The Intellectual Life

A toast to “bookception”

I came across a recommendation for The Intellectual Life while reading another excellent book on a related topic – Deep Work by Cal Newport. If you have been following my blog posts, you would know that one of my favourite ways to find new book recommendations is within existing books. Often such book recommendations go deeper and are more likely to be original content.

After having read both these books, I can confidently say that Cal Newport found a lot of inspiration from The Intellectual Life. He has extracted some of the best advice given in this book and packaged it in a way that people today can easily understand. And just as well.

The Intellectual Life by AG Sertillanges, a French philosopher, is not an easy book to get through. Written in the early 20th century, the style of writing is a little dated. You may not be able to understand certain passages the first time around. Thus you will need to definitely re-visit this book after a while.

However I would suggest you to stick with this book and giving it your full attention. P.S. if you’re struggling with attention, this book has certain tips for that as well. Talk about being meta. In fact, while reading this book, there were many meta moments that had me chuckling. For example, I had been making copious highlights and notes while reading this book. And then I came across the chapter where Sertillanges explains the right way to take notes. The author says,

Some people have so many [notes] and such full notebooks that they are prevented by a sort of anticipatory discouragement from ever opening them… Their imaginary treasures have cost much time and trouble, and they yield no return. Thank God there are many fine things in books; will you therefore copy down the whole National Library? Keep notes after thinking, and with moderation… Do not include the passage in your notes without letting some time elapse. Quietly, you will judge of the value of your harvest and store up only the good grain in your barns.

I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t put aside this book for a while as I felt embarrassed at my own incessant highlighting. But… but the juicy content… moving on anyhow.

The author kicks off by explaining what the virtues of an intellectual person should be. He goes on to describe how life should be organised so that one may keep a balance between isolating himself completely from the world and spending too much time in society doing frivolous activities. Once he has set the expectations of what an intellectual should do, the author moves on to explain how to best take up intellectual work. From my reading, I felt that the author talked about getting into a flow state, a concept that has been explored lately by multiple authors in how athletes and other high performing individuals manage to get much more work done than the rest of the ordinary folks.

Each part of the day has its own unique characteristics, says the author, and it is important to known and utilise these differences by doing the kind of work that is suitable to the time of day. For example, the author mentions that evenings should be used to prepare the work for the next day so that there is a sort of continuity of work between two consecutive days. This, he says, will definitely give a jump start as far as productivity is concerned. Of course, not everyone is built the same and each individual has his own body cycle – some of us being larks, others owls. But as long as one is able to understand his own body cycle, he should be able to make the most of the ebb and flow of energy and concentration levels throughout the day.

The author, AG Sertillanges
How can I make this book utterly brilliant but difficult to read at the same time?

Sertillanges then talks about the spirit of work, of the things that you need to keep in the background while undertaking your field of work. This will keep a sense of objectivity to the work as well as help you approach it in the right spirit. He debates the pros and cons of two different routes that one can take in their intellectual journey – the broad based approach, where one reads about multiple subjects/disciplines and tries to find interconnections and linkages between these fields (something that Charlie Munger has also advocated in his famous latticework of mental models), or the narrow-based approach, where one digs deeper into a subject that he has found interest in. Essentially whether to become a generalist or a specialist.

The latter part of the book deals with the preparation of work, how one should read, how to remember what was read, and how to take notes. Strangely but understandably, the author advises moderation in all these areas. One does not become an intellectual by reading more and more books. More important is how much one understands and is able provide original commentary upon. The same is with trying to memorise everything that one has read. Although the author meant this for an earlier time and age, today it becomes even more foolish to be a good memoriser, especially when there are multiple tools at our disposal to retrieve any information that is needed at any moment. The 24/7 connectedness of our lives has, I dare say, done away with our requirement of an extensive memory. Whether that is a good thing or bad, I leave it up to you. This chapter ends with a useful approach that the author prescribes to take and organise notes. People preferring to use the traditional paper-based note-taking may find this advice useful.

The author then deals with one of the most important parts of the book – the creative effort. For an intellectual, creation is paramount. Be it in the form of a book, a painting, a theorem, or simply original thought, creation is supposed to be the end result of your intellect. “One cannot be forever learning and forever getting ready.” This author lists down the qualities that are needed in order to create complete and useful works. Detachment, patience, persistence, and knowing your limits. These are the qualities that are discussed. If you’re running short of time or are frustrated with the ye olde language of the book, I would suggest that you read Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 completely. These two chapters contain enough useful and actionable advice to help create a marked difference in your productive output.

