s and devised a plan to counter the imperialist success of the countries surrounding France. England, Portugal, Spain, and other countries were colonizing the world, and France was being left behind. So Colbert organized, regulated, and promoted the luxury-goods industry. He understood what wealthy consumers around the world wanted, and he helped French companies deliver it. Let other countries find the raw materials; the French would fashion it, brand it, and sell it back to them as high-priced goods. A critical element of this approach was the work of indispensable artisans.
Consider the way a pilot walking down the aisle can change the entire afternoon for a restless kid on a flight. Or the way a doctor taking just an extra minute can change her relationship with a patient by pausing and caring. The opposite of being a cog is being able to stop the show, at will. What would it take for you to stop the show?
When you do emotional labor, you benefit. Not just the company, not just your boss, but you. The act of giving someone a smile, of connecting to a human, of taking initiative, of being surprising, of being creative, of putting on a show—these are things that we do for free all our lives. And then we get to work and we expect to merely do what we’re told and get paid for it.
Are you indispensable at home? Would it fall apart without you? What about at work? Why are you easily replaceable at one venue but not the other? Are you charming when you go on a date or meet a handsome guy at a party? But not at a meeting at work? I’m wondering why we’re so easily able to expend emotional labor off the job, but uncomfortable expending the same energy on the job.
If there is no sale, look for the fear. If a marketing meeting ends in a stalemate, look for the fear. If someone has a tantrum, breaks a promise, or won’t cooperate, there’s fear involved. Fear is the most important emotion we have.
By forcing myself to do absolutely no busywork tasks in between bouts with the work, I remove the best excuse the resistance has. I can’t avoid the work because I am not distracting myself with anything but the work. This is the hallmark of a productive artist. I don’t go to meetings. I don’t write memos. I don’t have a staff. I don’t commute. The goal is to strip away anything that looks productive but doesn’t involve shipping.
The Grateful Dead puzzled industry pundits for a long time. Why didn’t they want to sell more records? Why didn’t they want a gold record? Why didn’t they want to get their music played on the radio? The answer is simple: they were playing a different game, a different tune. Instead of buying into a system that would tear them down and corrupt their vision, they built their own system, one that was largely resistance-proof. One concert a night, night after night, for decade after decade. Play only for people you like, with people you enjoy. How can the lizard brain object to that? The result is sneaky and effective. When you haven’t set up a judge and jury for your work, you get to do art that doesn’t alert the resistance. And then you can leverage that art into the next thing.
Linus Torvalds worked hard on creating the Linux operating system. He did it for free and he did it largely for his friends. The Internet permitted him to jump to a third circle, a hundred million or more people around the world who benefit from his art, who participate in his tribe and follow his work. As the third circle grows in size, the second circle takes care of itself. Linus and the core team responsible for Linux will never need to look for work again, because as you give more and more to the friendlies, the list of people willing to pay you to do your work always grows.
As we’ve seen, if there is no gift, there is no art. When art is created solely to be sold, it’s only a commodity . . . If flight attendants charged extra for smiles, or helping you with a bag or entertaining your kid, that wouldn’t be a gift and it wouldn’t be art. It would be emotional labor for hire. If I give you a piece of art, you shouldn’t be required to work hard to reciprocate, because reciprocation is an act of keeping score, which involves monetizing the art, not appreciating it.
I am filled with anxiety at the thought of doing justice to a book by Byron Katie in a single paragraph. (Maybe I should question this thought.) Here are my notes for A Mind at Home With Itself: How Asking Four Questions Can Free Your Mind, Open Your Heart and Turn Your World Around. They speak for themselves, anyway.
The mind can never be controlled; it can only be questioned, loved, and met with understanding.
The only important thing to know is this: if a thought hurts, question it.
Empathy, in my experience, has nothing to do with imagining pain. It is a fearless connectedness and an immovable love. It’s a way of being fully present.
I take people’s problems seriously, but only from their point of view, and I remain closer than close. In my world, it’s not possible to have a problem without believing a prior thought. I don’t tell people that, because telling them what I see would be unkind. I listen to them, and I wait to be of use. I too have been trapped in the torture chamber of the mind.
And eventually, as love would have it, if their minds are open to inquiry, their problems begin to disappear. In the presence of someone who doesn’t see a problem, the problem falls away—which shows you that there wasn’t a problem in the first place.
But that doesn’t change the fact that pain is a projection of mind. If you observe it closely, you’ll see that it never arrives; it’s always on its way out. And it’s always happening on the surface of perception, while underneath it is the vast ocean of joy.
I used to tell my children, “Make friends with mediocrity.”
I have often said that when you realize that the nature of everything is good and that good is everything, you don’t need inquiry.
When the mind begins inquiry as a practice, it learns as a student of itself that everything is for it. Everything adds to it, enlightens it, nourishes it, reveals it. Nothing is or ever was against it. This is a mind that has grown beyond opposites. It’s no longer split.
People don’t have to get along with me. Do I get along with them?—that’s the important question.
“The litmus test for self-realization is the constant state of gratitude.”
People think that enlightenment must be some kind of mystical, transcendent experience. But it’s not. It’s as close to you as your own most troubling thought. When you believe a thought that argues with reality, you’re confused. When you question the thought and see that it’s not true, you’re enlightened to it, you’re liberated from it. You’re as free as the Buddha in that moment. And then the next stressful thought comes along, and you either believe it or question it. It’s your next opportunity to get enlightened. Life is as simple as that.
Everyone is the Buddha. Everyone has the perfect body. If you weren’t able to compare your body to any other, what could possibly be lacking? Without the mind’s comparison, no one can be too fat or too thin. That’s not possible; it’s a myth. Comparison keeps you from the awareness of what is.
Bodies don’t crave, don’t want, don’t know, don’t care, don’t love, don’t hate, don’t get hungry or thirsty. The body only reflects what the mind attaches to. There are no physical addictions, only mental ones.
No one has ever attained enlightenment. Enlightenment is not a thing. It’s a figment of the imagination. It happens in a past that doesn’t exist. Are you enlightened to your own stressful thinking right now? That’s the only enlightenment that matters.
I was in what I called “earth school,” and everyone was showing me who I was through my thoughts about who they were.
I often tell people, “Don’t pretend yourself beyond your evolution”—in other words, don’t believe anything that you haven’t actually realized out of deep personal experience. Many people read books that teach positive thinking, or the so-called “law of attraction,” and they do affirmations, and then they feel guilty when they get sick or when they don’t become rich. “Oh dear, I have cancer. I’m responsible for it. I must be doing something wrong.” Or “I’m not a millionaire by now. I must not be sending out enough positive energy.” That’s like saying, “May my will be done, not God’s will,” rather than realizing, deeply, that God’s will is your will at every moment. It’s trying to get what you want, rather than wanting what you have, which is the only way you can ever be happy.
We can also turn the statement around. “There is no merit” turns around to “There is merit,” and that’s true as well. There’s value to everything we do, and nothing is more valuable than anything else. That billionaire philanthropist, the one who has built so many hospitals and funded so much scientific research? When you stop comparing, the value of what he has done exactly equals the value of what you have done. You’re benefiting humanity every time you do the dishes, sweep the floor, or drive your kids to school. Benefiting one person equals benefiting a million. When you do your job completely—that is, when you do it with a clear mind—you’re absorbed in the action, you disappear into it. The only things that exist are the dish, the soapy water, the sponge, the hand moving in its own rhythms. There’s no self in it, no other. You are not the doer; you’re being done.
Just say yes. Just do the dishes. To say yes to that voice, to enter that great experiment, is true co-creation,
One day in 1986, soon after I returned from the halfway house, I heard a voice, the same voice I’d heard thousands of times before. It said, “Brush your teeth!” I had thought revelation would be a great burning bush, and all it turned out to be was “Brush your teeth!”
