A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces cover

Rating: 4/5

A Confederacy of Dunces is a Pulitzer Prize winning fiction book by John Kennedy Toole, posthumously published through the efforts of Toole’s mother after his suicide. For the background of the book’s difficult path to publication, the forward to the book by Walker Percy is really interesting.

The book itself is hilarious. It describes the adventures of Ignatius J. Reilly, an overweight 30 something year old (or at least that was my impression) who lives with his mother. I later learned that the book is a picaresque novel, a sub-genre depicting the satirical adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his wits in a corrupt society. Following Ignatius’s adventures often gives you that uncomfortable twinge of social awkwardness, similar to watching an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. The book is really well crafted, with many separate stories that all eventually tie together. Definitely a fun read.

Fight Club

Fight Club cover

Rating: 5/5

Awesome book that ultimately shows how to find meaning in life in the modern age of consumerism. ”You’re trapped in your lovely nest, and all the things you used to own, now they own you.” Before Fight Club, “there was no novel that presented a new social model for men to share their lives.”

Much like the movie, the book feels like a manifesto. “The goal was to teach each man in the project that he had the power to control history. We, each of us, can take control of the world.”

Young people should read this book.

Seneca: Letters from a Stoic

Seneca Letters from a Stoic cover

Rating: 4/5

I had high expectations for this book (or collection of essays), and it didn’t disappoint. When reading it I was constantly struck by how amazing it was that I was reading something written 2,000 years ago. Seneca lived from 4BC – AD65, and his ideas are still applicable today. The book is structured as a series of letters to Seneca’s friend, Lucilius Junior. Each letter to Lucilius is read as an essay with a theme Seneca is addressing. This style makes reading the letters easy, since they can be consumed in small pieces. The edition I read also had a biography of Seneca and his influences on later philosophers, but I found it to be pretty dry.

Notes:

  • The primary indication of a well-formed mind is the ability to linger in one’s own company.
  • Poor men are those who crave more.
  • A common theme was the importance of friendship. Nothing is pleasant without those to share it with.
  • Associate with people who will make you better (this same advice has apparently been given for thousands of years).
  • Stoic men are self-sufficient in their happiness.
  • It’s easier to change yourself to not rely on luck (Fortune) for your happiness, than it is to always be lucky.
  • Self control is harder and often more respectable than complete abstinence.
  • Think often about the worst case scenarios like poverty. Seneca even advocates practicing them. Then ask yourself is there really that much to fear?
  • Many travel to try to get away from themselves. Instead, learn to befriend yourself and enjoy your own company.
  • You can make another’s words and ideas your own by putting them into action.
  • You need to acknowledge your faults before you can improve them (again, advice given for a long time).
  • Your life is complete as a whole if you live it honorably, regardless of achievements you’ve managed to complete.
  • Life without courage is slavery.
  • Despise death, do not fear it.
  • Pain is bearable and slight if no opinion is added to it. Tell yourself it is nothing.
  • Don’t linger in past sufferings.
  • Nothing should be unexpected, prepare for the worst possibilities.
  • We are better and more industrious if we welcome the dawn (wake early) than if we sleep through the noon.
  • We should be opposite from most: retreat from the objects that allure, and instead rouse ourselves to meet the objects that attack.

Stumbling on Happiness

Stumbling on Happiness cover

Rating: 3/5

This book was an entertaining take on why we are bad at predicting our emotions in the future, specifically what will make us happy. Gilbert is funny throughout the book, which makes it an enjoyable read. My major complaint is that I was hoping for more ideas that I could apply after reading this. Instead, the book spends more time focusing on our shortcomings, which are interesting nonetheless.

Notes:

  • Imagination has three shortcomings:
    • It fills in holes and leaves out details (often with us unaware of this).
    • It is heavily influenced by the present.
    • It has a hard time telling us what we will think about the future when we get there.
  • Memories are like paintings, not photographs.
  • Information acquired after events influences earlier memories.
  • We remember details or impressions/feelings about events, then reconstruct the memories from these.
  • Time and variety are the two ways to avoid habituation, that is diminished returns from repeated things. If you have one you don’t need, and often don’t want, the other.
  • We’re far more critical of facts that challenge foregone conclusions.
  • We have a psychological immune system, which looks hard for positives when a negative experience affects us beyond a certain threshold (e.g. painful vs. annoying).
  • We are far more accurate in predictions when asking a random person who is currently experiencing what we wish to predict how they currently feel, than when we try to imagine our future selves in the situation. This is called surrogation by Gilbert, and was one of the few actionable takeaways.
  • We underestimate the utility of surrogation because we overestimate the differences between ourselves and the surrogate.

