To Really Know Something

January 27, 2012 — 22 Comments

One of the most aggravating parts of the media and marketing world I work in is the gurus and experts (charlatans is probably a better word). To them, everything is a theory or a chance to pontificate. Everything can be simplified and extrapolated. None of the natural laws—diminishing returns, unintended consequences, regression to the mean—ever seem to exist.

It’s less messy to think that way, sure. And comforting. It may even briefly be lucrative. But that is not how it really works. As much as a part of me wishes I could live in that universe, I don’t and can’t. It’s not how you get things done.

“See, I have the advantage of having found out how hard it is to get to really know something, how careful you have to be about checking the experiments, how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it really means to know something. And therefore, I see how it is that they get their information and I can’t believe that they know it—they haven’t done the work necessary, they haven’t done the checks necessary, they haven’t done the care necessary. I have a great suspicion that they don’t know how this stuff is done and they are intimidating people by it.”

That is Richard Feynman. What he’s talking about is the flipness of pseudo-science and the false confidence of delusion. Everything about the internet enables those impulses. From the segmentation to the lack of accountability, we forget what it really takes to know something. How hard it is to be truly sure.

That comes from rigor and discipline. From humility and understatement.  It comes practices, checklists, from methods, and the scientific method. It comes from staying up late reading, not blogging. It comes from having deep connections with a handful of smart people who push you to be better, not networking. It comes from separating ideas from your identity—so you can pick up, discard, pick up, rearrange, discard and pick them up at whim.

To really study something almost inevitably eliminates the desire to talk about it. You don’t need to intimidate other people because you’re too busy checking your own assumptions to bother worrying about theirs. You’re not out trying to sell your theory to random people on the internet (and calling it Ryan’s Law or some indulgent shit) because you’re selling it to people who matter—people who actually pay you for your ideas.

All this takes time. That is, it can’t be done in real-time. So be patient and quiet and do the work. Check the experiments and put in the care. Then you start to know what it really means to know something.

I recommended more than 150 books through my Reading List Email in 2011. I know you’re all very busy people and I imagine only a few of you ended up reading more than a handful of them. Don’t worry, that’s on me and not on you. Thankfully, Charlie Hoehn gave me the helpful suggestion of doing a summary email for January. Their question: If I could only recommend 3 books from 2011, what would I pick?

I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 3 exactly, but I tried my best. Below are the my favorite books for the year and the ones that made the biggest impact on me. There is no question they are worth reading and your time.

The Works of John Fante by John Fante
I found John Fante through Neil Strauss, who considers Ask the Dust one of his favorite books. I read it in one day, LOVED it and subsequently read everything by Fante I could get my hands on. In 2011, I read seven Fante novels, one biography by his son and a book of letters between John and H.L Mencken. I utterly immersed myself in his world, from spending hours in Downtown LA where the books are based to reading everything I could find by his contemporaries. I even found out one of his novels is set in the random Northern California town I grew up in and that Fante lived just down the road from where I lived. NO fiction writer made a bigger impact on me this year and there were no book I enjoyed reading more (or read faster) than Fante’s books. My favorites, in order, are: Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, The Brotherhood of the Grape, Full of Life, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, 1933 Was a Bad Year. Once you read those, you will almost certainly enjoy Fante/Mencken, and Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving.

Sherman: Solider, Realist, American by B.H Liddel Hart
This was someone I knew little about before the year began, and by the end of it found myself referencing and thinking of him constantly. It is equal parts due to the greatest of the man himself and to Hart’s vivid and engrossing portrait. I almost feel like I have lost something not having known this of him my whole life. There is a stunningly profound quote from Hart in the book that I’ll paraphrase here that defines his genius: Sherman’s success was rooted in his grasp that the way to success is strategically along the line of least expectation and tactically along the line of least resistance. It is that kind of thinking that immediately displaces any preceding notions about Sherman’s reputation as a general or a legend. All these myths belies his strategic acumen, his mastery of terrain and his deep understanding of statesmanship and politics. There is much to learn from the man and this biographer—who himself was a great strategist and mind—so if you are going to read one biography this year, read Sherman: Solider, Realist, American.

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Surival by John Vaillant
Holy shit, this book is good. Just holy shit. Even if it was just the main narrative–the chase to kill a man-eating Tiger in Siberia in post-communist Russia–it would be worth reading, but it is so much more than that. The author explains the Russian psyche, the psyche of man vs predator, the psyches of primitive peoples and animals, in such a masterful way that you’re shocked to find 1) that he knows this, and 2) that he fit it all into this readable and relatively short book. You may have heard about the story on the internet a while back: a tiger starts killing people in Russia and a team is sent to kill it (Russia is so fucked up, they already have a team for this). At one point, the tiger is cornered and leaps to attack the team leader…and in mid-air the soldier’s rifle goes into the tigers open jaws and down his throat all the way to the stock, killing the tiger at the last possible second. The autopsy later revealed that the tiger had been shot something like a dozen times during its life and lived. The story is very similar to that of the Tsavo maneaters, which was turned into the underrated Val Kilmer movie The Ghost and the Darkness. There are all sorts of well-selected threads from evolutionary psychology and biology in this book and it makes the book a self-educator’s dream. You can pick and choose which ones you want to follow next–trusting safely that the author has pointed you in an interesting and valuable direction. But that’s just the meta-stuff that is a bonus with this book, and it’s worth pointing out only because the rest of the book is just so fucking interesting and exciting.

