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Archive for May, 2014

Shane posted this letter from Hunter S. Thompson to his friend. Great advice from a young person.

Bottom line: “Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life.” 

April 22, 1958
57 Perry Street
New York City

Dear Hume,

You ask advice: ah, what a very human and very dangerous thing to do! For to give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal— to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.

I am not a fool, but I respect your sincerity in asking my advice. I ask you though, in listening to what I say, to remember that all advice can only be a product of the man who gives it. What is truth to one may be disaster to another. I do not see life through your eyes, nor you through mine. If I were to attempt to give you specific advice, it would be too much like the blind leading the blind.

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles … ” (Shakespeare)

And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect— between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.

But why not float if you have no goal? That is another question. It is unquestionably better to enjoy the floating than to swim in uncertainty. So how does a man find a goal? Not a castle in the stars, but a real and tangible thing. How can a man be sure he’s not after the “big rock candy mountain,” the enticing sugar-candy goal that has little taste and no substance?

The answer— and, in a sense, the tragedy of life— is that we seek to understand the goal and not the man. We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid. When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective.

So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. It would take reams of paper to develop this subject to fulfillment. God only knows how many books have been written on “the meaning of man” and that sort of thing, and god only knows how many people have pondered the subject. (I use the term “god only knows” purely as an expression.) There’s very little sense in my trying to give it up to you in the proverbial nutshell, because I’m the first to admit my absolute lack of qualifications for reducing the meaning of life to one or two paragraphs.

I’m going to steer clear of the word “existentialism,” but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts. You might also try something called Being and Nothingness by Jean-Paul Sartre, and another little thing called Existentialism: From Dostoyevsky to Sartre. These are merely suggestions. If you’re genuinely satisfied with what you are and what you’re doing, then give those books a wide berth. (Let sleeping dogs lie.) But back to the answer. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES.

But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal. In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires— including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

Naturally, it isn’t as easy as it sounds. You’ve lived a relatively narrow life, a vertical rather than a horizontal existence. So it isn’t any too difficult to understand why you seem to feel the way you do. But a man who procrastinates in his CHOOSING will inevitably have his choice made for him by circumstance.

So if you now number yourself among the disenchanted, then you have no choice but to accept things as they are, or to seriously seek something else. But beware of looking for goals: look for a way of life. Decide how you want to live and then see what you can do to make a living WITHIN that way of life. But you say, “I don’t know where to look; I don’t know what to look for.”

And there’s the crux. Is it worth giving up what I have to look for something better? I don’t know— is it? Who can make that decision but you? But even by DECIDING TO LOOK, you go a long way toward making the choice.

If I don’t call this to a halt, I’m going to find myself writing a book. I hope it’s not as confusing as it looks at first glance. Keep in mind, of course, that this is MY WAY of looking at things. I happen to think that it’s pretty generally applicable, but you may not. Each of us has to create our own credo— this merely happens to be mine.

If any part of it doesn’t seem to make sense, by all means call it to my attention. I’m not trying to send you out “on the road” in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that— no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life. But then again, if that’s what you wind up doing, by all means convince yourself that you HAD to do it. You’ll have lots of company.

And that’s it for now. Until I hear from you again, I remain,

your friend,
Hunter

PS: I came across this earlier in another link, but still good to read the whole letter.

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The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life – Advice from Charles Murray for people in their twenties. Here‘s an interview with the author. Given that I’m sympathetic to many of his advice, does it means I’m a curmudgeon?

The Art of Learning: A Journey in the Pursuit of Excellence – Josh Waitzkin shares his thoughts on learning, based on his experience in chess and tai chi. The concepts make sense but they are not easy to implement (e.g. knowing how important deliberative practice is doesn’t mean we can do it).

GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History – Good background on GDP. I would prefer it to go into more details.

The One Hour China Book: Two Peking University Professors Explain All of China Business in Six Short Stories – Quick read. The authors provide some statistics to illustrate the big issues in China. I didn’t learn much from it, but it could be interesting for people less familiar with China macro.

