The Core Idea: 5 Books That Changed My Life

Great books change your life. Even the not-so-great can contain a nugget of truth that resonates, and set you on a different path. Here are 5 books, and their take-away concept, that have done that for me.

Minimum Effective Dose: Tim Ferriss (The 4 Hour Body)

Tim Ferriss is an interesting guy. At times he seems like an arrogant prick, at times a humble guy on the path to self-betterment. The 4 Hour Body is a good book, if you're interested in health and experimentation, but it's not "great". It has, however, changed my life.

One of Ferriss' core concepts in the book is finding the minimum effective dose: that is, what's the least amount you need to do to get the outcome you want. For the most part (given the subject matter of the book) he applies this to health-related ideas: exercise, supplimentation etc. But I've found it applies everywhere.

I've been following this principle since I was 13, without having a name for it. After being a very conscientious student in primary school, I wised up in high school. I worked out how hard I needed to study to get the grades I wanted, and stopped there. I needed a university entrance rank of 65 to get into the course I wanted, so I aimed for 75 (and got 74.7). This frustrated my teachers who were certain I could get into the 90s, but that seemed like a whole lot of extra work for no real gain.

Thanks to Ferriss I've realised that this is a broadly applicable idea, not just a result of my laziness. So long as I'm clear about my goals, I find this a great way to not over-commit, and to leave myself the time and energy to do more things.

Dichotomy of Control: Epictetus (The Enchiridion)

It should be no surprise that Epictetus makes my list. The dichotomy of control (coined by William Irvine to describe the central Stoic concept) has fundamentally changed the way I approach the world.

Put simply: everything in life fits into one of two categories: it is completely within my control; or it is not. To be happy, and to improve as a person, I should focus solely on those things that I control and ignore those that I don't.

What this boils down to, in practice, is focusing entirely on my actions and reactions. I can't control how the kids behave, but I can control how I react to them. I can't control if my work is appreciated, but I can control how much effort I put in.

Time as a Filter: Nassim Taleb (Antifragile)

Antifragile is a rare book, in that it (along with its companion, The Black Swan) have many life altering ideas. The one that has probably made the most day-to-day difference for me is the idea that time acts as a filter.

To back up a little, the core idea of Antifragile is that things can have a spectrum of reactions to change: fragile things dislike change, robust things don't care, and antifragile things like, or improve with change. Time by its nature exposes things to more change events, which leads to the conclusion that those things that have lasted a long time are at worst robust and at best antifragile: time weeds out the fragile.

This has most affected the types information that I consume. I was already rapidly tiring of (and in many instances removing) news from my reading list. I've been a heavy user of Pocket for years, which I found gave me more opportunity to avoid sensationalist articles: often by the time I got to them an hour or so later, I'd lost interest.

Armed with Taleb's idea, I took things to the next level: I reversed my Pocket list so that I read the oldest artilces first. This has been wonderful. I immediately cull a good 30% of articles before I open them, because I'm just not interested any more: either it's no longer the issue du jour, or my interests have changed. Best of all though, there are some absolute gems, and I find myself happy with year-ago-me for finding such good stuff.

Time as a filter has also influenced the books I read. I'm more likely to pick up something that's been around for a while, particularly in non-fiction. I have a backlog of pop-science, pop-sociology and pop-tech type books that I may never read now, and I'm fairly sure I'm the better for it.

How the Amish Adopt Technology: Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants)

Kelly points out that, rather than being the luddites most people suspect, the Amish are not so much anti-technology as they are against the thoughtless adoption of technology. They go through long evaluation processes to determine if a certain techology will improve their community: will it enhance their family lives, support their values, or undermine them?

Regardless of whether you agree with the Amish values, the idea of cognisantly assessing the things that we bring into our lives is brilliant. And it applies more broadly than technology. I ask of a lot of things: does this make me a better person? If the answer is no, I have to seriously think about what I'm doing.

Loved and Lovely: Adam Smith via Russ Roberts (Theory of Moral Sentiments)

Unlike the Stoics that inspired him, Smith is concerned less with controlling our human impulses, and more with understanding how to use them to our, and society's, advantage.

One of his brilliant concepts is that people want to be "loved and lovely": that is, we want appreciation and respect, but also to deserve it. It's this concept of being deserving of love that instructs our actions and prevents us from gaming the system.

This has added an extra dimension to my own stoic-inspired thinking. In practice, the day-to-day actions of a Smithian and a Stoic are very similar, but with Smith the persuit of personal perfection seems much less lonely.

Change starts with me: Utah Phillips (The Past Didn't Go Anywhere)

This one's a bonus: not a book, but a spoken word album, and one of the most soul-enriching things in my life.

Utah closes out a story, as told to his son, about his time in the Korean war with:

"Right then I knew that it was all wrong, and it all had to change. And that that change had to start with me"

It's a simple idea, and not that original. But the delivery, in the context of his experience, gives me chills every single time I hear it.