The book closes with some advice on how to keep oneself sane in the quest for intellect. It is very easy to go overboard in this often lonely journey, as have many geniuses in their time. The author advises that one should not forget the rest of life in pursuing your goals. As John Lennon said, “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other goals.” The secret according to the author is keeping a balanced view on life. Relaxation, exercise, social interactions, gratitude and a hopefulness towards success is what will keep you on the tracks when the going gets tough.

I felt so privileged to have come across this book and to have enjoyed it thoroughly. Unfortunately, this book is not available in a Kindle format so I will have to type out all the highlights and notes that I made in the margins to keep them better organised and referable. The Intellectual Life is probably going to be a book that I will keep going back to at times whenever I feel a creative block coming up. Beg, borrow or steal this book if you’re interest in knowing about the creative process or developing an intellectual mindset.

Featured Photo Credit: Aaron Andrew Ang
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The Untethered Soul Book Review

I don’t exactly recall the site where I found recommendations to this book. maybe it was reddit, maybe it was goodreads itself. But after months of this book being in the subconscious and in my Goodreads Want to Read shelf, I finally got around to it at a tumultous phase in my life.

And now that I’ve finally reached the end of the book, I must say that this book has made me a little better. Or at least it has definitely set me up on the path to getting better. I plan to re-read this book very soon to get a better grasp of the book’s message.

What I liked about The Untethered Soul was its simple to understand language. The author, Michael A. Singer, does not bother making it esoteric by cramming it with esoteric prose. Compare this to a book by Deepak Chopra that almost aims to humiliate, or at least create an inferiority complex with its abstract concepts and pseudo-spiritual advice. This book however made me feel like the author was having an easy going conversation with me.

The book is divided into five parts, further broken down into short chapters. Each chapters focuses on bringing you one step closer to freeing your soul with a solid takeaway. There were particularly a couple of pieces of advice that I loved the most. The first was about finding the seat of your consciousness from which one can observe all their thoughts, feelings, emotions, without getting caught up in them. It was like having my very own Iron Throne.

Another advice that I liked was the fact that things happening in one’s life cannot be classified as good or bad. It is one’s expectations that make an event good or bad. By letting go of their expectations, one can simply enjoy life’s events as they come instead of fuming when “things don’t go their way.” As I said earlier, I was reading this book during a time of major change in my life. And I found these techniques very effective in helping me handle this uncertain period.

It is surprising that this book is not known enough in the self-help genre. I would rate this book much more effective than the more popular or best-selling books in the market. By the time I reached the end, I felt that I had learnt a lot from this book in a short span of time, and without much spiritual or meditative rituals.

The only thing out of place in the Untethered Soul was the last chapter. This is when the author starts spouting verses from the various holy books in order to make his point. The fact that the chapter was titled “The Loving Eyes of God” should have warned me about the same. But it was jarring that the author who had mostly avoided religion and new-age references throughout the book suddenly felt the urge to close out with direct religious quotes and references.

Thankfully, this chapter doesn’t take anything away from how useful this book is for people wanting to find a new dimension in their thought patterns. People wanting a religious basis for self-improvement will enjoy this chapter, others can simply skip it.

As it is, the rest of the book is packed full of wisdom. Michael A. Singer provides a very useful framework to anyone wanting to untether their soul from the chains of rigid thought patterns. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to do so.

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When by Daniel H Pink – Book Review

Before I started this book, I had kept reminding myself, “Suspend your disbelief.” The reason I did this was that I have been very cynical of behavioural/psychological/anthropological books that spout studies selectively and creates an artificial narrative. Specifically an example is the spate of books that attribute certain behaviours of the modern human to that of his ancestors when they roamed the savannah. I’ve said it before as well that my brain does not process kindly such attributions. And in keeping with the times, this book too has this attribution somewhere in its pages (economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution).

“When” starts off quite well. The author structures the book into three parts – The Beginning, the Middle and the End. Each part deals with a specific time of any project/activity/task and it discusses how that particular part fits into the bigger picture. The author quotes multitudes of studies to bring home the point.

Mercifully the book is not too long and rambling. And that is where the good things about the book end. Although the author mentions in the introduction that this book can be used as a practical guide, by the time I reach the end, I’m left wondering for what. Other than a Malcolm Gladwellish analysis of social, mental and psychological phenomena, I didn’t finding anything much to take away from this book. To put it even more plainly I couldn’t discern the purpose of the book.

There are a few commonsensical tips scattered in the book. If you’re a morning person do your heavy work in the mornings. If you’re an owl, do it later in the day. Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up to rehydrate yourself.

