A modest and straightforward book convincingly written to relate lessons we all already knew but could benefit from listening to again.
At the beginning this book struck me as one uniquely written for the vanishing attention span of the 21st century. Morgan Housel spares no words in clarifying that this book is a collection on unconnected chapters so they can be devoured one at a time, in any order, as far apart from one another as the reader feels is needed. However, I read it in the given order without worry that it would somehow spoil the book for me.
The psychology of money is one of those books that at first glance appears to be filled with lessons of which we are all only too aware and which need no retelling whatsoever. For example, these are a few of the chapters in this book, chosen at random: ‘Luck and risk’, ‘Never enough’, ‘Getting wealthy vs. Staying wealthy’, ‘Save money’ and ‘Room for error’. If you guessed what most of these talk about, your guess was probably correct. But it is not what these chapters say so much as how they say them that sets this book apart from the myriad of financial advice books in bookstores around the globe.
This book is not a stepwise guide to handling money. Instead it takes a unique approach to the subject, building its arguments on the claim that money must be understood through human psychology rather than mathematics. Mr Housel puts this succinctly saying, ‘we think about, and are taught about, money in ways that are too much like physics, with rules and laws, and not enough like psychology, with emotions and nuance.’
A particularly insightful topic of discussion involves what the author calls the ‘Man in the car paradox’. We all want to own a luxury car or something of the sort in the hopes of gaining others’ respect; but how often have we actually seen a man in a luxury car and thought about the man rather than about the car, asks Mr Housel. It is not the car we want, and not the car we ought to be spending our money on, says Mr Housel. We need to look at the narrative not as our desire to own something fancy but as our desire to command people’s respect.
This highlights the core argument of the book: ‘Making wealth, or building wealth, is not about intelligence or financial knowledge but about behaviour.’ Tame your behaviour and you will see results.
Other parts of this book are more straightforward, once again bringing nothing entirely new to the table. It reminds me of another book I reviewed a couple of years ago, Die empty by Todd Henry, in which I said, ‘not a lot [in this book] will be new to you, but rather a lot … you will find is told in an effective, eye-opening manner designed to make the idea last in your mind’. This book is quite similar. For example, at one point, Mr Housel says, ‘Wealth is created by suppressing what you buy today in order to have more stuff or more options in the future. No matter how much you earn, you will never build wealth unless you can put a lid on how much fun you can have with your money right now, today.’ We all know this, but the usefulness of this book lies in how it follows this claim with effective exposition.
The end of The psychology of money is rather unique as it is the author discussing how they themselves spend their money. The usefulness of this section is up for debate but I myself found it quite interesting. It is one thing to know the rules of a game, but an entirely different matter to learn by watching someone play it. This book is your window into how people play the game we call money.
Get ready for crisp and convincing arguments for an extreme solution to a real problem—our obsession with the news.
‘To my wife, Sabine,’ starts the dedication on Rolf Dobelli’s short book, ‘who stopped reading the news long before I did. And to our twins, Numa and Avi, who thankfully are still too young for all that.’ These two sentences paint a picture of the sort of life the author wants us all to live: freed from the presence of the daily news in our lives, with no exceptions. In the end, promises Mr Dobelli, we will lead a happier, calmer and wiser life. ‘Digitalisation,’ he says, ‘has turned the news from a harmless form of entertainment into a weapon of mass destruction, and it’s aimed straight at our mental health.’
If the argument made by this book, right in its title, seem extreme, you are correct. The entire book is as sharp as the title is and does not hesitate for a moment from telling you what you need to do right now: stop reading the news. There are no methods catalogued here to help you slowly get away from it all; Mr Dobelli’s approach is to make the choice and quit cold turkey. In fact, he claims, that is the only way. And you will start to notice its effects sooner than you might expect.
It goes without saying that the core argument of this book is that you stop reading the news; but a bit of clarification is due: the arguments being made are not against awareness but against obsessing over the daily news. And the entire book may be divided into two approaches: in the first Mr Dobelli talks about why giving up the news is important and what one can hope to gain by it, drawing from his own experience and suggesting a couple of techniques on the way (which again come down to quitting cold turkey); in the second he talks about the inherent problems with news itself while addressing one of the biggest arguments for the news to exist—in a democracy, people must be the decision makers and for that the people must be well-informed.
Rarely do I vouch for such an extreme idea but there is a lot of sense in Mr Dobelli’s arguments. He recommends, for example, that reading longer, more carefully researched articles about an event is better than reading the daily news, and I agree: for my own part I have found weekly publications to be more meaningful in the long run than daily newspapers when it comes to understanding the nuances (and there are many) of any event. A particularly interesting thought from his childhood that he quotes in this book goes thusly—
Something wasn’t right. It baffled me that the newspaper arrived in the same thickness and format every single day … If something happened on an uneventful day it would be treated as important and given centre stage, even if on a busy day it would have been treated as unimportant.￼
That encapsulates the trouble with the news today. Reading this sentence reminded me of the BBC’s famous broadcast on 18 April 1930 which was simply ‘There is no news’ followed by 15 minutes of a piano song. On the one hand it feels like we can only ever fantasise about such slow news days today, but on the other, as Mr Dobelli rightly points out, less impactful news on slow news days today too would be highlighted like it has a great impact on society. Today, news corporations work like everyday must have a headline and they give stories an inflated importance to satisfy this self-imposed rule.
This all points to the nature of the news today: it is a corporation like any other and monitors—and even manufactures—its output to keep itself afloat. Mr Dobelli explains this quite well pointing out that—
…anything that might pique readers’ interest and boost sales was considered newsworthy by the publishers, regardless of whether it was actually important. This fundamental fraud—the new being sold as the relevant—has persisted to this day.
There are some arguments that this book makes, such as this one, that are immediately sensible, yet there are others (which I will address soon) which makes a lot less sense—a trait that is to be expected in a book this extreme.
A lot of hard hitting
In the title of each chapter Mr Dobelli captures its essence, so I will restrict myself to naming those which I particularly liked, using them to also clarify what arguments the author makes within.
For basic arguments, the news, says Mr Dobelli, is irrelevant; it gets risk assessment all wrong (as we saw with slow news days above); it obscures the big picture (where the author quotes a book of ‘Join the dots’ puzzles and compares news to the dots, which make no sense unless we add context by drawing lines in-between; see also the quote below).
He takes it further with some hard hitters that anyone who knows the news well enough also knows is true, although we might not always want to admit it: the news reinforces hindsight bias; it gives us the illusion of empathy (think, the now-fashionable cancel culture); it destroys our peace of mind; it produces fake fame and, perhaps most scandalous, it encourages terrorism.
That the news is uninterested in a full picture is described succinctly in the following sentence: ‘News corporations and consumers both fall prey to the same mistake, confusing the presentation of facts with insight into the functional context of the world.’ If you thought this is unintentional, Mr Dobelli clarifies it immediately: ‘…the few journalists who do understand the “engine room” and are capable of writing about it aren’t given the space to do so.’
If my not quoting all chapter titles makes you wonder if I do not back them, you would be right, at least in assuming that I do not back them entirely. Some examples include the claim that the news keeps the ‘opinion volcano bubbling’ (that is a reactionary choice we make), that it makes us passive (again, that is our response to it) etc. My disagreements with this book, however, are dwarfed by my agreements with it.
All that said, there is an important disagreement I have with this book that I would want to single out given the current times (for future readers: this review was written at the height of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic). Says Mr Dobelli, ‘You can safely assume that the more “breaking” the news, the less it actually matters to you’. While this is true in general, it is not at the moment—or at least was not in the second quarter of 2020—when reportage of the COVID-19 pandemic not only forced governments to act but also gave people a sense of what to do and how to respond to the pandemic. It also gave people strength knowing that the whole world was going through this together and that success stories were popping up every now and then like beacons of hope. Without the news, the pandemic would undoubtedly have been handled worse.
