The best way to learn? Read. (Of course it’s not as simple as only reading — the article goes into more details — but the foundation is built on reading. A lot.)
“I just sit in my office and read all day.”
“If I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”
The silence at 5.30am is hynotizing.
I love it.
I’ve been waking up early these days and using the time to read and write and think through some conundrums in my life, and to organise the parts that feel out of place, misaligned. It’s been working surprisingly well.
It’s not just the waking up early, but the reading and the writing. Especially the writing. I’ve been dumping all my thoughts on a single page, asking myself questions, answering these questions, picking apart my own logic, organising and reorganising my thoughts.
It’s funny. When I edit my sentences and paragraphs, I realise I’m also editing my thoughts. For me, thinking is writing—they’re one. I’ve gone long periods without thinking through writing. How did I manage to make the decisions I made? I have no idea.
But here I am, thinking+writing again. And it works. I love it.
When the day awakens, it turns from dark to light outside. Writing brings me through the same process—the dark confusion turns into clarity as I write and rewrite. I’m forced to see the fallacies and muddiness of my thoughts, forced to confront my pretensions, my insecurities, my tendencies to do what is easiest or most commonly accepted.
It’s meditation in action.
Hard but rewarding.
A selection of my favorite/the most useful bits. Original list here.
• Being enthusiastic is worth 25 IQ points.
• A worthy goal for a year is to learn enough about a subject so that you can’t believe how ignorant you were a year earlier.
• When you are young spend at least 6 months to one year living as poor as you can, owning as little as you possibly can, eating beans and rice in a tiny room or tent, to experience what your “worst” lifestyle might be. That way any time you have to risk something in the future you won’t be afraid of the worst case scenario.
• The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.
• To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.
• Separate the processes of creation from improving. You can’t write and edit, or sculpt and polish, or make and analyze at the same time. If you do, the editor stops the creator. While you invent, don’t select. While you sketch, don’t inspect. While you write the first draft, don’t reflect. At the start, the creator mind must be unleashed from judgement.
• You are what you do. Not what you say, not what you believe, not how you vote, but what you spend your time on.
• Anything real begins with the fiction of what could be. Imagination is therefore the most potent force in the universe, and a skill you can get better at. It’s the one skill in life that benefits from ignoring what everyone else knows.
• Art is in what you leave out.
• Buying tools: Start by buying the absolute cheapest tools you can find. Upgrade the ones you use a lot. If you wind up using some tool for a job, buy the very best you can afford.
• Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.
• Over the long term, the future is decided by optimists. To be an optimist you don’t have to ignore all the many problems we create; you just have to imagine improving our capacity to solve problems.
Carl Sagan died 24 years ago, rejoining the cosmos. Whenever I crack open one of his books today, I get this feeling that he’s still here, his love and passion reaching out to me—a random human being alive in the year 2020—across time and space. How could that be?
Books are magical.
“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us — there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.”
I am, as you are, a beneficiary of all the books ever written.
I cannot imagine a world where there is nothing equivalent to words or books. On the worst days of my life I would have no saving grace, no life boat. I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but I was saved, in many ways, by other people’s writing — all of them strangers, most of them already dead. (And not just saved, but rebuilt from broken pieces.)
My love for life led me to books, but books further fuelled this love. No one could read Jack Kerouac and continue to be placid or neutral about life:
“Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running — that’s the way to live. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there, with the Ma-Wink fallopian virgin warm stars reflecting on the outer channel fluid belly waters.”
No one could read a Charles Bukowski poem and not burn with life or fall in love with the idea of falling in love:
“your life is your life
don’t let it be clubbed into dank submission.
be on the watch.
there are ways out.
there is light somewhere.
it may not be much light but
it beats the darkness.
be on the watch.
the gods will offer you chances.
you can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more often you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
you are marvelous
the gods wait to delight
And very few of us are left untouched or unmoved by the genius of Shakespeare:
“She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Life’s but a walking shadow, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.