It wasn’t about cavities; it was about doing the right thing, honoring the truth inside me.
You have no control. You never had any control, and you never will. You only tell the story of what you think is happening. Do you think you cause movement? You don’t. It just happens, but you tell the story of how you had something to do with it: “I moved my legs. I decided to walk.” I don’t think so. If you inquire, you’ll see that that’s just a story. You know that you’re going to move because everything is happening simultaneously. You tell the story before the movement, because you already are that. It moves, and you think that you did it. Then you tell the story of how you’re going somewhere or how you’re doing something. The only thing you can play with is the story. That’s the only game in town.
Do you ever find yourself trying to please people or gain their approval? I please myself, and I approve of myself, and I project that onto everyone. So in my world, I already please everyone, and I already have everyone’s approval, though I don’t expect them to realize it yet.
I couldn’t admire an author more than I admire the great Ben Hewitt. I love his intelligent, writerly style, but it’s the content that really gets me. If you’re interested in homeschooling or simple living, all of his books are well worth a read. The Nourishing Homestead: One Back-to-the-Land Family’s Plan for Cultivating Soil, Skills, and Spirit is particularly info-heavy, which I like, and I chose it as the book to feature in my highlights here.
On connection to the land: “To us, making a life means living in a way that feels connected. Connected to the land, to animals both wild and domestic, to community, to seasons and celebrations, and to the food we eat. It means living in a way that affords us the time to follow our passions and to feel as if the work we do nurtures our bodies, minds, and spirits, rather than depleting them. It means waking up every morning looking forward to what the day will bring and going to bed every night satisfied with what was delivered. It means living in a way that enables us to act from a place of kindness and generosity, in part because we have seen that when we act from a place of kindness and generosity, these things are returned to us tenfold and in part because kindness and generosity feel a heck of a lot better than meanness and stinginess. To us, a meaningful life is one that includes vigorous physical labor in the pursuit of food, shelter, and heat, because we understand that this labor is not an inconvenience but a gift. It is a life in which all of the aforementioned aspects come together in a way that does not merely inform the way we live, but also actually becomes the way we live.”
On freedom: “When the subject of travel comes up, I often explain our choices in terms of exchange. Which is to say, we’ve exchanged the freedom of easy and frequent travel for a different sort of freedom. The different sort of freedom I’m talking about is not quite so easy to explain, particularly in a society that celebrates the transitory freedom of easy travel. The freedom I’m talking about comes from connection to a particular place. It comes of spending one’s days immersed in that place, in its nooks and crannies, hollows and swells, woods and fields. It comes of waking every morning—or most mornings, at least—with a sense of anticipation for what the day holds, for all the small tasks and moments that await. It comes of walking down to the cows in the hesitant light of almost dawn. It comes of knowing where the chanterelle mushrooms are emerging from the forest floor, of following a fresh set of moose tracks with your eight-year-old son until you feel like not following them, of returning from morning chores with your hatful of mushrooms and a quartet of fresh eggs and setting them on the ground, stripping down to your birthday suit, and cannonballing into the pond. This freedom comes of ritual and routine, not in service to the contrived arrangements of the modern economy, but in accordance with nature’s cycles and forces . . . And when there’s no one to tell you your time should be spent otherwise, there’s not much of a need for vacation. There’s not the same desire to get away.”
On food industrialization: “It is infuriating to me that we have arrived at a place where the fundamental right to feed ourselves as we wish has been largely eroded. At this very moment, I could leave my house, drive a handful of miles, and purchase a semiautomatic handgun, a carton of unfiltered cigarettes, and a fifth of whiskey. Yet I can’t legally sell the butter I make at any price. I can’t legally sell a home-butchered hog or even a single link of the excellent (if I do say so myself) sausage we make.”
On safety and child-rearing: “This is a huge subject, but in short, Penny and I believe the invisible psychic and emotional risk of not exposing our children to these tools and tasks is far greater and ultimately more damaging than the risk of bodily injury. Furthermore, because the latter risk is the one that seems most visceral—after all, wounds to the psyche don’t bleed—we grant it more power than it deserves. It is difficult to see a child’s eroding sense of confidence and to articulate all the risks of that erosion; it is not difficult to see the wound left by the knife’s blade or from falling out of a tree.”
These are just a few of the many beautiful statements Hewitt makes in this book. Inspiring stuff.
Someone lived in space for a year. His name is Scott Kelly, and Endurance: My Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery is his story. I think that pretty much sums up the value of this book. Side note: the quotes I selected below don’t do the book justice; the beauty of it is in Kelly’s descriptions of the mundane, daily activities of life in space.
On the International Space Station: “The ISS is a remarkable achievement of technology and international cooperation. It has been inhabited nonstop since November 2, 2000; put another way, it has been more than fourteen years since all humans were on the Earth at once. It is by far the longest-inhabited structure in space and has been visited by more than two hundred people from sixteen nations. It’s the largest peacetime international project in history.”
On landing the space shuttle: “The very complexity of the space shuttle was why I wanted to fly it. But learning these systems and practicing in the simulators—learning how to respond to the myriad of interrelated malfunctions in the right way—showed me how much more complicated this spacecraft was than anything I could have imagined. There were more than two thousand switches and circuit breakers in the cockpit, more than a million parts, and almost as many ways for me to screw up. The amount I learned in order to go from a new ASCAN to a pilot on my first mission was, from what I could observe, an education comparable to getting a PhD. Our days were packed with classes, simulations, and other training.”
On the moments before takeoff: “The space shuttle, fully fueled with cryogenic liquid, creaked and groaned. Soon this sixteen-story structure was going to lift off the Earth in a controlled explosion. For a moment I thought to myself, Boy, this is a really dumb thing to be doing.”
“There is a NASA tradition, which some crews follow more closely than others, of pulling pranks on rookies. When the Astrovan pulled up to the launchpad, I said offhandedly to Tracy, Barb, and Alvin, “Hey, you guys remembered to bring your boarding passes, right?” They looked at one another quizzically as the four of us veterans pulled preprinted boarding passes out of our pockets. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t bring your boarding passes! They won’t let you on the space shuttle without one!’ I insisted. After an initial look of panic crossed their faces, the three rookies quickly caught on.”
“On his fourth flight, in 2008, Yuri’s Soyuz landed so far from his intended touchdown point, the local Kazakh farmers who came upon his steaming spacecraft had no idea what it was. When he and his two female crewmates, Peggy Whitson and Yi So-yeon, emerged from the capsule, the Kazakhs mistook him for an alien god who had come from space with his own supply of women. Had the rescue forces not arrived, I suspect the farmers would have appointed him their leader.”
There’s a reason I like books about happiness so much. It’s that they’re all so different . . . and so practical. Besides, reading something that could potentially increase your long-term sense of well-being never seems like a waste of time.
Engineering Happiness: A New Approach for Building a Joyful Life by Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin is one of your choices in the genre. Enjoy.
Studies based on these databases suggest that, across different countries, happiness is high among people with lots of friends, the young and the old, married and cohabiting people, the healthy, and the self-employed. Income has a moderate effect, although, as we will soon see, it is relative income that matters the most.
The Third Law—Aversion to Loss: Losses are felt more keenly than equivalent gains. This law is called the Law of Hedonic Asymmetry by the Dutch psychologist Nico Frijda, or Loss Aversion by Kahneman and Tversky.
The Fourth Law—Diminishing Sensitivity: Happiness is not proportional to the difference between reality and expectation; rather, the increase in happiness slows as reality moves further from expectation.
