My Favorite Books of 2017

I read a lot of books this year.

To celebrate the end of the year, here are 17 of my favorites from 2017.

Two rules for this list:

  1. The list contains only non-fiction books.
  2. The books are organized (roughly) by general interest — the most esoteric books are at the bottom.

Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life

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Gould is my kind of writer. Brilliant, curious, bold and terrifyingly well-read. This volume takes the some of Gould’s best work from 10 years of monthly essays (published in 10 volumes) that Gould wrote for the Natural History magazine.

Jeremy Dean, Making Habits, Breaking Habits

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The most comprehensive yet practical book on building & changing habits I’ve read to date. Dean dissolves some of the silly myths (21 days, really?) about habit-building and replaces them with carefully researched, practical insights.

Rory Sutherland, The Wiki Man

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Sutherland is the Executive Creative Director of Ogilvy Advertising. He’s also hilarious. And brilliant. The interviews and essays here are a entertaining blend of wit and insights behavioral economics. I finished the whole thing in an afternoon.

John Armstrong, How to Worry Less About Money

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I’ve long suspected that peoples’ money problems are often not about money itself but our perception. John Armstrong gives a practical, but philosophical, take on disentangling money problems from money worries.

Jean-Francois Revel and Matthieu Ricard, The Monk and the Philosopher

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A father-son conversation between Revel, who was one of France’s leading philosophers and intellectuals and Ricard, an elite molecular geneticist who quit his job to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk.

The only way to understand, really, how people in the West think is to try and understand people different from us see the world. I learned a lot from this book.

Alain de Botton, Status Anxiety

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This removed most of what little remaining desire I had to become rich. A great introduction to the dark side of affluence, globalization, and unending connectivity.

Duncan Watts, Everything Is Obvious

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I wrote all over this one. Watts, a sociologist, gets at of my favorite themes: why common sense fails in complex systems, why we fail to predict history, why smart people with good intentions end up doing terrible things, and much more.

John Kay, Obliquity

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Complex goals -happiness, business success, love, etc. -are often best achieved indirectly. Kay gets at what I see as a flaw in a lot of “self-help” advice (and policy advice) out there: in their obsession with promising easy answers, these people guarantee that they will help little with the complex problems that real life in the real world entails.

Alan Jacobs, How to Think

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Thinking never happens alone. Clear thinking means going outside of your own mind and also examining the cultures, groups, institutions and belief systems that, whether you know it or not, shape your thinking in myriad and invisible ways.

I scribbled notes all over this one. Then, when digging through the references, I got enough new reading material to last me through all of next year.

Theodore Zeldin, An Intimate History of Humanity

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Zeldin is optimistic but not naive. He takes the reader on an eye-opening tour of how we humans live, have lived, and dream of living.

Umberto Eco, How to Travel with a Salmon

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These essays will make you laugh and, at the same time, they’ll change how you see everyday life.

Johnathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind

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I’ve long been puzzled by the confidence people both on the Left and the Right have in their beliefs about the world. If both sides have smart, lucid and passionate thinkers, how is it that they equally believe that the other side is wrong?

This is a life-changing exploration of how evolutionary biology and human nature shape belief, action, meaning and morality.

Simon Leys, The Hall of Uselessness

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A collection of the essays from Simon Leys (the pen name of the sinologist Pierre Ryckmans). Leys was a polymath, and it shows in his writing. Essays range from literary commentary on Don Quixote to the culture and art of China to the love of reading itself. So good that I read it twice this year: and it was better the second time.

G. K. Chesterton, In Defense of Sanity

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One of the greatest essayists ever to live, Chesterton wrote five thousand essays over his lifetime. This book collects some of his best essays in a single volume.

James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State

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Intelligence and good intentions do not always mean you go on to do good things. Scott’s book is a grand survey of how people with big plans and mission to “change the world” often end up changing the world in very different, and ugly ways, from what they intended.

Isaiah Berlin, The Hedgehog and the Fox

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I read two of Berlin’s books this year: this one and The Roots of Romanticism, and I’m fairly certain that, over the next few years, I’ll be reading every single book that he’s published.