The reason I said that this statement would have been true in general, ironically, is apparent when you look at how reporting evolved over the course of the same pandemic: the news has once again embraced its sensationalist tone, given voice to the imporance of the economy over healthcare and generally made a lot of noise that—unlike the pandemic response—has not given rise to enough actionable recommendations at a solution.
On a similar vein, the media in the first half of 2020 helped positively to spread awareness of racial bias in the US (and no doubt in other countries) but really what came of it? Hong Kong was all but sold to China; the news destroyed our peace of mind, as Mr Dobelli puts it, and it made us feel empathetic, which made us feel like we were contributing in some way; but we were really doing nothing but consuming the news while simply feeling active, which is why one piece of news passed on and another came in its place and the world went on as it always has.
This book is a quick read, being more the length of a novelette than that of a novel, and is worth everyone’s time because in some way it will change how you consume the news. It may serve its intended purpose and make you quit altogether; it may make you pause and reconsider the methods you employ to consume the news; or, as in my case, it may at least make you a more responsible consumer of the news. Whatever the outcome, you will find that your time was better spent reading this book than today’s newspaper.
A book that is somehow twice as impactful when you have actually seen a concentration camp with your own eyes.
There are two things that made my reading of Viktor Frankl’s book different from some others’. First, having read about Frankl I was fully aware of his previous work such as performing forced lobotomies on Jews despite his not being a trained surgeon; his membership with the Fascist ‘Fatherland Front’ organisation; and the fact that Frankl himself was promoted to Capo (a fact he casually fails to mention in this book despite speaking unfavourably of Jewish prisoners who cosied up with the SS to become Capos themselves). Second, having visited a concentration camp, certain concrete structures were embedded in my mind so deeply that this entire book played out on a stage set by those memories, making things ever more effective.
If at this point one wonders whether the legitimacy of Frankl’s book had disappeared in my eyes, that would be a fair question. But no such thing happened: as a reader of fiction, I have learnt not to devalue the lessons a work can teach me even if that story is fictitious. Moreover, Frankl was undoubtedly a survivor of concentration camps—of that there are no doubts—even if his stories cannot in any way be corroborated. Finally, who a man is need not always dilute what a man has to say. All-in-all then there is a lot of meaning to everything in this book that one can pick up on if they are open enough to learn and reasonable enough to place their doubts about the writer himself aside for the time being.
Kaufering, Dachau—not Auschwitz
An honest reading of this book makes it appear that Frankl spent a long time at the dreaded Auschwitz KZ while in fact he spent only four days there. He darts from a description of Auschwitz to prisoner numbers giving readers the impression that he got his prisoner number there as well, but in fact he was never registered at Auschwitz. Frankl’s time was almost entirely spent at the much milder—but nonetheless despicable and shameful—Nazi concentration camp of Dachau, the journey to which he only mentioned in the latter half of his description of his days at the camp.
There are three reasons why I mention this: one, this book has no literary merit whatsoever, which is why its storytelling feels like it was pieced together at random; two, this mild-mannered misrepresentation has been a prime reason for the popular criticism of Frankl’s book by many a scholar as ‘misleading’, which is perhaps true; three, I would like this review to be fair in all sense to a reader and would like to clarify assumptions regarding the reliability of the facts in this book before I get to the good bits. When you read this book, focus on the people and the characters and take historic facts with a pound of salt.
Do that and Man’s search for meaning will easily rank among the best books you have read in a while. Frankl had a professional advantage on his side in that he could understand what he and his comrades were feeling from a more objective standpoint than most. It is such an insight that birthed this book—which was supposedly intended to be published under his prisoner number—as well as the ideas of logotherapy (about which I will not speak much as I am nobody in psychology) that follow the narrative occupying the first two-thirds of this book.
My whole reason for reading this book despite knowing everything about Frankl and his likely Nazi associations is clarified at the start of the foreword by Harold Kushner: ‘Typically, if a book has one passage, one idea with the power to change a person’s life, that alone justifies reading and re-reading it and finding room for it on one’s shelves.’ Speaking of the foreword, another interesting sentence deserves mention: ‘Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.’ I find this timely because of the references made to Freud’s psychoanalysis and Adler’s individual psychology, the two other main schools of Viennese psychology besides Frankl’s logotherapy.
The book feels like a casual narration, as if Frankl is seated before you, fiddling with his glasses, arms thrown across his chair, holding his words back pensively while he retells you his memories of the war as they come. But what surprised me was how light-hearted this book was. Perhaps the reason for that, as Frankl himself says towards the end of his narrative, is because long after liberation ‘the day comes when all his camp experiences seem to him nothing but a nightmare.’ A nightmare you have gotten so used to that you can now laugh it off.
Dachau had a chimney
A curious observation Frankl makes about Dachau is that there was no building with a chimney there, i.e. no gas chamber. However, I remember quite vividly that there is one—the infamous Baracke X—where there are a handful of crematoriums and one gas chamber with several gas inlets along with fake shower heads to mislead prisoners into thinking they were being led in there for a bath. However, Frankl is right insofar as suggesting that the gas chamber was never actually used, the popular theory being that it served as a training ground for SS officers who would use the chambers for mass homicide in other camps. It Is likely he was not shown this building as a prisoner because the chimney would, as he says, strike fear in their hearts and they would know it was a death camp.
Another fleeting phrase that proved to be incredibly thought-provoking to me comes early on in the book when Frankl says of his time in a concentration camp, ‘This tale is not concerned with the great horrors, which have already been described often enough (though less often believed)…’ It was quite a shock to actually see it in writing despite knowing it already: disbelievers have always existed. The disbelievers in vaccination and climate change we have today are simply the descendant of the disbelievers in concentration camps of yore. Unintentionally, Frankl’s book gave me hope in realising that the great weights pulling our society down today have always been with us but never quite fully stopped us from rising. A second example of the same sort: ‘Textbooks tell lies!’—an indication that fascists have been fighting textbooks since forever.
The several mentions of how prisoners elevated to the rank of Capo were often harsher on prisoners than the guards themselves brought to mind for some reason the Stanford prison experiment. But this is hardly the only profound look at human relationships in a camp that feel like simply heightened versions of what one feels in everyday life to this day. This simply proves the validity of Frankl’s book today too—it can surpass time.
The three phases
In describing spending life at a camp Frankl talks of three phases prisoners would go through in his opinion: shock and denial upon entering a camp; apathy as one gets used to life in a camp; and depersonalisation upon being liberated from a camp. The main purpose of the narrative deals with understanding these three phases and how understanding the why to life would answer how one could go through these phases without breaking apart. In doing this Frankl invokes Nietzsche directly and Stoicism indirectly (more on this presently).
Despite the importance of all this, my personal favourite portions of this book were those in which Frankl talked of love (referring to his wife whom he would find dead soon after his liberation)—
The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved…
…into the night a violin sang a desperately sad tango, an unusual tune not spoiled by frequent playing. The violin wept and a part of me wept with it, for on that same day someone had a twenty-fourth birthday. That someone lay in another part of the Auschwitz camp, possibly only a few hundred or a thousand yards away, and yet completely out of reach. That someone was my wife.
On a similar vein he talks of how even the tiniest glimpse of beauty, in art or nature, was like light shining in darkness—Et lux in tenebris lucet—citing examples of the beautiful mountains of Salzburg. Concentration camp or not, these are emotions we can all connect with, a further example of how this book can surpass not only time but also space.
Something that did not sit well with me was the feeling that Frankl survived the camp because he knew how to manipulate his way into favour. His own descriptions show he wielded some position—above a common prisoner—and that he was on good terms with the Capos and not necessarily because he served as an assistant to the camp doctor. For instance at one point he says—
I was forced to keep straightening blankets, picking up bits of straw which fell from the bunks, and shouting at the poor devils who tossed in their beds and threatened to upset all my efforts at tidiness and cleanliness. Apathy was particularly increased among the feverish patients, so that they did not react at all unless they were shouted at. Even this failed at times, and then it took tremendous self-control not to strike them.