The Sixth Law—Presentism: We forecast that future preferences and emotions will be more similar to our current preferences and emotions than they actually will be. People rarely take into account that their preferences are going to change. In fact, preferences and emotions change more than we think. When they are in a heightened emotional state, people do not imagine that their intense feelings of anger will dissipate quickly.
Thich Nhat Hanh is a world expert in the study of anger. He suggests mindful meditation to control anger. For instance, when it comes to anger management, what is best: to burst or to contain? Shall we let ourselves be carried away by anger, so that anger goes away? Or shall we contain the anger? Which of the two strategies is more effective in reducing the likelihood of future anger outbursts? Research shows that the first strategy has a flaw. These anger outbursts, which might alleviate anger in the short run, make us more prone to become angry in the future, as attacks of anger become a habit. In contrast, holding back anger turns out to be smarter. For one thing, anger dissipates sooner than expected.
Again, incorporating strategies for daily emotional regulation can indeed increase happiness.
After a week of practice, you move to another pillar and focus your attention on making improvements on this new pillar. You should keep an eye on the other pillars that you have practiced in previous weeks, but your concentration should be fixed on improving one pillar at a time. When all pillars have been visited and practiced over a thirteen-week period, contemplate your progress and your resolution for improvement over the next cycle of thirteen weeks. Thus, over a year, you will have four cycles of practicing each of the thirteen pillars, and your happiness level will have improved. Here is an itemized list of the thirteen pillars, with some descriptive items listed for each of them. 1. MEALS: be peaceful, show gratitude, avoid overeating and overdrinking, eat with friends 2. SLEEP: sleep in a comfortable bed, let in fresh air, cultivate a quiet mind, recover from sleep deprivation 3. WORK: make your commute more pleasant, improve your relationships with coworkers, become more engaged with your work 4. RELATIONSHIPS: nurture your relationships with your family and friends, avoid toxic interactions 5. RECREATION: engage in regular exercise, learn some fun skills such as music or painting 6. CRESCENDO: be frugal, postpone expenses, save the best for last 7. SOCIAL COMPARISON: avoid envy, be modest, celebrate others’ successes, praise and give credit 8. GLASS HALF FULL: reframe, accept imperfections, emphasize positives 9. SMALL SIPS: space out your consumption, build craving, cultivate varied interests 10. CUMULATION: create meaning, set goals, fill the bucket 11. FORGIVENESS: avoid resentment, conciliate, seek pardon 12. BALANCE: find balance in your life among career, family,hobbies, and self-improvement 13. LEARNING TO LOVE: practice compassion, cultivate spirituality, help others.
The How of Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want by Sonja Lyubomirsky is only one of several dozen similar books on positive psychology. Look over these notes to help you decide if this is your pick of the batch.
Because 40 percent is that part of our happiness that it’s in our power to change through how we act and how we think, that portion representing the potential for increased lasting happiness that resides in all of us. It’s not a small number, and it’s not a huge number, but it’s a reasonable and realistic number.
The How of Happiness shows you how to apply that number to your own circumstances. However, instead of showing you how to move from the negative range toward a neutral point, the aim of most therapies and treatments for depression, I shall spotlight how to advance from your current (perhaps unrewarding) state (be it -8, -3, or +3) toward +6 or +8 or even higher.
In one study, the University of Pennsylvania professor Martin Seligman taught a single happiness-enhancing strategy to a group of severely depressed people—that is, those whose depression scores put them in the most extremely depressed category. Although these individuals had great difficulty even leaving their beds, they were instructed to log on to a Web site and engage in a simple exercise. The exercise involved recalling and writing down three good things that happened every day—for example, “Rosalind called to say hello,” “I read a chapter of a book my therapist recommended,” and “The sun finally came out today.” Within fifteen days their depressions lifted from “severely depressed” to “mildly to moderately depressed,” and 94 percent of them experienced relief.
Perhaps the most counterintuitive finding is that as the chart shows, only about 10 percent of the variance in our happiness levels is explained by differences in life circumstances or situations—that is, whether we are rich or poor, healthy or unhealthy, beautiful or plain, married or divorced, etc.
A great deal of science backs up this conclusion. For example, a well-known study demonstrated that the richest Americans, those earning more than ten million dollars annually, report levels of personal happiness only slightly greater than the office staffs and blue-collar workers they employ.And although married people are happier than single ones, the effect of marriage on personal happiness is actually quite small; for example, in sixteen countries, 25 percent of married people and 21 percent of singles described themselves as “very happy.”
If you are currently depressed or if you’ve ever been depressed, you are not alone. Studies show that 15 percent of people in the United States (and 21 percent of women) will become clinically depressed at some point during their lifetimes.
Furthermore, the age at which people experience their first depressive episode has decreased dramatically during the last several decades.
The identical twins were extremely similar to each other in their happiness scores, and remarkably, the similarity was no smaller if the twins had been raised apart! The happier one identical twin was, the happier the other was—no matter whether they grew up under the same roof or on different coasts. Interestingly, however, regardless of whether they were raised together or apart, the happiness levels of the fraternal twins were completely uncorrelated.
If the New Zealanders with the short “bad” allele of the 5-HTTLPR gene were able to avoid highly stressful situations or to engage psychotherapists or supportive confidants when they anticipated stress, their genetic propensity for depression might never be triggered.
In order to express or not to express themselves, genes need a particular environment (e.g., a happy marriage or job layoff) or a particular behavior (e.g., seeking out social support). This means that no matter what your genetic predisposition, whether or not that predisposition is expressed is in your hands.
Davidson uses the procedure called electroencephalography (EEG) to measure a person’s brain activity. He finds that happy people, those who smile more, and who report themselves to be enthusiastic, alert, and engaged in life show a curious asymmetry in their brain activity; they have more activity in their left prefrontal cortex than in the right.
Spiritual people are relatively happier than nonspiritual people, have superior mental health, cope better with stressors, have more satisfying marriages, use drugs and alcohol less often, are physically healthier, and live longer lives.
An impressive study of physical activity was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999. The researchers recruited men and women fifty years old and over, all of them suffering from clinical depression, and divided them randomly into three groups . . . Aerobic exercise was just as effective at treating depression as was Zoloft, or as a combination of exercise and Zoloft.
Finally, surveys show, and large-scale randomized interventions confirm, that exercise may very well be the most effective instant happiness booster of all activities.
You must read everything by Byron Katie. I hope you do, anyway. No one I’ve never met has affected me this much. A Thousand Names for Joy: Living in Harmony with the Way Things Are is just one of her amazing books. Don’t pass it up.
The worst thing that ever happened exists only in the past, which means that it doesn’t exist at all. Right now, it’s only a stressful thought in your mind.
Anger, sadness, or frustration lets us know that we’re at war with the way of it. Even when we get what we wanted, we want it to last, and it doesn’t, it can’t. And because life is projected and mind is so full of confusion, there is no peace. But when you allow life to flow like water, you become that water. And you watch life lived to the ultimate, always giving you more than you need.
You can’t empty your mind of thoughts. You might as well try to empty the ocean of its water. Thoughts just keep coming back, it seems. That’s the way of it. But thoughts aren’t a problem if they’re met with understanding. Why would you even want to empty your mind, unless you’re at war with reality? I love my thoughts. And if I were ever to have a stressful thought, I know how to question it and give myself peace.
If I can walk into the light, so can you. You can’t help us with your words: “There it is, over there. Follow me.” No. You do it first, then we’ll follow. This savior thing is lethal.
But I was living with the certainty that wherever I was, that’s where I was supposed to be at that moment. This is not a theory; it’s the literal truth. If I think that I’m supposed to be doing anything but what I’m doing now, I’m insane.