John Gray, Gray’s Anatomy

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John Gray -the philosopher, not the self-help author -is the author I’ve spent the most time reading this year. His work takes some background in political philosophy to understand, but his work changed my understanding of how myth and belief continue to shape our lives. [A good place to start with Gray’s work is his The Silence of Animals, which is meant for a general audience.]

A few more I liked:

Turn off your phone and computer and always carry a couple books with you. You’ll be surprised by how much you can read in a year.

For more recommended reading and my thoughts on books, join The Open Circle.

Multitasking, or Marijuana?

Take a look at this picture:

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The character on the right is a bear. He also happens to be smoking marijuana. Don’t ask me where he got it from. I don’t want to know.

The character on the right is a woman (I named her Sally). Other than the fact that she has five arms, Sally is your ordinary, everyday businesswoman.

Sally, like many other ordinary everyday businesswomen, also happens to be a hardcore multitasker. In our picture, we see her typing on her laptop, making some sort of dessert (flan, perhaps?) and balancing a scalding hot bowl of what looks like clam chowder on the palm of her hand.

Now here’s the million-dollar question.

Assuming Sally and the bear have the same level of intelligence (it’s a very smart bear), who will do better on a test of cognitive performance?

In other words, if I care about mental performance, is it worse for me to multitask or to smoke pot?

In his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload NYT bestselling author and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin argues that multitasking is even worse for us (cognitively… I don’t know about socially) than smoking pot:

“…[Marijuana’s] chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. [Some guy named] Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot smoking.”

To understand why multitasking is so bad, let’s take a short tour of human attention.

Balls and Switches

Think back and try to remember the first few hours of your day.

Can you remember what you ate for breakfast? What you drank? What about what time you brushed your teeth? I think most of us can remember these things.

Now let’s make the questions more difficult.

Can you remember the number of tiles on your kitchen floor? What about the number of stairs you took down from your apartment or up to your office? Or the size and shape of the blades of grass sprouting from the cracks in your driveway?

Most of us (I sincerely hope) can’t.

In the Sherlock Holmes stories, Sherlock makes fun of Watson for not counting the number of steps (seventeen of them) up to their 221B Baker Street apartment. But Watson’s response is only natural.

It’s not important to most people how many stairs they climb each day. So why pay attention?

Attention is a limited resource.

Monkey Business

When it comes to processing power, our brains are many, many times weaker than even the slowest supercomputer. We make up for this lack of power by being hightly selective about what we see.

To demonstrate this, freshman psychology students are often shown the following video. Without cheating, try to count how many times the team in WHITE passes the basketball:

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If you did the task seriously, you probably did not see the black bear (this time not smoking marijuana), that moonwalks across the playing field.

In fact, I find that I miss the bear now, even though I know it is there.

Focus on one thing, and you stop seeing everything else.

Now You See It, Now You Don’t

Multitasking doesn’t just make you dumber, says Levitin. It’s also impossible. Or, rather, it doesn’t work like most of us think it does.

“That’s silly,” you might say. “I multitask all the time. I listen to my phone when I drive. I make spaghetti sauce as I boil noodles. I text with friends while at work.”

Yes, we can do multiple activities in the same span of time. But we never do these activities simultaneously, says Levitin:

“We all want to believe that we can do many things at once and that our attention is infinite, but this is a persistent myth. What we really do is shift our attention rapidly from task to task. Two bad things happen as a result: We don’t devote enough attention to any one thing, and we decrease the quality of attention applied to any task.”

To multitask, our attention has to shift rapidly back and forth, like the spotlight of a watchtower. This constant switching is quite taxing on the brain:

“Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain.”

The bad news doesn’t stop there.

Multitasking releases cortisol, a stress hormone. Which means that juggling tasks makes us more anxious and less happy. It also seems to impede learning: watching TV and studying causes students to store information in the wrong part of their brains.

Multitasking hurts decision-making too. Task-switching forces us to make many micro-decisions, which means less “decision energy” for the important decisions in life:

“To make matters worse, lots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this e-mail? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.”