Now there is a sentence that seems almost Capo-like coming from Frankl himself. However, I will heed to the author’s own words: ‘No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.’
As I turned page after page of this book one thing was strikingly clear to me: Frankl makes grasps at Stoicism over and over and over again. In fact, logotherapy and Stoicism are remarkably common in nature as I will discuss in a moment.
To me, the pinnacle of the narrative in this book is encapsulated in one sentence: ‘Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances’. This echoes precisely the words of the Stoic philosopher and former Roman slave Epictetus: ‘We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.’
The comparison does not end there. Equally remarkable, Frankl continues, ‘And there were choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision,’ talking about life as a series of decisions that would make a difference between you having a hold over your life or being tossed around by circumstance. How can this not bring to mind the beautiful Stoic idea of choice? ‘For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice’. Every moment in life is a choice and you are not the circumstances you have been in but the choices you have made.
This is my second tryst with logotherapy. I had previously read briefly the parallels between logotherapy and Stoicism in the excellent book ‘logotherapy in action’ by Joseph B. Fabry, Reuven P. Bulka and William S. Sahakian. In it Sahakian writes—
Logotherapy and stoicism share a number of ideas, for instance the existence of attitudinal values and the nonexistence of purposeless evil … Frankl’s attitudinal value theory is unquestionably stoic in character. When a situation cannot be changed, a person still can alter his attitude toward his problem. This recommendation is paramount both in Stoicism and logotherapy. ‘The essence of good and evil,’ wrote Epictetus, ‘lies in the attitude of the will’. ‘Where we can no longer control our fate and reshape it,’ advises Frankl, ‘we must be able to accept it.’ … Paralleling these stoic ideas of Epictetus, Frankl has written, ‘Whether any circumstances, be they inner or outer ones, have an influence on a given individual or not, and in which direction this influence takes its way—all that depends on the individual’s free choice. The conditions do not determine me but I determine whether I yield to them or brave them.’
There is a lot to unpack in such a comparison and I fear it may take much away from a reader’s own appreciation of Frankl’s book. For this reason and more, I will cut my discussion on logotherapy short and leave you with a sombre reminder that Frankl and so many other survivors of the holocaust give: ‘No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.’ Put aside Frankl’s own questionable wartime work so you are not robbed of the opportunity to read a wonderful book such as this and pick it up and give it two days—you will not regret it.
Select quotes from this book
- Illusions some of us still held were destroyed one by one, and then, quite unexpectedly, most of us were overcome by a grim sense of humour. We knew that we had nothing to lose except our so ridiculously naked lives.
- An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behaviour.
- I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. Since I had always been especially sorry for people who suffered from fearful dreams or deliria, I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, frightened at the thing I was about to do. At that moment I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.
- The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.
- If someone had seen our faces on the journey from Auschwitz to a Bavarian camp as we beheld the mountains of Salzburg with their summits glowing in the sunset, through the little barred windows of the prison carriage, he would never have believed that those were the faces of men who had given up all hope of life and liberty.
- To discover that there was any semblance of art in a concentration camp must be surprise enough for an outsider, but he may be even more astonished to hear that one could find a sense of humour there as well.
- No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same.
- Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
- Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
- They must not lose hope but should keep their courage in the certainty that the hopelessness of our struggle did not detract from its dignity and its meaning.
- No one has the right to do wrong, not even if wrong has been done to them.
- We were not hoping for happiness—it was not that which gave us courage and gave meaning to our suffering, our sacrifices and our dying. And yet we were not prepared for unhappiness.
Be louder. Interrupt? Stomach, not throat. Screamin’ Saturdays? Reservation for women. There is a lot to unpack in this book.
‘Outspoken’ is one of those books you do not expect to be drawn into because you picked it up as a casual read but then leaves you with strong conflicting thoughts you find hard to leave unaddressed. The hilariously assertive tone of Veronica Rueckert’s book is best encapsulated in its blurb. ‘Are you done with the mansplaining?’ It asks, ‘Have you been interrupted one too many times? Don’t stop talking. Take your voice back.’
If you think the book tones it down you would be mistaken, because the dangerous message at the end is just that: women should learn to be assertive, even rude, and interrupt people during conversations the way way men do. I disagree wholeheartedly, you simply do not level the playing field by stooping down to someone else’s level. I would have liked this book a lot better if it said everyone should learn not to cut people off and that everyone (especially men?) should listen more to others and not discount them.
That said, it would be just as premature to dismiss the book based on its end goal because the many titbits Ms Rueckert leaves on the way there have quite a lot to offer. And they in fact are what prompted my review of this book.
The voice coach
As a Peabody-winning communications coach Veronica Rueckert is at in her comfort zone at the start of the book, a big chunk of which speaks about your voice—literally, your voice and how to control it, how to improve it, how to breathe better et cetera. To me this was an unexpected start to the book but one that I went on to find rather engaging.
At the end of the second chapter we are still discussing our voices but, in her weakest aspect, Ms Rueckert prompts readers to consider if they are unable to handle their voices better they perhaps should pick a different career path altogether. Never again does she display such pessimism, though, as page after page this book is full of modern-day examples (think AOC, Hillary Clinton and reservation in India) of how women can be heard.
As a man, I felt this book would not speak to me but I picked it up to see if there was something I could learn from it anyway. Surprisingly, the book was open and welcoming, and it felt like a genuine conversation with the author not designed especially for readers of a specific gender.
Speaking up does not work
The crux of the problem Ms Rueckert tackles is summed up in a Yale University study she quotes. Victoria Brescoll studied the extent to which men and women in and out of power speak in different workplace situations and found a stark difference:
Women who shy away from talking too much on the job for fear of a social backlash may be right to worry. If men assert their voices on the job, they appear more likely to be clapped on the back and given a promotion, whereas a woman who does the same thing may find herself sinking to the bottom of the hierarchy.
It is at this point that one expects the narrative to shift focus from women and call for a much-needed change in workplace and social cultures. But the book carries on for quite some time convinced that women can bring about the change entirely from their end. I would, myself, have preferred to read pointers on how a cultural shift may be brought about where women are given as much space as men to voice their thoughts.
What prompted Ms Rueckert to steer this way was likely the identification of fear as a factor that prevented women from speaking up. ‘Anytime fear enters the talking equation’, she says rightly, ‘we should send out warning flares because silence and fear have no place in our culture … and fly in the face of … egalitarianism and democratic participation.’
Snap, crackle, pop?
The troublesome part of the book comes about halfway through when discussions on interruption pop up. Funnily there is a section on ‘How not to be interrupted’ followed by one on ‘How to interrupt’. This was by design no doubt but I found it made for a curiously ineffective, not to mention hilarious, organisational structure.
Ms Rueckert describes snapping back as an option to prevent being interrupted with an unintentionally humourous description of how to go about it. The alternative to snapping back, the book goes on, is to continue talking with a louder voice until the interrupter ‘cedes the floor’.
And how does one interrupt? Identify ‘jump in’ moments where you can worm your way into a conversation and once you are in, keep going and ‘don’t give anyone else a chance to talk once you’ve made the conversational cut’.
Such dangerous advice, following several pages of complaining about how men do not give women the chance to talk, weakens the good advice spread over the rest of the book.
Society at last
It is only towards the final third of the book that any acknowledgement comes about the fact that society is to blame for silencing women’s voices. A key example of how restructuring workplaces and social organisations can help women be heard is that of India. Ms Rueckert quotes the UN describing the steps taken by the former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao’s Congress government in 1993 calling it ‘“one of the best innovations by grassroots democracy in the world” when it approved a constitutional amendment that required village councils to reserve one-third of their seats for women.’
The key takeaway is that over time, such forceful inclusion of women led to both men and women recognising that women’s voices had a legitimate place in society and at workplaces.
California took up similar measures and now has in place a law requiring company boards to elect at least two women members by the end of 2021. Examples like this one, and examinations of women active in—and famous around—the world today are an important part of what makes this book relevant to our times.