There’s a perfect order here. “Holiness” and “wisdom” are just concepts that separate us from ourselves. We think that there’s some ideal we have to strive for, as if Jesus were any holier or the Buddha any wiser than we are right now in this moment. Who would you be without your story of yourself? It’s stressful to have ideals that you can achieve only in the future, a future that never comes. When you no longer believe the thought that you need to achieve anything, the world becomes a much kinder place.
No one will ever understand you. Realizing this is freedom. No one will ever understand you—not once, not ever. Even at our most understanding, we can only understand our story of who you are. There’s no understanding here except your own. If you don’t love another person, it hurts, because love is your very self. You can’t make yourself do it. But when you come to love yourself, you automatically love the other person.
Who would you be in people’s presence without, for example, the story that anyone should care about you, ever? You would be love itself. When you believe the myth that people should care, you’re too needy to care about people or about yourself. The experience of love can’t come from anyone else; it can come only from inside you.
But some people take the insight that the world is perfect and make it into a concept, and then they conclude that there’s no need to get involved in politics or social action. That’s separation. If someone came to you and said, “I’m suffering. Please help me,” would you answer, “You’re perfect just the way you are,” and turn away? Our heart naturally responds to people and animals in need.
People ask me, “How can you listen to all these problems, day after day, year after year? Doesn’t it drain your energy?” Well, it doesn’t. I’ve questioned my stressful thoughts, and I’ve seen that every single one of them is untrue. Every thought that used to look like a poisonous snake is actually a rope. I could stand over that rope for a thousand years, and never be frightened of it again. I see clearly what some people don’t yet see for themselves. Everyone in the world might come upon that rope and run screaming the other way, and I wouldn’t be afraid for them, feel sorry for them, or worry about them at all, because I realize that they’re not in danger, they’re absolutely not in harm’s way. As they cry snake, I see only rope.
I don’t try to change the world—not ever. The world changes by itself, and I’m a part of that change. I’m
The world will test you in every way, so that you can realize that last little piece that’s unfinished inside you. It’s a perfect setup.
I was sitting once with a friend who had a huge tumor, and the doctors had given her just a few weeks to live. As I was leaving her bedside, she said, “I love you,” and I said, “No, you don’t. You can’t love me until you love your tumor. Every concept that you put onto that tumor, you’ll eventually put onto me. The first time I don’t give you what you want, or threaten what you believe, you’ll put that concept onto me.” This might sound harsh, but my friend had asked me to always tell her the truth. The tears in her eyes were tears of gratitude, she said.
People who know there’s no hope are free; decisions are out of their hands. It has always been that way, but some people have to die bodily to find out.
ultimately everything in the universe is nothing imagined as something,
The truth is that everything comes from the I. If there’s no thought, there’s no world. Without the I to project itself, there is neither origin nor end. And the I just appears: it doesn’t come out of anything and it doesn’t return to anything. Actually, even “nothing” is born out of the I, because even it is a concept. By thinking that there is nothing, you continue to create something.
When your heart is cheerful and at peace, it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, whether you live or die. You can talk or stay silent, and it’s all the same. Some people think that silence is more spiritual than speech, that meditation or prayer brings you closer to God than watching television or taking out the garbage. That’s the story of separation. Silence is a beautiful thing, but it’s no more beautiful than the sound of people talking. I love it when thoughts pass through my mind, and I love it when there are no thoughts. Thoughts can’t ever be a problem for me, because I have questioned them and seen that no thought is true.
When you follow the simple way of it, you notice that reality holds all the wisdom you’ll ever need. You don’t need any wisdom of your own. Plans are unnecessary. Reality always shows you what comes next, in a clearer, kinder, more efficient way than you could possibly discover for yourself.
I always know that the way is clear. And when I trip over an obstacle, I enjoy myself all the way to the ground. Falling is equal to not falling. Getting up again and not being able to are equal. The only way you can know the way of it is to join it without separation. It’s constant lovemaking, with no other lover than what is.
be wise or spiritual. You just notice what is. I like to say, “Don’t pretend yourself beyond your own evolution.” What I mean by that is “Don’t be spiritual; be honest instead.” It’s painful to
If you are new to inquiry, I strongly suggest that you not write about yourself at first. When you start by judging yourself, your answers come with a motive and with solutions that haven’t worked. Judging someone else, then inquiring and turning it around, is the direct path to understanding. You can judge yourself later, when you have been doing inquiry long enough to trust the power of truth.
If you begin by pointing the finger of blame outward, then the focus isn’t on you. You can just let loose and be uncensored. We’re often quite sure about what other people need to do, how they should live, whom they should be with. We have 20/20 vision about other people, but not about ourselves.
Telling Yourself the Truth: Find Your Way Out of Depression, Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Other Common Problems by Applying the Principles of Misbelief Therapy by William Backus and Marie Chapian was my introduction to cognitive therapy. At the time, I didn’t realize it; I thought I was reading about a uniquely Christian approach to overcoming depression. It helped me greatly at a time I believed therapy was less effective than religion, and for that, it holds a place in my heart forever.
“Misbelief Therapy,” as we have called our modus operandi, involves putting the truth into our value systems, philosophies, demands, expectations, moralistic and emotional assumptions, as well as into the words we tell ourselves.
When we inject the truth into our every thought, taking a therapeutic broom and sweeping away the lies and misbeliefs which have enslaved us, we find our lives radically changed for the happier better.
Jerry questioned his self-talk. He recognized something radically wrong with what he had been telling himself and realized his depression was not due to his impending divorce, but what he was telling himself about it. As a result he began to change the sentences he said to himself.
It wasn’t easy at first, but because he refused to be a “chump” to a pack of self-destroying lies, he taught himself to confess the truth. INSTEAD OF: I’m a failure and no good. HE SAID: The marriage failed, but I am deeply loved by God.
Misbeliefs generally appear as truth to the person repeating them to himself. They might even seem to be true to an untrained counselor. That is partly because they often do contain some shred of truth, and partly because the sufferer has never examined or questioned these erroneous assumptions.
Psychiatrist Willard Gaylin said, “A denigrated self-image is a tar baby. The more we play with it, embrace it, the more bound we are to it.”
Often, but not always, relationships change dramatically when one person drops the misbeliefs that generate and perpetuate bitterness and anger. Always the person who works to change misbeliefs will benefit even if the other person does not change.
One psychologist tells his patients that the truthful statement to make when you’re angry is, “I make myself angry.”
Here’s another installment in my happiness book summaries: The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. I like its overview of the history of positive psychology and it’s thorough treatment of the topic. Also, it’s fun to read, and that makes me happy, too.
In 1998, Martin Seligman, then president of the American Psychological Association, announced that it was finally time to shift the traditional approach to psychology and start to focus more on the positive side of the curve. That we needed to study what works, not just what is broken. Thus, “positive psychology” was born.
In 2006, Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar asked if I would serve as his head teaching fellow to help design and teach a course called Positive Psychology. Tal was not yet internationally well-known; his best-selling book Happier wouldn’t be published until the following spring. Under the circumstances, we thought we’d be lucky to lure in a hundred undergraduates brave enough to risk a hit on their transcripts by foregoing a credit in, say, advanced economic theory for one in happiness. Over the next two semesters, nearly 1,200 Harvard students enrolled in the class—that’s one in every six students at one of the most hard-driving universities in the world. We quickly began to realize that these students were there because they were hungry. They were starving to be happier, not sometime in the future, but in the present. And they were there because despite all the advantages they enjoyed, they still felt unfulfilled.
Based on my study of Harvard undergraduates, the average number of romantic relationships over four years is less than one. The average number of sexual partners, if you’re curious, is 0.5 per student. (I have no idea what 0.5 sexual partners means, but it sounds like the scientific equivalent of second base.) In my survey, I found that among these brilliant Harvard students, 24 percent are unaware if they are currently involved in any romantic relationship.