Man’s Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning cover

Rating: 5/5

I really enjoyed this book. Frankl was a psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor, and the founder of logotherapy. Logotherapy is a form of existential analysis that seeks to resolve psychological problems through man’s desire to find meaning in his life. The first half of the book tells the captivating story of Frankl’s struggles from his time in concentration camps, during which he touches on logotherapy. The second half is dedicated to an overview of logotherapy, with plenty of examples of Frankl’s principles applied to real situations.

Notes:

  • There is no universal meaning to life. Life has meaning when examined in a particular situation for a person, since the person can choose how he or she responds.
  • We have the freedom to respond however we wish to situations.
  • Since we have this freedom, we have the responsibility to act in each situation presented to us.
  • You should live life as if you are experiencing it for the second time, and as if you acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.
  • One can achieve dignity regardless of the situation.
  • Each situation in life provides a problem or a challenge to solve. The meaning in life is how one responds. Thus, one shouldn’t ask “what is the meaning in life?” but instead realize that it is he who is asked by life. Man has the responsibility to answer for his life.
  • Paradoxical intention: in situations where one fears a certain event occurring, often the fear causes the event to be more likely to occur (e.g. being nervous about sweating in front of people makes one more likely to sweat). In this case, paradoxical intention says to intend for the opposite, to take the wind out of fear’s sails (e.g. try to show people how much you can sweat!).
  • One can discover meaning in life thorough:
    • Achievement
    • Experiencing something or someone
    • The attitude one takes towards unavoidable suffering
  • This book, particularly the second half where Fankl dives into Logotherapy, is definitely worth periodically revisiting.

Antifragile

Antifragile cover

Rating: 5/5

I should have started with this book. It fleshes out Taleb’s ideas from Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan into more applicable strategies. He frequently discusses how he applies the idea of antifragility to his own life, which makes for an interesting read. Start with this book, and then read Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan if you are interested in the theory behind Taleb’s ideas.

Notes:

  • Many events have a non-linear payoff, where they benefit or are harmed more by volatility. For example, falling 1 ft. 1000 times vs. falling 1000 ft. 1 time. Those that benefit are anti-fragile, while those that are harmed are fragile. If an event is unaffected by volatility, it is robust.
  • The fragile wants tranquility, the antifragile gains from disorder, and the robust does not care.
  • Taleb advocates a barbell strategy to handle volatility. It gives you optionality. Expose yourself to antifragile risk (known bounded downside, unbounded upside).
  • A lot of society’s problems are from fragility of a person or company transferred to the public, e.g. bailouts. This can be solved by “skin in the game,” when a person personally benefits or is harmed by their decisions and opinions.
  • Nature/time is very efficient at removing the fragile, which Taleb uses as a filter. E.g. he only drinks water, coffee, wine; reads older books; since they have survived for many years and are therefore likely to survive for many more.
  • One can become more antifragile by moving from hating mistakes to loving them by making them numerous and small in harm.
  • Some parts on the inside of a system may be fragile in order to make the system as a whole antifragile. E.g. restaurants are fragile; they compete with each other, but the collective of local restaurants is antifragile for that very reason. If restaurants were robust, the overall business would be stagnant or weak.
  • Nature is antifragile up to a point, but the point is quite high.
  • We are fagilizing social and economic systems by denying them stressors and randomness. The avoidance of small mistakes makes the large ones more severe.
  • Iatrogenics: causing harm while trying to help. Usually result from situations where the benefits are small and visible, and the costs are large, delayed, and hidden.
  • What should we control? Limiting size, concentration, and speed are generally beneficial in reducing Black Swan risks.
  • Not seeing a tsunami of economic event coming is excusable; building something fragile to them is not.
  • Stoicism makes you desire the challenge of a calamity. Stoicism, by the attainment of a state of immunity from one’s external circumstances, is pure robustness. Seneca’s version of that is antifragility from fate, no downside, plenty of upside. (Seneca acquired much wealth, but would have also been happy if he were poor). Stoicism is the domestication, not the elimination, of emotions.
  • Success brings an asymmetry: you have a lot more to lose than to gain, which makes you fragile.
  • Modern stoic: someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.
  • Invest in good actions; things can be taken away from us, not good deeds and acts of virtue.
  • America’s asset is risk taking, the ability to engage in rational forms of trial and error, with no shame in failing and starting again.
  • Options, any options, by allowing more upside than downside, are vectors of antifragility. Going to parties has optionality.
  • Life is long gamma (benefits from volatility).
  • Epiphenomenon: you don’t usually observe A without observing B, so you are likely to think that A causes B or that B causes A. Example: raising the general level of education does not necessarily raise the income at the level of a country.
  • Green lumber fallacy: mistaking a source of necessary knowledge for another, less visible from the outside, less tractable, less narratable.
  • Ideas survive because the person who holds it has survived. So wisdom you learn from your grandmother should be superior to what you get from a class in business school.
  • Look for optionality, rank things according to optionality; preferably with open-ended, not close ended, payoffs; invest in people not business plans; make sure you are barbelled.
  • Taleb uses optionality to continue to be a voracious reader. When he’s bored with a book, he immediately moves onto another one instead of giving up reading.
  • Barbell in education: play it safe in school, and read on your own, having zero expectation from school.
  • Convex: for a set deviation in a variable, in equivalent amounts in both directions, gains more than it loses (concave is the reverse).
  • Advocates injecting redundancy in people’s lives: always carrying a notebook, books.
  • For the nonperishable, every additional day may imply a longer life expectancy (ideas, books, etc). For what to read: “as little as feasible from the last twenty years, except history books that are not about the last fifty years.”