Interestingly the useful content of the book follows the much repeated peak, trough and recovery graph that the author introduces at the beginning. The chapter on Midpoints seemed much devoid of actual useful information mirroring the trough that people face somewhere during the midpoint of a project.

The author proposes many changes in the daily schedule for a person for him to take the maximum benefit of the “when” concept. However, a typical working professional is highly constrained by the office timings and rules for him to gain any significant benefit out of these. A twenty minutes mid-day nap? Good luck convincing your boss to implement this idea.

Some of the most supposedly most actionable parts were the Time Hacker’s Handbook chapters. I assume this was the practical steps part that the author talk about. But in the end, these seem like simple (and repeated) life hacks. The Zeigarnik effect has been discussed in much detail in other books that I have read. Atul Gawande has better explained the importance of checklists in his excellent book. Yes, the Seinfeld chain recommendation is well known to most familiar with the self-help genre.

Getting the timing right in any aspect of life is quite important, and quite difficult. If done right, any material on this can definitely help improve the quality of one’s life. But as far as this book goes, I would not recommend this book more than a quick and light read, compiling many of the experiments done earlier as well as a miscellaneous collection of productive tips.

Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.—MILES DAVIS

Thankfully this book didn’t take much of my time.

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Atomic Habits by James Clear – Book Review

Sometimes, but rarely, in your book reading journey comes a book that impacts you so much, that you can’t wait to end the book just so that you can write a review of the book. At times the book is so brilliant that you want to praise it profusely, or sometimes it is so horribly bad that you want to get done with it and close the chapter forever, and leave a scathing review for wasting your time. This book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, is clearly one of the former.

Although this is by no means the first book written on the psychology or science of habits, I have a feeling that it will become a very important one in the future. I’ll come to why. But first let me talk about the first book that was actually written, or at least the first book that broke down habits, and how they can be made or unmade, widely known to the general public. It was the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I have read that book a couple of years back and while it was a groundbreaking book, it didn’t do much for me. Somehow I felt I didn’t connect with the book. For some reason I felt that The Power of Habit belonged more in the Psychology/Reference section instead of Self-Help.

That is why I loved Atomic Habits. For someone looking to get an idea of why they have certain habits or how they can change their habits, this book would be a much more effective recommendation. Because it explains the science as well as sets out clear, concise and actionable steps to achieve the change that you’re looking for. The book had so many aahaa moments that I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone around me. Frankly speaking, it took me my entire willpower to stop a stranger on the street and exhort him to read this book ASAP. Well maybe, that is what I am doing just now, not on the street but on the Internet!

From one of the author’s own interviews, this is what a reader had to say about the book. “[Atomic Habits] seems a LOT more practical and focused on guiding people on how to actually make changes. Power of Habit is more journalistic, though it does have the appendix at the back that talks about how to implement habit changes.”

According to the author, there are four laws that can be used to create good habits or to break bad ones. The book follows the same structure. It starts with talking about the importance of making small changes in your routine to improve yourself. There is a well repeated statistic on how a 1% improvement every day can bring compounded changes over a long period of time. It then introduces the habit feedback loop where each habit follows the cue -> craving -> response -> reward cycle.

Each law focuses on one of these four aspects. The crux of the book is that a habit can be changed by targeting one (or more) of these steps. The beauty of the book (and the feedback loop) is that this concept itself is complete. If you can understand this concept thoroughly, you’ve read enough of the book. You don’t need to read further. But of course I would still recommend you to completely read the book. Because it is that good. There are many sections that will resonate with you, especially if you have tried earlier to create habits and have struggled to follow through on them. The language used by the author is clear, practical, and not exceedingly anecdotal.

By the time I reached the 2nd law, I was ready to start habit stacking, temptation bundling and all the other cool-sounding (and effective) keywords that are used to describe a particular strategy. I feel sheepish to say that for the longest time that this book felt like a template self-help genre book that was high on fluff and low on content. This was my perception before having opened the book and even reading a single page of it. In fact I actively avoided reading it for as long as I could. But given the time of the year, when new year resolutions are being prepared, this felt like a suitable read. And boy am I glad I picked this book up. I’m pretty sure that by using the concepts in this book you can create resolutions that you can stick to till the end of the year, instead of seeing them evaporate by mid March.

I can’t wait to finish this book, and then go through all my highlights and notes to prepare a one pager. A cheat sheet if you will (Update: What do you know? There’s a cheat sheet already available at the end of the book!) This is a book that I will be rereading multiple times. Atomic HABITS is in my books, a clear winner and an addiction killer. Go read it before you create your new year resolutions for 2019.