We become more successful when we are happier and more positive. For example, doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.
So how do the scientists define happiness? Essentially, as the experience of positive emotions—pleasure combined with deeper feelings of meaning and purpose. Happiness implies a positive mood in the present and a positive outlook for the future. Martin Seligman, the pioneer in positive psychology, has broken it down into three, measurable components: pleasure, engagement, and meaning.
One of the most famous longitudinal studies on happiness comes from an unlikely place: the old diaries of Catholic nuns.10 These 180 nuns from the School Sisters of Notre Dame, all born before 1917, were asked to write down their thoughts in autobiographical journal entries. More than five decades later, a clever group of researchers decided to code the entries for positive emotional content. Could their level of positivity as 20-year-olds predict how the rest of their lives turned out? In fact, yes. The nuns whose journal entries had more overtly joyful content lived nearly ten years longer than the nuns whose entries were more negative or neutral. By age 85, 90 percent of the happiest quartile of nuns were still alive, compared to only 34 percent of the least happy quartile.
Research shows that unhappy employees take more sick days, staying home an average of 1.25 more days per month, or 15 extra sick days a year.
In one study I’m glad I never volunteered to take part in, researchers gave subjects a survey designed to measure levels of happiness—then injected them with a strain of the cold virus. A week later, the individuals who were happier before the start of the study had fought off the virus much better than the less happy individuals. They didn’t just feel better, either; they actually had fewer objective symptoms of illness as measured by doctors—less sneezing, coughing, inflammation, and congestion.
Positive emotions flood our brains with dopamine and serotonin, chemicals that not only make us feel good, but dial up the learning centers of our brains to higher levels. They help us organize new information, keep that information in the brain longer, and retrieve it faster later on. And they enable us to make and sustain more neural connections, which allows us to think more quickly and creatively, become more skilled at complex analysis and problem solving, and see and invent new ways of doing things.
Meditate. Neuroscientists have found that monks who spend years meditating actually grow their left prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain most responsible for feeling happy. But don’t worry, you don’t have to spend years in sequestered, celibate silence to experience a boost. Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out.
Find Something to Look Forward To. One study found that people who just thought about watching their favorite movie actually raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.
Commit Conscious Acts of Kindness. A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism—giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.29 Sonja Lyubomirsky, a leading researcher and author of The How of Happiness, has found that individuals told to complete five acts of kindness over the course of a day report feeling much happier than control groups and that the feeling lasts for many subsequent days, far after the exercise is over.
Infuse Positivity Into Your Surroundings.
Exercise. You have probably heard that exercise releases pleasure-inducing chemicals called endorphins, but that’s not its only benefit. Physical activity can boost mood and enhance our work performance in a number of other ways as well, by improving motivation and feelings of mastery, reducing stress and anxiety, and helping us get into flow—that “locked in” feeling of total engagement that we usually get when we’re at our most productive.
Spend Money (but Not on Stuff). Contrary to the popular saying, money can buy happiness, but only if used to do things as opposed to simply have things. In his book Luxury Fever, Robert Frank explains that while the positive feelings we get from material objects are frustratingly fleeting, spending money on experiences, especially ones with other people, produces positive emotions that are both more meaningful and more lasting.34 For instance, when researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases
Coors Brewing Company, for example, reported a $6.15 return in profitability for every $1 spent on its corporate fitness program. Toyota saw an instant jump in productivity at its North American Parts Center when it instituted a strength-based training for employees.
In fact, when recognition is specific and deliberately delivered, it is even more motivating than money. Recognition can be given in traditional ways—a complimentary e-mail, or a pat on the back for a job well done. But you can also get creative with it. One of my favorite examples is the one business consultant Alexander Kjerulf cites about a Danish car company that instituted “The Order of the Elephant.” The elephant is a two-foot-tall stuffed animal that any employee can give to another as a reward for doing something exemplary. The benefits come not just in the delivery and reception of well-earned praise, but afterward as well. As Kjerulf explains, “other employees stopping by immediately notice the elephant and go, ‘Hey, you got the elephant. What’d you do?’, which of course means that the good stories and best practices get told and re-told many times.”
Chip Conley, CEO of a wildly successful chain of boutique hotels, makes time at the end of his executive meetings to allow one person to talk for one minute about someone in the company who deserves recognition . . . Everyone else gets a mood boost as well—they get to hear about the good work being done at their company, and then they spend the next few days thinking about the good work of other employees they’d like to recommend during the next meeting.
Based on Losada’s extensive mathematical modeling, 2.9013 is the ratio of positive to negative interactions necessary to make a corporate team successful.
In 1979, Langer designed a week-long experiment on a group of 75-year-old men.1 The men knew little about the nature of the experiment except that they would be gone for a week at a retreat center, and they could bring along no pictures, newspapers, magazines, or books dated later than 1959. When they arrived, the men were gathered into a room and told that for the next week they were to pretend as though it was the year 1959–a time when these 75-year-old men were merely 55 years young . . . After the retreat, most of the men had improved in every category; they were significantly more flexible, had better posture, and even much-improved hand strength. Their average eyesight even improved by almost 10 percent, as did their performance on tests of memory. In over half the men, intelligence, long thought to be fixed from adolescence, moved up as well. Even their physical appearance changed; random people who didn’t know anything about the experiment were shown pictures of the men both before and after the experiment, and asked to guess their age. Based on these objective ratings, the men looked, on average, three years younger than when they arrived.
In one of my favorite all-time experiments, Japanese researchers blindfolded a group of students and told them their right arms were being rubbed with a poison ivy plant.3 Afterward, all 13 of the students’ arms reacted with the classic symptoms of poison ivy: itching, boils, and redness. Not surprising … until you find out that the plant used for the study wasn’t poison ivy at all, just a harmless shrub. The students’ beliefs were actually strong enough to create the biological effects of poison ivy, even though no such plant had touched them. Then, on the students’ other arm, the researchers rubbed actual poison ivy, but told them it was a harmless plant. Even though all 13 students were highly allergic, only 2 of them broke out into the poison ivy rash!
One study of 112 entry-level accountants found that those who believed they could accomplish what they set out to do were the ones who ten months later scored the best job performance ratings from their supervisors.
Now fast-forward to the twentieth century, to one of the most well-known psychology experiments ever performed. A team of researchers led by Robert Rosenthal went into an elementary school and administered intelligence tests to the students. The researchers then told the teachers in each of the classrooms which students—say, Sam, Sally, and Sarah—the data had identified as academic superstars, the ones with the greatest potential for growth. [However,] when Sam, Sally, and Sarah had been tested at the beginning of the experiment, they were found to be absolutely, wonderfully ordinary. The researchers had randomly picked their names and then lied to the teachers about their ability. But after the experiment, they had in fact turned into academic superstars.
When you write down a list of “three good things” that happened that day, your brain will be forced to scan the last 24 hours for potential positives—things that brought small or large laughs, feelings of accomplishment at work, a strengthened connection with family, a glimmer of hope for the future.
It’s for this reason that, however counterintuitive it may seem, psychologists actually recommend that we fail early and often. In his book The Pursuit of Perfect, Tal Ben-Shahar writes that “we can only learn to deal
You’ve probably heard the oft-told story of the two shoe salesmen who were sent to Africa in the early 1900s to assess opportunities. They wired separate telegrams back to their boss. One read: “Situation hopeless. They don’t wear shoes.” The other read: “Glorious opportunity! They don’t have any shoes yet.”
Imagine for a moment that you walk into a bank. There are 50 other people in the bank. A robber walks in and fires his weapon once. You are shot in the right arm. Now if you were honestly describing this event to your friends and coworkers the next day, do you describe it as lucky or unlucky?