The album as a whole grounds me, feeds my empathy and makes me want to be a better person.


Reading List

This is a list of books and articles that I've found useful and interesting in terms of personal philosophy and becoming a better person.

William Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life

This is a modern, well paced introduction to Stoicism. I think Irvine overthinks things sometimes, but it's as good a starting place as any.

Epictetus: Discourses incl The Enchiridion

This is a link to the George Long translation, which is the one I like the most. It can be a challenging read at times, as much for the concepts as phrasing. It's a very concise and hardline approach to Stoicism, and I love it.

Seneca: Letters from a Stoic

Letters from a Stoic is interesting both for the concepts and the voyeristic look at the private conversations of one of the most influential Stoic thinkers. Because these are private letters, at times they meander along and get side tracked, but there is some pure gold here.

Marcus Aurelius: Meditations - A New Translation

For a long time I had trouble getting into Meditations, despite people rating it highly. It was the first ancient Stoic text I tried, and I put it down fairly quickly and moved to the much more enjoyable Enchiridion. Then I tried the Gregory Hays translation, and everything changed.

Marcus, obviously heavily influenced by Epictetus, is an interesting study in the workings of a practicing Stoic: someone writing to himself, to keep himself on track. At times he (with Hays' assistance) manages to sum up some of Epictetus' teachings in an even more poetic way.

Much more so than with Epictetus, you can see Marcus failing, castigating himself, battling his fears. Even if you're not interested in Stoicism, it's a valuable read.

Russ Roberts How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life

I'm about 20% into Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments. It's an intriguing book, but it's not an easy read. This distillation by Russ Roberts is very well done, and immensely readable.

Smith was a fan of the Stoics, particularly Epictetus, so a lot of his ideas align nicely. He builds upon the Stoic base in an interesting way: whereas the Stoics are more concerned about mastering our desires, Smith looks as ways that they are harnessed, for our own benefit and that of society.

I still plan on reading the original text, but I'm grateful that Russ took the time to do so much of the heavy lifting here.


How I Take Notes

The older I get, the more notes I take. Historically I've been a terrible at it.

I have exercise books from the past 10 years at work, filled with useless scribble - the working notes for algorithms and data structures, doodles and the occasional meeting note. Undated, uncategorised and completely inaccessible. I've tried to start a diary every couple of years since G.H.W Bush invaded Kuwait. Until late last year, none of them lasted more than a month.

The keys to me taking more (and better) notes have been speed, access and simplicity. Regardless of my intentions, I don't take notes unless it's quick, I can do it anywhere, and I don't have to think about the mechanism.

My first push in the right direction came from reading Mind Performance Hacks. The main "hack" that left an impression on me was having a system to catch ideas as they occur, instead of trying to remember to write them down later. They had some detailed system about carrying (physical!) cards with columns on them, but that was never going to fly. Instead, I came up with my own system based on text files, which I can easily modify on my phone, tablet or computer (one of which is almost always handy).

I created a folder called "catch" and added one file per category - for example, "blog". Whenever I had an idea for a blog post, I'd add it in. I decided to take notes on some books I was reading, so I added another folder called "books" and created a document for each book.

I use btsync to sync the files across my devices, but you could easily use Dropbox, Google Drive etc.

This worked well enough, but I found it a little slow and cumbersome. I wanted to be able to get the idea out of my head quickly, without having to find the right file. Enter the bash script!

function record(){
    output=*"$(date +%F)$(date +%r)* "$3" \n\n"
    target="$1"/"$2".md

    #echo "Writing \"$3\" to $target"
    if [ -z "$2" ]; then
        ls "$1"    
    elif [ -z "$3" ]; then 
            vim "$target"
    else
            printf "$output" >> "$target"
    fi
}

alias catch="record ~/notes/catch"
alias book="record ~/notes/books"

At work I usually have a cygwin terminal open, and at home I spend most of my time in a terminal. My record() function (and the aliases that point to it) let me really quickly take notes. For example, if I type

$ catch blog "How I take notes"

a new line, prepended with the date, is added to my blog file:

*2014-10-29 09:11:29 PM* How I take notes 

If I type catch blog, my blog file opens in my text editor. If I type catch, I get a list of my catch files/categories.

Lately, I've started taking notes about what I do at work:

$ wl "Adding <feature> to <program>:
> - remember the <blah> has to be hooked up to the <hoosit>"

This feels like it will be very beneficial going forward, particularly for those rare jobs whose precise details I always forget.

For well-categorized ideas, I can search within a document to find something. If I can't remember where exactly I put something, I can use the usual file system tools to help me. grep happily tells the files that match the phrase I'm looking for:

$ grep -rin "notes" .
./blog.md:5:*2014-10-2909:11:29 PM* How I take notes 

I've been taking notes for about a year, and I'm starting to see the benefits. Each time an idea resurfaces, I flesh out the notes a little more, so the concept progresses.