So, to sum all of this up, multitasking:

  • Lowers the quality of your attention
  • Makes you tire faster
  • Makes you stressed and unhappy
  • Makes you learn ineffectively
  • Leads to more bad decisions now and in the future

Ouch.

But if multitasking is so bad, why do we still do it?

Honey, It Feels So Good

We continue to multitask, says Levitin, for several reasons.

One reason is because we’ve evolved to do so. In the jungle, the sight of red, edible fruit or a poisonous creature crawling through the underbrush was a life or death matter. This means that our brains are wired respond positively to new and distracting information:

“The very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by shiny new objects. In multitasking, we unknowingly enter an addiction loop as the brain’s novelty centers become rewarded for processing shiny new stimuli, to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex, which wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention.”

Another reason we like to multitask is because, in our heads, it feels like it works:

“You’d think people would realize they’re bad at multitasking and would quit. But a cognitive illusion sets in, fueled in part by a dopamine-adrenaline feedback loop, in which multitaskers think they are doing great.”

Part of the blame also lies on corporate culture, which often encourages employees to do counterproductive things:

”…workplaces are misguidedly encouraging workers to multitask. … Many managers impose rules such as ‘You must answer e-mail within fifteen minutes’ or ‘You must keep a chat window open,’ but this means you’re stopping what you’re doing, fragmenting concentration, Balkanizing the vast resources of your prefrontal cortex, which has been honed over tens of thousands of years of evolution to stay on task.”

Now, with the above information in mind, we can ask a final question.

If multitasking doesn’t work, what should we do about it?

What Instead?

There are too many ideas in Levitin’s book to share in detail here, but here are some examples of things Levitin suggests we can you can do to manage our multitasking, boost focus and creativity, and improve overall quality of life:

  • Use a service like Boomerang to batch email-checking to once a day
  • Offload to-do tasks from working memory to a set of index cards (to be processed later, GTD-style)
  • Organize your schedule as a “metronome” that shifts between high-focus and high-daydreaming activities (say, computer work followed by a hot shower or walk in the woods)
  • Store information outside of your brain and in the our environment using what he calls Gibsonian affordances
  • Set up different work spaces or computer environments for work and play
  • Block out all non-essentials (email, internet, phone calls, texts, etc.) for the most important hours of your day

But, before you do all of this, the first step is to understand—multitasking doesn’t work.

Now what will you do about it? 😉

Consumerism’s Dirty Little Secret: Are We Buying All the Wrong Things?

I have some terrible news…

You’re stranded in the desert!

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For three days, you’ve traveled in the heat without food or water. Your eyelids are heavy and your legs even heavier. Your lips are cracked, too dry now to even bleed. For miles and miles, all you see is sky, rock and sand.

Your foot catches on a bit of bone and you fall, knees striking sand.

Is this the end?

But wait, over there! There’s something blue glittering in the sun. What could it be? What do you want it to be?

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A diamond, or a bottle of water?

The Real Value of Things

In Bali, Indonesia last year, I met a Japanese man who once spent six weeks homeless and living in a park. There were plenty of places to sleep, and he drank water from a fountain. For nutrition, he boiled flowers and ate them. For extra calories, he bought bread crusts from a local bakery for ten cents a bag.

How much do you think he spent for the entire six weeks? Fifteen dollars.

Survival is cheap.

A bottle of water costs less than $1 (virtually free, from the tap) and holds 500 grams of water. But what about 500 grams of diamond? How much does that cost? I did some calculations, and a half kilo of blue diamond would cost you over a billion dollars.

Why does something you cannot eat, drink, or wear cost over a billion times what water does? An Econ 101 student would say, “Easy. It’s supply and demand. Diamonds are rare and lots of people want them, so they cost a lot.”

Great. But a question remains: Why do so many people want diamonds?

It’s Not My Head, It’s Yours

A Hummer Alpha H1 costs over $100,000. Yet, the gas mileage is horrible. It only fits four people. It’s not even all that safe or reliable.

So what the hell am I paying for?

In Spent: Sex, Evolution and Consumer Behavior evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller argues that one big reason we buy things is for their signal: what the products tell others about us.

“Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all-important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children. Today we ornament ourselves with goods and services more to make an impression on other people’s minds than to enjoy owning a chunk of matter—a fact that renders ‘materialism’ a profoundly misleading term for much of consumption. Many products are signals first and material objects second. Our vast social-primate brains evolved to pursue one central social goal: to look good in the eyes of others.

The Hummer is “good” precisely because it is wasteful. It shows others we have the money to throw away.

Likewise, the value of that diamond is not in the “thing itself”—a race of aliens would toss it away like an ordinary pebble—but the information we carry inside our heads about diamonds:

“…at its heart consumerist capitalism is not ‘materialistic,’ but ‘semiotic.’ It concerns mainly the psychological world of signs, symbols, images, and brands, not the physical world of tangible commodities. Marketers understand that they are selling the sizzle, not the steak, because a premium brand of sizzle yields a high margin of profit, whereas a steak is just a low-margin commodity that any butcher could sell.”

As a child, I wondered why BMW would bother advertising to me, a child with no income and no driver’s license. I thought they were making a mistake.

But BMW’s goal was not to sell me a car. Their goal was to get me to believe their cars are valuable.

They were manufacturing signal.

Biological Virtues

So far, this Miller’s argument is intuitive.

Sometimes, yes, we buy things for personal utility or pleasure. But we also ride in sports cars and put on makeup because—whether we admit it or not—we are trying to send a message.

Now here’s where Miller’s argument gets interesting.

Miller argues that although it seems like we are attracted wealth, status or aesthetic taste, that is not our “true” target.  Instead of money or status (which are easily lost) we are attracted to traits that are more robust—what he calls biological virtues:

“In humans, fitness indicators are unlikely to have evolved to advertise monetary wealth, career-based status, or avant-garde taste, because these phenomena arose quite recently on the evolutionary timescale, within the past ten thousand years. Rather, the key traits that we strive to display are the stable traits that differ most between individuals and that most strongly predict our social abilities and preferences. These include physical traits, such as health, fertility, and beauty; personality traits, such as conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness to novelty; and cognitive traits, such as general intelligence. These are the biological virtues that people try to broadcast, with the unconscious function of attracting respect, love, and support from friends, mates, and allies.”

Think about these two people:

  • Some guy who bought a lottery ticket while drunk one Sunday morning and won $400 million dollars
  • A smart, hard-working veterinarian who has fallen on hard times because of monthly payments for his mother’s chemotherapy

Who would you rather have in your circle of friends?

We want to find the people who are truly capable or caring, not those who simply seem like they are. In other words, we care about their underlying traits, not who they are on the surface.

Here’s another twist.

We purchase pricey products and leverage names like Lacoste, Lancome or Lamborghini to manufacture and broadcast a signal to others. We may try be intentionally and make a fake profile on a dating website. Or we can try to be honest broadcasters, wearing clothes from L. L. Bean and drinking fair trade coffee to show other coffee-lovers where our interests lie.

Either way, it doesn’t seem to work.

Maybe It’s Not Maybelline

You’re a single woman in her early twenties.

It’s 11pm, and you’re at the station waiting for your train home. Ahead of you, on the stairs, you see an elderly woman and a young man. The woman has a big brown suitcase. She’s hunched over, breathing hard, and trying to tug the suitcase up the stairs.

The young man walks over to the lady and grabs the suitcase.

“I’ll take it,” he says.

“I’m fine,” says the lady, pulling the suitcase away. “I don’t need your help.”

“Who says I’m helping?” The man takes a step back and smiles. “I’m a terrible thief, and I’m about to kidnap your suitcase to my hideout at the top of these stairs.”

For a moment, the lady stares. Then, she starts to giggle. “That’s a terrible joke.”

He picks up the suitcase and they walk, shoulders bumping, to the top of the stairs.

Wow, I think I’m falling in love already. This simple exchange between the man and the woman tells us far, far more than any product purchase could.