It has something for both men and women to read and learn from. It does not carry any groundbreaking content but why should it? Effective presentation and consolidation of ideas, with a balance between storytelling, facts and instruction, is after all what makes a book of this sort worthwhile. Yet, it feels a bit lacking. Perhaps a follow-up is due, where the ideas of this book are visited but in greater depth. And perhaps then Ms Rueckert will talk more about her vocal and communication skills because those were the parts that, to me, made this book enriching.
Downright the best—and possibly only—book you need to learn to break bad habits and build good ones effectively.
I cannot emphasise just how good this book is. This book is really good. The basic premise of Atomic Habits is two-fold: one, that forming and breaking habits is not so much about willpower as it is about our environment and the systems for change that we implement; and two, that the smallest and seemingly most unimportant changes compound over time to give remarkable results. This goes both ways: it builds bad habits if you let it or you can use it to build good ones; and it breaks bad habits too, or, if you do not pay enough attention, lets good ones decay.
James Clear takes a straightforward and practical approach throughout the book with a time-tested formula: anecdote followed by statement followed by research followed by guidelines. This rhythm acts like pentameter throughout the book which is itself divided into five parts corresponding to the four steps of habit-building (or breaking) and one part discussing some advanced tactics that discusses such things as talent and motivation.
One of the reasons I enjoyed this book was its no-nonsense approach. It starts by outlining the process in which our brain looks at habits and patterns with cues, cravings, responses and rewards. This is a pretty familiar idea these days although it is outlined differently at times. Nir Eyal in his book Indistractable talks about this as well; as does the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’, although they use slightly different terms: cue, routine, reward, belief. The underlying idea is pretty similar: if you can manipulate one or more of these for your benefit, you can build and break habits as you like.
While speaking of small steps Mr Clear makes sure to clarify that he is not speaking of minute steps that attempt to drill muscle memory into us or normalise a habit out of nowhere, like flossing just one teeth to start with. Instead he refers to picking the simplest act possible that, when repeated over time, compounds to something meaningful and life-altering. The keyword here is compounding as he explains early on in the book: a daily 1% change amounts to you becoming three-and-a-half times better at that work in a year; a daily 1% deterioration will likewise see you dropping to a perfect zero in a year. Mathematics always clears things up nicely.
Here is an extract (with possibly inaccurate punctuations as I dictated this while I was reading) where the idea of small changes is explained:
We often dismiss small changes because they don’t seem to matter very much in the moment. If you save a little money now you’re still not a millionaire, if you go to the gym three days in a row you’re still out of shape, if you study Mandarin for an hour tonight you still haven’t learnt the language. We make a few changes but the result don’t seem to come quickly, so we slide back into our previous routines… unfortunately the slow pace of transformation also makes it easy to let a bad habit slide. If you eat an unhealthy meal today the scale doesn’t move much, if you work late tonight and ignore your family they will forgive you, if you procrastinate and put your project off till tomorrow there will usually be time to finish it later. A single decision is easy to dismiss. But when we repeat one-percent errors day after day by replicating poor decisions, duplicating tiny mistakes and rationalising poor excuses our small choices compound into toxic results. It’s the accumulation of many missteps, a one-percent decline here and there, that eventually leads to a problem.
As the book proceeds to set up the four ways to deal with habit-building (or -breaking, the two are symmetrical)—namely making cues obvious (or invisible), making cravings attractive (or unattractive), making responding easy (or difficult), and making rewards satisfying (or unsatisfying)—we see Mr Clear addresses why we would want to do this in the first place. When asked this question most of us respond with our end goals, the place where we all want to see ourselves eventually, but this approach in ineffective, he explains, because ‘winners and losers have the same goal’. This was eye-opening to me. But of course: nobody who loses set out to lose; what differentiates people is their approach, or their ‘system’ as the author calls them. He explains this beautifully—
Prevailing wisdom claims that the best way to achieve what we want in life … is to set specific actionable goals … results have very little to do with the goals I set and nearly everything to do with the systems I followed. What’s the difference between systems and goals? … Goals are about the results you want to achieve, systems are about the processes that lead to those results … If you want better results then forget about setting goals. Focus on your system instead … The purpose of setting goals is to win the game, the purpose of building systems is to continue playing the game. True long term thinking is goalless thinking. It’s not about any single accomplishment, it’s about the cycle of endless refinement and continuous improvement. Ultimately it is your commitment to the process that will determine your progress.
This idea too is touched upon in the McMaster course on ‘Learning how to learn’ that I talked about earlier (take this course if you have not already, you will thank me for it). The process versus the product, the system versus the goal. Defining goals is great because they give us an end point but what gets us there, or anywhere at all, is our process or system.
With this set-up Atomic Habits, much to my pleasure, eschews magnanimous agendas around goals and definitions and motivation and instead attacks the most practical arm of the problem: the system we set up for ourselves and how our environments can enable or weaken our systems.
This is not to say he lays blame on the environment or encourages you to use it as an excuse, rather he details how you can take control of designing your environment for your benefit, rather than living in an environment someone else designed for you—and this does not involve redoing your walls or laying out your home from scratch, so rest easy.
As much as I am tempted to go on I will stop this review here because I hate to spoil such a great book with summaries and pointers. Make time and read this book. This is not one of those self-help books that should really have been a simple essay. The structure and narrative is central to making readers understand the insights contained in it and the basic push the book makes is this: you are stuck in your identity (e.g. I am not a morning person, I am not good at art, this just isn’t for me) which is what makes all your attempts at building and breaking habits fail. Do not make habits tasks; make habits your identity and they will succeed. Of course this is easier said than done, which is why you should read this book; it will make building and breaking habits as easy to do as they are to talk about.
Read this book.
Nir Eyal tries to convince readers that it is them and not their gadgets or environment that is the problem, and he does it rather well.
As far as Indistractable goes Matt Haig’s testimonial nails it; this book, he says, is what we need to ‘focus on what is important, rather than the dazzling, illuminated, unsatisfying distractions of modern life’. If there is just one thing you need to know about Indistractable this is it. I normally only review books that, to a good degree, evoke a considerable response in me—whether in a good way or not. To speak highly (or low) of such a book simply makes it particularly good (or horrible) for me.
Hardly any review of Mr Eyal’s latest book can avoid talking about the elephant in the room: his earlier best seller, nay tech-world bible, Hooked was the literal antithesis of Indistractable. Few authors can get away with such a 180º turn. While Hooked talks so effectively about how technology can be built to develop habit forming practices in users that it is among the most faithfully read books among software designers trying to rope users in and make them addicted to their product (think of Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or some games you found yourself unable to put down), Indistractable does the exact opposite, explaining to people how they can refuse to be distracted by the things around them and focus on what matters.
Mr Eyal himself argues that it is not a 180º as much as ‘an insight that I have into both questions’. Yet, one cannot help but wonder if he is simply trying to redeem himself from the aftermath of Hooked1. Putting all that aside we had better look at Indistractable based solely on its merits and not with any perceived context. And I do think that, as it stands, this is a pretty good book.
Indistractable is divided into four parts (with a couple more flanking them). The shadow of Hooked appears to loom large on occasion with Mr Eyal insisting that the route to becoming indistractable is not about avoiding potential distraction but learning to handle ourselves better. Even if I am wrong about this being prompted by the author’s previous book, I tend to agree with this fundamental principle he enforces. A digital detox, he insists, is not the answer. He makes it a point, repeatedly, to take the blame away from gadgets and software. The antidote to getting distracted is to plan ahead and follow through on your intentions, he says and I agree, somewhat.
The four-step process involves mastering internal triggers, making time for traction, fighting back external triggers, and preventing distraction altogether with pacts. The term ‘distraction’ is defined as arising from the word ‘traction’ which refers to any action that pulls us towards our goal. This definition is important to keep in mind throughout this book as it sets the stage for what we can consider a distraction in the first place before we attempt to deal with it.
