Epiphanies are bullshit. People think it’s some momentous wake up call that leads to innovation, identity crises, insight or breakthroughs.

Like that’s why someone “suddenly” quits the NFL. Or goes public with allegations. Or proposes a bold new theory about the world after staying up all night.

But the people who think that are mostly people who haven’t done anything like that. And probably never will. They haven’t had to walk away from a big job or a lot of money. Or ever questioned some dominant point of view or institution. Their creative output is next to nil. They’re too busy chasing (or waiting for) an El Dorado that doesn’t exist.

I get it. You want to be like the people you admire–and they all seem inspired, bold, and have no problem burning the place to ground. I wanted to be like that too.

But then I actually made some of those decisions. I dropped out of college and it was terrifying. I decided to write an expose about the media in which I would have to admit bad things I had done. I broke ranks with a mentor and friend and it’s been eating me up inside.

So lately, I’ve been trying to think about how that actually goes down. What is it actually like to come to question everything and change your mind or life? What do you need to know going into it?

In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued for the first time that it wasn’t flashes of brilliance that change scientific thinking, but instead it’s a slow process in which assumptions slowly unravel and then require a new explanation—a paradigm shift as he called it. In this frothy period of shift and flux, real breakthroughs begin to occur.

That isn’t how we like to imagine it though. We picture Edward Snowden hearing his bosses lay out some maniacal plan to spy on the world and deciding: “I am going to bring those motherfuckers down.” In actuality, he sat on the info for five years before going public. Doing what? Probably thinking, probably afraid, probably changing his mind a million times. It’s always more complicated—in fact, the whistleblower is usually complicit in the crimes in some way or at least blinded to their severity before coming forward.

The Fosbury Flop—which turned the Olympic High Jump on its head—wasn’t something that Dick Fosbury tried out for the first time at the 1968 Games. Nor was it something he was even certain about. Instead he’d been fooling with jumping and falling over the bar sideways as opposed to hurdling it since elementary school–to only middling results. He’d tried it high school and was told it was a “short cut to mediocrity.” He kept going back to way you were supposed to but that didn’t work either. As we know now though—after his Gold Medal and every medal since—that he was right and his technique stuck.

We think The Great Gatsby was a sniper shot of insight into the Jazz Age and its participants. In fact, the book was rejected and reworked by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor three times and only turned out to be right four years after publication, after the market crashed.

I think movies and television are partially responsible for this total misconception about the world. Because they can only show scenes, because they can’t get us inside the character’s head, we’ve started to think that’s how our lives should be. I think of that scene in Benjamin Button where Brad Pitt sneaks out one morning without a word and never comes back because he doesn’t want to burden his wife and family.

Yeah OK, like they would have been fighting for months and not known why. Like they wouldn’t have broached the topic or floated alternatives. Like the breakup would have stuck the first time. And he wouldn’t have been torn up inside and done a bunch of stupid things to cope with it. But as viewers all we’re left with is the action, the montage scene and the ultimate vindication, but not the process which precedes and proceeds it.

This is insidious because it intimidates first timers and the fearful. Because we believe that it must have been clear for other people, and yet it feels so opaque for us, we convince themselves not to take a risk. We doubt ourselves because we’re cut off from the humanness of the experience and the vulnerability that’s actually there.

When I wrote my first book, which was positioned as a confessional, every interviewer would ask me when I realized what I wanted to do. They’d say, “What was the thing you were asked to do that you regretted, that made you realize?”

The reality is never. I’m really struggling with it. It’s a fucking process. One that ironically didn’t even start to feel like it made sense until well into the writing and publishing process. Because that’s how people are, they act before they are fully ready and they figure things out as they go.

But I have to tell people something—so I give them an answer. Dropping out of college was the same thing. It was something I’d been considering, sure. Then I got an offer. Then I decided not to take it. Then I decided it was worth the risk. Almost immediately after, I felt it had been a mistake. But by then, I’d got into a rhythm. But a year later, I seriously considered going back. Yet my bio—my narrative—makes it seems like I knew at 19. (In fact, I turned 20 during the months this all transpired.) It’s not true, but that doesn’t help some other 19-year-old struggling with whether to leave college.

So if you’re staring some life changing decision in the face right now, you need to understand this. It is always going to be inscrutable. There will not be clarity. Not before, not during, not until well, well after.

You see, Thomas Kuhn said something else very wise and applicable here. Once a new paradigm takes hold, he said, it becomes almost impossible for people born into that paradigm to understand the logic of the system that came before them. As Kuhn put it, incommensurability separates one paradigm from the one that preceded it.

We can hardly recognize the world that we used to live in, and whatever it was that made us think the way we did. Because now things are radically different.

It would be nice if this was a clean break, but it isn’t. It’s like an internal Civil War—eventually there is a clear winner, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It took a while for everything to get sorted out.

What I mean to say is this: embrace the limbo period. Take risk. Question things. Do not wait for certainty to act…because it isn’t coming. It never has.

This post appeared originally on Thought Catalog.



Warren Buffett is undoubtedly considered one of the greatest investors of all times. His empire, Berkshire Hathaway, is worth $355 billion, an increase of 1,826,163 percent since 1964 when Buffett took over. He owns (or owns big chunks) of some of the biggest brands in the world including GEICO, Dairy Queen, NetJets, half of Heinz, and significant holdings in companies such as American Express, IBM, and Wells Fargo. But Buffett’s very best investment—responsible for literally billions of dollars in profits over the years—was very cheap. Because it was a book.