This is what Miller calls consumerism’s dirty secret:

“Consumerism’s dirty little secret is that we do a rather good job of assessing such [important] traits through ordinary human conversation, such that the trait-displaying goods and services we work so hard to buy are largely redundant, and sometimes counterproductive.”

If we use products to broadcast a fake signal, we may be able to deceive some people in the short-term. And this deception may earn us a good night kiss or a second date.

But, in the long term, we will be found out.

Humans are animals. Over millions of years, we’ve evolved powerful bullshit detectors to detect fakers and cheats because detecting bullshit was, literally, a life or death matter:

“A $15,000 face-lift can make a fifty-five-year-old woman look more like a thirty-five-year-old with regard to facial sagging and wrinkles, but cannot hide other cues of age on the neck and hands. … our social-perceptual systems for recognizing key human traits and emotions are hard to mislead, because they have been evolving so long to be accurate. They have become very efficient at vacuuming up all the information they can from all the different cues that can be perceived from an individual’s body, face, language, and behavior.”

Real, long-term relationships are built on traits and skills that cannot be bought with money, and the best way to detect them is to do what we’ve always done:

“…we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product. Our finest, most impressive goods and services have been endowed to us by our DNA, in the form of physical and psychological adaptations that naturally display our virtues and naturally impress our peers.”

The Fundamental Consumerist Delusion

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This is all adds up to what Miller calls the fundamental consumerist delusion, which is made up of two lies:

  • Lie 1: Products can make up for your insufficiencies. We believe we can use products to hide our physical and mental weaknesses. However, humans are good at detecting such deception in the long term.
  • Lie 2: Products can do a better job of showing others who I am. We believe we can use products to bolster our signal, better broadcasting to others who we are. However, the best way to show others who you are is to do what your ancestors did: converse, cuddle and cooperate.

So What?

This essay covers a small, small fraction of Miller’s book, and I’ve simplified a lot of the ideas. I suggest you read it yourself, especially the first half.

But here’s the takeaway for me.

If Miller’s claim is true—that our attempts to fake signals via consumerism are largely futile—then what should we do with our lives? If no Mercedes-Benz or Maybelline makeover will earn me friendship, love or lasting happiness, what should I do with my time and money?

Well, if it’s so difficult to fake who we are, then perhaps the smart thing to do is stop faking. Consider skipping the Hummer H1 for a Toyota Corolla and spend the time you save on learning how to converse better, tell funny jokes, care for the weak, or stay strong in the face of emotional turmoil.

Or, put simply: Stop buying shit and work on yourself.

Have a nice day.

The “Spell” of Procrastination: Specious Barriers and How to Conquer Them

Procrastination saves lives.

Until the discovery of penicillin, medical treatment killed more people than it saved. Procrastination helped us to escape from bloodletting with leeches, rusty needles, and disease-ridden waiting rooms.

Procrastination helps in finance, too.

If I ignore my cousin Romeo – a “successful” stockbroker – and put my savings in an S&P index fund instead., I am rewarded two decades later when my portfolio outperforms his.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do is to do nothing.

But this isn’t always the case. Taxes, for example, don’t sort themselves out. Sometimes, procrastination is a form of escape.

First, a story.

New Dinner, Old Tricks

I’m in Japan to catch up with an old friend.

We’re at a Korean BBQ restaurant. After an hour of idle chatter, we turn to a more serious subject: our dreams, hopes and aspirations.

My friend burps and leans back in his chair.

“I’m gonna make music,” he says.

“Oh, yea?” I say, looking up from a square of pork rib. “When are you gonna start?”

“Well,” he says. “I want to, but I’ve got work to worry about. My contract ends next year, and I need to develop skills so I can find another job.”

I wipe my mouth on a napkin.

“And I’m short on cash. I need good equipment before I can start. That’s the only way to be competitive.”

I’m clean my teeth with a toothpick.

“And, ah, I wanna be able to find a good teacher. You know how bad it is to learn things the wrong way as a beginner. Takes years to correct.”

The interesting thing about this conversation was that it happened three years ago. Circumstances changed, but the excuses didn’t.