Update: I did finish this book well in time for the new year and am ready to make my habit checklist. At the end of the book, there is a section that I found really strange. The author has given a few additional tips and techniques for people further wishing to explore the subject of effective habit creation. These tips, although useful and interesting, feel disjointed and feel out of place in this excellent book. Nevertheless you can choose to read it or ignore. Either way it won’t hurt you.

Star rating – 5/5
What next can you read – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Nudge by Richard Thaler.

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The Laws of Human Nature – Book Review

I’ve enjoyed Robert Greene’s previous books immensely. The 48 Laws of Power was my introduction to the Machiavellian world of power and intrigue. Each page of the book was filled with useful ways to create an aura of power and become a more powerful social creature. His later book, Mastery focused more on an improvement of the self. In that book Greene explored the ways one can learn from the various Masters who have lived before us and have made a profound impact in various areas. And it was with this same interest and hope that I approached this book.

Just like his other books, this one is massive as well. Going for a never-ending 624 pages, it is by no means a quick read. And after reading through a few chapters, I realized that the book has fallen prey to the oft tried and tested trend in self-help literature. Anecdotes, anecdotes and more anecdotes. Mind you this is a safe method. That is why most self help literature heavily rely on this structure. But it is something that I greatly abhor. Yes successful stories do strengthen the conviction of a particular theory. But they also tend to suffer from confirmation and selection bias. It is almost as if Greene made a rough outline of the laws and then searched for examples that would fit these theories. Moreover it feels like that some of the anecdotes are greatly simplified or even modified to suit the narrative.

He might have done the same in his other books as well. But for some reason these anecdotes don’t work here. After a couple of chapters, I found myself skipping the anecdotes directly to the part where he explained a particular law.

Me, every five minutes

But by the time I reached the fifth law, I found it quite impossible to carry on. And hence I closed the book, abandoning it for good. I very much would have wanted to like this book and learn from it. But unfortunately the denseness of the material really put me off. The author has rambled on and on to fill up the book with feel-good stories and then propose a one-page full fount of self-help advice. I feel a better idea would be to go through the bibliography that the author has given at the end and instead peruse some of those works. That would be a more productive use of your time.

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The Solution To Social Anxiety by Dr Aziz Gazipura

I have always identified to some firm of shyness or social anxiety disorder (SAD) since I was a kid. I hated going to events, parties, gatherings – effectively any place where there will be lots of humans. And considering that Earth is full of them humans, that put me shit out of luck. I dreaded meeting not only strangers but even people I knew. As long as the number of people was big, I shied away from such social events.
So it was a no-brainer for me to pick this book up. I have read books on shyness/SAD before but the problem about many books, especially in the self-help genre, is that most of them are filled with anecdotal fluff, or pointless exercises in a workbook style. And AFAIK I don’t recall finishing any book on this topic that was substantial in content.
However I’m glad that I gave this book a chance. What I immediately liked about the book was that unlike most self-help books it is not full of fluff. The author has not chosen to fill the book with random stories or pointless exercises. And for that I’m thankful. The book is a quick read and for its compact size (only 230 pages), packs in quite a punch.

Getting to the point

The book is divided into two parts. The first part talks about the problem – the causes of social anxiety and how people with SAD tend to think and behave. The author immediately jumps into listing the major causes of why a person with social anxiety feels that he is not up to the mark of his peers. Many a times, the overhang of having an ugly experience in the past overshadows the present day situations. People with SAD have a very strong and ruthless self-critic that berates every endeavor by the individual in connecting with others. Hence shy people tend to reject their self worth even before (if ever) other people do so. As they say, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
The second part, obviously, is about the solution to social anxiety. Dr Gazipura starts by explaining what people with social confidence do instead of sabotaging their self. It is not that people who are confident do not have thoughts of inability or in-adequateness rise in their minds. They do as well. However, they do not let such thoughts overwhelm their actions.

So what’s the secret?

Effectively, it is a developing a habit of feeling the fear and doing it anyway. The author talks about a set of clear and effective steps to overcome this fear as and when it is happening. Being aware (or mindful) of one thoughts is one way that the author suggests this can be done. But first one needs to accept oneself even before making any such effort. The book also mentions that shy people have a fear of being vulnerable and that they prevent themselves from getting hurt by avoiding such situations. However, the author believes that such people need to put themselves in such situations and consciously think and behave differently than their automatic patterns of thought have done till now.
All in all, the book does a very good job of mapping out the most common causes of social anxiety and the steps one can take gradually to decrease or reduce the feeling of shyness. Reading this book made me realize that there is no rocket science to this. Plain old common sense and getting out of your comfort zone. Although this book by itself may not be as powerful as some others, I still feel that it is quite a useful book because of its succinct message and its useful suggestions. Read it as a starting point for your journey towards becoming more socially confident.