One of the arguments Mr Eyal makes to clarify why blaming technology will not do, which I particularly liked, involves a game of billiards. The coloured balls go into the pocket because of the cue ball, but the cue ball is not responsible. He points out that the real responsibility lies in the player whose actions are the root cause for the coloured balls to be pocketed; the cue ball was simply a proximate cause. Smartphones and other gadgets are proximate causes, he says. And, further, they offer us an escape from reality—particularly social media—which is fundamentally what distraction is: an escape from reality.
Anther cause for distraction is boredom, says Mr Eyal, but I find it hard to agree with his argument especially since I have myself called for people to allow themselves to be bored a lot more. However, I do agree that his other proposed reasons, such as our inherent negativity bias, rumination etc., can well be causes that prompt us to look for distraction. To deal with it then, we need ACT—Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. Mr Eyal compares this to smoking and quotes an interesting study as an example. Flight attendants with a smoking habit were put into two groups and asked to go off on a three-hour and ten-hour flight and rate their craving. It was found that those on the ten-hour flight had much less craving after three hours than their counterparts on the three-hour flight. The reason for this was acceptance: the flight attendants had accepted that they were not allowed to smoke while on a flight and that they would not be able to smoke until they landed. So, after three hours, the group which knew they could smoke felt a greater craving than that which knew they could not smoke for another seven hours. It was not about how long it had been since they last smoke so much as how long they had left to be able to smoke.
The approach to acceptance comes down to four of its own steps: one, look for the emotion preceding distraction; two, write down the internal trigger; three, explore the negative sensation with curiosity instead of contempt2; and four, be extra cautious during liminal moments. Funnily, Mr Eyals cites impulsive searching on Google as an example of urges to accept before bringing under control. The next time you want an answer to something, do not whip out your smartphone and google it; be more mindful, pause, take note and then work on whether you really need to do it right then and now. This reminds me of another book called The knowledge illusion which does a good job of addressing why we like to Google: it gives us the feeling that we know something while in fact we do not know it, we just were able to access it—the access to knowledge is addictive because it is mistaken with the possession of knowledge. This is a uniquely 21st century problem. In any case, the first step is to acknowledge it and not blindly fight it.
On a similar note—beware I do not know how scientific this is—trying to will our way through distraction i.e. planning to simply control distraction through our will power will be futile because, says Mr Eyal, will power is an emotion like any other: it ebbs and flows based on the environment you are in. So if will power is what you plan to use, do not fall for the idea that you ran out of it, know that your environment and lots of other subsidiary factors can affect, exhaust and even replenish it.
There are a couple of mathematical bastardisations in the book, much like in a corporate motivation book3. One of these is B=M+A+T which is supposed to stand for Behaviour being a combination of Motivation, Ability and Trigger. The reason this equation stood out is because, following this, Mr Eyal talks about how this formula led Mike Krieger to develop the infamously addictive Instagram. The app has a motivation in the form of its social offerings; ability in the form of prompting next steps for users with likes, infinite scrolls and such; and triggers such as notifications—the ‘pings, dings and rings’ as Mr Eyal refers to them so often in this book. The environment Instagram created in this way routinely makes our will to resist it flail.
Speaking of our environment, an interesting point made in this book involves keeping our environment tidy in order to keep our mind sharp and undistracted. Apparently, a study by Princeton researchers4 showed that the more clutter we have in our view, the poorer our performance of tasks gets. So keeping our environment tidy is, among others, a key external trigger that we can exploit to make ourselves indistractable. This applies as much to the digital world as to the physical.
After discussing identifying internal and external triggers, and traction and distraction, all of which tell us how we can deal with distractions, Mr Eyal discusses how we can prevent ourselves from sliding into distraction. In the final chapters of his book he recommends using pacts or pre-commitments to ‘remove future choice and overcome our impulsivity’. I particularly liked this idea. This is something that can be used along with techniques like calendar blocking. He starts off with the story of Ulysses where the titular character demanded that his deck hands tie him to a pole with ropes until his ship crossed a particular island from where singing could be heard—songs that could deviate and sink ships. In effect, although the song (which was supposed to be beautiful by the way) could distract him, tying him made it physically impossible for him to give in to that distraction.
Of course not all of us can tie ourselves up, and tying is, more often than not, not even a real solution to the distractions most of us face (how many open tabs do you have right now and how many do you need?) the spirit of Ulysses’s story is that he used the idea of pacts to force himself to focus. Named after the man himself, a Ulysses pact is a freely-made decision designed and intended to bind oneself in the future. Mr Eyal cites fixed retirement accounts, medical planning and the like as real world examples where we already use pacts: we promise to do something setting it up so the cost of not doing it is harder to bear than actually doing it.
Mr Eyal recommends we cement intentions when clear-headed with effort pacts which make distractions harder to reach, price pacts where we set aside money that we lose if we do not finish a task and identity pacts where we think of actions as our identity rather than actions that we need to choose to do. This last one especially can do with an explanation and the one Mr Eyal gives is interesting, not to mention particularly relevant to me: do not think, he says, of what you can or cannot do; think instead of what you are—I am indistractable—and strengthen this by teaching others because teaching empowers us to improve ourselves while helping others5. In what sounds like clever marketing he even encourages us to share this book with others as a form of teaching—well, Mr Eyal, consider this review my teaching.
Overall this is an interesting book filled with actionable advice, sometimes even specific apps or technologies we can use to help our journey towards becoming indistractable. It is hard to say how applicable such unusually specific suggestions are; app recommendations do not make for a particularly evergreen read, moreover it makes the book sound like a blog post. Perhaps it does aim to leave paper for the web at times since Mr Eyal has a web page set up for this book where worksheets and downloads are available: these are tools of the sort that I have seen before but rarely found real benefits from so I will refrain from commenting on them.
This book is more practical than philosophical, even a bit too practical at times—if something can even be that one wonders, but then I find that any other description of this book falls short. If you want more perspective on how to save yourself from distraction, this is a good book, but, despite its planned division into four parts, it offered to me, in the end, more insights into how triggers around us—especially technologies—work us than anything else, and followed it up with some handy but nonetheless popular solutions that lay blame primarily on anything but technology.
With this I want to finally bring Hooked back to the picture, because I think that while technology is not the only problem we have, it is part of the problem and it most certainly is not entirely blameless. When Mike Krieger designed an app adhering to the principles of B=M+A+T with the express intention of keeping us on the app for as long as possible, and when Facebook and Twitter and Google (especially with YouTube) have worked so hard for so long to make sure their apps can retain users and increase the time they spend on their apps and websites—not for social engagement, rather for increased exposure to ads and for the subsequent revenue that flows from this—and when there is talk of legislation to ban techniques like infinite scrolling which literally make social media and other websites endless wells, it is obnoxious to claim that software developers and tech companies are blameless.
Thankfully we have, of late, seen some companies accept and address this issue. Mr Eyal’s recommended ACT is probably something tech companies can benefit from too. Apple introduced a host of features to prevent overuse of devices—and in turn of certain other tech products like social media—and smaller companies like DuckDuckGo and Mozilla have been fighting with similar interests in mind although their size and reach seem to restrict each other. Technology is to blame in part but technology can also provide answers and work on making products less about user retention and more sincerely about user experience and value gained, which will deal with distractions too.
In the final bits of the book is an interesting set of chapters that talks about helping children with distractions and making sure they can keep things under control. The same is then extended to society as a whole; Mr Eyal talks about two especially interesting ideas while comparing uncontrolled gadget usage in otherwise unconventional situations to smoking. Smartphone overuse, for example, he prophecies will one day be looked back at like smoking was in the 60s. We should develop a ‘social antibody’ to this, he says, urging people to decently, often indirectly, nudge others to make them aware of their smartphone usage so they can rethink their decision to use their device in that particular situation. We need to make people aware when they are phubbing he says, using the portmanteau created by Australia’s Macquarie dictionary to mean snubbing someone by using your phone in their presence.