To this day, my friend has yet to make a single song.

I’m Lazy, and It’s All Your Fault

I don’t mean to pick on my friend. After all, I’ve done much worse.

To my girlfriend, I once said, “Hey, I’m not getting enough work done. I need more time alone. If I don’t get that, we’ll have to break up.”

What a great way to make a woman cry.

The whole time we were together, I told myself I would be a much better, and effective, person if I was alone. Yet, when I became single, nothing changed. The time I spent with her was replaced by stupid videos on YouTube and mindless internet browsing.

I realized, later, that I was using her as an excuse to shirk responsibility for my own actions. Once she was gone, I no longer had anyone to blame.

Humans are masters of self-deception. We constantly search for excuses to explain why we would (but don’t) contribute to charity, talk to the girl we like or make beautiful music. “If things were a bit better,” we say, shaking our heads, “all of my dreams would come true.”

In his short but excellent book How to Write a Lot (it’s a lot better than the title sounds), PhD psychologist Paul Silvia gives these excuses a name. He calls them specious barriers:

“When I talk with professors and graduate students about writing, they always mention certain barriers. They want to write more, but they believe that there are things holding them back. I call these specious barriers: At first they appear to be legitimate reasons for not writing, but they crumble under critical scrutiny.”

Here’s the definition of specious:

  • superficially plausible, but actually wrong
  • misleadingly attractive

In other words, specious barriers are excuses that sound sensible but – when you examine them carefully – turn out to be wrong.

Take my friend, for example.

He says he has no time, but each week, he spends many hours reading blogs on electronic music. If he spent just 30 minutes a day practicing, he’d get pretty good in a few years.

He says he has no money, but he owns thousands of dollars worth of high-quality headphones. Surely, he could have bought one less pair and spent the money he saved on decent musical equipment.

Examine the excuses, and poof, they disappear.

The Spell of Procrastination

Silvia explains that specious barriers are part of a game we play to put responsibility outside of ourselves:

“It’s reassuring to believe that circumstances are against you and that you would write a lot if only your schedule had a few more big chunks of time to devote to writing. And your friends … understand because they have a hard time finding time to write, too.”

There’s a great quote from Jill Dawson, an English poet and writer (found in this collection), that captures the appeal of such excuses.

Procrastination, says Dawson, is a spell that we cast on ourselves:

I can, of course, see the temptations of not beginning. Chiefly, not beginning sustains the belief that you are gifted, that the novel – when you one day get round to writing it – will surpass all others, that you will suffer no rejections, that it will be published at once and be thereafter visible in every bookshop you step into, that you will never suffer a bad review or sit at a dinner party and hear the question: “So, should I have heard of you?” Not beginning protects you from the disappointment – no, shame – of reading what you have written and finding it rubbish. It also prevents you from an equally disturbing possibility: discovering that you can write. What then have you been doing all those years? Success or failure can both be avoided by never starting at all – this then is the spell that procrastination casts.

We are not just terrified of discovering we are incapable. We are also terrified of discovering how capable we truly are.

Sometimes, the easiest thing to do is to believe you are weak.

Common Specious Barriers

The first step when it comes to dealing with our own proverbial “bullshit” is to catch ourselves in the act.

One way to do this is to look at common excuses that people make. In his book, Silvia shares the four common excuses used by academic writers (but seem pretty universal):

  1. “I can’t find time to write.”
  2. “I need to do more research.”
  3. “I missing software, a nice computer, a standing desk, etc.”
  4. “I’m waiting for inspiration.”

Again, when examined, these excuses fall apart.

Busy? When Silvia encouraged them to, not a single professor failed to find 30 minutes a day to work on writing. Over a year, 30 minutes a day can produce hundreds of publishable pages.

Missing equipment? Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel-winning novelist, writes with a computer from 1996. In computer years, that’s like… 340 years old.

Waiting for inspiration? Silvia found that professors were more creative more frequently when they ignored inspiration and just sat down to write.

Breaking the Spell

The problem with specious barriers is that they are so convincing.

Yes, not having money limits people. Yes, better equipment can make better music. Yes, inspiration matters.