That’s right, a book.

In his 2013 letter to shareholders [pdf link], Buffett explained that a single book, The Intelligent Investor, written by his mentor Benjamin Graham was, “of all the investments I ever made…[it] was the best.” Buffett even named one of his sons after him.

In my own life I can say I had similar books. The magnitude was not the same, but in relative terms the impact was still there. Each one of these was for me, what the economist Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book.” They shook my entire world and then, as it happened, were responsible for a great deal of success in my career, relationships, and my happiness.

The first came when I was in college in the mid-aughts and I was invited to a small, private summit of college journalists that Dr. Drew, then the host of Loveline, was hosting. After it ended, he was standing in the corner and I cautiously made my way over and decided to ask what books he would recommend a young man like myself. The books he turned me on to were those written by the stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. I’d been going through a rough times and it was exactly what I needed. My life has not been the same since. This was a special event in my life but whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.

Whatever problem you’re struggling with is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.

People have been moving West, leaving school, investing their savings, getting dumped or filing for divorce, starting businesses, quitting their jobs, fighting, and dying for thousands of years. This is all written down, often in the first person. Read it. Maybe you are an entrepreneur running your own business and looking for an innovative marketing approach. Maybe you want to understand power and strategy. Or you simply want to be a better person. Trust me, the answer is there in books.

So That’s Why We Read, but How?

No one says: How do you have time to eat? How do you have time to sleep or have sex? You make time. It’s the stuff of life.

Step one is adding books to that list. The key to reading lots of book begins with no longer thinking of it as some extra activity that you do. It’s not a pastime, it’s a priority. As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”

Not to say you have to take it as far as Erasmus, who lived a bit of a monkish existence. Personally, books are probably my single largest expense each year—behind housing and food. Since dropping out of college, I’ve averaged well over $1,000 a year in books (even more in 2013 when I bought basically my entire Amazon wishlist for tax purposes). In a given year I purchase at least 100, but closer to 250, books.

While some might bristle at such an expense, it’s become quite natural—I budget for it like any other necessity. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default. Like breathing. Like drinking.

Step two is to turn reading into a daily and regular routine. Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open. You also need to constantly be discovering new books. As a simple rule of thumb, always ask the smart people you meet for book recommendations, as I did with Dr. Drew (and if you need more recommendations, I am your man). Don’t borrow books—build your library instead and take pride in that. It will be an investment that pays off in the long run. If you see anything that remotely interests you, just buy it. If you don’t get to read it immediately and it piles up, that’s ok. It’s part of building your “anti-library,” or the stack of unread books that will humble you and remind you just how much there is still to learn.

A small sampling of my notecards, taken from books as I read them.

A small sampling of my notecards, taken from books as I read them.

But don’t just passively read. Make reading an active process. Make notes and comments to yourself as you read (this is called marginalia). If you see an anecdote or quote you like, transfer it to a commonplace book and use a system to organize and store all of it. For my last book, The Obstacle Is the Way, the actual writing of the book took only a few months, because the years of reading and research that went into were already there, systematized and ready to use, all thanks to my notecards and common place book.

Marginalia

Marginalia in action.

Even if you are not a writer, having stories and quotes ready at hand will always come in useful, whether it is in conversations, presentations, memos, pitches, etc. Always strive to return back to the purpose of it. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, we need to read so that “words become works.” I love reading more than almost anything, but even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it, or made connections.

My commonplace book and a collection of notecards.

My commonplace book and a collection of notecards.

Step three, be ruthless about acquiring knowledge through books. If you see anything that remotely intrigues you–just get it. Quit books that don’t hold your interest or deliver the goods. Swarm onto topics that do, even if there is no immediate relevancy to what you’re doing. After all, creativity comes from combining old ideas into something new. Reading a variety of topics gives you more ammo than your competition.

If something enthralls you and you want to deeply understand it, go at it. You don’t have to slowly trudge along through a book. Think of someone like Frederick Douglass, who brought himself up out of slavery by sneaking out and teaching himself to read, or Richard Wright who forged notes from his white boss so he could check out books from the library. Books weren’t some idle pursuit or pastime for these great individuals, they were survival itself.

So Get Started!

Of course, many of the benefits of reading are intrinsic and personal. They allow us to relax, they teach us empathy, and provide quiet time in a noisy world. At the same time, a look at any random sampling of successful people finds a common trait: a love of books and an education that was primarily self-driven.

Many of these people lived thousands of years ago, when reading was considerably more difficult. They didn’t have mandatory schooling, they didn’t have Amazon or magical Kindles. Lincoln, for instance, often took notes on the books he read on pieces of wood he found. We live in a time where books from every age (many that were previously lost to history) are not only available, but cheap or even entirely free.

It’s up to us to take advantage of these circumstances. The only thing stopping us, is us.

This post appeared originally on 99U.



I originally started this blog nearly ten years ago to help me along in my journey of self-education. I wanted to write what I wished other blogs would talk about more often: life, dealing with assholes, how to be self-critical and self-aware, humility, philosophy, reading, learning, research and strategy. Aside from this site, I have written for the New York Observer, Thought Catalog, Entrepreneur, 99U, Fast Company, The Huffington Post, Medium, Boing Boing, Forbes, Columbia Journalism Review and multiple other outlets.

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