However, what turned my thoughts about the book from decent to doubtful was this bit in chapter 29, during the final quarter of the book, when Mr Eyal says the following:
Of course technology plays a role. Smartphone apps and video games are designed to be engaging, just as sugar is meant to be delicious. But like the parent who blames a ‘sugar high’ for their kid’s bad behaviour, blaming devices is a superficial answer to a deep question.
While I agree that the ‘sugar high’ is a myth—and science has said as much—what I find troubling is Mr Eyal’s outright refusal to say that smartphone apps and video games are designed to be addictive and therefore distracting. ‘Engaging’ is one of many intentions, but rarely is it either the primary one or the most critical. Softening the blow hurts more than helps Mr Eyal’s case. It would have been great to see Mr Eyal admit the addictive quotient built into these things rather than insist that technology can never be a root cause. It would have been great to see him accept technology’s flaws and then point to counter examples of how technology can be useful in broader terms than just suggesting specific apps that may soon become irrelevant (knowing technology years). It would have been great to see this book teaching people to reign themselves in while also being a prominent voice to call tech companies out on their nastier habits.
Despite leaving me with mixed feelings, this book does have something for everyone and is certainly worth a read if you have time to spare. After all, knowing how our enemies work is half the battle won.
The word is, not only did Mr Eyal work with several tech companies and help them build products, he has also of late defended his methods as useful outside tech too (such as in helping someone build positive habits like exercise) and, in 2018 commented about how simply turning off addictive apps can help. I have not read Hooked myself so I cannot make any comments on it, but Mr Eyal’s path from Hooked to Indistractable has been an interesting one. ↩︎
This is a comma on thread throughout the book: go easy on yourself when you fail or when something is negative because that will allow you to get back on your feet faster than if you were hard on yourself. ↩︎
Such gimmicks are why I used to detest a certain class of self-help books, but Indistractable thankfully has a lot more to offer that more than offsets its embrace of silly maths. Classics like Who moved my cheese and Jonathan Livingston Seagull do not resort to low measures. ↩︎
This is a high point in the book, a great explanation of why we need to teach others something even if we are not perfect at it ourselves. As a teacher myself I am intimately familiar with the imperfection Mr Eyal speaks of (and he is a teacher too). But, to say nothing of the fact that we may never be perfect, teaching what we do know well enough empowers us to become better learners (or even just learners in the first place) while also helping others. ↩︎
An insightful although, disappointingly, not a first-hand look at the man who took over from Steve Jobs.
When Steve Jobs died many people were critical about Tim Cook taking over the reins as CEO of Apple. I was one of them. This was despite news that Mr Cook had been running the show for several months already while Jobs was alive. But of course, Jobs would have still been calling the shots, would he not? Apparently not: while he was close to death Jobs told his successor not to keep asking himself, ‘What would Steve Jobs do?’ and instead just ‘do what is right’. It turns out the rest of us had been viewing Mr Cook rather unfairly, wondering all along, ‘What would Steve Jobs do?’
It is hard to imagine the immense pressure Mr Cook would have been under when taking over from an almost mythical figure like Jobs. Add to that the negative limelight the world media cast him in and the way Mr Cook braved things during in the first few years of his leadership at Apple makes for an inspirational tale. I have myself rarely been happier to be proved wrong and I am sure a lot of us felt bad for not having more faith in the company we liked so much. I would not be surprised if Mr Kahney was among such people who originally doubted Mr Cook because this book feels like the writing of a man overcompensating for once doubting the venerable CEO of Apple by downplaying his weaknesses and extolling his strengths.
Then again, one is left to wonder if Mr Cook is not a really great human being and an incredibly capable leader after all. Rather than his story being too good to be true, is it truly so good we find it hard to believe?
Disappointingly, the CEO of Apple himself had nothing to do with this book. The author bases his writing on heavily researched but second-hand content with not a single interview with the titular character himself. From a book called ‘Tim Cook’ readers can be excused for being displeased with anything less than an actual conversation with the man himself. Perhaps Mr Kahney would have done better to call it ‘Apple under Tim Cook’.
Put any expectations of Tim Cook’s involvement aside and you have a pretty interesting read, both from the perspective of an Apple customer and someone interested in learning what good leadership looks like. Equally important, Mr Kahney is not new to the world of Apple: he is editor of Cult of Mac, former editor of Wired, and wrote the popular book The Cult of Mac where he compared Apple and its fans to a cult. Mr Kahney knows his stuff and it shows in his research.
The book briefly details Mr Cook’s upbringing, his first exposure to racism as a young child, and explores his college years. It then builds on this to show how the choices Mr Cook made as Apple’s current CEO were somewhat uniquely shaped by his experiences. This may seem like it blinds Cook towards areas that are not his forte, but you cannot blame a man for playing on his strengths. And play he did: following Steve Jobs’s death Tim Cook took the company he had left Compaq for in a different direction than its founder might have—and for the better, if Mr Kahney is to be believed. He defined six areas of focus for Apple: accessibility, education, environment, supplier responsibility, inclusion and diversity, and privacy and security.
At this point the book delves into these six topics and forgets that its subject matter is the man behind it himself. The book becomes more a biography of Apple under Tim Cook rather than a deep dive into Mr Cook and his life and what drives him. Given that Mr Cook himself was never talked to, it is not surprise that Mr Kahney managed to gather little information about him and diverted instead towards a conversation about Apple: Tim Cook has always been an intensely private person.
Where Jobs focused on building Apple into a company that spewed one innovative product after another, Mr Cook has focused on stabilising the company and arming it with enough to take on whatever the future brings. It would be wrong to argue, though, that Apple has not innovated under Mr Cook; it may not have had entirely new products (if you discount the Apple Watch and the Airpod, that is, but why would you discount them at all?) but the company is now innovating at a different level entirely. Innovation changes direction after a while. I recall Jony Ive once comparing it to how cars are still innovating internally while on the outside you still get a four-wheeler with a steering wheel and chassis and some seats, windows and a windscreen.
Mr Kahney talks a lot about how Tim Cook and Apple stood up to the FBI and refused to crack open an iPhone because of the treacherous precedent it would set for government surveillance and privacy in the future. He is right to do this and Apple deserves a lot of credit for this; there is little doubt any other company would have folded under pressure here. But then he criticises—in what is the only criticism of Apple in this book—for not being diverse enough or supporting open systems. This is funny and somewhat inaccurate because if any company today is known for its diversity, it is Apple, be it gender- or race-based.
Apple under Tim Cook also came up with a new coding language in Swift and made it open source thanks to which many people benefitted (me, for example, as my first ever app was built with Swift), a move which was in stark contrast to Apple’s otherwise closed-source and secretive nature. They also invested heavily in education releasing a line of extremely capable iPads meant especially for education—my wife uses one of these and she loves it. Yet Mr Kahney gives Apple little credit for all this.
My particularly favourite part of the book is where the author talks about Scott Forstall’s colossal failures with Siri and Apple Maps (remember when it directed people into the sea?) for which Mr Cook asked him to apologise publicly. Mr Forstall refused and Tim Cook had him fired, which he followed with a public apology that he himself gave, marking arguably the first move Apple made under Tim Cook that would have been unheard of in Steve Jobs’s Apple. The move told the world Apple was a more human company now: this was Apple under Tim Cook.
In the end Mr Kahney boldly claims that Mr Cook is Apple’s best CEO. I like this claim and I would like to believe it but I am not sure Mr Cook himself would agree. If traditional CEO-like activities are concerned Steve Jobs may not rank at the top of the crop but he did lift Apple out of bankruptcy. Perhaps Mr Kahney would have done better to say Jobs was the CEO Apple needed when Jobs was the CEO, and Mr Cook was the best choice to lead Apple in this decade and make it more human. The two are extremely different leaders who focused on what they did best which in turn shaped the company and took it to greater heights.
If you want a look at the man who brought humanness to Apple, who is a beacon of leadership today, and if you want a bird’s eye view of the man whose tenure as CEO will shape Apple’s future for the coming decades, this is a good book. It is not a look at Tim Cook as much as a look at Apple under him and is decidedly the perspective of a well-informed outsider.