So how can we separate the fake excuses from the real?

Here’s what I’ve been doing:

  • Keep a mental note of the excuses I make
  • Look for patterns in the excuses
  • Compare & contrast with common specious barriers (Do they look a lot like the ones that Silvia mentions in his book?)
  • Examine the most suspicious ones with a critical eye

Another thing you can do is to procrastinate and see what happens.

Last year, I spent a few months  ignoring all attempts at organization: no to-do lists, no scheduling, no pomodoro, no nothing. Instead, I tried to do everything by “pantsing it” – dealing with challenges as they came.

I wanted to see if this change would make me happier, less stressed, or more creative.

Instead, I discovered that I was less happy, more stressed (which spilled over into friends and family), and produced much less overall.

Learning to Write Fiction: The Year of 100 Rejections

Less than two years ago, I published my first blog post.

Before then, I’d never published anything. The only writing I’d done was in my private journals.

I didn’t know if anyone would read my work. I didn’t know if I’d be any good at it. But I took the risk anyway and just did it.

At first, my worries were right. Nobody read my work. And I wasn’t any good. But because I stayed consistent, 2017 ended up as one of the best, and most creatively fulfilling, years of my life. I quit my freelancing work, started writing full time, and now get to share ideas with smart people all over the world.

This year, I’d like to take another risk: I want to learn how to write fiction.

I loved stories – especially speculative fiction – growing up. For about a year now, I’ve had this itch to try short story writing. And, if I want to, I know it’s gonna involve two things: (1) a lot of practice and (2) a lot of failure.

To help me get through this rough, “learning” phase,  I’m launching a learning project.

Enter 100 Rejections.

100 Rejections

In 2018, I want to get rejected 100 times.

Ray Bradbury, most famous now for his novel Fahrenheit 451, once advised that writers write one short story a week. Why one story a week? Because “It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.”

Practically, this means I want to write a short story every week (52 in a year) and submit them to multiple publications. Short stories, by the way, run somewhere from 1,500 to 7,500 words. Assuming each story gets rejected twice, that’s 104 rejections in a year.

I set up this project this way for a few reasons:

  • Not outcome-based. All I need to do to get a rejection is to submit a story. I can’t guarantee whether or not I’ll get published, but I can guarantee that I write and submit.
  • Garbage is okay. The biggest mental block, for me and many others, is the fear of failure. By setting the goal, from the beginning, to fail and fail a lot, I’m less afraid of doing the work.
  • Fast feedback cycles. Learning happens best with short cycles of trial-and-error. Short stories can be written and read quickly, which means I get a lot more practice than I would if I wrote, say, novels.

My hope is that, after a year of writing bad stories, I’ll grow into a much better – and consistent – writer.

My other hope is that this project will serve as a guide and inspiration for others with similar learning projects. Many people complain that they are too old or too busy to learn something new.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

The System

Big goals never work. At least, not on their own.

In my weekly newsletter, I wrote:

It’s not that most people fail their New Year’s Resolutions. It’s that most people fail their resolutions, period. Resolutions, like goals, only tell us where we want to go, not how to get there. For that, you need a system.”

So what system do I plan to use?

The most important thing for these kinds of goals is psychology. As long as I keep writing, finishing and submitting stories, I’ll get to my goal.

So, my current plan is a series of daily habits and weekly goals:

  • Write 1000 words a day.
  • Actively read professional short stories.
  • Critique amateur short stories.
  • Join several writing communities and attend regular meetings.

Done well, this should let me learn very quickly by getting feedback from a number of sources (comparing my stories to pro stories, learning how bad stories suck, critical feedback from others on my “blind spots,” etc.).

What about time?

Ideally, I should be able to get this done on ~1-2 hours a day. This lets me deal with my other obligations (this blog, business stuff, translation, family, etc.) without suffering from overwhelm.

That’s all for now. Time to get writing.

I plan to update this page periodically throughout the year (as I refine the method) and supplement with monthly progress reports. To stay tuned, or to laugh at me getting rejected, subscribe to The Open Circle.

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