I remember how, in the depths of my depression, walking around with Richard Russo’s “Empire Falls”, feeling strangely comforted by the flowing rhythm of Russo’s writing and the sorry tale of Miles Roby. This was the story of a man who ran a diner in a blue-collar American town full of abandoned mills, a setting far away from the circumstances of my own life, but here, for the first time as a 20-year-old, I learned of the river as a metaphor for life:
“Lives are rivers. We imagine we can direct their paths, though in the end there’s but one destination, and we end up being true to ourselves only because we have no choice.”
Books chart the tender and violent movements of the human heart, and remind us that our individual condition is also a universal condition, by virtue of our human-ness. We might not want to admit it, but we are all connected, mirrors and fragments of each other—lost bits floating around the universe—waiting for our final reunion.
“After all, what was the whole wide world but a place for people to yearn for their hearts’ impossible desires, for those desires to become entrenched in defiance of logic, plausibility, and even the passage of time, as eternal as polished marble?”
Lastly I end with this quote by Carl Sagan, who knows, as much as I do, about the sheer magic of books:
“A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years.
Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”
“There is a word in Buddhism that means ‘wishlessness’ or ‘aimlessness’. The idea is that you do not put something in front of you and run after it, because everything is already here, in yourself. While we practice walking meditation, we do not try to arrive anywhere. We only make peaceful, happy steps. If we keep thinking of the future, of what we want to realize, we will lose our steps. The same is true with sitting meditation. We sit just to enjoy our sitting; we do not sit to attain any goal. This is quite important. Each moment of sitting meditation brings us back to life, and we should sit in a way that we enjoy our sitting for the entire time we do it. Whether we are eating a tangerine, drinking a cup of tea, or walking in meditation, we should do it in a way that is ‘aimless’.”
— “Peace is Every Step”, Thich Nhat Hanh
I have realised that I prefer to be a student rather than a teacher. There’s less pressure and I get to ask questions rather than provide answers. And I can fail as much as I want to—it’s almost the imperative of a student to fail, in order to stumble her way towards learning more.
But in the end every student is a teacher and every teacher (if she wants to be effective) is a student.
We must maintain an openness—and not only that, but a love and a hunger—for life-long learning. If we stop learning, we become birds whose wings are clipped.
We cannot fly without our wings.
“For Zhuangzi, the person who frees himself from the conventional views of judgement cannot be made to suffer, because he refuses to see poverty as any less good than affluence. Natural ills, such as death, are no longer seen as ills, instead as parts of the natural course of life. You stay within society but you refrain from following the egotistical desires that so often trap the common man. To fully embody Zhuangzi’s philosophy to to develop a well-being that transcends the external world… but it’s more than that, because in the same way that these green tea leaves come to life when they return to their natural hydrated form and gives me this beautiful tea to drink, when we shed all the baggage that society and us put on ourselves, we bring something new into the world—a natural effectiveness.”
1. Soma in these times is everything: movie-streaming, self-improvement, Tik Tok, the news cycle, the latest app… everything that distracts us from reality. Tread carefully.
2. Life as a nerd is exciting + rewarding. The adventure is silent, inward, ongoing, and fully self-contained.
3. Borrow books from the library or buy the ebook version first. Buy the physical copy after you’ve confirmed that it’s a book you enjoy. This prevents you from buying and owning books you don’t love.
4. There is no need to be a perfectionist when you’re learning something. The attitude of “go big or go home” is counter-productive, because you might stop learning the moment you’re not learning perfectly. Learning bits and pieces of a new thing is better than not learning at all.
5. Write about the things you practice; practice the things you write about. Words without action is fraudulent. (It’s hard, but I try.)
6. Meditation (mindfulness) reduces mental (and sometimes physical) suffering drastically.
7. We’re mainly our neural pathways, which science has proven to be malleable. This is hopeful news, which means we can change for the better if we want to. No one, no life, is hopeless.
8. Am I following my curiosity or merely on auto-pilot?
9. There is a joy in doing hard things. Why don’t I do hard things more often?
10. You can be free right this moment, by surrendering and fully giving up your struggles. Stop fighting (yourself and the world).
I really like these 68 bits of unsolicited advice.