Andy Puddicombe’s guide predates his popular app examines the belief that even ten mindful minutes can make a difference.
According to my Headspace app my journey into mindfulness started around 2015. Back then I had either no interest in meditating or no inclination to explore Andy Puddicombe’s Bristol accent guiding me through the basics of mindfulness. Until about a month ago my journey remained abandoned and I had all but forgotten about the app. Sometime last year I picked up Oak—another wonderful app for meditating—trying to incorporate it into my daily life while my wife picked up Headspace. This brought Andy’s app back on my radar and, for some reason I cannot point out reasonably well at the moment, I soon found myself back on Headspace this year.
Some of my success with Headspace could be attributed to my wife and I adopting a sensible fitness regimen, but to say the app does not charm you into meditating would be a lie. In terms of helping you adopt a consistent practise of mindfulness the app is more a comfortable cushion than a whip. It neither dilutes the practice of meditation into something abstract and senseless nor forces you to sit in the lotus pose for hours at a stretch.
Critics of Headspace have had a problem with the company for some time now. I have heard some argue that meditating for ten minutes a day is laughable. I have also heard arguments that Andy trained for free (he studied as a monk in a few Asian countries and was finally ordained in India, which is also where he began his training) and that he now charges to train others, making enough profits to buy a ‘ritzy’ house in California, which is unfair to the monasteries he trained in. None of that matters because, one, Buddhism does not care about licensing its training programmes; two, most learning that turns into a viable business is based on this or a similar model; three, nobody is expected to pay back to their schools after they earn professionally and Buddhist monasteries do not offer training on this precondition; four, to me, as a user, Andy and Rich’s work has proved useful enough that I have subscribed to their meditation library.
As for meditating for ten minutes a day—this is where this book review comes in. First released about a year after the company was set up (originally called ‘Get some headspace’) and about a year before the Headspace app was launched, the book dives into Andy’s strategy based on the idea that even ten minutes of meditation can make a difference. Besides going through the Basics courses in Headspace reading this book gave me a better appreciation for Andy’s drive behind the app and meditation sessions. It makes the sessions considerable more meaningful when you read in detail about what drove Andy to start bite-sized mindfulness training courses in the first place.
If you read my older articles you will know that I am not a sympathiser of anything bite-sized. But when it comes to meditation, developing an experience over time is far more important than performing an activity for a period of time, so bite-sized works just fine. Whereas two minutes of reading (or twenty seconds going by people’s current attention spans) is hardly meaningful compared to twenty minutes of the same, ten—or even five—minutes of mindfulness is worth it so long as you practise it consistently. Andy explains this idea beautifully in this book: meditation is only a third of the whole picture; having the right approach to meditation and eventually integrating it into your daily life ought to be the end goal. This is why having a ten-minute session daily is just fine.
I have been meditating—or observing mindful minutes if you will—for a few weeks now, more or less daily, for no more than ten minutes a day and I already experience a mild difference in the way I approach things.
The book carries exercises throughout. It starts of as simply as it can, by asking you to sit idle for a few minutes, and then ramps it up from there. These, especially, are a great addition to the Basics course in the Headspace app.
Meditation is not some new mysterious idea: it is simply exercise to strengthen your mind the way lifting weights or doing cardio is exercise for to develop your physique. So, like any exercise, it is important to understand meditation and practise it regularly to be able to see its positive effects on your daily life. And this is what Andy describes in this book through several anecdotes (he never expects you to learn meditation through anecdotes, though, choosing, instead, to use straightforward instruction, which I am personally happy about) starting from how he escaped over the walls of a monastery all the way to how he and Rich founded Headspace.
If you are interested in meditation, Headspace is a great app to pick up—and subscribe to—right away. If you like the app do read this book because it gives you a much better perspective on what Headspace is all about. Do I feel Headspace or this book is helping me focus? I cannot say because I never had a problem focusing. But it is helping me take a few minutes off daily to reflect on my day in a considerably more efficient manner than before. That counts for a lot.
In fact, Headspace is not about making drastic improvements to a select part of your life (although the titles in the Headspace library might give you that impression). It is more about making your lifestyle richer overall and the better you understand this the more effective Headspace becomes. To end with, here is a paragraph that I particularly liked where Andy speaks about this notion of how mindfulness is meant to become an integral part of your life rather than an activity in your life for which you set aside time:
There’s no need to give everything up, or radically change your lifestyle in any way. Dramatic changes like this are rarely sustainable, which is what makes a mindful way of living so achievable. You can keep living as you always have done, if that’s what you want to do. Mindfulness is about learning how to change your experience of that lifestyle.
Effectively, as Andy puts it, ‘By changing the way in which you see the world, you effectively change the world around you.’
A book that offers something new by not offering anything radical. A book that believes not in always being your best but always doing your best.
Many a self-help book starts by setting itself a tall order so it comes as no surprise when it falls short of delivering. Todd Henry’s book, Die empty, sets out with a somewhat grandiose aim too but, surprisingly, it manages to deliver a practical, actionable set of advices to help readers as promised—and keeps it up at least during the first chunk of the book. As it progresses it appears to be drawn out, starts targeting businessmen (seemingly unaware of this) and relies heavily on clichés. Yet, if you patiently pick up titbits you might come away gaining a lot from this book; not a lot of which will be new to you, but rather a lot of which you will find is told in an effective, eye-opening manner designed to make the idea last in your mind. In the end that is what makes Die empty a book worth reading.
The purpose of it all
The book starts of with an anecdote—one of many to come—in which Mr Henry speaks of how the urban planner and artist Candy Chang once created used a large chalkboard to make a work of art covering one wall of an abandoned home in her neighbourhood. On it she wrote the prompt ‘Before I die I want to __________’ several times and left chalks around for passers by to fill in the blanks. And many did, enough to spread the exercise to over a hundred cities around the globe. Mr Henry uses this to explain what connects a lot of people: the simple fact that we are aware of our limited time here on earth and that we all have something we want to do. Consistent practises can help us unleash our best work everyday, he says, so in the end we don’t regret how we spent our lives.
It was my wife who brought this book to my attention when she shared with me another of Mr Henry’s anecdotes. (It turns out, however, that this isn’t from Die empty but from Mr Henry’s previous book The accidental creative although he recounts it again briefly in this one.) A friend once asked a strange and unexpected question: ‘What do you think is the most valuable land in the world?’ It is neither Manhattan, says the friend, nor the oil fields of the Middle East, nor the goldmines of Africa. The most valuable land in the world is the graveyard; in the graveyard are buried all of the unwritten novels, never-launched businesses, unreconciled relationships. In short, all things that people thought they would get back to ‘tomorrow’, but their tomorrows soon ran out. This is a great idea, and Mr Henry uses this to urge readers to empty themselves of all the creativity lingering inside them. Rely on sustained effort, he says, not accident. The effort will be well worth it.
People often regret not having treated their life with purpose, he points out while clarifying the purpose of his book: to bring a newfound clarity and sense of urgency to how you approach your work on a daily basis. ‘In writing this book’, he says, ‘I’m taking my own advice and not leaving my best, most important work inside me.’ Good point, I remember smiling to myself.
The ‘sense of urgency’ can understandably be mistaken for a mindset of getting things done urgently, at all costs. Mr Henry rightly takes time to correct this. He compares this to Karoshi, an idea that has long interested me, saying, specifically, that the idea behind Die empty is not about working all the time, or working past reasonable limits; never ignore everything else in your life to get things done. Don’t work frantically, says Mr Henry, reiterating a point he mentioned multiple times in the book: make steady, critical progress. Dying empty is not the same as living ‘like there’s no tomorrow’.
Karoshi is a Japanese term that refers to occupational sudden death, or dying from overwork.
What counts as work?