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An interesting book on the rituals/routines of many famous artists. Different routines work for different people. There are those who like to work in the morning and those who can only work at night; those who prefer a simple, uncluttered life and those who prefer more chaos and spontaneity; or those who always feel compulsive to work and those who are more relaxed.

To me, the most attractive (and surprisingly common) lifestyle are those who follow a rather simple yet balanced routines. The day goes something like this: make breakfast, work intensely for a couple of hours, have lunch and take a walk, work a few more hours, maybe take another walk, have dinner, socialize and relax at night (listen to music, play games, read, etc.).

Excerpts:

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self-discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well-worn groove for ones’ mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods.

……

“My experience has been that most really serious creative people I know have very, very routine and not particularly glamorous work habits,” [John] Adams said in a recent interview. “Because creativity, particularly the kind of work I do–which is writing large-scale pieces, either symphonic music or opera music–is just, it’s very labor-intensive. And it’s something that you can’t do with an assistant. You have to do it all by yourself.”

……

[Filmmaker Claude Lanzmann talking about her lover Simone de Beauvoir] — There were no parties, no receptions, no bourgeois values. We completely avoided all that. There was the presence only of essentials. It was an uncluttered kind of life, a simplicity deliberately constructed so that she could do her work.

……

Character, for [Immanuel] Kant, is a rationally chosen way of organizing one’s life, based on years of varied experience–indeed, he believed that one does not really develop a character until age forty. And at the core of one’s character, he thought, were maxims–a handful of essential rules for living that, once formulated, should be followed for the rest of one’s life.

……

[William James] — The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

……

“I don’t think that my life style is like most other people’s and I’m rather glad for that,” [Glenn] Gould told an interviewer in 1980. “[T]he two things, life style and work, have become one. Now if that’s eccentricity, then I’m eccentric.” In another interview, Gould described his preferred schedule: I tend to follow a very nocturnal sort of existence, mainly because I don’t much care for sunlight. Bright colors of any kind depress me, in fact, and my moods are more or less inversely related to the clarity of the sky on any given day.

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Stephen Levitt’s on parenting:

Passion and curiosity are two qualities he hopes to instil in his children, who range in age from 10 to 14. “A lot of parents emphasise achievement, but I think that’s the wrong approach. Almost every kid knows how to read and do math, but when I look at my students, what separates the truly exceptional ones is a combination of creativity and excitement for life,” he says. “Very early on I made my goal not to have my kids be really good readers or really good at math but instead to try to instil in them this idea of thinking and excitement of pursuing what they love.”

I’m looking forward to read his new book.

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Debbie Millman talks about her life with Jonathan Fields in this interview. It’s nice to find people who seem to have experienced the same feelings as we do. Even though Debbie is in her fifties, she felt like she was the same person when she was 14. But when she read through her diary, she realized she’s definitely not the same person. There are also parts of her that didn’t change. She is still insecure, still afraid of change, and still worried that it might be her last chance for happiness, for love, and for success, the same feelings that she had when she was young.

There are many takeaways from the interview, but one thing I think we all should do is to write a dream list of things we want to do, achieve, or experience.  The key to a well-lived life seems to be to know what we want and do our best to make it happen, but the problem for most of us is that we don’t know what we want.

Some excerpts from Maria @ brain pickings. There are more on her site:

The one common denominator [that great thinkers and creators] have shared with me over the years is that they all feel like they have to get up every day and do it again. They all feel like they may very well be discovered as phonies, they very well may never, ever achieve what they had hoped.

……

This is where we run into trouble in terms of being fulfilled… You have to make your own happiness, wherever you are. Your job isn’t going to make you happy, your spouse isn’t going to make you happy, the weather isn’t going to make you happy… You have to decide what you want, and you have to find that way of doing it, whether or not the outside circumstances are going to participate in your success… You have to be able to create your own happiness, period. And if you can’t, then you need to find a good shrink who can help you figure out what it’s going to take.

……

I’m a big proponent of “busy is a decision.” You decide what you want to do and the things that are important to you. And you don’t find the time to do things — you make the time to do things. And if you aren’t doing them because you’re “too busy,” it’s likely not as much of a priority as what you’re actually doing

 

 

 

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