Lower the activation energy for habits you want to adopt, and raise it for habits you want to avoid. The more we can lower or even eliminate the activation energy for our desired actions, the more we enhance our ability to jump-start positive change.
To date, I’ve discussed Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End at least three separate times at at least three separate parties. Author and doctor Atul Gawande is everyone’s favorite author-doctor right now, and for good reason: he takes on a subject that no one likes to discuss but that everyone will one day face, offering valuable and practical advice. Two thumbs and two big toes up. (Questionably tasteful imagery intended.)
The book discusses the best way to broach the topic of hospice, life expectancy and other end-of-life issues. It also discusses how to make old age meaningful, even if that means less medical intervention rather than more. Gawande’s description of the difficulty of treating senior citizens, with their multiplicity of small and large concerns, is also very admirably done.
And it happens to us: eventually, one too many joints are damaged, one too many arteries calcify. There are no more backups. We wear down until we can’t wear down anymore. It happens in a bewildering array of ways . . .
Making lives meaningful in old age is new. It therefore requires more imagination and invention than making them merely safe does. The routine solutions haven’t yet become well defined.
In other words, people who had substantive discussions with their doctor about their end-of-life preferences were far more likely to die at peace and in control of their situation and to spare their family anguish.
None one, it seems, knows about The Noonday Demon: An Atlas Of Depression by Andrew Solomon. I mean, psychologists and therapists, do, but the general population, not so much. This is a shame. Solomon’s work is extremely long and a bit detailed at times, but the collection of information he presents is second to none on the subject. (I also appreciated the memoir sections of the book in which he discusses how depression feels to him.)
It is too often the quality of happiness that you feel at every moment its fragility, while depression seems when you are in it to be a state that will never pass.
A recent study has listed two hundred factors that may contribute to high blood pressure. “At a biological level,” says Sameroff, “blood pressure is really pretty simple. If there are two hundred factors influencing it, think how many factors must influence a complex experience such as depression!”
Is depression a derangement, like cancer, or can it be defensive, like nausea? Evolutionists argue that it occurs much too often to be a simple dysfunction. It seems likely that the capacity for depression entails mechanisms that at some stage served a reproductive advantage. Four possibilities can be adduced from this. Each is at least partially true. The first is that depression served a purpose in evolution’s prehuman times that it no longer serves. The second is that the stresses of modern life are incompatible with the brains we have evolved, and that depression is the consequence of our doing what we did not evolve to do. The third is that depression serves a useful function unto itself in human societies, that it’s sometimes a good thing for people to be depressed. The last is that the genes and consequent biological structures that are implicated in depression are also implicated in other, more useful behaviors or feelings—that depression is a secondary result of a useful variant in brain physiology.
It may also be that the very structure of consciousness opens the pathway to depression. Contemporary evolutionists work with the idea of the triune (or three-layer) brain. The innermost part of the brain, the reptilian, which is similar to that found in lower animals, is the seat of instinct. The middle layer, the limbic, which exists in more advanced animals, is the seat of emotion. The top layer, found only in higher mammals such as primates and people, is the cognitive and is involved in reasoning and advanced forms of thought, as well as in language. Most human acts involve all three layers of the brain. Depression, in the view of the prominent evolutionist Paul MacLean, is a distinctly human concern. It is the result of disjunctions of processing at these three levels . . .
In fact, no essential self lies pure as a vein of gold under the chaos of experience and chemistry. The human organism is a sequence of selves that succumb to or choose one another.
You may never want to write a memoir, but if you do, here’s your go-to reference: The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing & Life by Marion Roach Smith.
However, I am quite sure that if you tell the truth, you will feel something real. “Feeling something real” is where I prefer to live, trying to palpate the small moments of life, the moments of intuition, the places where we fail and where we change.
What Ernest Hemingway taught us in the last century still gives good weight: What you leave out of the story is perhaps more important than what you put in.
Let’s say your one sentence—your argument (and all books are an argument, no matter how small)—is that life is really hard unless you get a good cat to live with. Great. Here’s how that will break down. By each phrase: Life. Is hard. Really hard. Unless. You get. A good cat. To live with.
When Quiller-Couch penned it, he was making the distinction between style and plain bad writing: “Style, for example, is not—can never be—extraneous Ornament.” Later, he gave us his famous instruction: “Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.” Elmore Leonard later qualified this for a modern audience: “If I come across anything in my work that smacks of ‘good writing,’ I immediately strike it out.”
Print out your draft and write in the margin what each paragraph does. This is called indexing. “Introduces Louis” is a good index next to paragraph one; “height and weight” might be next to paragraph two (which you now know you’ll kill if that’s all it does). Moving on through the piece, you’ll see if the points of the argument are laid out and if the math adds up to your conclusion. Have you repeated yourself? Have you established the same fact, though phrased it differently?
Pencil in hand, touch each word in every sentence, make hard decisions. Is there a shorter way to say this? A cleaner, more precise way? Each phrase needs to be assessed and judged. Look at that last sentence. You could edit it down to say, “Assess each phrase.” But that sounds dictatorial. Is that the tone you’re after? Then do it. If not, if something slightly more friendly is intended, leave it. You are editing as much for tone as you are for space, excavating down to the uniquely you, keeping in mind that yours is the voice we are listening to, and if that voice changes radically throughout the book, we’ll notice, and we won’t like it.
. . . While I’ve heard a bazillion pitches over the years, the one I keep always in mind when I write and edit is simply “I left.” Perhaps you left a way of thinking, a husband, or a habit. Perhaps you left one house and moved into another, and in doing so upped the ante on anything from your decorating to the drama in your life . . . We are fascinated by how people change and need little more than the moment of intuition to the moment of exit to keep our interest. “I left.” Paste it to your wall and refer to it as you edit.
Malcom Gladwell, y’all. He’s not just another writer. He’s a genius journalist, whose stories keep you on edge and intellectually stimulated at the same time–even his story about ketchup. (Yes, he’s written one, and it was awesome.)
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is about what happens when we make crucial decisions in the tiny span of time between external stimuli and logical thought. It takes you from a doctor’s office to a forest fire to a police shooting, recounting true events in vivid, journalistic detail. You’ll come away from the book understanding your mind a lot better–and respecting its powers of computation.
Manuscript Makeover: Revision Techniques No Fiction Writer Can Afford to Ignore by Elizabeth Hyon isn’t just about revision; it’s about writing. It’s a book on writing, with the revision angle. And it’s solid.
The book’s top-notch advice includes:
Know the difference between style and voice. Voice is unique to each author. Style can be captured in phrases or descriptions that apply to many different authors.
When you do a read-aloud of your script, don’t perform it. Read it straight.
Do riff-writing. “Most early drafts are ‘tight’—they are shells of what they need to be, outlines or condensed revisions of the full story.” Riff writing is when you quickly flesh out a portion of an early draft that needs more depth or room. “In twenty years as an independent editor, I ‘have rarely seen a manuscript overwritten . . .” Most are underwritten.
Add conflict to every single page. Even in quiet scenes, show inner conflict. Conflict shouldn’t be too up and down, either—it should rise slowly, evenly.
Avoid “sagging middles.” When conflict flattens out, or starts to go up and down, up and down endlessly without building, “. . . the reader will at some point get tired rather than more deeply worried about the outcome.”
The first chapter should raise lots of questions in the mind of the reader. Hook them good, right away with the main question of the book that’s not answered till the end.
The protagonist needs a backstory wound (emotional), as well as a universal need or personal yearning.
Read Newberry Award winning books. Young adults are a hard audience to capture, and the way these books do it is highly instructive.
Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance by Steven D. Hevitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the equally fascinating follow-up to Freakonomics, draws unexpected, unintuitive conclusions about how world economics really works–how it influences our behavior, personal relationships and daily lives. Read it and/or its predecessor for a hint of how complicated the world really is.
Among other topics, the book:
Discusses the economics of prostitution. Says it’s safer and more profitable to go through a pimp. Also says a large percentage of tricks are done for policeman as freebies. Lots of street prostitutes make very, very good money.
Discusses the economics of terrorism or suicide bombing.
Discusses various problems with hospitals, including: recirculating the air spreads disease; there are info gaps or inefficiencies all over; very difficult to objectively measure doctor skill; chemotherapy is “remarkably ineffective.”
Discusses one method for ferreting out terrorists: analyzing their banking habits.
Discusses good behavior that’s due to profit motive and good behavior that’s due to true altruism. Example of a lady stabbed three times and the reporter saying thirty-eight witnesses looked on – but story a total fabrication motivated by notoriety it gave journalist and desire of PD to cover up or bury another story.
Says much easier to raise charity funds with personal stories than with stats.
Discusses Ultimatum and Dictator – games for research studies purporting to measure altruism – and the misleading results.
Discusses how, due to the power of unintended consequences, the best fixes are often the simplest and cheapest. Examples: the polio vaccine; doctors washing hands; encouraging doctors to wash hand by placing a scan of a bacteria-filled hand (one from an actual doctor in that hospital) as a screen saver on the hospital computers. Another example: drilling for under-earth oil when whales started to get overfished; the simple seatbelt. (Authors believe that a kid-fitting seatbelt would be a better solution than carseats, and much cheaper, but now that carseat laws are in effect, they aren’t being made.)
Discusses one man’s solution to prevent hurricanes (large tires that capture hot water and bring up cold water to the surface).
Discusses global warming at length. *Great section.* Says one group of Seattle inventors may have solved it: add liquefied sulfur dioxide to the air. Says CO2 is not the cause of global warming. Very interesting stuff.
In case you didn’t already know, Donald Maass is practically a legend in the book publishing world. In his mature, wise, yet conversational way, he’s written a slew of books on writing and publishing, including How To Be Your Own Literary Agent. I love the emphasis in The Fire In Fiction: Passion, Purpose, and Technique To Make Your Novel Great on making your fiction (and nonfiction) snap, crackle and pop. This is one of the most practical and specific books on writing I’ve ever read.
A Brief Outline:
There is a big difference between storytellers–people who hone their craft relentlessly–and status seekers, who publish for money and recognition.
Great novels happen because the author is committed to making every scene, every line, not just technically good, but one that’s infused with the author’s own passion.
Protagonists shouldn’t be just Jane and John Does. They should be people we admire, want to spend time with, like the few friends we have that we would cancel plans to spend time with. Even antiheroes should be admirable in some way.
Similarly, every hero or protagonist needs flaws. Balance the bad and good in every character in the book.
Secondary characters are often one-dimensional, cliché. This is a major missed opportunity. Each should be 3D and memorable!
When editing scenes, look for their turning points and focus the whole scene around them. This will clarify the purpose of each scene. Something or several somethings should change.
The Tornado Effect: This is the big event in the book that affects all of the characters. Have one. Show how it affects them, too; don’t just assume the reader gets it.
Good description attaches emotions to detail. Both are found together.
Characters should have opinions. This makes us want to get to know them.
“The world of story is hyperreality. In a passionately told tale, characters are larger than life, what’s happening matters profoundly . . . and even the words on the page have a Day Go fluorescence.”
“Great books are fast reads because there is tension in every line. Characters are always at odds, even if just mildly, as with conflict between friends. This is the secret to page-turning fiction.”
“Micro-tension is the moment-by-moment tension that keeps the reader in a constant state of suspense over what will happen, not in the story but in the next few seconds.” Knowing whether or not guy gets girls doesn’t us for 300 pages. Knowing who will win this little battle of minds in this scene keeps us there for that scene.
The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist is the transcript of a series of three lectures the late, great Richard Feynman gave in 1963 at the University of Washington on the impact of science on other fields. And these days, it’s a science-for-the-masses classic.
Here are some quotes I like:
“What is science? The word is usually used to mean one of three things or a mixture of them. I do not think we need to be precise – it is not always a good idea to be too precise. Science means, sometimes, a special method of finding things out. Sometimes it means the body of knowledge arising from the things found. It may also mean the new things you can do when you have found something out, or the actual doing of new things.”
“Is science of any value? I think the power to do something is of value. Whether the result is a good thing or a bad thing depends on how it is used, but the power is a value.”
“The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found … Do you think it is dull? It isn’t.”
Once, the ancients believed that “…the earth was the back of an elephant that stood on a tortoise that swam in a bottomless sea.” What we now know about the earth and the universe is even more awe-inspiring, exciting, interesting.
On the unity of all scientific principles: Faraday’s ‘Chemical History of a Candle.’ “The Point of of Faraday’s lectures was that no matter that you look at, if you look closely enough, you are involved in the entire universe.” A candle involves combustion, chemistry, physics, etc. etc. Faraday’s great scientific contribution: he showed that electricity and chemistry were “two aspects of the same thing – chemical changes with the results of electrical forces.” And yet, in an introduction to F’s book, it talks about the practical application of this knowledge, just as reporters like to do today. This greatly understates the general importance of the principle! “So to say merely that the principles are used in chrome plating is inexcusable.”
Good scientists know and are comfortable with uncertainty. “All scientific knowledge is uncertain … I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar.”
The most credible person is the one that doesn’t have the answer. “… It is in the admission of ignorance and the admission of uncertainty that there is hope for the continuous motion of human beings in some direction that doesn’t get confined, permanently blocked, as it has so many times before in various periods in the history of man.”
“I do believe that there is a conflict between science and religion…” The young scientists learn the importance of doubt. He also learns of the vastness of the universe. “I do not believe that the scientist can have that same certainty of faith that very deeply religious people have.”
However, “…ethical values lie outside the scientific realm.” Not a lot of common ground; science doesn’t judge morality.
“The writers of the constitution knew the value of doesn’t.’ Wanted to be open to change.
Believes we are in an “un-age” because even though science is quickly advancing, our culture is unscientific. We prefer politicians with certain answers. We don’t like people changing their minds. “People are not honest… By honest I don’t mean that you only tell what’s true. But you make clear the entire situation. You make clear all the information that is required for somebody else who is intelligent to make up their mind. “We don’t do this.”
“Incidentally, people ask me, why go to the moon? Because it’s a great adventure in science.”
“We shouldn’t only think of the technological inventions when we consider the progress of man.”
Your Life Is A Book: How To Craft & Publish Your Memoir by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann is my favorite book on memoir writing. Written by women in the publishing business, it’s heavy on the practicalities, light on the sappy girlie “dig deep inside” stuff.
Favorite quote: “Start anywhere. Because no matter where you start, you’ll end up where you’re meant to be.”
Other main points:
Consider these subjects: gender, race, politics, class, culture, religion, location, food, sex. All can provide a thread for the narrative.
Memoir must include epiphanies that you build up to after which the person’s life is changed.
Read other memoirs.
Ask what is the story you’re telling to yourself about yourself? Write it down in a few pages, then see if that’s your main theme.
Write down your dreams. Reread your old letters.
Your journal is not your memoir.
Writing prompt: What is one scene from your life that explains your whole life?
Each scene has 3 jobs: – To advance the plot, to deepen the characterization, to engage a major theme.
Don’t start with waking up or with the weather. Scenes should be unique.
Bring in a sense of place and time, good settling details. Your settling is another character. Make stories memorable. Don’t be in “no time.” Engage the senses.
Tell what the body is doing, what place and year or era it is.