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How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life – Scott Adams

Scott Adams has created a brilliant and enduring comic strip that hits the right chord with everyone who has ever worked in a corporate environment. Through thousands and thousands of daily comic strips, he has portrayed the frustrations, foibles, the pettiness, and sometimes downright imbecility that one would encounter in their workplace. His earlier books such as the Dilbert Principle were downright hilarious in their own way.

So it was with this legacy that I picked up this “self-help” book by Scott Adams. And also I hoped that the book would be an in-depth memoir of the cartoonist. The book started out a bit slow. The first couple of chapters seemed incoherent. But as I read on, I came across a few very good points in how Scott Adams maintains his creativity and energy level. He talks about preferring systems to goals. He talks about having a positive attitude. He talks about being a simplifier instead of an optimizer. And so on. But as I read on, I wondered where was this going. I couldn’t make a clear head or tail of the book. Some chapters start and finish quickly, while others went on and on without seeming to make a point.

By the time I reached the book half-way I simply lost my patience. I didn’t find any substantial take-aways from the book. And so I’m abandoning this book. Never realized that a book from the writers of one of the funniest comic strips could be so boring. Maybe this book is yet one more thing that the author has failed at (and he will still win big).Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail

The Conquest of Happiness – Bertrand Russell

“The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

The first thought that came to my mind while reading this book is that although this book is generally classified as philosophy, I find it equally suitable to be clubbed under self-help. Well, in a way, all philosophy is a form of self-help. And this book veers more into that territory than other philosophy literature. Now depending on where you stand with regard to the self-help genre, you may like or hate this book. But what I liked is that most of the concepts proposed in this book are clear, succinct and as relevant today as they were during the author’s time. And this book can be a good introduction to some of Bertrand Russell’s other works as well.

The Conquest of Happiness is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the various causes of unhappiness. It follows that the second part then talks about the various causes of happiness, with the end goal of the author being able to devise a framework to conquer happiness.

Every chapter deals with a particular area that contributes to the unhappiness or happiness in a human being. The author proceeds to dissect that cause and provide his approach of dealing with that cause. For example, the causes on unhappiness include Competition, Boredom, Persecution Mania, and a fear of public opinion. These are emotions that every human faces to some degree or the other. In the more grounded of us, these emotions are in control, whereas others still face a much more uphill battle in dealing with these emotions in daily life.

The causes of happiness, in the view of the author, include zest, family, work, and effort. Again, looking at this list, one would not be mistaken to imagine himself reading a self-help book. Yet, I would still recommend reading this book in its entirety due to its timeless ideas. Of course, some of the content is not politically correct in today’s day and age. But you have to forgive the author for using terms and meaning that were more relevant and acceptable at the time that this book was written.

At the end of the book, the author presents his overview of what constitutes a happy man. In short, what I gleaned from the book were the following steps to ensure that unhappiness does not take over your life:-

  1. Focus on outward pursuits not inward. Unhappy people often focus on the wrongs that happen to them. Instead of focusing on the outward world, they interpret the events in their life negatively because of their unhappiness. The author says that one must focus outward in order to reduce the events that affect you negatively.
  2. Cultivate more number of interests in varied fields – According to the author, having a narrow focus or having only one thing (other than work) to focus on can also be overwhelming sometimes. Instead by cultivating a varied set of hobbies can help one fight the devilish habit of boredom, and help one spend time more happily.
  3. Stop comparing yourself to others
  4. Give happiness to others instead of asking it. Paradoxically, this gives you back much more happiness.

“The happy man is the man who lives objectively, who has free affections and wide interests, who secures his happiness through these interests and affections and through the fact that they, in turn, make him an object of interest and affection to many others. To be the recipient of affection is a potent cause of happiness, but the man who demands affection is not the man upon whom it is bestowed. The man who receives affection is, speaking broadly, the man who gives it.”

This book is a very good introduction to Bertrand Russell’s other famous works and can be considered as a starting point in your journey. The overly obvious self-help tones may be jarring to some, but the advice is still relevant and quite helpful.

Verdict: Recommended if you’re planning to start out to read more about Western Philosophy. 3.75 out of 5.Facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail