Archive for December, 2013

Wisdom from cartoonists

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life – part memoir, part self-help, the creator of Dilbert shares his stories and advice in this book. I like the system approach in thinking about things. Instead of focusing on some end goals, it’s more important to focus on the process. I also like the view that reality is overrated, and we’d make use of our illusion and imagination to improve our energy and motivations (reminds me of a post I wrote many years ago). 

Other personal takeaways: think of side projects/hobbies that I’d like to pursue next year, exercise more (perhaps increase to about 5 times a week with more variety), experiment with coffee and maybe consider picking up golf at some point (probably later in life). I’d also develop a system that’d allow me to experiment and fail more often, and systematically learning from the failures. Here‘s Tim Hartford on why we should make more mistakes. 

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do……goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run.


If you want success, figure out the price, then pay it…Successful people don’t wish for success; they decide to pursue it. And to pursue it effectively, they need a system. Success always has a price, but the reality is that the price is negotiable. If you pick the right system, the price will be a lot nearer what you’re willing to pay.


Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty…some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.


Happiness has more to do with where you’re heading than where you are…The directional nature of happiness is one reason it’s a good idea to have a sport or hobby that leaves you plenty of room to improve every year.


Happiness formula: Eat right, exercise; get enough sleep; imagine an incredible future; work toward a flexible schedule; do things you can steadily improve at; help others; reduce daily decisions to routine.

Some thoughts on the real world by one who glimpsed it and fled – good commencement address by Bill Watterson. I plan to get the complete Calvin and Hobbes. Here‘s an interview with Bill Watterson.

We’re not really taught how to recreate constructively. We need to do more than find diversions; we need to restore and expand ourselves. Our idea of relaxing is all too often to plop down in front of the television set and let its pandering idiocy liquefy our brains. Shutting off the thought process is not rejuvenating; the mind is like a car battery-it recharges by running.

You may be surprised to find how quickly daily routine and the demands of “just getting by: absorb your waking hours. You may be surprised matters of habit rather than thought and inquiry. You may be surprised to find how quickly you start to see your life in terms of other people’s expectations rather than issues. You may be surprised to find out how quickly reading a good book sounds like a luxury.

Anyway, after a few months at this job, I was starved for some life of the mind that, during my lunch break, I used to read those poli sci books that I’d somehow never quite finished when I was here. Some of those books were actually kind of interesting. It was a rude shock to see just how empty and robotic life can be when you don’t care about what you’re doing, and the only reason you’re there is to pay the bills.
Thoreau said,

“the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

That’s one of those dumb cocktail quotations that will strike fear in your heart as you get older. Actually, I was leading a life of loud desperation.


I tell you all this because it’s worth recognizing that there is no such thing as an overnight success. You will do well to cultivate the resources in yourself that bring you happiness outside of success or failure. The truth is, most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive. At that time, we turn around and say, yes, this is obviously where I was going all along. It’s a good idea to try to enjoy the scenery on the detours, because you’ll probably take a few.

I still haven’t drawn the strip as long as it took me to get the job. To endure five years of rejection to get a job requires either a faith in oneself that borders on delusion, or a love of the work. I loved the work.

Drawing comic strips for five years without pay drove home the point that the fun of cartooning wasn’t in the money; it was in the work. This turned out to be an important realization when my break finally came.

Like many people, I found that what I was chasing wasn’t what I caught.


You will find your own ethical dilemmas in all parts of your lives, both personal and professional. We all have different desires and needs, but if we don’t discover what we want from ourselves and what we stand for, we will live passively and unfulfilled. Sooner or later, we are all asked to compromise ourselves and the things we care about. We define ourselves by our actions. With each decision, we tell ourselves and the world who we are. Think about what you want out of this life, and recognize that there are many kinds of success.

Creating a life that reflects your values and satisfies your soul is a rare achievement. In a culture that relentlessly promotes avarice and excess as the good life, a person happy doing his own work is usually considered an eccentric, if not a subversive. Ambition is only understood if it’s to rise to the top of some imaginary ladder of success. Someone who takes an undemanding job because it affords him the time to pursue other interests and activities is considered a flake. A person who abandons a career in order to stay home and raise children is considered not to be living up to his potential-as if a job title and salary are the sole measure of human worth.

You’ll be told in a hundred ways, some subtle and some not, to keep climbing, and never be satisfied with where you are, who you are, and what you’re doing. There are a million ways to sell yourself out, and I guarantee you’ll hear about them.

To invent your own life’s meaning is not easy, but it’s still allowed, and I think you’ll be happier for the trouble.

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Indian mothers-in-law – Interesting article on Indian family culture.

Why the French are miserable – Excerpts below, much more in the article.

Romantic miserabilism was experienced as a form of pleasure. “Melancholy”, wrote Victor Hugo, “is the happiness of being sad.” It was treated as a noble state, a higher aesthetic condition. “I do not pretend that joy cannot be allied with beauty,” wrote Baudelaire in his diary. “But I do say that joy is one of its most vulgar ornaments; whereas melancholy is, as it were, its illustrious companion.” Much of this tradition is firmly fixed in today’s French mind. Hugo’s poem “Melancholia” is required reading for French lycée students, as is Alfred de Musset’s “La Nuit de Mai”, whose narrator laments that “Nothing makes us so great as great sorrow.”


Perhaps the best exemplar of miserabilism among contemporary French fiction writers is Michel Houellebecq, the controversial Goncourt-prize-winning novelist, in such nihilist works as “Whatever” or “Atomised”. His characters invariably lead empty, often sordid, always disillusioned lives. “In the end,” writes Mr Houellebecq in “The Elementary Particles”, “there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. In the end, there’s only death.”