Write about food! When in doubt, it’s a go-to. Describing meal details is very emotionally provocative and symbolic. Also very relatable.
Write about a journey.
If your book is channeled, channel a good editor, too.
I know you’re not going to take all my many book recommendations. But please. Please, take this one. The Art of Learning: A Journey in The Pursuit of Excellence by Josh Waitzkin recounts the author’s path to becoming an eight-time national chess champion (and the subject of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer), then his journey to several world Tai Chi championships. So you might say he had a pretty full life.
In telling his story, Waitzkin gives in-depth theories about the learning process, drawing parallels between two major areas of knowledge. His main theme is how to become not just good at something, but a truly excellent.
Waitzkin’s lessons in learning are many, and include:
Teachers do best not to lecture, but instead to allow for mistakes, then gently question the student about them. Waitzkin’s first teacher, Bruce, didn’t speak much. They just played: “Whenever I made a fundamental error, he would mention the principle I had violated. If I refused to judge, he’d proceed to take advantage of the error until my position fell apart.
Another lesson: teachers must not squelch the natural style of the student, or their love of the game. “Many teachers have no feel for this balance and try to force their students into cookie-cutter molds. I have run into quite a few ego maniacal instructors like this over the years and have come to believe that their method is profoundly destructive for students in the long run… Teachers should be a guide, not an authority.
“Much of the time in our lessons was spent in silence, with us both thinking. Bruce did not want to feed me information, but to help my mind carve itself into maturity.”
Another lesson: Some people are “entity” learning theorists and some are “incremental” theorists. (Terms of Dr. Carol Dweck.) Some kids are taught that their intelligence is fixed, an entity, part of who they are, while others believe deep down that skill is an incrementally learned thing. The latter do much better in every way, even stuff they start out poor at. Parents, teachers must resituate praise and commentary to reinforce this idea. Never say “you’re good at this,” only “you’ve learned this well,” etc. The child labeled “smart” at something won’t want to face a challenge, list he fail to live up to expectations.
Another lesson: Performing in the “soft zone” is better than in the “hard zone.” Soft zone… means interruptions can come, and you can flex with them, allow them, then get back into your flow thought. Hard zone means you’re tense, rigid and if anything interrupts you, you try to fight against it. Soft zone is when outwardly you look serene, though inside you’re fully focused.
Gives parable of man who wants to walk across the earth, though it’s covered in thorns. The “Hard Zone” fighter will try to cover all the earth with pavement. The “Soft Zone” performer makes sandals.
Another lesson: we must learn “numbers to leave numbers” and “form to leave form.” This means that the great performer first fully digests, assimilates all relevant knowledge of his trade, so that it’s later just a part of him – on automatic. His mind or subconscious does that part of the work for him, with no consciousness of it at all. He can even break the rules well.
The excellent performer notes the feeling he has when he does something right, even when he’s not sure exactly why it was so right – then seeks to replicate that feeling. In sports, this is when you seek a certain feeling while striking the ball. Not thinking about the technique at all. In chess, it’s when you get a feeling about a good move you make, then seek to replicate it later.
Another lesson: watch for times when your life outside your trade affects your performance. Example: at times when Josh was struggling with change and transition, he made mistakes on the board during times of transition – too slow to adapt to them. (In this way, sport or work can be like psycho analysis.)
Another lesson: “beginner’s mind.” Beginners and children aren’t afraid to fail. Experts think of every failure as a crisis, which greatly impedes improvement. “A key component of high-level learning is cultivating a resilient awareness that is the older, conscious embodiment of a child’s playful obliviousness.”
This often results in an “investment in loss” – times when you’re not performing optimally because you’re working on honing a new skill.
Also talks a lot about The Art of Tai Chi and the strength that you have when you don’t the opponent, but instead use their force against them.
Another lesson: “Making smaller circles.” When a writing student, for example, is blocked after being told to write about his hometown, the teacher tells her to write about a single brick of a single building. In order to become exceptional, we must break down the art to its very smallest components, then practice and practice those until every single nuance is deeply felt and understood. Example from Tai Chi: perfecting the art of the single, straight punch to such a degree that the arm barely has to move in order to deliver a powerful blow.
Another lesson: using adversity. Great performers see what they can learn from the worst circumstances. Example: perfecting left-dominant fighting when right hand is broken.
Another lesson: Not neglecting the internal or abstract or intuitive angles of the skill; undulating between these and the external or concrete or technical skills. Example: Nil players who use the off-season to review tapes.
Another lesson: Learn how to control two of his hands with one of yours (metaphorically). “Whether speaking of a corporate negotiation, a legal battle, or even war itself, if the opponent is temporarily tied down qualitatively or energetically more than you are expending to tie it down, you have a large advantage.”
Another lesson: slowing down time. This is what you do when you are so masterful at your skill that no matter how fast you are performing or how much information is coming at you at once, you “see” it all. The way you get to this point is by “chunking” – learning whole tactics or sections of knowledge so well that they are now intuitive, and don’t need to be broken down in your mind into smaller parts – it comes to you all at once – and “carving neural pathways” – practicing something so many times that it becomes automatic. The very first time you do a new skill, you’re chopping down trees in your mind with a machete… but every time thereafter, the path is more clear, easier and faster to travel.
Another way you can slow down time: to increase your mental perception through shock or heightened emotion. When Josh broke his hand during a fight, his awareness increased and time slowed down. The trick is to learn how to create this heightened awareness when you aren’t experiencing anything unique – to do it at will.
Another lesson: the importance of presence. “Everyone at a high level has a huge amount of chess understanding, and much of what separates the great from the very good is deep presence, relaxation of the conscious mind, which allows the unconscious to flow unhindered.”
The Grandmaster chess player looks at (consciously, focuses on) less than the master, but sees more.
Also, sometimes Grandmasters and expert fush hands competitors are able to almost read the minds of their competitors – can see the slightest move they make. The principle is stated in the words of a 19th century sage Wa Yu-hsiary. “At the opponent’s slightest move, I move first.”
Another lesson: The winner is the one that controls the tone of the game. Examples: Josh’s chess style is erratic; he thrives in the chaos. Others prefer a more methodical game. When he controls the time, he has a huge advantage.
Another lesson: It’s a hugely important to take breaks from your game at times. Josh took 2 weeks at sea with his family every summer, which felt like a huge sacrifice at the time. He also learned to take short mental breaks during chess matches – to stop studying the board for a few minutes and run up a few flights of stairs – and to tighten his recovery time between Tai Chi rounds to one minute.
Another lesson: If you want more serenity during your trade of choice, find something in your life that gives you a feeling of flow, peace – then either do that before you go to work or practice… or if that’s not possible, set up a short routine that you can do before your relaxation activity. Program yourself to enter flow during this “pre-flow” routine, then after it’s ingrained, you can switch to doing the “pre-flow” activities before you go to work, and it will create the flow, since your brain associates it with your flow activity. This is called “building your trigger.”
Another lesson: “Convert your passions into fuel…” make even negative emotions work for you, not against you. Example: Basketball star Reggie Miller used Spike Lee’s heckling to fire him up before a game.
Once you know what good feels like, you can zero in on it, search it out regardless of the pursuit.”
Another principle: Seek out competitors who are better than you are, or who work differently.
Another principle: learn from moments of great insight, leaps of logic, great inspiration and creativity. Don’t assume you just happened upon something inspired. Review it, break it down, learn why and how it worked. After you do this, you will have gained ground, permanently raising your level. From there, another new height comes within reach. “In that moment, it is as if you are seeing something that is suspended in the sky just above the top of your pyramid. There is a connection between that discovery and what you know – or else you wouldn’t have discovered it – and you can find that connection of you try.”