The Black Swan

The Black Swan cover

Rating: 3/5

I read The Black Swan after reading Fooled by Randomness. I enjoyed this book, though a little less than the previous book. Here the focus is on Black Swans, those rare events with extreme impact. Taleb describes their impact throughout history and how we should properly deal with them. It seems like the subject matter lends itself to practical advice, but Taleb spends more time examining the theory and trying to persuade the reader.

Notes:

  • A Black Swan is something with: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective (though not prospective) predictability.
  • Since Black Swans are unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence rather than naïvely trying to predict them. Trying to predict Black Swans makes you more vulnerable to the ones you did not predict.
  • History and societies to not progress at a steady pace, rather they make discontinuous jumps (through Black Swans).
  • Forecasting in the future requires increasing amounts of precision.
  • Taleb is a big proponent of bottom-up approaches, with small incremental changes (to contrast with a “Platonic” approach involving starting with a general theory).
  • You can be more confident about disconfirmation than confirmation.
  • In theory, randomness is an intrinsic property. In practice, randomness is incomplete information (opacity).
  • Respect should be had for custom. Use it as a default, a basis for action, but not more than that (epilogism).
  • Rank beliefs not by their plausibility but by the harm they may cause.
  • Barbell strategy: it is better to be as hyper-conservative and hyper-aggressive as you can instead of being mildly aggressive. That way you have a floor to your losses, and are exposed to positive Black Swan upside. Lose small to make big.
  • Seize any opportunity, or anything that looks like opportunity. They are rare. Most people do not realize they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. Collect as many free non-lottery tickets, with open-ended payoffs, as you can. Work hard to maximize your exposure to them. Taleb likes living in big cities for this reason.
  • Put yourself in situations where favorable consequences are much larger than unfavorable ones.
  • Tournament effect: someone who is marginally “better” can easily win the entire pot, leaving the others with nothing.
  • Taleb hates the Gaussian-bell curve because it is frequently applied to situations heavily affected by extreme events (like total wealth, book sales, etc.), where it does not apply.
  • You cannot go from books to problems, but only from problems to books.
  • Worry less about embarrassment than about missing an opportunity.
  • Anti-debt: borrowing makes you more vulnerable to forecast errors.
  • The burden of proof is on someone disrupting an old system.
  • Nothing should ever become too big to fail.

Fooled by Randomness

Fooled By Randomness cover

Rating: 4/5

I really enjoyed this book. I had Antifragile recommended to me many times, but wanted to read Taleb’s books in order. (I don’t recommend this, just skip to Antifragile and read Fooled By Randomness and The Black Swan later if you are still interested). Still, Taleb presents many interesting ideas about how to examine, and particularly how not to examine, events involving randomness.

Notes:

  • Those things that came with the help of luck can be taken away by luck. Things that come with little help of luck are more resistant to randomness.
  • It doesn’t matter how often something succeeds if the cost of failure is too difficult to bear.
  • Randomness can be a catalyst for a feedback cycle. Monkeys anecdote: it has been shown that monkeys injected with serotonin will rise in the pecking order, which in turn causes a rise in serotonin, until the virtuous cycle breaks and starts a vicious one. Failure causes one to slide in the pecking order, causing a behavior that will bring about further drops in pecking order.
  • Instead of examining current success, it is more pertinent to be rich in the average of the lives you have led.
  • Alternative histories: you must judge a performance by the results and the costs of the alternative (if history played out another way). E.g. if enough players play Russian roulette, some will succeed and look “successful”.
  • People are heroes not because they won or lost, but because of heroic behavior.
  • People are bad at considering abstract risk. They are much better at focussing on vivid risk.
  • Rational thinking often seems to rationalize one’s actions by fitting some logic to them, instead of the reverse.
  • A mistake is not something to be determined after the fact, but in light of the information until that point.
  • Valuable things tend to stay around for a long time. If it’s been around for a while, it’s likely to stay. The opportunity cost of missing a new thing is minuscule compared to the garbage one has to wade through to get the few winners.
  • Decision making under uncertainty is better performed by minimal exposure to the media because it’s hard to separate out the few useful items from the noise.
  • Paying attention to the news has minimal returns on the time investment. People often think that it will surely be the next batch of news that will really make a difference in their understanding of things.
  • By observing less frequently, we improve the signal to noise ratio, since much of the noise is lost by then. This applies to news, portfolio returns, etc.
  • The longer something goes without exposure to a rare event, the more vulnerable it will be to the event.
  • Data can only be used to disprove a proposition, never to prove one.
  • You usually have to discover things for yourself. You are rarely affected in behavior (in any durable manner) by things you read. The impression tends to wane over time (as you read newer things and the impressions are replaced by fresh ones).
  • Problems of induction, going from plenty of particulars to the general.
  • Social treadmill effect: you get rich, move to rich neighborhoods, then become poor again. You get used to wealth and revert to a set point of satisfaction.
  • Losers often do not show up in analyses where they must be considered (survivorship bias).
  • People don’t accept randomness as the cause of their success, only their failure.