The core belief of this book, therefore, is that your days are finite, that you have the capacity to make a contribution to the world, and that you cannot work with huge expectations in return for what you do. Making a point I particularly liked, Mr Henry talks of the overemphasis of what he terms ‘celebrity and recognition’ that is rampant in society today. This sort of outlook is unquestionably dangerous; one needs to work without expecting such recognition (more on this in a moment).
Another much-needed clarification Mr Henry provides has to do with what ‘work’ is: ‘Your body of work,’ says he, ‘should consist of what’s most important to you.’ He quotes Steve Jobs’s famous speech at this point, where the co-founder and former CEO of Apple famously said he stands before a mirror and asks himself, ‘if today were the last day of my life would I want to do what I’m about to do today? And whenever the answer has been “no” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something ... Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is one of the most important tools I’ve encountered to help me make the big choices in life.’ That should help you pick what you work on.
A lot of people suffer from ‘purpose paralysis’, the fear of getting things wrong, and—here is something Mr Henry puts beautifully—they get frustrated ‘when the daily grind of work doesn’t seem to reward [their] pursuit’. This makes it all the more important to understand what one means when one refers to their ‘work’. Your work, he says rather succinctly, is your effort to create value where it didn’t previously exist.
He then goes on to describe three types of work, explaining how most of us always tend to focus on two and ignore one of these: mapping, meshing and making. Mapping is planning out your approach; making is actually doing the work; meshing is the so-called ‘work between the work’, skill acquisition, broadening your focus onto other areas of your industry or even other industries etc.—activities that ‘stretch and grow you’.
Mr Henry calls the ‘Developer’ mindset one where we focus equally on all three; this is what we should all strive to develop. But most of us fall, instead, into one of three other categories of mindset. Some of us focus on mapping and making, forgetting meshing. He calls this the ‘driver’ mindset—which makes us narrowly effective but generally unable to take advantage of opportunities; drivers have will and determination but they end up putting this to little use. Next, some of us focus on making and meshing, forgetting to map. This is the ‘drifter’, who goes by whim, and, because he has no map, cannot plan, has no strategy, and ends up with many wasted opportunities, failing to follow through on ideas effectively. And finally some of us focus on meshing and mapping—the ‘dreamer’—becoming obsessed with ideas and personal growth, which sounds effective but without focusing on ‘making’ dreamers never work on something long or well enough for it to matter.
To explain how the work we do can affect people and contribute in ways we cannot always imagine or do not always expect, and to see why we should work anyway, regardless of whether we see these effects ourselves, Mr Henry relates the tale of the Detroit-based singer–songwriter Sixto Rodriguez who released songs for a few years in the 70s in the United States but remained practically invisible there: his music never took off. Unbeknownst to him his album reached South Africa when someone from the US carried it on a trip there and, over the next two decades he became a cult icon in South Africa, no less than The Beatles. He was so far disconnected from all this that not only did he have no idea about his fame and impact, but also was believed to be dead already. It was only towards the end of the 90s—when someone realised Rodriguez had actually been living a quiet life in the States and tracked him down and he flew to South Africa to perform live—that he realised how important his work had been to so many people.
You do not always know the full impact of your work, as Mr Henry points out. You might never know it in all your life. And then he asks, had Rodriguez not received recognition, would it have diminished the impact of his work? I understand that not all of our work can have the same impact as Rodriguez’s, and to think that someone somewhere is looking at our work as central to their life would be taking it a bit too far, but the point is still valid: work without expectations because recognition is not alone what makes your work meaningful.
Flashy statements and clichés
Despite the unambiguous, action-oriented suggestions, the book is not entirely free from clichés and flashy terms such as ‘the seven deadly sins of mediocrity’, listed as rather cheesy acronyms going from A to G: aimlessness (define your aim), boredom (maintain disciplined curiosity), comfort (step out of your comfort zone), delusion (know your limits and your capabilities alike), ego (get over it, accept failure, grow), fear (try to question rather than fear the unknown), guardedness (remedy relational outages in your life). These ‘seven deadly sins’ do serve a purpose ultimately in that they define the purpose of the subsequent chapters of this book, each of which deals with one sin and methods to overcome it (mentioned briefly above in parentheses).
In speaking of passion Mr Henry talks about ‘productive passion’, i.e. passion driven by compassionate anger, the sort of unrest that makes you feel like you want to step in either on behalf of those who are suffering or in order to solve a problem. Choose a battle line that will shape every step you take, he says and goes on to quote how the Boka restaurant group’s statement ‘blow people away’ offered a targeted purpose of every person working for the company, from the managers to the waiters: Did what you do blow them away? Will this blow people away? What can I do for my customers today to blow them away?
There are other clichés too, such as maintaining a notebook where you jot things down, a practice that I have myself been employing for years now and one that has been around for centuries. Make a list of everything you want to do or know you should have done but have not. These form your open loop, says Mr Henry, and then suggests you start working daily to close these loops. This amounts to clichéd advice and is not particularly helpful in any way in which it has not already been presented. He goes on to use this to suggest we develop a sense of curiosity. Pursue inspiration via probing questions and stay curious—do not sit back and wait for it. This, again, uncharacteristically of the rest of the book, is not all that actionable.
More cliches come in the form of step, sprint and stretch goals—merely fancy names for short-, mid- and long-term goals—and the suggestion of performing constant SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis on yourself. These are both classic techniques marketing executives have been taught for ages and every other self-help and personal development book targeting marketing majors mentions these almost matter-of-factly. It is also around this point that ‘Die empty’ lost me briefly, with a shift towards marketing jargon and suggestions seemingly targeted at businessmen, a direction the book was taking that I felt Mr Henry seemed blissfully unaware of.
And some other gems
As said earlier, to dismiss the book just because it carries some clichés would be wrong—although the existence of said clichés must be addressed, as they were a moment ago—because there are some impressive points Mr Henry makes throughout.
I like that there is a principle at the beginning of every chapter about what the chapter deals with and there are simple questions, called checkpoints, at the end of every chapter. This is in line with the generally action-oriented nature of this book and is a particularly good thing.
Another idea that appealed to me were Mr Henry’s thoughts on boredom not least because they were in line with my own thoughts and because they agreed with an essay I am currently working on (and which I hope to publish here sometime soon): boredom cannot be gotten over because we have (in our gadgets) a ‘seductive’ stream of entertainment. But, he points out, it is during boredom that we have our best ideas.
And then there is what he calls ‘the curse of familiarity’, how we often mistake a passing familiarity with knowledge. Although we have read a bit about things and although (or in my opinion ‘because‘) we have quick access to an endless stream of information via the Web, we end up believing we have the required knowledge at hand while, in reality, we have ‘not done the heavy lifting’ yet to fully understand how our newfound knowledge fits into our perception. If this idea appeals to you I recommend reading The knowledge illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach as this idea is somewhat central to that book. In short, Mr Henry says intellectual growth occurs not from titbits of information but from considering and integrating it.
Towards the end of the book he takes a moment to further clarify what dying empty means from a positive sense. Do not ask yourself what you will do if today is your last day to live. Humorously, but also rightly, he points out that you might want to binge eat pizza and jump off a plane if today is your last day. Instead, he suggests that we ask ourselves how we would spend our day if we would be accompanied today by someone who would watch our every move, take detailed notes, draw conclusions and write a definitive book about us. On some level this technique sounds considerably less morbid and a lot pleasanter and more promising than the ‘last day alive’ scenario.
Live with a focus on E.M.P.T.Y., he says finally, putting forth a last cheesy acronym. Focus on your Ethics, focus on your Mission, focus on the People, focus on Tasks, focus on You.
I like books I can read in a few days. As dull as the comparison might seem, these are like soda cans rather than richly blended teas, best for when we are on-the-go, hurrying through our days, rather than sitting back one evening and sipping patiently. To me these serve as stepping stones between longer, more considered reads. And I am particularly overjoyed when such a book can offer as much as Die empty does because, in spite of falling in the self-help genre, the book offers more than just bland motivations or calls for action; it offers suggestions we can actually put to use and that alone, to me, makes this book worth reading.