I read many great books last year but these were the best. That’s basically all I have to say. We’ll resume our regularly scheduled recommendations next month. I don’t plan on slowing down, so if you’re falling behind, you better get serious and catch up.  If you’re not signed up yet, get your shit together and subscribe now.


January 5, 2012 — 37 Comments

Someone hurt you. Or so it feels. Why? They didn’t mean to. What they said/did had nothing to do with you. Yet it hurts all the same.

Welcome to narcissistic injury. To paraphrase Epicurus, we—the narcissistically inclined—live in an unwalled city. Everything is a threat to the fragile self. Illusions, accomplishments, these are not defenses. Not when you’ve got the special, sensitive antennae trained to receive (and create) the signals that challenge your precarious balancing act.

They hang out with somebody else, it means they don’t want to hang out with you. They don’t ask how you were feeling, it’s because you don’t matter. They do something you don’t like, it’s because they know you don’t like it and did it anyway. And these are the straightforward, almost-logical kinds of slights. From there it descends into hopelessly opaque list of unrelated and seemingly banal events with one commonality: a twisted, selfish interpretation that it somehow said something about me (and how woefully awry things went from that faulty premise)

It is a miserable way to live, whatever the degree of your affliction. Deep down this is all a fear about  existence. And to have trivial events make you feel as though you do not exist, is a constant and unavoidable source of aggravation (torture). That’s the consequence of trying to determine your identity through external things—making it possible for it to be challenged by the things that other people say or do, no matter how unrelated to you they actually are. So go the risks of allowing your identity to be anything but secure and intrinsic (to say nothing of delusions of grandiosity).

The solution, well, I don’t know if there is one. But it seems to get better with therapy—rigorous, introspective and committed therapy. It is possible to rewire the brain, but it takes a lot of work. For me, practicing a different take on empathy has been helpful (or at least, humbling). To realize that other people have as much to wrongly interpret from your actions as you do from theirs. And that there is a feedback loop between these worldviews. So too, with contemptuous expressions. The less you puff, the less there is to pop.

Aware of all this, you must do your best to just stop, and take things as they are. Remind yourself: this doesn’t say anything about me—because external things cannot—and, even if it literally did, I don’t have to let it bother me. I don’t need to hear it, let alone agree with it. It has nothing to do with my identity, my existence or anything foolish like that. Because narcissistic injury is by definition a self-injury. Figure out why you feel the need to inflict it.

“Could it be that we fill out our lives, experience all that we experience, and then simply leave this world and are forgotten? I can’t bear thinking that existence is so insubstantial, a stone thrown in a pond that leaves no ripple.” Susan Orlean, Rin Tin Tin

Just because you can’t bear it, doesn’t mean that it’s not the case. To think otherwise, is to argue with reality.

To these impulses, we should think like one of Lincoln’s biographers,who responding to the President’s claim that European allies seemed to care more about tiny Northern defeats than his major victories, said simply: “Unreasonable it may have been, but it it was a reality.”

Soldiers can be refreshingly full of this pragmatism. After the Vietnam War, Col. Harry G. Summers argued with a North Vietnamese colonel, and tried to point out that the US was never beaten on the battlefield. The man replied: “That is true. It is also irrelevant.”

That some thought seems unbearable—be it insignificance or unfairness—is exactly why we must struggle with it and try to. Because our opinion on it has nothing to do with whether we have to put up with it.  It’s a good metaphor for what life in this universe is: a situation we’re stuck with. We were born far along in its existence and we will die long before it changes or ends. Its conditions were created in a distant past beyond our comprehension through organic, emergent forces powerful beyond our measure. The sooner we can get over this, come to terms with it, and accept our infinitesimalness, the sooner we may be able to live properly and with perspective.

It doesn’t extend that everything is meaningless or without purpose, rather that those human notions count only in the immediate present. Your opinion. Your technicalities. Your endless objections. They have no effect. There is no grand record that you may enter them into. What you have is in front of you. What you have is what happens. Focus on that. For it is all that you control.

Total Commitment

December 23, 2011 — 24 Comments

People say things are important to them. Success, recognition, money, freedom, power, some purpose or passion. Yet what do they do with themselves?

They make their choices as if time is infinite and as if it will all be handed to them. As a young man, Bill Bradley used to tell himself that when he was not practicing, someone else was and that when he finally met that person, they—not he—would win. These people do not practice and yet expect to win. And they are disappointed and disillusioned when that doesn’t happen.

You’re given a deadline. What does this mean to you? To me it means nothing. I have my own deadlines. They are tighter and shorter. You are told that the system works a certain way. What does this mean to you? It means little to me. I have my own knowledge, my own education. I’ll learn the best way, not the way to do things. You see that most people life their life a certain way. This too means absolutely nothing. Most people are miserable, self-loathing and passive. No thanks.

When I was a 19 year old college dropout with no experience in the field I was operating in, out-working and out-producing people twice my age, I realized something. I realized that there was very little out there that was so hard or difficult that I couldn’t figure out and excel at so long as I followed my own rules and held myself to my own standards. And so I was able to do this repeatedly, from Hollywood to publishing to fashion and now to writing.

It is a special kind of freedom. It is the freedom from the tyranny of acting ordinarily and expecting extraordinary results (the definition of futility). Total commitment. This is what it takes. It’s more than just wanting—it’s making it happen.