So Good They Can’t Ignore You

So Good They Can't Ignore You cover

Rating: 5/5

A really enjoyable book that goes into why following your passion is bad career advice. After debunking the “follow your passion” advice, Cal presents concrete advice for how to create a successful career. Cal puts little value in the actual job you end up with, instead focusing on the traits present in nearly all jobs and careers that can make them fulfilling. The book is also full of interviews and studies of people with successful careers and how they applied the idea of developing rare and useful skills in their careers.

Notes:

  • “Follow your passion” is bad, unhelpful, and potentially dangerous advice.
  • The things that make a job great are rare and valuable, and typically not specific to the actual job itself. If you want them in your working life, you need to offer something rare and valuable in return.
  • Anecdote: if young Steve Jobs took his own advice, “follow your passion,” he would probably have been an instructor at the Los Altos Zen Center.
  • Compelling careers often have complex origins and messy paths, rarely following the simple idea that you just need to find your passion.
  • Feeling intrinsically motivated requires: autonomy, the feeling that you have control over your day and that your actions are important; competence, you are good at what you do; relatedness, the feeling of connection to other people.
  • Working right trumps finding the right work.
  • Reject the passion mindset for the craftsman mindset, focusing on what you can offer the world. You should focus on becoming really good at your career, instead of constantly worrying about whether your job is “just right.”
  • The advice is extremely job agnostic, with just three disqualifiers for applying the above: the job has few opportunities to distinguish yourself by developing relevant and valuable skills, the job focuses on something useless or even actively bad for the world, or the job forces you to work with people you really dislike.
  • Be relentless about ensuring your time is spent on the right things, for example, not email. Many people interviewed in the book track their time spent throughout the day so they avoid just reacting to incoming tasks and focus on what is important. They review the percentage of time spent on various activities every week to see how well they are doing.
  • Focus on stretching your ability and receiving immediate feedback.
  • Working hard isn’t enough, otherwise you will soon plateau. You should approach your job the same way musicians or athletes approach practice, with a dedication to deliberate practice.
  • Figure out which type of career market you are in. In winner-take-all, there’s only one type of career capital, with lots of people fighting over it. Example: television writing because all that matters is writing good scripts. It is less structured in an auction market, where there are many different types of career capital, and each person may have a unique collection.
  • For winner-take-all, the plan is clear: use deliberate practice to improve in the type of career capital that matters.
  • For auction, look for open gates, that is opportunities to build career capital that are open to you. As you open more gates, the opportunities will improve.
  • Deliberate practice requires clear goals. It is the opposite feeling of doing things we know how to do well. It is about focus and concentration, and often uncomfortable. It will often feel like an uncomfortable stretch.
  • Honest and harsh feedback provides you with where to retrain your focus to continue progressing.
  • Deliberate practice is often less about paying attention to your main pursuit, and more about ignoring others that pop up along the way.
  • As you later look to invest your career capital, control is one of the most important targets to look for. People who have more control over what they do are happier, more engaged, and more fulfilled. Often when it is the right time to do so, meaning you’ve acquired career capital, you will also receive the most resistance since you will have become valuable. Money is a neutral indicator of value.
  • A mission in your career provides a sense of purpose and energy.
  • Bottom up skill development is hard. Two strategies can help. You can try giving yourself a time limit, “I’m going to work on this for one hour no matter what.” Another is to capture your results from the skill development in a useful form, like a notebook, mind map, summaries. Keep a monthly or weekly tally of the total number of hours spent in this deliberate practice.
  • Spend a portion of your work on little bets, projects small enough to be completed in less than a month that force you to master a new skill or create new result that can be used to gather useful feedback.