Perhaps the French need dissatisfaction and thrive on doubt. “There is a certain pleasure taken in being unhappy: it’s part of an intellectualism of French culture,” says Ms Senik. “Malaise and ennui are to France what can-do is to America: a badge of honour,” wrote Roger Cohen in the New York Times recently. Pessimism does not preclude pleasure. All that sitting around at pavement cafés, looking fashionably discontented, can be fun. Optimism is for fools; sophisticates know better. Bleak is chic—especially when opening another bottle of Saint-Emilion and reaching for the three-tier cheese trolley.

A short history of hotels – I must have visited dozens of hotels this year and spent lots of time there (business travel, meeting, personal travel, dining, sightseeing, etc.), so it’s interesting to learn more about the industry.

In the future the hotel may offer neither bland uniformity nor authentic warmth but a proliferating number of experimental worlds in which to insert yourself. Who do you want to be next time you hand over your passport and check in?

Special report on museums –  Are we in the golden age of museums? The museum boom in China seems wasteful. I just realize from the article that I’ve visited all the top 3 most popular modern art museums, and 6 of the top 10. But I still don’t understand contemporary art. Think I should read up more before visiting next time.

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Mark Twain: “I’ve never let school interfere with my education.”

In today’s hyper-competitive, winner-take-all society, it’s understandable why many parents are anxious about their children’s education. The Tiger mom parenting style is not uncommon, and most parents want to send their kids to the best schools possible. In many parts of Asia, this means the kids have to start early. In Hong Kong for example, a decent family would send their children to nice play groups at 1 years old (sometimes younger), then try to get them into a good pre-nursery school, then nursery school, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, primary school, and so forth, not to mention other tutoring and extracurricular activities like drawing, music, or ballet lessons. Getting into a good school at each stage would increase the chance that the kids can get into another good school. It’s like an arms race that neither parents nor the children can afford not to play. South Korea is famous for it, and it’s not a surprise that students there seem unhappy.

Increasingly I’m inclined to opt out of this game. First, most studies find that genes play a big role in determining a person’s intelligence and personality (see here for a short summary, or Bryan’s highly readable book on parenting), so to a large extent a lot of the spending on formal education are likely wasteful.

Second, it’s far from clear that putting your kids in schools with high-performing peers (i.e. the best or most competitive schools) is the best for their development (see this study for example, which is consistent with findings cited in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book on the underdogs and Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s book on competition). These studies suggest that sending one’s kid to an average school might not be such a bad thing. It also fits my experience. The schools and university I went to aren’t particularly good, which is probably a reason why I managed to excel in them and went on to top institutions for post graduate studies. Doing well in an average schools boost one’s confidence, and one can use the extra free time to play and learn things outside school. 

Lastly, while nurture matters, it’s unclear the traditional education system provides a good environment for learning. David Friedman makes a good case for unschooling (more here and here). My kids probably won’t be as smart as his and I might not have as much time to spend with them (though that’s another personal decision), so unschooling might not work for me. But I like the concept. I think education is all about learning how to learn. And it’s important for children to learn how to take responsibility for their own education, make their own decisions, and spend their time. As Peter Gray argues in his book Free to Play (excerpts below), traditional schooling doesn’t foster these traits, and if anything, it does the opposite.

There is no one size fits all answer, and we need to find paths that suit us. At the margin, I think parents should be more relaxed about their kids’ formal education and behave more like mentors to the kids’ development. It takes courage to not do things that the society deems normal (like go to a good school, take a good job, buy a nice house and car, get married and have a family, work until you are old and retire). But as Steve Jobs’ famous ad said, we should Think Different

Below are some excerpts from Peter Gray’s book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life

Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.


The school system has directly and indirectly, often unintentionally, fostered an attitude in society that children learn and progress primarily by doing tasks that are directed and evaluated by adults, and that children’s own activities are wasted time.


Every time we reduce children’s opportunities for free play by increasing their time at school or at other adult-directed activities, we reduce further their opportunities to learn to control their own lives, to learn that they are not simply victims of circumstances and powerful others.


Curiosity drew the children to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.


The famous developmental psychologist Jean Piaget noted long ago, in a classic study of children playing marbles, that children acquire a higher understanding of rules when they play under their own direction than when they are directed by adults. Adult direction leads to the assumption that rules are determined by an outside authority and thus not to be questioned. When children play just among themselves, however, they come to realize that rules are merely conventions, established to make the game more fun and more fair, and can be changed to meet changing conditions.


Our system of grading and ranking to motivate students seems almost perfectly designed to promote cynicism and cheating. Students are constantly told about the value of high grades. Advancement through the system and eventual freedom from it depend on them. Students understandably become convinced that high grades are the be-all and end-all of their schoolwork. By the time they are eleven or twelve years old, most are realistically cynical about the idea that school is fundamentally a place for learning. They realize that much of what they are required to do is senseless and that they will forget most of what they are tested on shortly after the test.


Whether your child succeeds or fails is up to your child, not you, and the measure of success or failure must be your child’s, not yours. The world is full of unhappy lawyers, doctors, and business executives, and many clerks and janitors are happy, fulfilled, and decent. Career success is not life success. You can be happy or unhappy in any profession, but you can’t be happy, at least not for long stretches, if you feel that your life is not yours.

Here is Sugata Mitra showing how kids in India can learn by themselves.

PS: I can’t wait to read Bryan Caplan’s upcoming book on the case against education.

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Misc. videos

Interesting Ted talk on why follow your passion is a bad idea and we’d stop wage war on work

Anime on The History of English in 10 minutes

Louis C.K on parenting

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos looks to the future

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